Tracing the Trace

We’re back on the road and back down south. The intersection of medical appointments and the weather have caused us to leave a bit early and have nudged us much further east than expected – we’re in Mississippi, not Utah. Maybe more that a bit.

The blast of cold that’s supposed to hit half the country this weekend has us searching for above freezing nighttime lows for this weekend. For that, we perhaps need to be as far south as the Gulf.

After spending a night each in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Tennessee we caught up with the Natchez Trace in Tupelo, Mississippi. We drove the Trace south until we found a decent campground. Paved roads and parking, flush toilets, and it’s FREE! Yep – Free camping in a National Park campground, right on the Natchez Trace.

And free rain … in Wisconsin, Illinois, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

We’re on the Trace, so I figure I should write a bit about it.

The Natchez Trace

The the Natchez Trace predates Western European settlement – having been a trade route for the original Americans long before Europeans knew this contenent existed. The route was adopted by westerners as a trade route, mail route, and military road. Once those pesky Native Indians were sent packing, the road was a conduit for settlement of the deep south and southern commercial trade.

But the road was also a conduit for what is certainly the darkest episode in American History – that of the American inter-State slave trade.

By the middle of the first half of the 19th century, Virginia and the  Chesapeake area had a surplus of slaves, and newly opened land in the deep south was being cleared for cotton and needed ‘free’ labor. The market spoke, and surplus of slaves were purchased by brokers and sent south.

For some, the journey was on foot along the Natchez Trace. All 500 miles of it. Men in chains, women and children walking beside, and armed guards making sure they stayed on the trail.

At the southern end of the Trace, Natchez, Mississippi became one of the commercial centers for the buying and selling of enslaved humans. Once the human cargo made it to Natchez the humans were sold at auction to whomever was willing to pay. To ensure that the trade in humans was fair to buyer and seller (but not the slaves), the State enforced a form of ‘satisfaction or your money back‘ on slave sales, called the right of redhibition.

Trade was in cash or credit, and banks were happy to offer mortgages on the human property so that the enslavers could run their cotton plantations on borrowed money. State and county courts kept track of the ‘property’, notorized slave ownership papers. Legislatures issued rules and laws as necessary to keep the wheels of (human) commerce running smoothly.

Cotton was king in the south, and there would have been no cotton without slaves. Up in Virginia, there were times where the breeding and sale of human beings was the backbone of the Virginia economy – perhaps bigger than tobacco. Natchez was the home of many millionaires – made possible by the backs and blood of the enslaved.

Joshua Rothman writes:

Massive influxes of capital and credit followed and fanned the development of the cotton and slave-trading frontiers. States experimented with chartering new kinds and larger numbers of banks. Investors from around the country and around the globe channeled millions into land and stock and bond ventures. The Second Bank of the United States, using federal money taken in mostly from public sales of Indian land, delivered over a third of its loans to the merchants, bankers, and planters of the lower South. In Mississippi alone, the number of incorporated banks grew from one to thirteen within a few years after 1829, and banking capital in the state increased tenfold. Everything at bottom was predicated on the labor and commodity value of enslaved people. Black bodies propelled the American economy toward the future.


By 1860, four million enslaved people in the United States were a pillar of American prosperity, cumulatively worth more than the whole country had invested in manufacturing, railroads, and banks put together

The Ledger and the Chain, How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America, Joshua D. Rothman

The Trace wasn’t the only means of transporting humans to the South. As with the earlier African slave trade, the North-South trade was also conducted by sea, with ships of ‘cargo’ from northern ports to Louisina, where the ‘cargo’ was sold to the enslavers.

When I travel across the central and northern plains, I often think about how hard it was for the settlers to pick up and walk a couple thousand miles across the plains and settle in California or Oregon. They had a longer walk – but unlike the ‘cargo’ of the slave traders, the US Army (mostly) protected them, they could take their family with them, they could turn around at any time, and at the end of their journey, they could claim a plot of land and live free.

No word on whether Peter, the runaway slave in the advertisement below, made it to freedom.



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2 responses to “Tracing the Trace”

  1. Jamison

    Glad to see you back on the road! Just got back from my own cross country trip. Thanks for the tip on the Natchez Trace camping!

    1. Yep – good to be on the road again.

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