The Promise of Breeze Hill, the first of my Natchez Trace Novel series releases soon. Writing in the 1790s is a bit of a departure for me as most of my research has been in the late 1800s. But this story was one I wanted to write and for it to be historically accurate, it needed to be set before 1812 when the first steamboats started plying the Mississippi river.
Why, you ask?
Well, because part of the backdrop for the series is the old Natchez Trace, also known as The Devil’s Backbone. The old Natchez Trace is a centuries old footpath that runs from Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS, over 400 miles long.
Back in the 1700s and even before that, the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and the Natchez hunted along trails all over these hills and hollows. Eventually, the easiest routes became the most common and what we know as the old Natchez Trace was wrestled from the wilderness.
By 1733 the French had mapped the trail from Natchez heading northeast. In the late 1700s, Ohio River Valley farmers began floating their crops down the rivers to Natchez and New Orleans. It was easy, and quite pleasant, to float down the river on flatboats, but going back up the river wasn’t easy at all. It was nigh to impossible. Instead, travelers abandoned or sold their flatboats for lumber, returning home by way of the Natchez Trace, either on foot or on horseback.
It didn’t take long for the trail to become a clearly marked road. By 1810, many years of travel had made the trace the most heavily traveled road in the South. Inns, also called “stands” sprang up. By 1820, over 20 stands were in operation. Some provided basic food and shelter, with owners who might not be the honest, upstanding citizens that travelers hoped for. Other inns, like Mount Locust, were well-known and owned by respectable, God-fearing folks who welcomed and treated visitors with hospitality, providing a safe place to overnight.
Travel along the trace wasn’t without its hazards, the least of which were swamps, floods, disease-carrying insects, mosquitos the size of bats (okay, not really. But when one bites you, it FEELS like it!). But worse than that were the bands of highwaymen who plied the trace, attacking travelers who might be flush with cash from their recent transactions downriver.
Remember those ridges that the animals turned in to trails? The dips and sways and dark hollows, surrounded by spiny ribs that fell into soupy swamps and deep, dark forests? Couple that with the dregs of society who preyed on travelers and you can easily see how the old Natchez Trace became known as The Devil’s Backbone.
The Natchez District was a lawless frontier in the 1700s, and many a man lost his life traveling along the dark trail. It wasn’t until the invention of the steamboat that wealthy planters, merchants, and their families could make the return trip up the river instead of along the trail. In January 1812, the steamer New Orleans arrived in Natchez. Soon steamboats from New Orleans and Natchez were calling regularly at St. Louis, Nashville, and Louisville and all points in between.
Travelers who could afford passage on the steamboats preferred the relative safety, comfort—and the speed—to the slow pace of going overland. Before long the busy trace became a peaceful forest lane. The overland travelers with lots of money in their pockets were on the riverboats, and the highwaymen soon sought greener pastures to line their pockets.
But the years and years of travel along those roads had worn some areas down to where the banks are 5 to 10 feet high. I’ve walked part of the sunken trace. It’s quiet and peaceful. Nothing to be heard except the birds singing, the rustling of squirrels and the occasional deer or turkey gobbler staking his claim.
I have my characters traveling along this very stretch of road, a road that struck fear into their hearts. As I walked between these high banks, heard the rustling in the forest, I wondered what all had transpired on this long, lonely dark road two centuries before.
Want to learn more about The Promise of Breeze Hill? Jump to The Promise of Breeze Hill book page.