End of the Road

In the 1800s, travelers along the perilous forest trail known as the Natchez Trace called it the “Devil’s Backbone”

Cypress swamps along Natchez Trace (Courtesy of the National Park Service)
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When Mrs. Grinder entered the room she found Lewis shot in the head. A second bullet had entered his chest and lodged against his backbone. According to her version, Lewis lived through the night and "was busily engaged in cutting himself head to foot" with a razor when she entered his room the following morning. Lewis' death a few hours later initially was declared a suicide, but suspicions arose when the formerly impoverished Grinders later moved to western Tennessee with enough money to buy land and slaves.

The circumstances of Lewis' death continue to inspire debate among scholars. "He could have been murdered," says John Guice, professor emeritus of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. "Lewis carried a .69-caliber pistol. How can you shoot yourself in the head with that kind of weapon and live to get off a second shot?" In 1996, Guice, testifying at a coroner's inquest, recommended that the National Park Service disinter and autopsy Lewis. (The NPS declined to do so.)

Natchez Trace traffic began to decline in 1817, after construction began on a larger, more direct highway linking Nashville to New Orleans. But it was the steamboat that really did the Trace in. By 1820, a paddle-wheeler could make it upriver from New Orleans to Louisville in 15 days.

In 1863, after Gen. Ulysses S. Grant failed to subdue the Mississippi River stronghold of Vicksburg, he steamed south, past Jefferson Davis' plantation, and landed troops downriver. Marching up the Trace, Grant headed toward the town of Jackson. Along the way, his troops defeated a Confederate force at Raymond. Grant then torched Jackson. With his rear flank secure, Grant crossed the Trace and continued 30 miles west to Vicksburg, which he captured following a 47-day siege, on July 4, 1863 (the day after Robert E. Lee suffered a massive defeat at Gettysburg). Not until 1945, eighty-two years later, would Vicksburg's citizens celebrate American Independence Day.

In Vicksburg, where a federal military park commemorates the Union victory, it's impossible to escape memories of the siege. "People who think America has never lost a war don't realize that many of us have suffered defeat on our own soil," says Tom Pharr, a 44-year-old interior designer who owns Anchuca, an 1830 Greek Revival mansion where Jefferson Davis' brother Joseph and his family lived after Union forces looted Joseph's nearby plantation, Hurricane. (Jefferson Davis called on his brother there a couple of times in the winter of 1868-69.)

Just off the Trace in Kosciusko, a town of 7,335 (named for Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish aristocrat who served under George Washington in the Revolutionary War), many residents believe that the town represents Mississippi's future. Kosciusko boasts excellent public schools, free after-school tutoring and a foundation that provides college-tuition assistance for its high-school graduates. "When people think about Mississippi, images of hooded men on horses and burning churches come to mind, but we have none of those things here," says civic leader Preston Hughes, a West Point graduate who retired from the Army as a colonel.

Credit for the community's cohesion, many agree, goes in large part to The Club, an organization that Hughes and a retired high-school principal, William White, founded in 1995. "We wanted some type of way to get together," White says. "The bank president. The janitor over at the co-op. Retirees. Young people working their first jobs. Rich. Poor. No dues. No officers. Meet once a month. Have a speaker. Ask questions. Get answers."

Kosciusko's favorite daughter is Oprah Winfrey, who was born here in 1954, but the Trace's biggest celebrity attraction is 106 miles to the north in Tupelo. There, the Elvis Presley Center includes a museum, gift shop and memorial chapel featuring continuous recordings of Elvis' gospel songs. The even bigger draw, however, is Elvis' birthplace, a tiny shotgun house built in 1934 by Presley's father, Vernon, for $180. Here, on the cramped porch, it may well be possible to come closer to the authentic Elvis—the skinny kid who loved gospel songs and often went to church—than anywhere else imaginable.

Writer David Devoss lives in Sherman Oaks, California.


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