I grew up near the Natchez Trace Parkway and traveled it 100s of times. Each time was a new journey into our past, and I relished each trip.
If you've ever driven any, or all of the Natchez Trace Parkway, which stretches from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, you may have been bored by the 50-mph speed limit, but you shouldn't have been bored by its scenic beauty or is legends of a supernatural past, which is supposedly still present today.
The Natchez Trace began as an animal trail, many years before the first humans set foot on the trail which followed the best topography of the land. The next travelers were the Indians, who were native to Mississippi and Tennessee. These included the "Natchez Indians," whom the Natchez Trace is named for.
In the 18th century, the first Europeans began using the trace, and in the early 19th century it had been developed into a very rough and dangerous route for which wagons could make the entire journey with great difficulty. The U.S. government called it the "Columbian Highway," but the travelers who used it gave it another name, "The Devil's Backbone," due to its hazards to navigate, as well as its continuous reputation of robberies and murders, which were committed by "highwaymen" along its route.
About this time other attributes of the Natchez Trace came into vogue, although they were not positive attributes; they were of the "supernatural" nature. Let's look at some of them.
As you glide along, or should I say, crawl along within the 50-mph speed limit of the Natchez Trace Parkway, you become mesmerized by the beautiful forests and open fields that contain deer, wild turkey and other animals of the deep south, but animals are not all you see on your trek; there are Indian mounds, Civil War battlefields, antebellum homes, recreated villages, and much more. There is also an ominous place on the Trace, a short distance south of Houston, Mississippi, at milepost 233.2. The place is called, "Witch Dance," and has a National Park Service sign there.
Legend has it that this place was a meeting, or ceremonial area, where witches of old, gathered and danced. The very name conjures visions of eerie midnights, swirling black capes and brooms stacked against a nearby tree. This legend also claims that bare spots where no grass will grow, even to this day, were where the witches' feet touched the ground, as they sailed around their crackling fires. This writer has visited Witch Dance and has seen the bare spots, still visible today.
It is said the Chickasaw and the Choctaw Indians avoided the grassless patches, and Andrew Jackson wrote of them in his journal. If you get a chance to travel the beautiful Natchez Trace Parkway, make Witch Dance one of your sites to see and make your mind up if you believe the legend or not.
The Ghost of Meriwether Lewis
One of the most famous legends of an apparition on the Natchez Trace may be the spirit of Meriwether Lewis, who was one of the leaders of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
In September of 1809, Lewis was traveling along the Natchez Trace and reached Grinder's Stand in Lewis County, Tennessee, where he decided to spend the night. After eating an evening meal, Lewis went to his room. During the middle of the night, the Grinders heard two gunshots in the room occupied by Lewis.
Upon entering the room, it was determined that Lewis had died from a gunshot to his chest and one to his head. Because nobody else was in the room, his death was ruled a suicide; however, conflicting accounts of how the body was found have led to some speculations of murder.
Lewis was buried near the cabin, and a monument to his life was later erected there. Since that night, people began seeing apparitions of a man in period dress near the monument. Some believe it is Meriwether Lewis searching for the closure of what happened at Grinders Stand that night. Some say they even hear a man crying.
Samuel Mason And The Mason Gang
Samuel Mason had many titles, including his positive career titles of being a soldier, state militia officer, frontiersman, tavern keeper and justice of the peace. However, his later career titles follow him into infamy; they are listed as a horse thief, tavern keeper, burglar, bandit, criminal gang leader, river pirate, and cold-blooded murderer.
Mason formed the "Mason Gang," and their trail of terror and death intensified until Samuel Mason was murdered by his own men for a reward which was being offered for his capture. According to legend, a sound of mournful weeping and crying can be heard at night along some portions of the trail where it is believed Mason committed his crimes. It is believed it is him who is damned in the afterlife.
The nations first serial killers may have been the Harpe brothers, Micajah "Big" Harpe and Wiley "Little" Harpe. There is no way to officially determine the number of people killed by them on the Natchez Trace, but it is believed the number could be 50 or more. They didn't just rob and kill their victims; they decapitated them. Also, they didn't discriminate; their victims included women and children.
Big Harpe was killed in what would later be Webster County, Kentucky and his head was cut off. It was attached to a stake on a road near Moses Stegall's Cabin. The modern highway which now runs through there is still known as "Harpe's Head Road."
Little Harpe was later captured and hanged., and to give a message to other highwaymen, he was beheaded, and like his brother, his head was placed on a stake along the Natchez Trace. According to some, they have seen a frontiersman with no head, wandering the trace at night.
Natchez Trace Apparitions: Facts or Legends
These are just a few of the many legends that have been created since the earliest days of this famous trail. As with almost anything that has been around for centuries, stories, true and fabricated have been told around campfires about this trail; and maybe some of these are true, but I would lean more to the legend than reality. However, the next time you travel the Natchez Trace alone at night, be wary; you might be an eyewitness or even a victim of one of these legends.
Also, for your entertainment, watch the witch dance video below.
Grinder's Stand (U.S. National Park Service) https://www.nps.gov/articles/grinder-s-stand-tn.htm
Natchez Trace Travel https://www.natcheztracetravel.com/natchez-trace-mississippi/houston-mantee-ms/151-witch-dance.html
The Harpe Brothers: America's Original Serial Killers - The Lineup
Legends of America https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-samuelmason/
© 2018 Gerry Glenn Jones
Gerry Glenn Jones (author) from Somerville, Tennessee on October 15, 2018:
Melissa, the sad thing about the Natchez Trace is the fact that so much of the trace now is miles away from the original trace. In the days when the original trail existed, it followed the topography of the higher ground and made many sharp turns, so we don't see much of the original trace. It was necessary to change it in order to make it a straighter route, but I would love to be able to follow the original trail just to feel the imaginative presence of the earlier travelers.
Melissa Meadow from United States on October 15, 2018:
Nice read. I really enjoyed this.
I'm familiar with Natchez Trace and have traveled it numerous times in my life. It's such a beautiful area, truly. I could never tire of seeing it and I do hope to see more of it in my lifetime.
I've visited Meriwether Lewis' monument and even visited inside the cabin before they halted letting people enter. I've always been intrigued by his "suicide" story.
Well done article.
albichi on October 13, 2018:
greetings, I Believe!...Blessed Be
Gerry Glenn Jones (author) from Somerville, Tennessee on October 13, 2018:
I agree with you about Lewis; he was probably robbed and killed. Also, I am like you, I'll leave the witches alone as long as they leave me alone. Thanks for reading my articles, Pamela!
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 13, 2018:
Those are interesting tales. I doubt Lewis was able to shoot himself in the chest and then his head. You would think 1 bullet would be sufficient. There are still witches around, so you never know where they might meet. Sure not where I want to hang out.