Native American Trails

Animal trails crisscrossed the Tennessee region long before the arrival of humans, and the same large game animals that created the trails attracted prehistoric hunters. Early trails tended to follow lines of least resistance, avoiding heavy undergrowth, rough ground, or boggy places. In some instances, buffalo trails, such as the ones leading into the great salt lick near the future Nashville, were up to four feet wide and worn as much as two feet below ground level. However, most trails in the wooded or mountainous parts of the state were eighteen- to twenty-four-inches wide and required humans to travel in single file. Although many trails had their origin as animal paths, Native Americans made some high mountain trails. Above the fall lines of southern rivers, numerous trails were a preferred route for travel. Below the fall line, especially in more swampy areas and along the Mississippi, rivers were used more than trails. On the trails, travelers would cross streams at fords; if the water was too deep, they would use rafts, crude temporary bark canoes, or coracles, a round bottomed craft made of skins stretched over a sapling framework. On the larger rivers used for transportation, large dugout canoes were the preferred craft.

Early Indians seldom widened or improved trails. The large network of Indian trails, however, played a major role in allowing early European exploration of the region and access for colonial trade and settlement. These settlers, who later followed the paths with packhorses or wagons, often broadened the way. Many of the Native American trails would become the first roads of the territory and, later, routes of state highways.

Trade, war, and hunting propelled the creation of trails. By at least 2,500 years ago, trade networks brought copper from the Great Lakes region, mica from the Appalachian Mountains, shells from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and obsidian from the Rockies into the Tennessee region. During the Mississippian period, traders may have come from as far away as the Aztec cities of Mexico. The most important exchange routes were between the seacoasts and the interior. Shells were especially prized on the interior, while deerskins were desired on the coasts, and these were traded regularly. Salt was another item of exchange, as noted by the earliest explorers.

By the late 1600s British colonists had established a major trade in deerskins with the Indians of the Tennessee region, focused most heavily out of Charles Town (later Charleston), South Carolina. The British agents traded guns and powder, woolen cloth, iron tools and kettles, dyes, beads, and rum for deerskins and other animal pelts; the Indians depended on this trade for desirable goods they did not manufacture themselves.

Archaeologist William Myer, in his “Indian Trails of the Southeast,” listed dozens of documented Indian trails within Tennessee. Among the most important trails named and described by European explorers was the Great Indian War Path, used for war and trade between southern and northern tribes. It stretched from eastern Pennsylvania near Philadelphia, down the Shenandoah Valley to the upper tributaries of the Tennessee River, to the Chattanooga area and the Creek Indian country of Alabama and Georgia. At Chattanooga, the path connected to trails in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia (U.S. Highway 11 partially follows this trail). One branch of the trail crossed through the Cumberland Gap into central Kentucky; another (the Catawba Trail) went along the French Broad River over the mountains to the middle and lower Cherokee settlements of the Carolinas. At the Little Tennessee River, another trail branched off the Great War Path at the Overhill Cherokee towns and ran over the mountains to Charleston.

In 1540 Hernando de Soto used the system of trails anchored by the Great War Path to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains from the east. His expedition picked up the trail along the French Broad, following it to the chiefdom of Chiaha near present-day Dandridge and then south into north Georgia and the chiefdom of Coosa. In 1567-68 the Pardo expedition followed Soto's approach and visited towns on the French Broad, Holston, Tennessee, and Little Tennessee Rivers. The Spanish built Fort San Pedro near Chiaha to command the trails and defend their colony of Greater Florida. In 1756 Fort Loudoun was built on the Little Tennessee River at the junction of the Charleston Road with the Great War Path in an effort by the British to control Cherokee movements on the paths and waterways. In 1791 the U.S. Army built Fort Southwest Point at the confluence of the Clinch and Tennessee Rivers to monitor Indian travel on the trails and rivers. Although the Great War Path system would be a major route for white and black settlement of upper East Tennessee and into Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, the Cherokees prevented settlement along the trail's lower portions until the 1830s.

Another major trail ran from the Indian towns in the present-day Nashville area to Chickasaw towns around Pontotoc, Mississippi, where it connected to other trails traversing the South. Early white explorers regarded this as a very ancient trail and called it the Old Chickasaw Trace; later settlers adopted it for their own trade use with the Chickasaws and the port of New Orleans. Eventually the trail became known as the Natchez Trace, and in 1801, with Chickasaw approval, the federal government authorized development of the trace into a national road. From the Pontotoc towns, a trail ran through Ripley, Mississippi, to the Bolivar area and on to the Chickasaw Bluffs at present-day Memphis. This trail was referred to as the West Tennessee Chickasaw Trail and appears on maps as early as 1718.

Among the important east-west trails described by Myers is the Cumberland Trace, which diverged from the Great Indian War Path near present-day Rockwood. Crossing the Cumberland Plateau on a route later followed by the Tennessee Central Railroad, the trail passed the landmark Standing Stone near Monterey and descended to the Cumberland River via one prong into the Roaring River valley and by another prong down Flynn's Lick Creek. Fort Blount was built near the Flynn's Lick-Cumberland River crossing in 1784 to protect the travel of settlers from war parties on the trace.

Suggested Reading

William Myer, “Indian Trails of the Southeast,” Forty-second Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1924-1925 (1928)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Native American Trails
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018