By the early 1800s in the South, the construction and operation of sawmills helped provide stability to a frontier environment that was becoming more civilized.
Growing communities needed lumber for homes, businesses and farms. Sawmill operators not only served the local community, but also floated rafts of timber down the Mississippi to New Orleans for sale to world markets. In Europe, many of the forests had long been depleted.
Before the advent of the steam engine, sawmills were fueled by water through the use of a waterwheel.
Historian John Hebron Moore ("The Cypress Industry of the Lower Mississippi Valley During the Colonial Period," Louisiana Historical Association Quarterly 1974), wrote that the "successful utilization of water power by the French (1700s) was not achieved until a chain of levees was constructed along the lower Mississippi. When completed the levees served the same purpose as dams in other parts of North America ... the plantations of French settlers were located on comparatively high ground lying between the river in front and marshes in the rear.
"During periods of high river stages, swamps behind the plantation filled with water despite the levees, forming natural reservoirs, and when the river fell the swamps slowly discharged into the Mississippi. Some resourceful colonists eventually employed this return flow to turn the waterwheels. In order to accomplish the feat, planters dug small canals linking the swamps with the river and, in some cases, lined the ditches with planks. They then erected sawmills alongside the canals which also served to transport logs to the mills."
Along the creek beds of Mississippi, a reservoir or pond was built along the stream and plugged by a dam. Once a gate to the dam was opened into a chute, the water's force would turn a waterwheel that rotated mechanisms inside the mill itself and powered the saws. The water was often returned to the stream below the dam.
In 1794, four years before Spanish Natchez became a U.S. territory, Peter Bryan Bruin mortgaged his plantation to build a sawmill near the mouth of Bayou Pierre. A Revolutionary War veteran, Bruin's home was located in what became the community of Bruinsburg in Claiborne County about a mile from the Mississippi River across from St. Joseph in Tensas Parish. Both Bruinsburg, which no longer exists, and Lake Bruin in Tensas Parish, were named after Bruin.
Bruin, the first territorial judge to take office in Mississippi, borrowed slightly more than $3,500 from merchants Ebenezer Rees and George Cochran of Natchez to finance his sawmill. He signed a four-year note at six percent interest.
According to the "Natchez Court Records," edited by May Wilson McBee, four enslaved black men provided the labor for the construction and operation of the sawmill and an enslaved black woman was designated to cook and wash for the millwright, Patrick McDermott. The millwright was employed to "build and completely finish in a workmanlike manner a saw-mill, calculated to saw plank and scantlin to 27 feet long, with necessary building, to finish in the best possible manner the dam and all things necessary thereto on waters of Bayou Pierre.” All work was to be completed without delay unless "interrupted by invasion of the Indians or any foreign enemy."
Because water was the source of power to operate these sawmills, operation was limited to the winter and spring seasons when the water stages were high. There were many problems associated with the process. Clarks Creek in Claiborne County, for instance, was subject to wash during periods of high water, making the process of maintaining a dam an ongoing issue.
Englishman Francis Bailey, journeying through Natchez country and along Bayou Pierre in 1797, observed in his book ("Tour of Unsettled Parts of North America") that "water-mills" built along the streams of the region were often damaged or destroyed by crawfish, adding that there were a great many "hereabouts, and these animals will undermine all the dams which have ever been built, and soon make a vent for the water, which terminates in the total destruction of the dam."
While water-powered sawmills took some ingenuity and patience to construct and operate, operators also had to have a steady source of timber and then had to develop and deliver their finished product to market. Thomas Hutchins, reporting on the timber industry of 1784 ("Historical Narrative and Topographical Description of Louisiana and West Florida"), observed:
"In the autumn, the planters employed their slaves in cutting down and squaring timber, for sawing into boards and scantling. The carriage of this timber is very easy, for those who cut it at the back of their plantations make a ditch, which is supplied with water from the back swamps, and by that means conduct their timber" to market "with very little labour; others send their slaves up to the cypress swamps, of which there are a great many between New Orleans and Pointe Coupee. There they make rafts of timber they cut, and float down to New Orleans. Many of these planters have saw-mills, which are worked by the waters of the Mississippi, in time of floods, and then they are kept going night and day till the waters fall. The quantity of lumber sent from the Mississippi to the West India islands is prodigious, and it generally goes to a good market."
In this region, Zachariah Taliaferro began operating a sawmill in his adopted home of Catahoula Parish, La., in 1815. Taliaferro had run a sawmill in his native Virginia until 1806 or 1807, when he moved to Claiborne County.
In Catahoula, Taliaferro located his water-powered sawmill on Green's Creek, located in the hills at Rhinehart. He partnered with Charles Patterson and opened a yard in New Orleans to market their lumber. In 1819, the Catahoula mill sent a cypress raft (180,000 board feet) to their New Orleans yard with a crew of four.
Patterson died in 1820 and in a lawsuit, Taliaferro challenged Patterson's estate's petition for "an equal division of the partnership's property," according to historian John A. Esterhold ("Lumber and Trade in the Lower Mississippi Valley and New Orleans, 1800-1860," 1972, "Louisiana Historical Association Quarterly"). The suit resulted in several depositions, including one from frontiersman Jim Bowie's brother -- John J. Bowie -- who testified on Taliaferro's behalf.
The core of Taliaferro's stance was that he had done all the work and that Patterson never provided financing for the mill as pledged. The depositions provide an in depth look at the operation of Taliaferro's sawmill.
Esterhold wrote that Taliaferro used white, slave and free black labor to operate the mill. Taliaferro "also often hired area farmers to cut and haul timber to his mill. At various times he used these people as sawyers, paying them between $40 and $50 a month in wages. The mill also hired free Negro laborers, paying them approximately the same wages as unskilled white laborers.
"Living conditions at the mill were apparently the same for all laborers, black or white. Taliaferro seems to have had no compunctions about using Negroes in more skilled positions. A number of his slaves and free Negroes held the more responsible mill jobs.
"The Catahoula mill provided housing for its laborers and apparently took no deductions from their salaries for this. Board was also provided by Taliaferro, who bought cattle and provisions from area farmers and planters.
“A Negro woman was hired to act as cook and serve two meals daily. The meals, breakfast and supper, were usually simple but substantial and normally included meat, vegetables, bread and butter. Coffee and sugar were also served at no cost to laborers."
According to Eisterhold, a raft sent from the mill to New Orleans in 1820 sold for $2,989.90. Five raftsmen were paid $130, while Taliaferro's brokers earned a $32 commission.