"The remarkable tenacity of the people here to their homes is beyond all comprehension," wrote a reporter for the News Orleans Times-Democrat on Saturday, March 25, 1882.
The unidentified writer was reporting on the people in Concordia and Catahoula parishes who lived along the Black, Tensas, Ouachita and Little rivers. He was astonished at the number who stayed in their flooded homes as the rivers continued to rise during one of the greatest floods in the Mississippi River Valley.
While humans were at risk so were the animals, particularly the livestock, kept alive by the leaves of willow trees or the forage delivered on flats pulled or pushed by steamboats. The Times-Democrat reporter was traveling aboard the Susie, a small steamer owned by the newspaper, which was assisting flood victims while its reporter got a close up view of the suffering and devastation.
Locally, Gen. Zebulon York was leading rescue efforts. A Civil War veteran whose shell-shattered left arm had been amputated following a battle in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, York was using two of his own small steamboats to tow flatboats loaded with rations and forage and to transport people and livestock to the Catahoula hills, usually taking a route up Little River.
York had made Jonesville, then known as Troy, as his headquarters. Livestock and supplies were kept on the Indians mounds there. The mound tops were the only dry points between Natchez and the Catahoula hills.
During the months of March and April 1882, York distributed tons of food and forage. The Times-Democrat's coverage of the flood were reprinted in Mark Twain's 1882 book, Life on the Mississippi.
‘THE HOUSE WAS DEAR TO HER’
"We started down Black River quite early," wrote the newspaper’s reporter, "under the direction of General York, to bring out what stock could be reached. Going down river a flat in tow was left in a central locality, and from there men poled her back in the rear of plantations, picking up the animals where found.
"In the loft of a gin-house were seventeen head found, and, after a gangway was built, they were led down into the flat, without difficulty. Taking a skiff with the general, your reporter was pulled to a little house of two rooms, in which the water was standing two feet on the floors. In one of the large rooms were huddled the horses and cows of the place, while in the other the Widow Taylor and her son were seated on a scaffold raised on the floor. One or two dugouts were drifting about in the room, ready to be put in service at any time. When the flat was brought up, the side of the house was cut away as the only means of getting the animals out, and the cattle were driven on board the boat.
"General York, in this as in every case, inquired if the family desired to leave, informing them that Major Burke of the Times-Democrat has sent the Susie up for that purpose. Mrs. Taylor said she thanked Major Burke, but she would try and hold out."
The reporter shook his head. While he admired the widow's tenacity and understood the house was dear to her, he thought risking her life and especially that of her son a mistake. But he bid her farewell and wished her luck as the Susie pulled out.
A FLAWED MAN; A KIND ACT
The man who owned the Susie was Times-Democrat publisher Major Edward A. Burke, a shadowy man whose life remains a mystery even today. He was a native of Kentucky, born in 1839. According to his own account, he went to work for the railroad at age 13 and was living in Texas by the time the Civil War broke out.
He reportedly served as a Confederate officer in the war, and on returning to civilian life was rehired by the railroad. He also dabbled in the import trade before moving to New Orleans in 1869 where during the Reconstruction years he managed to become wealthy. He also became involved in city and state politics, bought and combined the News Orleans Times and New Orleans Democrat into one paper, and the following year sent the Susie out to rescue flood victims.
During his time in New Orleans, he fought and survived two duels although he was wounded in each. By 1889, his life in Louisiana, however, was unraveling. While serving as State Treasurer, it was reported that $2 million in state bonds was missing. A grand jury reported Burke's private bank vault held $400,000 of those bonds and later indicted him on 19 counts of misappropriation. Before he could be arrested, he disappeared, only to resurface later in Honduras, where he died in 1926.
But Burke's act of sending the Susie to this region in 1882 was long remembered as an act of kindness and compassion.
‘LOVE FOR THE OLD PLACE’
At a point 16 miles below Troy, the Susie received information that Tom Ellis was in danger of losing his house, family and possessions to the rising flood waters.
"We steamed there immediately," the paper reported, "and a sad picture was presented. Looking out of the half of the window left above water was Mrs. Ellis, who is in feeble health, while at the door were her seven children, the oldest not fourteen years.
"One side of the house was given up the work-animals, some twelve head, besides hogs. In the next room the family lived, the water coming within two inches of the bedrail. The stove was below water, and the cooking was done on a fire on top of it. The house threatened to give way at any moment; one end of it was sinking, and in fact, the building looked like a mere shell.
"As the boat rounded to, Mr. Ellis came out in a dugout, and General York told him that he had come to his relief; and the Times-Democrat boat was at his service and would remove his family at once to the hills, and on Monday a flat would take out his stock, as until that time, they would be busy.
"Notwithstanding the deplorable situation himself and family were in, Mr. Ellis did not want to leave. He said he thought he would wait until Monday, and take the risk of his house falling. The children around the door looked perfectly contented, seeming to care little for the danger they were in."
Such were the many instances of families refusing to leave their homes: "After weeks of privation and suffering people still cling to their houses, and leave only when there is not room between the water and the ceiling to build a scaffold on which to stand. It seemed to be incomprehensible, yet the love for the old place was stronger than that for safety."
‘AN OLD PLANTER’
The next stop for the Susie was the Oswald place:
"Here the flat was towed alongside the gin-house, where there were fifteen head standing in water; and yet, as they stood on scaffolds, their heads were above the top of the entrance. It was found impossible to get them out without cutting away a portion of the front; and so axes were brought into requisition and a gap made. After much labor the horses and mules were securely placed on the flat.
"At each place we stop there are always three, four, or more dugouts arriving, bringing information of stock in other places in need. Notwithstanding the fact that a great many had driven a part of their stock to the hills some time ago, there yet remains a large quantity, which General York, who is working with indomitable energy, will get landed in the pine hills by Tuesday.
"All along Black River the Susie has been visited by scores of planters, whose tales are the repetition of those already heard of suffering and loss. An old planter, who has lived on the river since 1844, said there never was such a rise, and he was satisfied more than one-quarter of the stock has been lost. Luckily the people cared first for their work-stock, and when they could find it, horses and mules were housed in a place of safety.
"The rise, which still continues and was two inches last night, compels them to get to the hills; hence it is that the work of General York is of such a great value. From daylight to late at night he is going this way and that, cheering by his kindly words and directing with calm judgment what is to be done."
AN UNPOPULAR MERCHANT
While traveling through the flood waters, the Times-Democrat learned of a New Orleans merchant who had engendered the wrath of many of the Black River planters. For years, these farmers had done business with the merchant, who, despite the desperate conditions of his customers, now turned his back on them. The newspaper didn't identify the businessman:
"One unpleasant story, of a certain merchant in New Orleans, is told all along the river. It appears for some years past the planters have been dealing with this individual, and many of them had balances in his hands. When the overflow came they wrote for coffee, for meal, and, in fact, for such little necessities as were required.
"No response to these letters came, and others were written, and yet these old customers, with plantations under water, were refused even what was necessary to sustain life. It is needless to say he is not popular now on Black River."
By noon on March 27, 1882, while at Troy, the newspaper reported that the water was rising 3.5 inches every 24 hours. And now it was raining again.
York now concentrated his efforts solely on saving human lives as the flood waters now threatened to destroy many of the remaining half-submerged houses still occupied by families and livestock.
"There is a lack of steam transportation here to meet the emergency," the newspaper reported. "The general has three boats chartered with flats in town, but the demand for those to tow out stock is greater than they can meet with promptness. All are working night and day, and the Susie hardly stops for more than an hour anywhere."
Across Little River from Troy, the village of Trinity was "in a dangerous plight, and momentarily it is expected that some of the houses will float off. Troy is a little higher, yet all are in the water."
Meanwhile, everyone was waiting news of the steamer Delia, which was feared to have sunk in a storm on Catahoula Lake: "She is due here now, but has not arrived. Even the mail is most uncertain, and this (report) I send by skiff to Natchez" for eventual delivery to New Orleans.
"It is impossible to get accurate data to past crops, etc., as those who know much about the matter have gone, and those who remain are not well versed in the production of this section."
General York said the amount of rations needed had doubled and were needed at once: "It is impossible to make any estimate, for the people are fleeing to the hills, so rapid is the rise. The residents here are in a state of commotion that can only be appreciated when seen, and complete demoralization has set in."
York requested that 100 tents be sent for shelter of those fleeing to the hills: "If all go to the hills who are in motion now, two hundred will be required."
And in these dismal conditions, worse news arrived. The widow Taylor and her son, who had two days earlier refused to leave her flooded home and head for the hills, were feared dead. Reports had arrived that "a woman and child have been washed away below here, and two cabins floated off."
Sadness and disbelief overcame the Times-Democrat reporter: "One would not believe the utter passiveness of the people" in contrast to the grave danger the flood waters presented.