'She had been raised in a pirogue'

THE BLACK RIVER (foreground) drains into the Red River at this juncture in southern Concordia Parish. That’s the Red River at top of the photo. In 1882, floodwaters covered the land. The steamboat Susie, commissioned by a newspaper to rescue flood victims and write about the conditions, left the Red for the Black River at this point. Soon those aboard were astounded by the scenes of survival. (Concordia Sentinel photo)

In 2019, floodwaters once again pose a problem for those who live in the Mississippi River Valley. This is not a new problem and it’s not one that will ever go away.

Dating back centuries, there have been various written accounts of the major floods that have killed unknown numbers of humans and animals and destroyed houses, church buildings, schools and other structures. Rising waters have covered crops. Livelihoods washed away.

One of the worst floods of the 19th century occurred in this region of the world and caused great suffering to man and beast. This flood drew the attention of a New Orleans newspaper and many others.

The story began 13 decades ago during the late fall of 1881 when it started to rain. By Christmas, the Mississippi was beginning to rise but there appeared to be no reason for alarm.

In the days to follow, however, through January 1882, one series of storm systems after another moved through the river valleys of the Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi. On both the Vidalia and Natchez shores, everyone observed that the Mighty Miss was taking on a menacing look.

"The situation now began to look threatening," according to an analysis of the flood in the publication, "Report on the General Commerce of the United States," issued in 1888 by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics. "A thorough inspection was made of the levees and much work done on them. But the rain softened and washed away the dirt."

Soon the levees began to fail. From late January until mid-February the reports were frightening. The levee along the Mississippi at Delta in Madison Parish (across the river from Vicksburg) was among the first to breach. Another break came at Tropical Bend south of New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish.

By Feb. 9, all of the bottomland south of Shreveport along the Red River was flooding. Five days later, the entire levee system along the Yazoo at Vicksburg began to fail. On Feb. 13, the levee broke along the Mississippi at Kempe's Bend near Waterproof, washing away the plantation home of Thomas and Margaret Kempe. In a short time, the lowlands of northeastern Louisiana were covered by water. By the end of March, when the rains finally ceased, seemingly every inch of bottomland from Natchez west to the Catahoula Parish hills was inundated.

"It was not until late June that some of the plantations (in south Louisiana) were free from the overflow," the government reported. This flood lasted five months. More than 100 levee breaks were reported, 22,000 square miles were covered with water and almost a half million people affected.

"Early during the overflow," the U.S. Bureau of Statistics reported, "the government had established relief bureaus in various inundated States, and several hundred thousand dollars were distributed in rations. This was supplemented by the State of Louisiana, which organized a relief commission and sent a fleet to upper Louisiana to remove the people in danger of overflow to safe land, and to furnish forage to the stock, which was being destroyed in thousands. The fleet rescued many people from starvation and drowning."

 

A RAFT IN THE WILLOWS

 

The New Orleans Times-Democrat played a role in assisting in the efforts to feed and rescue flood victims in Louisiana. In March 1882, the newspaper commissioned its own steamboat, the Susie, to this region of the world. The small vessel would travel 30,000 miles in three states to the heads of navigation of several streams, including the Red, Black, Ouachita and Tensas in northeastern and central Louisiana.

While assisting in the rescue of flood victims and their livestock, an unidentified Times-Democrat reporter wrote about the great sea of water that covered this region and described the survival stories of those who either couldn't or wouldn't leave for higher ground. These stories were reproduced in Mark Twain's 1882 book, Life on the Mississippi.

In late March 1882, the Susie entered the Red River at Concordia's southern tip {in the area where the Old River Control Structure stands today}. At the Chandler Plantation on the most northern point of Point Coupee Parish, hungry animals were seen housed on a flatboat. Nearby Turnbull's Island was submerged, too, with only the tops of levees standing above the rising waters.

"The trees have put on a greener foliage since the water has poured in, and the woods look bright and fresh," the newspaper reported, "but this pleasant aspect to the eye is neutralized by the interminable waste of water. We pass mile after mile, and it is nothing but trees standing up to their branches in water. A water-turkey now and again rises and flies ahead into the long avenue of silence. A pirogue sometimes flits from the bushes and crosses the Red River on its way out to the Mississippi, but the sad-faced paddlers never turn their heads to look at our boat. The puffing of the boat is music in this gloom, which affects one most curiously. It is not the gloom of deep forests or dark caverns, but a peculiar kind of solemn silence and impressive awe...

"We passed two negro families on a raft tied up in the willows this morning. They ... had a supply of meal and three or four hogs with them. Their rafts were about twenty feet square, and in front of an impoverished shelter earth had been placed, on which they built their fire."

A planter near Red River Landing, C.P. Ferguson, told the reporter "there is much suffering in the rear of that place. The negroes had given up all thoughts of a crevasse there, as the upper levee had stood so long, and when it did come they were at its mercy. On Thursday, a number were taken out of trees and off cabin roofs and brought in, many yet remaining."

 

FROM THE RED TO THE BLACK

 

So great was this flood, that from Fort Adams in Wilkinson County on the Mississippi's east bank 60 miles to the west at Alexandria, La., not a mound of dirt could be seen. The only way the rivers could be recognized was because they appeared as openings or tunnels in the trees.

After traveling the Red upstream for a few hours, the Susie reached the mouth of the Black River. The signs of suffering were immediately seen. Farmers stripped the leaves of willow trees to feed their livestock. One man had attempted to drive 150 head of cattle and 100 hogs to higher ground in Avoyelles Parish when the floodwaters began to rise. He lost a third of his cattle and 60 percent of his hogs along the way.

Up the Black a few miles, only the tops of cabins could be seen. The river was eight feet out of its bank and rising floodwaters were increasing the flow of the current.

 

‘SHE POINTED TO A HOUSE NEARBY’

 

"In order to save coal, as it was impossible to get that fuel at any point to be touched during the expedition, a lookout was kept for a wood-pile," the Times-Democrat correspondent wrote. On rounding a point a pirogue, skillfully paddled by a youth, shot out, and in its bow was a girl of fifteen, of fair face, beautiful black eyes, and demure manners. The boy asked for a paper, which was thrown to him, and the couple pushed their tiny craft out into the swell of the boat.

"Presently a little girl, not certainly over twelve years, paddled out in the smallest little canoe and handled it with all the deftness of an old voyageur. The little one looked more like an Indian than a white child, and laughed when asked if she was afraid. She had been raised in a pirogue and could go anywhere.

"She was bound out to pick the willow leaves for the stock, and she pointed to a house nearby with water three inches deep on the floors. At its back door was moored a raft about thirty feet square, with a sort of fence built upon it and inside of this some sixteen cows and twenty hogs were standing. The family did not complain, except on account of losing their stock, and promptly brought a supply of wood in a flat."

 

FLOATING OUTHOUSES & HENHOUSES

 

Hour by hour the Black continued to rise.

As the Susie chugged upriver, more dwellings were seen, though miles apart from one another. Most of the occupants had fled to higher ground. Outhouses floated in the current.

"To add to the gloom," wrote the Times-Democrat, "almost every living thing seems to have departed, and not a whistle of a bird nor the bark of a squirrel can be heard in the solitude. Sometimes a morose gar will throw his tail aloft and disappear in the river, but beyond this everything is quiet -- the quiet of desolation.

"Down the river floats now a neatly whitewashed henhouse, then a cluster of neatly split fence-rails, or a door and a bloated carcass, solemnly guarded by a pair of buzzards -- the only bird to be seen -- which feast on the carcass as it bears them along.

"A picture-frame, in which there was a cheap lithograph of a soldier on horseback, as it floated on told of some hearth invaded by the water and despoiled of the ornament."

At dark, the Susie was made fast to a tall gum tree, the engines were silenced and soon the "enveloping silence closed upon us," void of the croaking of frogs or the buzzing of insects. "The dark recesses, those aisles into this cathedral, gave forth no sound, and even the ripplings of the current die away."

 

‘OLD MAN IN A PIROQUE’

 

At daylight the next morning, a Friday, Susie's engines were fired up and soon the journey resumed.

"More fields were passed than nearer the mouth, but the same scene presented itself -- smokehouses drifting out in the pastures, negro quarters anchored in confusion against some oak and the modest residence just showing its eaves above water ... Not a foot of soil is to be seen anywhere, and the water is apparently growing deeper and deeper, for it reaches up to the branches of the largest trees...

"An old man in a pirogue was asked how the willow leaves agreed with his cattle. He stopped in his work, and with an ominous shake of his head replied, 'Well, sir, it's enough to keep warmth in their bodies, and that's all we expect, but it's hard on the hogs, particularly the small ones. They is dropping off powerful fast, but what can you do? It's all we've got.'

"At thirty miles above the mouth of Black River the water extends from Natchez on the Mississippi across the pine hills of Louisiana...and there is hardly a spot that is not ten feet under it. The tendency of the current up the Black is toward the west. In fact, so much is this the case, the waters of Red River have been driven down from toward the Calcasieu country, and the waters of the Black enter the Red some fifteen miles above the mouth of the former, a thing never before seen by even the oldest steamboatmen. The water now in sight of us is entirely from the Mississippi."

Soon, the Susie would enter the great bend known today as Black River Lake, which is no longer the main channel of the river. The vessel was nearing Jonesville (known then as Troy or Troyville) and Trinity (across the Little River from Jonesville). There, they would find former Confederate General Zebulon York leading a frantic flood relief effort.

 

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