The Great Flood

AROUND THE time of the Great Flood of 1882, African-American artist Henry Jackson Lewis, working for the Smithsonian Institution, drew this sketch of Jonesville, known then as Troy. The Great Mound can be seen at the back left of the illustration. The buildings at the forefront were located along present day Front Street and faced Black River. The mound at the forefront on the left was used as a cemetery and called “the old burying ground” by the Jones family, who later deeded it to the Methodist Church. You can see other mounds in the background. The scene Lewis captures is unique, showing the floodwaters, a snapshot in time of the town and the historic mounds. The Great Mound, leveled during the 20th century, is shown when it was the largest mound in Louisiana at the height of 82 feet. (Credit: H.J. Lewis sketches. Flooded Indian Mounds, published April 21, 1883, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Library of Congress)

 

With the water rising during the Great Flood of 1882, the steamboat Susie chugged up the Black River loaded with rations for flood victims and forage for their livestock.

The boat's captain was in route to Troy also known as Troyville (present day Jonesville) where four rivers converged -- the Black, Little, Ouachita and Tensas. There, the captain planned to meet up with Gen. Zebulon York, a man of northern birth who had fought four years for the Confederacy during the Civil War. York had been named one of several commissioners throughout the state to lead flood relief efforts. He was named Commissioner for Black River and Tributaries.

For two months -- March and April -- York distributed tons of food and forage obtained through government assistance and in part by contributions from citizens throughout the nation. The News Orleans-Times Democrat owned the Susie and an unidentified reporter for the paper filed stories of the rescue efforts. Those articles were reprinted in Mark Twain's 1882 book, Life on the Mississippi.

More than 100 levee breaks were reported during this flood, 22,000 square miles were covered with water and almost a half million people affected.

The Susie encountered several families along the first 30 miles of the Black from its juncture with the Red River living on scaffolding inside their flooded homes. They also encountered a strange sight -- willow trees stripped of their leaves. Soon they learned the reason. Families remaining on their flooded farms were harvesting the leaves to feed their livestock held either on flatboat barges or in their homes.

 

‘THE POOR CREATURES’

 

The farther upriver the Susie traveled -- as the water continued a rapid rise -- more and more homes were seen flooded, some almost to the roof tops. Many families and much of their livestock had been removed to the Catahoula hills. Those families remaining often had small rafts secured to the flooded cabins or to a tree where their livestock were kept. Outhouses, hen houses, family heirlooms and other signs of inundated homesteads were seen floating in the Black River current.

The Times-Democrat reporter found that "the people have nearly all moved out, those remaining having enough for their present personal needs. Their cattle ... are suffering and dying off quite fast, as the confinement of rafts and the food they get breed disease."

As the Susie neared and eventually entered a big bend (present day Black River Lake), the reporter observed along both the Concordia and Catahoula shores "many open fields and cabins thickly scattered about. Here were seen more pictures of distress. On the inside of houses the inmates had built on boxes a scaffold on which they placed the furniture. The bedposts were sawed off on the top, as the ceiling was not more than four feet from the improvised floor. The buildings looked very insecure, and threaten every moment to float off.

"Near the houses were cattle standing breast-high in the water, perfectly impassive. They did not move in their places, but stood patiently waiting for help to come. The sight was a distressing one, and the poor creatures will be sure to die unless speedily rescued. Cattle differ from horses in this peculiar quality. A horse, after finding no relief comes, will swim off in search of food, whereas a beef will stand in its tracks until with exhaustion it drops in the water and drowns."

 

‘A THRIVING STEAMBOAT OPERATION’

 

Twelve river miles below Troy, the hands of a flatboat along the bank hailed the Susie. Soon the steamer rounded and there General York stepped aboard the Susie. It was noon.

Standing about three inches shy of six feet, York had almost died from wounds suffered in Virginia during the Civil War. His left arm had been amputated following a battle in the Shenandoah Valley. The son of Zebulon and Zylphia York, his grandfather had served as the personal assistant to Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

A well-educated man, York studied at Maine Wesleyan Seminary and well-respected Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. He received his law degree at Tulane, originally known as the University of Louisiana.

By the 1850s, York was living in Concordia Parish. As his law practice prospered, he invested his earnings in land and slaves. He and his business partner, Elias J. Hoover, operating under the name York and Hoover, owned, by one account, six plantations as well as an estimated 1,500 slaves.

Like others, the Civil War left his estates and his finances in ruins. York declared bankruptcy. To earn a living, York later moved to Natchez where he continued his law practice and opened and operated a boarding house known as the York House, which is today the home of Biscuits & Blues on Main Street.

York also developed a thriving steamboat operation, carrying passengers, cargo and livestock along the Mississippi River tributaries, including the four rivers that meet at Jonesville. There along the Black in March of 1882, the Susie made a rendezvous with York aboard a flatboat being towed by one of his small steamers.

 

UNEXAGGERATED DISTRESS

 

"He was just then engaged in getting off stock, and welcomed the Times-Democrat boat heartily, as he said there was much need for her," according to one of the newspaper's articles. "He said that distress was not exaggerated in the least.

"People were in a condition it was difficult even for one to imagine. The water was so high there was great danger of their houses being swept away. It had already risen so high that it as approaching the eaves, and when it reaches this point there is always imminent risk of their being swept away. If this occurs, there will be a great loss of life.

"The general spoke of the gallant work of many of the people in their attempts to save their stock, but thought that fully twenty-five percent had perished. Already twenty-five hundred people had received rations from Troy, on Black river, and he had towed a great many cattle, but a very great quantity remained and were in dire need. The water was now eighteen inches higher than (the flood of) 1874, and there was no land between Vidalia and the hills of Catahoula."

 

COWS IN THE CEMETERY

 

Two hours later, at noon, the Susie docked at Troy  (Jonesville), located 65 miles from the mouth of the Black. Troy was the name of a plantation owned by the family of Col. Charles Jones. He was a wealthy planter who had shot and killed Gen. John Liddell just 12 years earlier during a bloody Black River feud that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen family members on both sides, including that of Jones, too.

Many living on the Troy Plantation, and in the village of Trinity, located across Little River, had fled to the hills. Those remaining had just enough "to meet their personal needs. Their cattle, though, are suffering and dying off quite fast, as the confinement on rafts and the food they get breed disease."

Troy was made relief operations headquarters because it was located at the confluence of four rivers -- providing a central location for citizens -- and because the Indian mounds there were the only points of dry ground rising above the flood water between Natchez and the Catahoula hills.

"Here," the newspaper reported, "on the left comes Little River; just beyond that the Ouachita, and on the right the Tensas. These three rivers form the Black River. Troy, or a portion of it, is situated on and around three large Indian mounds, circular in shape, which rise above the present water about 12 feet. They are about one hundred and fifty feet in diameter and about two hundred yards apart. The houses are all built between these mounds, and hence are all flooded to a depth of eighteen inches on their floors."

For a reason unknown, the reporter did not mention the Great Mound, which in the distance towered above the others.

"These elevations, built by the aborigines hundreds of years ago, are the only points of refuge for miles. When we arrived here we found them crowded with stock, all of which was thin and hardly able to stand up. They were mixed together, sheep, hogs, horses, mules, and cattle."

At the mound located beside the Methodist church in Jonesville, the reporter saw on the small space above the water "cows lying against marble tombstones, chewing their cud in contentment, after a meal of corn furnished by General York. Here, as below, the remarkable skill of the women and girls in the management of the smaller pirogues was noticed. Children were paddling above in these most ticklish crafts with all the nonchalance of adepts."

 

‘HOURLY THREATENED’

 

The Times-Democrat described York's flood relief efforts as "a perfect system. He makes personal inspection of the place where it is asked, sees what is necessary to be done, and then, having two boats chartered, with flats, sends them promptly to the place, when the cattle are loaded and towed to the pine hills and uplands of Catahoula. He has made Troy his headquarters, and to this point boats come for their supply of feed for cattle.

"On the opposite side of Little River, which branches to the left out of the Black, and between it and the Ouachita, is situated the town of Trinity, which is hourly threatened with destruction." Trinity was a sizable town with a number of business establishments. Its population prior to the Civil War was more than 200.

The town "is much lower than Troy, and the water is eight and nine feet deep in the houses. A strong current sweeps through it, and it is remarkable that all of its houses have not gone before. The residents of both Troy and Trinity have been cared for, yet some of their stock have to be furnished with food."

Once at Troy, the Susie's captain offered the steamer's services to York and the flood relief effort. Her supplies were placed on one of the mounds to lighten her load. She was sent a few miles south of Troy on the Black to Tom Hooper's place. There, a flatboat loaded with head of livestock were taken in tow. They were fed and according to the Times-Democrat, "soon regained some strength."

 

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