Map

THIS MAP shows the Red River Valley, the El Camino Real western trail and the various settlements and rivers in the region. (Credit: Louisiana Department of Culture Recreation & Tourism)

A report presented to Congress by President Thomas Jefferson on Monday, November 14, 1803, called — “Description of Louisiana” — offered the country one of the first glimpses of the Louisiana Purchase and lands west of the Mississippi, particularly the Red River Valley.

Included was a long report by Dr. John Sibley, an Army contract surgeon who became the Indian Agent representing the United States government at Natchitoches, La.

The object of the report, Jefferson said, was “to consolidate the information ... furnished ... by several individuals among the best informed upon that subject.” He said there was “no general map, sufficiently correct to be depended upon ... nor has any been yet procured from a private source. It is, indeed, probable that surveys have never been made upon so extensive a scale as to afford the means of laying down the various regions of a country, which, in some of its parts, appears to have been but imperfectly explored.”

EXPLORING LOUISIANA

To better understand just what the U.S. had purchased from France, Jefferson was planning expeditions. The explorers would compile data to make maps, study nature and life along the river systems, keep daily temperature logs, and report on the various Indian tribes. Experienced trappers and Indian traders as well as Native Americans would be recruited for the journeys, which would include small military escorts. The most important and far-reaching of the expeditions — Lewis & Clark’s — was already being organized and preparing to set off from St. Louis.

Jefferson made one brief statement in his report to Congress concerning the western side of the river opposite Natchez, where for five years Captain Jose Vidal had administered a Spanish outpost in present day Vidalia: “There is no other settlement on (the western side of) the Mississippi, except the small one called Concord, opposite to Natchez, till you come to the Arkansas river, whose mouth is two hundred and fifty leagues above New Orleans.”

An inexact census of Concord showed 310 residents, including 200 white, 70 black, and 40 militia, while a census of Natchez two years earlier revealed an estimated population of 1,400.

Jefferson’s report discussed the scant information available on the massive territory of Louisiana, which doubled the size of the country: “On the west side of the Mississippi, seventy leagues from New Orleans, is the mouth of the Red River (53 miles south of Natchez), on whose banks and vicinity are the settlements of Rapids, Avoyelles and Natchitoches, all of them thriving and populous. The latter is situated seventy-five leagues up the Red River. On the north side of the Red river, a few leagues from its junction of the Mississippi, is the Black river, on one of whose branches, a considerable way up, is the infant settlement of Ouachita {Fort Miro, today known as Monroe}, which, from the richness of the soil, may be made a place of importance. Cotton is the chief produce of these settlements, but they have likewise a considerable Indian trade. The river Rouge, or Red river, is used to communicate with the frontiers of New Mexico.”

DR. JOHN SIBLEY

A Massachusetts native, Dr. John Sibley’s report on the Red River described a scattered but basically healthy white population — composed primarily of American and French — thriving in some locations along the Red River. But he also described a declining Indian population, debilitated by disease, including Small Pox, a malady the Native Americans contracted from the Europeans. Some tribes were extinct, others nearing extinction. They sometimes warred amongst themselves, but most were peaceful.

Sibley’s report also revealed that in general the Indians enjoyed good relations with the French, who continued to live in the region long after it became a Spanish possession. By in large, however, the Indians along the Red despised the Spanish.

Dr. Sibley was 46 years old in 1803, and had come to Spanish Louisiana the year before, settling in Natchitoches. The doctor had served as a surgeon’s mate during the Revolutionary War, and later opened a medical practice in Massachusetts before moving to Fayetteville, North Carolina. There, he became the town’s first postmaster, and along with a printer named Joseph Howard, established the “Fayetteville Gazette,” known as “A Town and Country Paper.” A subscription sold for $3 a year.

At some point Sibley experienced financial trouble and for reasons not entirely clear, he left family behind and settled in Natchitoches. His enemies labeled him as a “wife deserter.” Jefferson ultimately considered Sibley an able explorer and appreciated the fact that by and large the Indians, whom Jefferson wanted to appease, liked Sibley. The President overlooked the scandalous accusations against Sibley’s character after forming the opinion that many of the charges could not be substantiated.

In 1803, Sibley explored the Red from its mouth just below Fort Adams, the U.S. military installation along the Mississippi, through present day Louisiana and into Texas. He reported an Indian population in Louisiana, southern Arkansas, and the eastern Texas region of about 3,000 warriors, although he admitted that his count was a guess at best. In what constitutes the state of Louisiana today, there were in 1803 only about 1,000 Native American men, women and children, to Sibley’s reckoning.

Writing to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, Sibley said his “personal knowledge” of the Red “is only from its mouth to about seventy or eighty miles above Natchitoches, being by the course of the river, near four hundred miles.”

For the broader study of Indians in central and eastern Texas, Sibley depended on Francis Grappe, whose father, Sibley wrote, “was a French officer and superintendent of Indian affairs at a post or station occupied by France, where they kept some soldiers, and had a factory, previous to the cessation of Louisiana to Spain, situated nearly five hundred miles by the course of the river above Natchitoches.” There, Grappe had lived 30 years, during which time he served as “an assistant to his father, an Indian trader and hunter,” where he acquired “an accurate knowledge of the river, as well as the language of all the different tribes.”

Launching at Natchez, Sibley traveled southward along the Mississippi “in an open boat.” He passed Fort Adams, 38 miles south of Natchez, and entered the Red 15 miles down river. From that point, he traveled 31 miles before reaching the mouth of the Black River. From the mouth of the Red to present day Natchitoches, the river’s crooked path takes it today through or along the parishes of Concordia, Catahoula, Pointe Coupee, Avoyelles, Rapides, Grant and Natchitoches.

During his journey, Sibley often landed and walked the banks and countryside, sometimes compelled to stop simply “by the beauty of the river bank, the pleasantness of its groves or the variety of its shrubs and flowers.”

ON THE RED RIVER

The first settler Sibley met on the Red after passing the mouth of the Black was a man named Baker “and his family,” who were “very hospitable, and kind; Mr. Baker told me he was a native of Virginia, and had lived there (along the Red) upwards of thirty years. He was living on a tolerable good high piece of land, not prairie, but joining it.”

A few miles onward, Sibley reported inhabitants living on the edge of a prairie “by the woods, their houses facing inwards” who cultivated “the prairie land.” He said cleared timber land seemed to produce the best crops, and that there were “considerable stocks of cattle” of “superior quality” while the hogs “live very well” on “good mast” from the woodlands, resulting in “‘good pork.” He said corn was “scarce” due to a lack “of mills.”

At the lower end of the prairie, “the inhabitants lived better, and were more wealthy; they are a mixture of French, Irish and Americans, generally poor and ignorant.”

Farther up the river from Baker’s, the banks rose “higher and higher on each side.” Eight miles from Le Glass’ landing, Sibley “walked two and one-half miles across a point, to a Mr. Hoomes’s, whose house was on a “high bluff very near the river.” On the land, Hoomes produced “good corn, cotton, and tobacco” and had successfully grown wheat as an experiment but didn’t produce it regularly because there were “no mills to manufacture it.”

Between Hoomes’ farm to “Rapide Bayou” was a distance of 35 “river” miles, with a “few scattering settlements on the right side, but none on the left,” although the settlers claimed ownership to the land on both sides of the river.

RAPIDES  & NATCHITOCHES

At Rapides Settlement (present day Alexandria) Sibley said “no country whatever can exhibit handsomer plantations or better lands.” This entire settlement may have contained a population of 700.

The name was derived from the rapids there, or “fall, or shoal, occasioned by a soft rock in the bed of the river, that extends from side to side, over which for about five months in the year (July to December), there is not sufficient water for boats to pass without lightening, but at all other seasons it is the same as any other part of the river.”

After passing the rapids, Sibley observed “there are very few settlements to be seen on the main river, for about twenty miles, though both sides appeared to me to be capable of making as valuable settlements as any on the river.” He noted one particular Indian village on both sides of the Red, which he found to be “situated exceedingly pleasant, and on the best lands.”

At Natchitoches, Sibley found a settlement surviving by the skin of its teeth. Established by the French almost a century earlier, Natchitoches was “a small irregular, and meanly built village, half a dozen houses excepted.” About 40 families resided there in 1803, “twelve or fifteen are merchants or traders, nearly all French.” The people got their drinking water from springs a half mile from the river, while many inhabitants “have large cisterns and use, principally, rain water which is preferred to the spring water.”

Wildlife was bountiful. Lakes contained an “incredible ... quantity of fish and fowl (ducks, geese, brant, swan).”

At a nearby lake were “salt works.” Sibley said two “crippled” elderly men with 10 to 12 pots and kettles “have, for several years past, made an abundant supply of salt for the whole district ... The salt is good. I never had better bacon than I make with it.”

Sibley later met a Captain Burnet of Mississippi Territory, who arrived from the Washita (Ouachita) and “purchased the right of one of the old men” at the salt works and planned to produce  “forty bushels a day” and supply the Mississippi Territory.

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