Stanley Nelson

Fortunately, several of the frontiersmen and pioneers of the 19th century wrote about their river journeys, many of them perilous, down the Mississippi in route to Natchez or New Orleans.

Some tell of hardships, death and loss. Some describe the scenes they pass and the people they meet. Others are simply highly entertaining, such as this story.

At sundown in late November 1803 – after passing safely through the treacherous bend at Grand Gulf -- four weary river travelers docked their bateaux at the mouth of Bayou Pierre in Claiborne County, Miss.

Leading the voyage was 59-year-old Thomas Rodney, a Pennsylvania judge who had been appointed to two positions: the Mississippi Board of Land Commissioners to help settle land claims in the territory and as a judge on the territorial court. In the community of Bruinsburg a mile south of the bayou’s mouth lived Col. Peter Bryan Bruin, the senior judge on the territorial court.

Both Bruin and Rodney, also a colonel, were veterans of the Revolutionary War. Now they would serve together on the three-man territorial court. They would get along fine, but four years later they would find themselves on opposite sides of an issue that had the nation talking – the arrest of former vice-president Aaron Burr.

Leading a group of flatboats and barges downriver in 1807, Burr was stopped by the Mississippi militia. President Thomas Jefferson and others believed that Burr was leading an expedition of conquest against Spanish possessions or maybe he was looking at taking over what was then the U.S. west – Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and the Orleans Territory of Louisiana.

Burr had served as Jefferson’s vice-president during his first term. Jefferson appointed Rodney to the Mississippi positions. Rodney’s son was Jefferson’s attorney general.

President John Adams had appointed Bruin as a territorial judge in 1798. Bruin and Burr were old friends, having served in the Quebec Campaign during the war.

Jefferson was the leader of the Republican Party, which believed in strong state governments (influenced by agriculture) and a weak national government. Alexander Hamilton – the man Burr killed in a duel in 1804 – led the opposing Federalist Party, which believed in a strong federal government and favored business interests.

But four years before the Burr Affair made headlines nationally in 1807, an exhausted Thomas Rodney was excited and relieved to finally be in Natchez country.

RODNEY’S UPS AND DOWNS

Traveling with Rodney were three other men:

• Major Richard Claiborne, age 48, a relative of W.C.C. Claiborne, the former governor of Mississippi Territory and then governor of Orleans Territory. Richard Claiborne was a Virginian and Revolutionary War officer who Jefferson appointed as clerk of the land commission.

• William Shields, age 23, a Delaware relative of Rodney’s who Jefferson appointed assistant clerk to the land commission. A lawyer, Shields would play a prominent role in the Burr Affair and years afterward would become the first federal judge for the district of Mississippi.

 • Mr. Buchanan (first name unknown), who worked as an oarsman on the journey in exchange for passage to Natchez.

Rodney kept a journal (he was a poor speller) during his odyssey, which was later printed in a book (A Journal through the West, edited by Dwight L. Smith and Ray Swick).

In Delaware, where Rodney was born in 1744, he was the youngest of eight siblings. His father died when he was 11-months-old. Years later, Rodney went to live with his oldest brother, Caesar, a leader in Delaware politics who had fought in the French and Indian War, and the American Revolution. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Caesar served as President of Delaware during the revolution.

Thomas Rodney married as a young man. His wife Elizabeth died in 1783. They had one daughter. One of their two sons died in infancy, while the other, Caesar, named after Rodney’s favorite brother and mentor, would become Jefferson’s attorney general.

Life was not easy for Thomas Rodney, a curious man, subject at times to fanciful ideas but a learned person, a lawyer, and a voracious reader. He loved history, loved writing and fancied himself a poet. Rodney failed as merchant in Philadelphia, but in Delaware he served as a justice of the peace, a captain in the militia and briefly as speaker of the house in the legislature.

In 1791, he hit a low point after being convicted of stealing money from a loan office. He served 14 months in a debtor’s prison. But he rebounded and by 1802 was serving on the Delaware Supreme Court. In July 1803, Jefferson appointed him to the Mississippi Territory court and the land commission. He was told to arrive in Natchez by December 1.

FROLICS, WHISKEY & IRIS

After an overland journey to the Ohio River town of Wheeling, Va., Rodney commissioned the construction of a small flatboat known as a bateaux. It was 30 feet long and 8 feet wide with four berths in a small cabin. In addition to the downstream current, it was to be powered by four oars and a square sail.

On September 17, after naming the boat “Iris,” the river journey began.

The editors of the book about his journey wrote: “As a traveler, Rodney is closely observant and unquenchably curious … He is interested in geological formations, archaeological remains, local history, agriculture potential, battle sites, wildlife, the state of western culture, salt licks, and the personal foibles and behavior of the many people whom he met on his odyssey … Rodney socialized with war veterans, lawyers, craftsmen, Indians, local social and government leaders, and settlers in isolated farms and fledging towns … He traded trinkets and trivia with the occasional band of Indians; added his initials to graffiti-ridden trees, cliffs, and cave walls; and willingly imparted medical advice and nostrums to the sick.”

As commander of the Iris, Rodney made the major decisions along the way and always kept his sense of humor. Along the Ohio, as he stayed up late writing in his journal, he noted that “3 or 4 girls came down and bathed in the river near our boat and made a great flouncing splashing on the water.” When he told Major Claiborne and Shields the next morning, they were upset he didn’t wake them for the show.

At another location, Rodney’s decision to move on upset the men because they had planned to “have a frolic” with some Native American women. They “were much vexed,” Rodney wrote, and “grumbled at me violently.”

Along the way, the men hunted squirrels, ducks and deer on shore. On one hunt, an eagle stole a duck Rodney had winged. They fished for catfish, carp and gar, and traded at the occasional settlement for milk, eggs, corn, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, watermelon, eggs, butter, cabbage, beans and turnips. They also – like many of the era -- drank a lot of whiskey.

On November 9, Rodney wrote, “We entered the Mississippi with great joy.” He called it the “Prince of Rivers.”

Because there were fewer settlements along the Mighty Miss, their socializing was reduced primarily to the other river travelers they met. (On the Ohio, they had visited with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they prepared for their exploration of the western reaches of Louisiana, which Jefferson had only recently purchased from France.)

The constant dangers of the big river – sawyers, sandbars and caving banks -- kept them on alert: “We observe acres of this bank that had lately sunk into the river with all its timber on it, hurled into the most disorderly confusion, many of the trees standing upright, and often others stooping every way and a third broken and hurled about in every direction.”

They often slept in wet clothes; occasionally got Iris stuck on a sandbar or punctured a hole in her bottom on a snag or sawyer.

At one small settlement on the Mississippi they visited with six American families who commented on news of the Louisiana Purchase. Rodney wrote that the families “are anxious to be under the American government, but that the French and Spanish are uneasy” as were the Native Americans.

North of the Walnut Hills (present day Vicksburg), Buchanan, the oarsman, displayed “a great many antic actions like a crazy man, so that I discovered that he was greatly intoxicated either with Brandy or Opium or both.” The next day, Buchanan was better but “his countenance is still wild.”

FROM JUDGE BRUIN’S TO NATCHEZ

Finally, after months of travel, the travelers arrived at the northern end of Natchez country. On Tuesday, November 29, 1803, Rodney wrote that upon his arrival at Judge Bruin’s he sent Major Claiborne to let the judge know they had made it. The judge said Claiborne returned with “2 bottles of claret and a bottle of whisky for us and an invitation to me and the other gentlemen to go up and drink tea and lodge there.” At the judge’s home, Rodney and Claiborne had a brief visit, but declined lodging there because their Natchez arrival deadline of December 1 was at hand.

“We had to move on,” Rodney wrote.

Rodney immediately felt Bruin was “no lawyer,” but thought him a “talkative robust man and a moderate Fed. He was very hospitable and friendly and invited me to spend Christmas with him. Had some bread baked for us and sent us some fresh beef.”

From the judge, Rodney learned that Bruin “has lived here 16 years and has not lost one (slave) … by sickness out of 50 or 60. He has a wife and six children and two of them married.”

(A year earlier, traveler Thomas Ashe (Travels In America, Performed In 1806) spent “a pleasant afternoon” with Judge Bruin at his “hospitable and comfortable” residence. “There is no settlement so extensive as the Colonel’s above him on the river. He keeps one hundred negroes, and makes, by their labor, ten thousand dollars a year. He principally cultivates cotton. The wheat, corn &c. which he raises are only for his domestic use.”)

After the visit, Rodney moved Iris across the river to a sandbar and docked in a small cove for the night. A cold winter wind blew, dislodging Iris from anchor. But soon the men had tied her down securely.

They tried to move out the next morning but didn’t get far because of the wind. They ate breakfast and found some watermelons growing wild along the bank, apparently “cast there by water being thrown over by some vessel on the river.” When the wind finally abated, they moved out, observing “a river sloop laying at Judge Bruins … named the Industry of Natchez, navigated by French and Spaniard, collecting bails of cotton.”

On December 1, Iris docked at Natchez. The men found horses and traveled to Washington, the territorial capital six miles inland, arriving shortly after dark. The land commission had a brief meeting and adjourned. The next day, Rodney wrote President Jefferson of his arrival.

His journey had lasted “three months and 17 days; 71 days of the time on the rivers.”

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