Mississippi River

THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER at Memphis (above) was filled with ice in 1942. A century and a half earlier, the bitter winter of 1806-07 was one for the record books, including in Natchez country. The temperature plummeted to zero degrees in Kentucky and Tennessee on February 7, a Friday. Kentuckian Lewis Collins recalled that “trees in the forests were cracking like the report of guns, and everything was bound in fetters of ice.” So frigid was the day that it was remembered as “Cold Friday.” (Credit: Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Memphis, Tennessee, “Ice floes in Mississippi River,” Memphis, 1942, Library of Congress)

 

Up and down the Mississippi, the weather turned dangerously frigid.

A 25-year-old Tennessee doctor in route to Natchez in January 1807 found himself in a perilous situation. Aboard his flatboat stranded on the icy Mississippi, he survived a long night sandwiched between a buffalo rug and two wet blankets, shivering and terrified that he would die before daybreak.

Downriver at Port Gibson in Claiborne County, Miss., Lt. Col. W.H. Wooldridge of the Mississippi militia could not for the life of him get warm. He had for a number of days listened to his men voice legitimate complaints.

Because he had no money or means to purchase provisions for his troops, he informed Acting Gov. Cowles Mead through an express rider that due to “Imperious necessity” he felt obliged “to Dismiss – With an Order to hold themselves in readiness to march at a moments Warning.”

Plus, wrote Wooldridge, “I find in the officers commanding the troop to be disobedient to me.”

To make matters even worse, he wrote, “Tis now snowing. I am Dam cold and must close my letter or my Ink will freese & fingars.”

Wooldridge and scores of other Mississippi men had been called to arms to apprehend Col. Aaron Burr, the former vice-president of the United States, who would soon be charged with treason. Burr – so believed the President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson – was leading a group of young men with plans to attack Spanish possessions, maybe U.S. possessions, in an expedition of conquest.

With Burr cornered on the west bank of the Mississippi in Orleans Territory (Tensas Parish), the militia and territory officials prepared to escort Burr to the mouth of Cole’s Creek downriver in Jefferson County and inland to the home of Thomas Cavit to meet with the governor.

The days leading up to that moment and the days to follow were among the coldest in the country’s history, making the events of 1807 even more memorable as the American people intensely read the newspapers for updates on Burr’s arrest in Mississippi Territory.

R. Turner, a surveyor in Woodville, was among the men who took part in the militia’s action against Burr. Turner’s grandson, recalling his grandfather in a letter published in the journal of the Mississippi Historical Society in 1898, wrote that Turner was “summoned and served in the arrest of Aaron Burr above Natchez about 1807; he said it was so cold … that in handling the oars of the skiff the blood poured from his fingers.”

Turner remembered Burr as many people did: “Remarkably polite, genteel, urbane, good looking, though small, and as having eyes whose glance was most penetrating and fascinating.”

 

FLOATING ICE ON THE MISSISSIPPI

 

Like Burr and his men, many travelers on the Mississippi in January and February of 1807 were lucky to have survived that cold winter.

One man heading down the river at the time was Dr. John R. Bedford, the 25-year-old son of a Revolutionary War veteran. The young doctor grew up in Tennessee about 40 miles from Nashville.

In the early 1800s, there was a growing interest to freight goods to New Orleans via the river systems. Bedford and his brothers, according to the Tennessee Historical Magazine (1919), operated “a grocery and commission business” in Nashville. In 1805, the brothers suspended operations at their Nashville store and sold their stock of groceries in preparation for a trip down the rivers to New Orleans, primarily to sell cotton and pork.

As Bedford was preparing for his trip, Col. Aaron Burr visited Nashville where he was greatly celebrated. The local paper – the Impartial Review – reported that Burr “left the impression behind him that his enterprise” was to settle on the Ouachita River in northeastern Louisiana “and in the event of a war with Spain, was considering a warlike expedition into Mexico.”

Burr returned to Nashville on December 17. Later, the newspaper reported that on the 22nd Burr “embarked from this place for New Orleans … with two large flat boats.”

Seven days later, news of President Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation opposing Burr’s expedition enraged Nashville citizens, big fans of Jefferson, who “commenced burning the Effigy of Col. Burr.”

Bedford left Nashville on January 14, three weeks after Burr. The route to Natchez took Bedford along the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Throughout the journey, Bedford observed the hazards of river travel. He saw grounded and wrecked flatboats and barges as well as their cargo -- including barrels of apples, flour and other goods -- all sinking below the surface or lying about the shore, their water-soaked contents ruined.

By the time Bedford’s boats and barges reached the Mississippi in early February, days of life-threatening frigid weather had blocked portions of the river with “roaring” ice along the banks. After a delay, the crew decided to cut through to the middle of the river but floated only three miles before they stuck on a sandbar. Without a canoe, they could not row to shore.

They were forced to sleep abroad the flatboat without a shelter. They were soaked and shivering. On February 11, Bedford wrote in his journal: “Still raining – rose from our lodging, having a buffalo rug and blankets under the two blankets above, wet, cold and with heavy hearts and sad fears, not knowing when relief could be obtained. Our lungs were sore and overstrained by hallooing and blowing the trumpet the night before, but without any benefit.” He had hopes of aid from a nearby settlement but now despaired.

As Bedford and his crew sought a desperate means of getting to shore by making a raft of cotton bales, “through the misty rain” they saw a canoe with two men coming to the rescue. The stranded survivors – saved -- were “elated with joy.”

The winter of 1806-07 was one for the record books. The temperature plummeted to zero degrees in Kentucky and Tennessee on February 7, a Friday. The Impartial Review and others reported the temperature had dropped 60 degrees in 12 hours. Rain turned to snow. The wind howled like a hurricane. Kentuckian Lewis Collins recalled that “trees in the forests were cracking like the report of guns, and everything was bound in fetters of ice.” So bitterly frigid was the day that it was remembered as “Cold Friday.”

 

‘A HEAVY FALL OF SNOW’

 

As Bedford dealt with the weather upriver, Aaron Burr and his men endured the frigid winter in Natchez country. In Burr’s party was one of his chief financiers, 42-year-old Harman Blennerhassett.

According to William H. Safford (The Blennerhassett Papers, 1864), Blennerhassett was an Irish lawyer who had been born to wealthy parents. Well educated and eloquent, he traveled to France when the country “had been rocked by the whirlwind of revolution” and returned to Ireland at a time when young men questioned the rule of England. Inspired by the Revolutionary War in America, an uprising soon broke out in Ireland with some rebelling citizens fleeing to the United States to avoid persecution and to seek a better life – a thing that continues today.

Blennerhassett, though not a revolutionary, decided to head west to America, partly to avoid the trouble and partly due to an incestuous marriage with his niece (the daughter of his sister). He sold the vast 7,000-acre estate inherited from his father in Ireland and left his home with a fortune of $100,000.

In 1797, he purchased an island on the Ohio River located two miles below Parkersburg, Virginia. Soon the location became famous. It was known as Blennerhassett Island, where the owner erected a mansion and turned the grounds into a “beautiful green lawn, decked with tasteful shrubbery, and interspersed with showy flowers” as well as orchards and gardens. “Enchanting” was the word often used to describe the estate. 

In 1804, not long after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Aaron Burr, the former vice-president under Jefferson, visited the island and dined with the Blennerhassett’s. Two years later, in September 1806, Burr returned and with the financial support of Harmon Blennerhassett, contracted 15 boats and provisions for a proposed expedition while continuing to travel through Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio.

In Nashville, where Dr. John Bedford was preparing for his journey to New Orleans, Burr met with General Andrew Jackson and purchased from another individual 400,000 acres of the Bastrop grant on the Ouachita River in northeastern Louisiana.

During that record cold winter of 1807, Blennerhassett’s boat – which included full living quarters and a staff – tailed Burr’s flotilla down river. In his journal, Blennerhassett documented the events and the cold.

January 11: “Landed at Bayou Pierre at four o’clock P.M.; joined Col. Burr and his party; had some intention of staying at this place {Judge Peter Bryan Bruin’s} some time, but were prevented by a rumor spreading in the country of our intentions being hostile, in consequence of which a party of military came and stationed themselves in the woods, some distance from our boats, with an intention to stop us the next morning. We being apprised of their intentions, pushed off in the night, and landed four miles below, on the Louisiana shore.”

Blennerhassett additionally recorded in his journal: “Reports now reached us that of the near approach to Natchez of a division of nine or ten gun-boats under the command of Commodore Shaw, bearing a special order from the ‘Secretary of the Navy’ to take Col. Burr, or the next in command under him, and to take or destroy all the boats under his command.”

Soon Mississippi Territory Acting Governor Cowles Mead’s representatives asked Burr “to meet the Governor at the mouth of Cole’s Creek” the next day – January 17.

 “This day was remarkable for a heavy fall of snow,” Blennerhassett wrote in his journal, “perhaps four inches deep.”

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