The river journey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers during a record cold winter in 1806-07 was one of the most difficult experiences in the life of 26-year-old Peggy Dow,
She and her 31-year-old husband, Lorenzo, a circuit-riding preacher, were heading south to Claiborne County, Mississippi Territory. There, Dow intended to preach the Gospel and to clean up a business matter left unattended by a relative.
In the autumn of 1806, according to Peggy's autobiography, the couple along with a young European and "Brother Valentine" departed New York state for Natchez country.
But this was not Lorenzo’s first trip down south.
In 1799, after Natchez became American and Congress created the Mississippi Territory, the Methodists put into motion a plan to spread the Word of God throughout the region, which then included much of present day Mississippi and Alabama. Later, the plan included Orleans Territory (present day Louisiana) following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
The Methodists sent circuit riders -- preachers on horseback who rode from settlement to settlement evangelizing. Some ended up as residents and leading citizens of the new territories. In addition to saving souls, the preachers sought to inspire and support the formation of Methodist churches in these settlements. Camp meetings were a key ingredient of this missionary work.
Among the early circuit riders -- but not the first to arrive in Natchez country – Dow, a native of Connecticut, was eccentric, occasionally confrontational and determined. His first visit to Natchez came in the late spring of 1803.
‘AN OLD MARE’
With 25 cents in his pocket, the 26-year-old evangelist left Connecticut for Georgia, riding "an old mare" and stopping along the way to preach whenever he came into a settlement. According to his journal, which was published in the 19th century book, "History of Cosmopolite," Dow arrived in April at the Tombigbee River in Alabama, then part of the Mississippi Territory.
He traveled 70 miles in that area preaching to unsaved souls and to those needing Christian fellowship: "The inhabitants are mostly English, but are like sheep without a shepherd ... A collection was offered to me, but I did not feel free to accept it; and I left the settlement, procured some corn, and had not a cent left."
He and three other travelers made their way west through the Choctaw nation to "the Natchez settlement, which we reached in six days and half." Along the way, Dow traded his saddlecloth to an Native American for “corn to feed my horse ... Here I was called to another exercise of faith, having no money, and a stranger in a strange land, but my hope was still in God."
Once in Adams County, he stayed for a while with Methodist minister Moses Floyd, who assisted Tobias Gibson, the first Methodist missionary to arrive in the region in 1799. In 1803, Dow, on this his first visit to Mississippi Territory, preached at the assembly hall in Washington, the territorial capital located six miles northeast of Natchez. He met Gov. W.C.C. Claiborne, who greeted him in friendship.
Later, Dow rode his horse to Kingston, where he sold his watch to buy a lot for the construction of a church. He often turned away donations but if he accepted, he would many times give the money to those he considered poorer than him.
When he traveled, he slept on the ground or in the home of a settler. While in Natchez country in 1803, he preached at other settlements throughout the region, including Pine Ridge, Selsertown, Bayou Pierre and on the Big Black.
‘I WAS A GONE CASE’
Preparing to journey home, where he would soon marry Peggy, he made plans to travel to Nashville on the Wilderness Road, later to be known as the Natchez Trace. Because the party of men he planned to travel with had left the day before, Dow had to push his horse at full speed and attempt to overtake the party.
His horse was packed with a minimum amount of supplies for the 500-mile journey to Nashville. At that time, news had spread that a Kentuckian had killed a Choctaw, but was found not guilty in a trial. The Indians complained to the governor, but no avail.
Dow said that according to custom, the Choctaw "were determined to kill somebody, as they must have life for life; and they had now become saucy, and had shot at and wounded several on the road, but had not killed any one yet." Ten miles into his journey, Dow spotted a party of Choctaw. He hoped they would pass by him, but instead one "seized my horse by the bridle, and the others surrounded me ... I thought I was a gone case."
Determining not to give up his horse without a fight, he noticed that "the Indians had ramrods in the muzzles of their guns as well as their stocks, so it would take some time to pull out the ramrods, and get the gun cocked and prepared ... to shoot." At that moment, his horse "started and jumped sideways," forcing the bridle from the Indian's hands while another jumped to avoid the horse's feet.
Instinctively, gave his horse “the switch and leaned down on the saddle, so that if they shot I would give them as narrow a chance as I could to hit me ... I did not look behind me until I had got out of sight and hearing of the Indians." Fifteen miles to the north he caught up with his party.
GLOOMY & SCARED
Three years later, Dow and Peggy, along with an unnamed European man and Brother Valentine, prepared for their journey south to Claiborne County. The four travelers left home with two horses, a small wagon and a few supplies.
They were headed for the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia, located in the Allegheny range of the Appalachian Mountains. Dow hoped to find the owner of a flatboat heading for the Mississippi River and Natchez to secure passage for his party and their supplies and horses.
Peggy's autobiography ("Vicissitudes in the Wilderness") offers a glimpse of a story played out many times during that era -- the river journey of Americans heading south for Natchez country for a new life.
Unable to find a flatboat that would take the horses, Dow decided that he would travel by land and preach along the way. Peggy said he "met with the person who was going down the river to Natchez -- they engaged to carry me with some trunks and other baggage ... I felt very gloomy to be left among strangers, and to go on board a boat with a company of men without one woman for a companion."
Dow hoped to meet up with Peggy somewhere along the way, and departed soon on his horse. She stayed at Wheeling for two to three weeks where a handful of citizens provided her hospitality and upon her departure many necessities, including sugar, tea and things to make her comfortable. The owners of the flatboat were Quakers and promised Dow to look after Peggy, but during the interim they sold the vessel and goods.
The new owner gave the European a job as a deck hand to pay for his passage on the flatboat, which Peggy said was "laden with flour and cider, and various kinds of produce fitted" to be delivered to Natchez. The vessel had a small cabin with four beds, and included a small wood stove for cooking that was vented with a chimney to let out the smoke.
"In this gloomy situation," Peggy wrote, "I was fixed to start for the Mississippi, where I knew I should meet with many trials, if ever I should reach there." The Ohio was low, slowing progress, and as the only woman on board, Peggy didn't care for many of the boatmen on board, commenting that some were "of that class who neither feared God or man," although they treated her with civility.
The boat left Wheeling in late October and later arrived in Maysville, Kentucky, (then known as Limestone) where the captain docked for the night. Peggy wrote that in Wheeling "Lorenzo had some acquaintances; and when they found out that I was on board of this boat, some of them came down to see me, and invited me to go on shore and stay the night, which I accepted with thankfulness.
"I had some hope that Lorenzo would arrive there before the boat would start in the morning. Oh how anxiously I looked out for him, but he did not come — and had to go on board the boat very early in the morning, and continue on my journey with a very heavy heart. My mind was much depressed — the prospects before me were dark, when I should reach my place of destination: and the weather was uncommonly cold for that climate and season."
‘WE WERE ALL STRANGERS’
After many days, Peggy's flatboat docked at the mouth of Bayou Pierre in Claiborne County, 10 miles west of Port Gibson. An Englishman named Fortesque Cuming, who wrote a book -- "Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country" -- arrived at the same location a few months later and offered a description of Bruinsburg, a small community near the mouth of the Bayou Pierre settled by Peter Bryan Bruin, the territory's first judge.
Cuming wrote that along the Mississippi for eight miles between Grand Gulf south to Bayou Pierre there were several settlements on the west bank of the river (present day Tensas Parish) and three or four on the east side, including a new plantation established by a Major Davenport. Bruinsburg was located one mile below the mouth of Bayou Pierre (near the ruins of the old plantation home Windsor) and in addition to Bruin's home included a good landing, a cotton gin, a tavern and the home of Major Davenport's overseer.
When Peggy landed on shore, she was expecting friends of Dow in Claiborne County to greet her, but no one was there. She and the European took their things to the Bruinsburg tavern, which was also known as a public house, a place where travelers could spend the night and get a meal.
The next morning, Brother Valentine arrived for Peggy. He had journeyed by horse with Dow to Limestone and then found a boat that would transport him and his horse. Leaving their baggage behind, Peggy rode Valentine's horse while he guided the animal through the cold and the mud to Port Gibson, arriving around the 12th of January 1807:
"We were all strangers, but Lorenzo had wrote some friend that we were coming and furthermore, he had requested that if I should arrive before him, that they would take care of me until he should come."
Traveling on horseback through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Indian country down the Natchez Trace, Dow would arrive two weeks later.