River Journeys

On Monday, February 27, 1764, the Loftus Expedition departed New Orleans. The party was primarily made up of the British Army's 22nd Regiment. Some of these men would later fight against the Americans during the revolution.

French Gov. Eugene D'Abbadie in New Orleans reported that the flotilla included 18 boats, most equipped with 24 oars each. In addition to the human cargo, the expedition was carrying about 25 tons of supplies, equipment, weapons and food.

Glimpses of the 240-mile, 22-day Mississippi River journey from New Orleans to La Roche a Davion (Fort Adams) are provided in the journal of the commanding officer, Major Arthur Loftus. The expedition averaged less than 11 miles per day.

On the first day Loftus wrote that the wind was southerly thereby "favorable," pushing the sails on the boats against the strong Mississippi River current. The expedition had departed at 6 a.m.

Passage along the mighty Mississippi was to be through Indian country from New Orleans to Illinois.

Along the way, Loftus was to pass a site that was known for its commanding position on the Mississippi River. Later the location became known as Fort Adams, a name that survives today in southern Wilkinson County. The U.S. built a fort there in the late 1700s and named it after President John Adams.

From the late 1600s until 1764, this location was known as La Roche a Davion, named after French missionary Father Anthony Davion who lived among the Tunica on the Yazoo in 1699 and move with them to the Portage of the Cross in 1706. The portage was a strategic neck on the Mississippi River near its juncture with the Red on grounds now occupied by the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Father Davion also established a mission near the portage at the heights of present day Fort Adams in Wilkinson County, Miss. For six decades this place was known as La Roche a Davion (Rock of Davion).

But from 1764 until the late 1790s the Fort Adams’ site was better known as Loftus Heights, named after Major Loftus, whose small fleet traveling up the Mississippi from New Orleans was attacked there by the pro-French Tunicas, Houmas, Chitimachas and Ofos. The English expedition included approximately 340 officers and men as well as 30 women and 20 children.

Loftus was headed to Illinois country to take over a French outpost, a site protected by tribes loyal to the French, who had lost the bulk of their North America holdings to the British following the French & Indian War. According to terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the British took possession of the Illinois country that stretched from lakes Michigan and Superior to the Ohio and Missouri rivers

In 1764, Major General Thomas Gage, the commanding officer of the British military in America, put into play a plan to send an expedition up the Mississippi River to station troops at Fort Massac, Kaskaskia and Fort de Chartres in the Illinois country. The command was given to Major  Loftus.

 

NATCHEZ IN THE 1760S

 

Although the flotilla never reached Natchez, the travelers would not have seen much there even if they had made it that far north.

The French also had given up Natchez in the Treaty of Paris, ceding all of its lands east of the Mississippi and north of New Orleans to England and all lands west of the Mississippi to Spain. The French retained control of the mouth of the Mississippi up to New Orleans. Britain established Pensacola as its capital of West Florida, which stretched eastward to the Mississippi.

At Natchez, the British hoped to grab the Illinois fur trade before it reached New Orleans and the French down river. Plus, compared to the Pensacola region, the Natchez country soil was superior for growing crops.

But throughout the decade of the 1760s, the British did little to populate the Natchez country. In early 1766, the West Florida Assembly reported that the Natchez fort was "useless and neglected," From 1766 to 1769, the British provided 39 land grants from 140 to 20,000 acres, but few people arrived to settle and improve the property.

In September 1766, 44 soldiers and four officers were sent to reactivate the fort, which the British renamed Fort Panmure. This move inspired the paranoid Spanish to establish a fort on the Concordia side of the river south of Vidalia in 1768. Shortly afterward, 149 Acadians, previously expelled by the French from Canada, arrived at the Concordia fort -- named San Luis de Natchez.

Plagued by illness, unsettled by the isolation and fearful of Indian attacks, the Acadians understandably complained until they were allowed to move elsewhere two years later.

 

DESERTIONS

 

Despite the posting of guards at night, ten men deserted the Loftus mission on day one. Immediately realizing the seriousness of this problem, Loftus said in his diary entry the next day that he "took every method to prevent desertion."

But on Feb. 29, five men deserted during a "violent" thunderstorm after dark. Five more men deserted on March 1, two on March 2. The desertions continued. In fact, D'Abbadie said that 30 men deserted before the trip began and that along the way 50 disappeared into the wilderness between New Orleans and New Roads. Loftus reported 200 deserted in all.

Historian Gerald O. Haffner wrote in 1971 in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly that desertion "and sickness plagued him (Loftus) from the beginning. The Mississippi River was high and its current strong; as a consequence, progress with the heavy, cumbrous boats was slow and laborious."

Loftus' diary from March 3 reads: "At day break set out as usual. At 10 o'clock Capt. Briscoe's boat lost its mast. Waited for him till eleven. At two in the afternoon brought too, where there had been formerly an Indian Settlement, here the carpenters were employed in making a mast." The location was "nineteen leagues (57 miles) from New Orleans."

 

WARNINGS OF ATTACK

 

Setting out at daybreak "as usual," the expedition on March 4 reached a village of the Houmas Indians. These Native Americans, said Loftus, came "in a friendly manner to see us. They asked for bread and salt, which we gave them."

In return, the Indians provided the expedition with "some fowls." So nice was the visit, that Loftus said "we parted, seemingly very good friends."

But there "we engaged an Indian, who came from Lorrette near Quebec to go with us to the Illinois." This Indian, however, provided Loftus with the first indication that there might be trouble up river. He told Loftus that they would “be attacked before we reached Natchez."

On March 6, the party came to "an old plantation" around 3 in the afternoon. They saw two men "who took care of some cattle," but no other inhabitants.

On Sunday, March 11, Loftus arrived at Baton Rouge. On March 14, he received "good intelligence that we should be attacked at Roche Davion or near it" by four tribes -- the Houmas, who had recently been quite friendly to the expedition, and the Tunica, Ofogoula and Chitimachas.

 

EXECUTION OF DESERTER

 

Patrick White deserted at Pointe Coupee on the Ides of March, Thursday the 15th. His own comrades caught him. Earlier that day two men deserted without detection, but White wasn't so lucky.

Loftus said White had been ordered to stand guard that night and he slipped away. Other sentries alerted the commander that White had left his post and a chase ensued.

"He was pursued and taken in the woods," said Loftus. With White, Loftus decided to make a point, especially since this was the first and only deserter to be captured. At the same time, "we got further intelligence that we should be attacked at Roche D'avion or near it."

Friday, March 16, dawned fair and cool. Loftus said "a General Court martial was ordered on Patrick White" for desertion. He was found guilty and "condemned to suffer death at the Head of the Regiment." Loftus approved the sentence and "put it in Execution."

By 10 a.m., the crew had left White's corpse behind and set sail. At nightfall, the expedition was in the land of the Tunicas and "here we doubled our guards."

On the 18th of March, Loftus said his location was almost five miles south of the mouth of the Red River. The next day, facing a "wind fresh at southwest," the expedition landed that evening about four and one-half miles south of La Roche a Davion. At this point, said Loftus, "we found the prints of several Indians feet." The party also spotted smoke rising on the Concordia side of the river.

  

ATTACK AT LA ROCHE A DAVION

 

As the wind blew "contrary" -- from the north -- the expedition set out at daybreak on Tuesday, March 20, arriving "at the point opposite the Roche D'avion" just before dark at 7 p.m. Loftus sent out "two light boats" to scout for Indians. In a short time, the attack began.

The men in the scouting party "were fired on by a considerable number of Indians, who entirely disabled them." Of the 15 men manning the two boats, six were killed and four were wounded. As the current carried the "disabled" boats downstream Loftus "took them in tow," quickly ordering all the boats to cross over to the Concordia side.

But Indians were there, too.

"I saw no prospect of success in advancing," said Loftus. He ordered a quick retreat.

Moving rapidly down river on the swift current, the "same Indians" attacked the party again at 10 p.m. "as we passed the Tunica's Village." Loftus and his party were easy targets, said the Major, because the Indians "made fires on the opposite side of the river for two miles in length that they might the better see us. Here the river was about a quarter of a mile wide, or not quite so much."

No casualties were recorded there.

 

AFTERMATH OF JOURNEY

 

When the Loftus expedition returned to New Orleans, the commander almost immediately drew the criticism of the French and the English. Gov. D'Abbadie maintained that only about 30 Indians attacked and that Loftus should have stayed and fought. The governor suggested that Loftus should have made his way to Natchez, licked his wounds, regrouped, and continued the northward journey.

But Loftus argued that his officers agreed to the retreat and the number of warriors probably totaled 200. The biggest problem Loftus faced was not Indians, but the loss of men through desertion.

D'Abbadie said that before the expedition departed New Orleans: "These people are frightened at the difficulties of passage and are afraid of the savages."

Haffner wrote that most historians believe Loftus should have been prepared for the attack, adding: “Present day scholarship has no evidence as to the exact strength of the Indians along the banks of the river … Seemingly, British intelligence had failed, the hostility of the natives misjudged, and unofficial intrigues and machinations which emanated from the coffee houses and taverns of New Orleans ... were not effectively counteracted. In brief, Loftus was ordered to do a task which the British were not ready to perform with a reasonable chance of success."

Immediately at the place of this Indian attack near the mouth of the Red River became known as Loftus Heights. News of the attack spread from New Orleans to Pensacola to Europe.

The name -- Loftus Heights or Loftus Cliffs -- stuck for more than three decades before the Americans built Fort Adams in the late 1700s.

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