(2nd in a Series)
At Acme a hundred years before it was settled in the 19th century, a person standing at the juncture of the Black and Red rivers would have witnessed a spectacle in the middle of the wilderness – a fleet of French galleys with a military force of 500 heading north in pursuit of the Natchez Indians.
The great force was led by French Governor Étienne de Perier. The governor intended retribution against the Natchez following their massacre of more than 230 men, women and children at Fort Rosalie and throughout the Natchez settlement in 1729. The savage assault was a result of long running conflicts between the French and the Indians.
Perier would find the Natchez at Sicily Island and achieve his goal, resulting in death of some and the enslavement of the captured.
Previous to these troubles, the French had settled several locations along the Red and Ouachita rivers. At Harrisonburg, a short-lived farming settlement (Villemont’s) had been established in the 1720s across the Ouachita from the mouth of the Bushley. Upriver at the mouth of Boeuf River was a warehouse that stored furs gathered by Frenchmen who traded with the Indians.
But following the Natchez Indian attack on the French at Natchez, the settlers and traders fled.
Natchez historian Jim Barnett reported in his book on the Natchez that Perier’s “threadbare colonial army” was supplemented by 150 Marines, 200 soldiers from the Company of the Indies and the Company of the Colonial Militia, and 150 Indian mercenaries from several tribes.
Departing New Orleans, Perier traveled northward to the mouth of the Red River along the Mississippi’s Turnbull Bend, 30 river miles downstream from Acme. There, the fleet was joined by French troop detachments from military posts at Natchitoches and Natchez.
As the force headed up the Red, some of the men handled the oars and sails in the galleys, some followed in pirogues and some walked along the bank. Indians scouts moved out ahead of the main force. The weather was cold. Previously, it had been snowing and sleeting.
Traveling up the serpentine course of the Red from its mouth on the Mississippi, Perier’s force took a northern course to Shaw, the present location of the headquarters of the Richard K. Yancey Wildlife Management Area. Nearby, at the point where Cocodrie Bayou flows into the Red – six miles west of the Mississippi River -- the fleet then followed the Red on a northwesterly course to its the juncture with the Black at Acme. From there, they followed the Black upriver to the Tensas.
The Red’s course from the Mississippi to the mouth of the Black at Acme passes a great swamp along the way.
Red River’s shores along this section, according to one traveler writing in the early 1800s, extended “back from this margin nearly half a mile to the second rise in the land or bank, about six feet higher than that which borders the river.”
American explorers William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter traveled up this stretch of the Red in the fall of 1804. Hunter saw “great flocks” of geese and brandt, ducks, and “many large alligators.” They found mussels along the shore.
Dunbar remarked that the vegetation was "surprisingly luxuriant along the banks ... but found forest trees are much smaller than those seen upon the banks of the Mississippi." The Red "narrows gradually as we advance … about 200 yards wide." At its juncture with the Mississippi, the Red’s mouth was 550 yards wide. It was mid-October and the waterways were low and falling.
Heading upriver, they observed willows, black oak, pecan, hickory and elm. Dunbar said that on the Mississippi the trees were “exceedingly grand & lofty” but along the Red they seemed “dwarfish."
At camp, the crew “made a large fire on the top of the Bank & slept by it under the shade of the trees, covered by their Mosquito Curtains."
Long before the Europeans came, Native Americans traveled the Red’s course in southern Concordia Parish. The 30 river miles from Acme to the Mississippi River completed the Red’s almost 1400-mile journey from the Texas Panhandle.
According to the Texas Historical Association Handbook of Texas, “The Spanish called the stream Río Rojo, among other names. It was also known in frontier times as the Red River of Natchitoches and the Red River of the Cadodacho (the Caddo Indians).”
North of Red River from Shaw, from the west bank of Cocodrie Bayou to Acme, lies the Dismal Swamp. Between the Cocodrie and the Mississippi to the east is Devils Swamp. All of swampland in the area is generally known today as the Cocodrie Swamp.
‘A GREAT BIG CUP’
Concordia native Hiram Ford “Pete” Gregory III, an anthropologist who has studied Concordia Parish, this region, the people and the rivers for decades, described the swamps in an article (“Musings on the Louisiana Delta from a Native Sun”) in Folklife in Louisiana. He said the parish is “like a great big cup—it catches water in the middle. Cocodrie Bayou catches it. It's right in between two river systems—it's a big old swamp.”
The largest area of the Cocodrie Bayou swampland -- Dismal Swamp -- is a “funny looking place on a topo sheet; it looks like a guy with a long nose,” said Gregory. “It's a strange place.
The virgin timber in the Cocodrie Swamp seen by the French as their galleys passed by in the early 18th century had been thinned somewhat by the 20th century.
In the early 19th century, some of the virgin cypress was harvested, according to Dr. Andrew Robert Kilpatrick, a physician, census taker and prolific writer, who owned a plantation along the Black River from the 1840s until the Civil War.
In an article for DeBow’s Review, Kilpatrick wrote that “thousands of trees out of the numerous bayous, lakes and sloughs” in the parish were chopped down and floated to New Orleans and other places. During a high water in 1828, “hundreds of trees were cut two and three miles back from Black River, and floated out.”
He said the cypress trees were six to eight feet in diameter at ground level “but nearly all the larger ones are hollow for from six to twenty feet, and many are hollow throughout. They are from sixty to ninety feet high.”
By the mid-20th century, the virgin cypress swamps were stripped.
“The timber companies just cut the cypress in the back swamp. They were very selective about what they wanted,” said Gregory. “They never clear cut, so they'd cut the cypress and drag it out with oxen, big ox teams. It'd take two or three yokes of oxen just to haul one log—they were huge—and so they cut it.
“By the 1950s, they were beginning to cut the oak, they cut hardwood. They went from hardwood to pulpwood. There's nothing left but little stuff; and of course, by the 1970s the soybeans had come and they clear cut everything. There's hardly any timber left. What had been big swamps when I was a kid were all just bean fields.”
In another article in Folklife in Louisiana, Gregory described the early settlements along the Red and Black rivers, noting that from “the Mississippi's junction with the Red River, and the Atchafalaya River with the Mississippi, north and west the Delta received colonial French families. On the Red, Black, and Ouachita rivers, French families also took root.
“In the Catahoula and Concordia swamps, colonial French families, often mixed with Indian families, were already present by the 1780s. At Big Island, Deville, French Fork, Larto, Acme, and Eva, were enclaves of French families with their roots at the Rapides (Alexandria) and Avoyelles (Marksville) posts.
“By the 1830s, these families had been joined by Anglo-Americans from the Carolinas. They moved to Black River on barges bringing livestock, furniture, and farming equipment.”
Kilpatrick wrote the early settlers along Black River also included families from Adams, Franklin and Amite counties in Mississippi. Most families, he said, were “in moderate circumstances” and owned “only a few slaves.” Some “came by land, while others came by water, on flatboats or broadhorns, bringing their families, furniture, farming utensils, provisions and domestic animals, etc.”
One of the first crops grown was corn during that period. Each farmer would “cut down the rank canes, which covered all the soil of the country, and, when dry enough, burn them off, and with a hand-spike, or club-axe, make a hole in the earth amongst the cane roots, and drop in his corn, and cover it with his foot.”
By the late 1840s, the first crop of sugarcane was grown on Black River by B.F. Glasscock, who also made sugar.
ESCAPE FROM THE SWAMP
In 1806, the perils of the Dismal Swamp were described by a U.S. Army officer, who lived to tell of his survival there. Sgt. George Davenport and a comrade traveling the Red with U.S. Army messages sent from Natchitoches to Fort Adams, Miss., suffered from oppressive heat, starvation and the dangers of the deep wilderness.
Along the way, below the juncture of the Black and Red at Acme, their canoe hit a snag and turned over. All of their provisions were lost. Davenport almost drowned but fortunately both men were able to cling to driftwood and make their way safely to the Red’s Concordia shore.
Davenport decided their only recourse was to walk eastward toward the Mississippi, directly through the Dismal Swamp. Occasionally, they built rafts to cross deep water.
During this ordeal, the mosquitoes swarmed so thickly that at night they built fires on dry knolls, depending on the smoke to keep pests at bay. While one man slept, the other kept the fire going and watched for alligators, which were particularly fierce.
Kilpatrick wrote in the mid-19th century that one man’s arm was amputated (a rare surgery in those days) after being attacked by a gator while the man was fishing. In another tragedy, a woman endured a horrible event while washing clothes along Black River, her child lying near the water. Suddenly, a gator lunged from the river, scooped the child into its mouth and swam to the opposite shore. As the mother screamed in helpless horror, she watched as the beast “proceeded to devour” her baby.
While making their way through Dismal Swamp in 1808, the two soldiers ate what they could find -- mostly berries and wild fruit.
Their exposed skin was bruised and cut from briars and thorns. Their feet were a soggy mess.
After an extended period, they arrived on the bank of the Mississippi, made a raft and crossed the river before stumbling into Fort Adams, tired, bedraggled and hungry.
Davenport’s journey of desperation ended happily. But not all of the stories along the Red and the Black ended on a happy note. There, where the two rivers meet at Acme, a runaway slave traveling in a canoe was discovered by an American expedition on a mission of exploration following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
(Next week: Runaway at Acme)