It was a sound Dr. George Hunter would never forget and a scene that would live with him until his death two decades later.
In the wilderness of present-day Caldwell Parish in winter of 1804-05, traveling down the Ouachita River between Fort Miro (Monroe) and the river’s mouth (Jonesville), Hunter’s long day was coming to an end.
“The sun was set,” he wrote in his journal. “All was still and silent as death.”
Near the riverbank, he spotted a small encampment of two families of Choctaw Indians. Fires were burning.
“I heard some melancholy mourning in a female voice. It seemed to come from the heart and was very expressive.”
He turned to the sound and there he saw her, a mother in despair, and nearby he focused on the cause of her mourning.
Hunter, of Philadelphia, represented the U.S. on an expedition of exploration following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. He and William Dunbar of Natchez led a military crew to the hot springs of Arkansas and now were heading home. As they traveled the Ouachita to the mountains of southwest Arkansas and back again they continued to write about their journey, measure the depth of the river, mark her bends and tributaries, and interview those they saw along the way.
At the time, the Native Americans they encountered were wandering, pushed out of their ancestral homelands. In these slow exoduses, the Indians came into conflict with not only the white man, but with other Native Americans.
‘NO ONE TO FIGHT WITH’
Indians had been in crisis ever since the first Spanish explorers brutalized the tribes they encountered during the 16th century. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
“The ecological invasion that European contact had unleashed continued unabated,” according to the book, The Native Americans: An Illustrated History. “Diseases previously unknown to Indians, and to which they had no resistance, ravaged North America. Other diseases, such as syphilis and tuberculosis … spread to new areas.
“Diseases destroyed some peoples and decimated others. But these new diseases did more than kill. They polluted the channels of everyday life. Smallpox disfigured those who survived. Rubella harmed the fetuses of pregnant women and marked the children for life.
“In the wake of epidemics, blind or scarred survivors or mourning relatives could become suicides, taking their lives in what the English trader James Adair called ‘sullen madness.’
“Venereal diseases turned love and pleasure into pestilence; they also took their toll on the generation to follow. Syphilis caused miscarriages and infected infants at birth. Tuberculosis made what had once been secure if dark longhouses and earthlodges into pesthouses where the tuberculosis bacilli thrived. It made what had been the task of daily life – for example, the chewing of fibers to make baskets – into sources of contamination.”
A Blackfeet warrior recalled an attack on a Shoshone encampment at the end of the 18th century in which the raiders found carnage resulting from disease: “Next morning at dawn of day we attacked the Tents, and with our sharp flat daggers and knives, cut through the tents and entered for the fight; but our war whoop instantly stopt, our eyes were appaled (sic) with terror; there was no one to fight with but the dead and dying, each a mass of corruption.”
AN ABUNDANCE OF FURS
In the spring of 1804 -- six and half weeks after leaving New Orleans and a few months before Hunter traversed the Ouachita that fall – a Frenchman named C.C. Robin arrived at Fort Miro.
On the Black River below Jonesville while en route, Robin and his party, including six oarsmen, came across a group of Choctaws heading to trading posts along the Red River. Their boats were loaded with pelts.
Not far from that location, the travelers came across a Choctaw encampment with women and children. The men were in the woods hunting.
At Fort Miro, Robin met a Spanish officer named Cotard, who provided a cabin where Robin lived during his six-week stay. During that period, American soldiers representing the U.S. government arrived to take possession of the settlement and the Ouachita District.
There, Robin learned that the Spanish Ouachita Post had been located on an Indian campground. He estimated 100-plus Indians were encamped around his cabin: “During the day, they entered and sat down as often as they wished. I often left them there alone and never did they take or disturb the least object.”
The population of the post in the general vicinity of Fort Miro was 450 whites and 50 or 60 slaves. Most of the settlements were on the east bank of the river, which was mostly ridge and flatland, compared to the hills on the west side.
“The settlement of the district had been begun by Canadians,” Robin wrote, “who followed the Arkansas River down and followed the prairie south to the Ouachita River.”
Every spring, a large number of Indians “inhabiting the upper reaches of the Ouachita River, from the Arkansas to the Red River, come to the post of the Ouachita to trade the spoils of their hunting.”
“ … The abundance of furs that they brought, combined with those collected by the colonists themselves, means that furs are the commonest commodity in the district, and in fact serve as the medium of exchange. A transaction may be stated in piastres, but is paid in furs unless the contrary is stipulated.”
The Native Americans traded their furs for “blankets, gun powder, bullets and cotton cloth, etc. The colonists give the same for linen, cloth, shoes, wine, rum and flours.”
Most of the pelts trade along the Ouachita involved deer, which Robin said were shipped to Europe and transformed into suede, a type of leather used to fashion clothing, purses, furniture and other items.
“Beavers are also traded as are a few others. Each year the quantity decreases, in proportion as the settlements are extended. Deer meat is here the common meat of the butcher shops. They make a soup from it which is quite good, but the boiled meat is not longer useable. It is more commonly broiled. Bear meat is much better when fresh, I prefer it to pork which it resembles in taste, but is more delicate.”
JOY & GRIEF
A few months later, downriver on the Ouachita, Dr. Hunter watched the mourning mother.
Near her, he “saw a person on the ground wrapped entirely in a blanket, & leaning on a small heap of dead branches rudely piled together, to protect from the wild beasts of the wilderness.”
There, rested “the remains of her first & only child, which I was informed died six months ago.” The cause of death is not mentioned.
Historian Jim Barnett of Natchez, author of three books, including, Mississippi’s American Indians, says that groups “of pro-French Choctaws left their homeland in what is now eastern Mississippi after 1763, when the Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years War and awarded French Louisiana east of the Mississippi River to the English. At the same time, the Spanish took control of Louisiana west of the Mississippi and welcomed numerous pro-French Indian groups. Some of those Choctaws settled along the lower Ouachita River in present-day north central Louisiana.”
Barnett also described how the Choctaw dealt with death:
“The Choctaw funeral process may have varied among the different factions of the Choctaw Confederacy, but usually involved four stages: (1) the deceased was placed in a covered enclosure atop a scaffold, which was normally close to the family’s home; personal items for use in the afterlife were placed with the corpse; (2) after several months, a person known as a ‘bone-picker’ removed the decomposed flesh and presided over a feast for the family; (3) the cleaned bones were placed in a basket or box and put in a shed structure called a ‘bone house;’ (4) at a later date, tribal members emptied the bone house and buried the individual remains in cemeteries or stacked the boxes and covered them with earth to form a low mound.
“By the mid-nineteenth century, the Choctaws had largely abandoned this traditional funeral process in favor of burial practices introduced by white settlers.”
In 1804 along the lower Ouachita, Hunter witnessed deep human grief.
He was no stranger to the American Indians. Although he was a native of Scotland, he had arrived in Philadelphia in the 1770s, and served on the American side during the Revolutionary War. Afterward, the doctor traveled the young country, buying land, investing in various operations, and may have speculated in salt making and mining. As a wholesale druggist and manufacturing chemist, according to his biographer, John Francis McDermott, Hunter had a list of clients stretching from Philadelphia to New Orleans. And as he moved about, he often came across Native Americans.
Born with a compassionate nature, Hunter always sought the best in men. His 13-year-old son was with him as he observed the sad scene along the Ouachita.
The grieving woman made a lasting impression.
Although he didn’t speak the Indian languages, he fully understood the emotions expressed in the Louisiana wilderness
In his journal, he wrote: “Joy and grief are the same in all languages.”