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In October 1804, the Mississippi River and her tributaries were rapidly falling.

Because of that, one group of men on a long river journey found traveling upriver during low water an ordeal they never wanted to repeat.

At the site where four rivers meet at Jonesville in Catahoula Parish, William Dunbar learned that the water stage upriver on the Ouachita above Harrisonburg was only 22 inches deep at the shoals, a location also known as the rapids or the shallows.

Dunbar of Natchez and Dr. George Hunter of Philadelphia were directing a U.S. financed exploration of the Ouachita River just months following the Louisiana Purchase. Their keelboat had been designed by Hunter and built in Pittsburgh. At the confluence of the Black, Little, Tensas and Ouachita, the co-leaders were assured by the ferryman that their vessel was headed for grounding.

Two days later, the expedition arrived at the shoals in the vicinity of Bayou Louis’ confluence with the Ouachita approximately three river miles north of Harrisonburg, known then as Pine Point. A 1720s circa French map housed in Paris may be the earliest depicting these shallows with one word: "Rapids”. Its most common designation came to be known as the Catahoula Shoals.

Located where the Ouachita splits the Sicily Island and Harrisonburg hills, the shoals are a product of geological formations that began during the age of the glaciers. In 1804 it was a series of gravel bars stretching across the river at varying heights for a mile and a half. At low water periods -- before dredging and before the first locks and dams were built to enhance navigation -- a man during a dry season could wade the shoals from one bank to the other without getting his knees wet.

For centuries, the Indians had fished the shoals. Hunter and the U.S. soldiers who made up the keelboat crew along with four slaves made a meal of mussels while grounded there.

This location was the first of a number of rapids the expedition would encounter in route to the hot springs in Arkansas. Steamboats timed their journeys up and down the river to the seasons of the year. In the summer and autumn, the shoals were often impassable. In late July 1860, The Independent at Harrisonburg reported the steamer Catahoula had returned downriver to town because there wasn’t “a sufficient depth of water on the Catahoula shoals to admit of her passage.” 

So low were the rivers and streams in the fall of 1804 that Hunter observed the mouth of Bayou Louis was "dry at the entrance."

The expedition had reached the shoals at noon on Oct. 25 and immediately grounded in a foot of water. While the current had seemed non-existent before, it was now swift and somewhat difficult to walk against as the river rushed across the gravel bars.

 

LEWIS & CLARK

 

Twelve hundred miles away in North Dakota, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were heading deeper into unknown lands on their expedition to explore the western reaches of the Louisiana Purchase, according to journals compiled by the explorers. While Dunbar and Hunter were grounded at the shoals, Lewis & Clark were meeting with the son of the chief of the Mandans, who was missing his little fingers: He had cut off them himself, a tribal test of pain and endurance for young warriors.

This expedition saw herds of buffalo extending for miles, encountered grizzlies, crossed the Rockies and took in Yellowstone. Lewis and Clark would become famous throughout America as accounts of their exploits were published. But Dunbar and Hunter would become famous first.

Historian John Francis McDermott, who edited a book on Dr. Hunter's journals, reported Dunbar's account of the Ouachita River Expedition had been featured "at length in a paper accompanying President Thomas Jefferson's message {to Congress} of February 19, 1806, and the account had found publication not merely in congressional documents but also" in leading newspapers and periodicals in the United States, including the well read National Intelligencer in Washington. Americans knew little about the western lands across the Mississippi and were hungry for any news.

"Since this was the first authentic and reliable information about Louisiana to come before the American public ... the leaders of this expedition up the Ouachita became known names in the young nation," McDermott wrote. "They had been fortunate, too, in that their story had been published before it was overshadowed" later by spellbinding accounts of the Lewis & Clark exploration.

 

‘MANY STARS’

 

When Dunbar and Hunter reached the Catahoula Shoals, it was day 10 of their journey. They had departed from the mouth of St. Catherine's Creek south of Natchez on the Mississippi and downriver turned west up the Red, then north up the Black, then the Ouachita. They had come across four people by the time they reached the rapids -- a runaway slave named Harry at confluence of the Black and the Red, a man and wife living alone upriver at present day Mayna in Catahoula Parish and Caddy, a Frenchman, who operated a ferry at present day Jonesville.

Hunter wrote in his journal on noon Thursday, Oct. 25, that the keelboat was stopped cold at the shallows: “After various efforts, we passed all of which but one, where there was only about 1 foot of water & as our Boat drew two & an half by the stern & less by the bow we brought her upon an even keel by moving part of the loading forward & as the men were much fatigued by wading in the water & dragged the boat thro the strong current, it was thought best to let them rest & dry & warm themself for the rest of this day."

In addition to working against the current, the crew had to stand in chilly 68-degree water. Air temperatures varied from the 40s at night and 60s by day. A wind blew from the north.

Dunbar explained: "After being frequently aground and dragging the boat we got up into a situation about a mile higher, where we were in a manner embayed, being shut in by a gravel-bar upon which there was scarsely in the deepest part a foot of water."

In addition to resting the men, Dunbar and Hunter discussed what to do. Hunter waded the Ouachita and staked the "narrowest part of the bar thro which it was determined to cut a passage for the boat with her loading." He reported that the shallowest part of the river at this point one mile up the shoals was only six inches deep. A man could form a fist and touch the bottom with his knuckles and the water level would reach only slightly above his wrist.

Rather than unload their vast assortment of supplies and provisions, the decision was made to dig the channel so that the fully loaded vessel could pass. Hunter staked the passage "in such a way as to receive the aid of the current to assist in sweeping out what we dug."

Before nightfall, Hunter had observed so much rich grass growing along the ridges of neighboring high hills that he thought this location was perfectly "fit for a range for Cattle." Dunbar wrote at day's end that the weather was "clearing up. Many stars to be seen in the evening." He called the location “a remarkable place.”

 

‘STUCK FAST’

 

On Friday, with light clouds still hanging in the skies, the morning dawned “raw and cold” at 40 degrees, Hunter wrote, a brisk wind streaming in from the northwest. After breakfast, the crew headed back into the cold water. Hunter thought the work to dig out a shallow 100-foot long channel the width of the boat would be completed somewhat quickly. But by noon it was only halfway done.

"The men seemed jaded or unwilling to work at it any more," Hunter complained.

After a noon meal, they decided to force the boat through. But Dunbar's frustration continued: "After dinner the boat was moved into the channel, where she stuck fast."

They tried to force the boat through with hand pikes, Hunter said, but "got only a few feet when we were obliged to stop for want of force." 

"Cables, ropes and pullies were got across and fixed to trees; handspokes were used to raise & push her along and we made some way thro' the bar," Dunbar wrote.

The men had been divided into two teams. The six strongest stood in the river and used hand pikes to pull, push and rock the boat while the rest used cables, ropes and pullies anchored to trees along the bank to pull the boat. Together, they slowly winched and pushed the boat toward a spot where the channel deepened although the current remained strong.

Before nightfall Hunter observed "a large flock of Turkeys, plover & many wild geese." Dunbar reported "Clear star light" and a northwest wind. He also reported that the crew of a barge walked up the river to their location. The barge had grounded at the beginning of the shoals more than a mile downriver.

 

BREAKING FREE

 

A fog floated above the river on Saturday, Oct. 27, a heavy frost covered the ground. The temperature hit the freezing mark. A north wind blew, but above the fog the sky was blue, free of clouds, and the temperature would rise to a high of 73.

With the assistance from the crew of the grounded barge, the soldiers and slaves pushed the keelboat through the rapids by early afternoon.

Optimism returned.

"The day proved very fine with an agreeable warm sunshine," Dunbar wrote, reporting "the men having upon this occasion exerted themselves to my entire satisfaction … After dinner we pushed on and arrived at the last of the rapids at this place.”

Here, he noted, "we found a ledge of rocks across the entire bed of the river, but having previously sounded and discovered the best channel {along the east bank}, we got over into deep water after grounding and rubbing two or three times ... The river became again like a mill-pond without current ... rapids embraced an extent of 1 1/2 miles; that is the obstruction was not continual, but felt at short intervals along this space."

They camped for the night a mile and a half above the rapids.

"The evening proves fine & mild," Dunbar concluded in his journal entry for the day. "Wind North. High pine land on the right {Sicily Island Hills} -- breadth of the river 100 yards."

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