(1st in a Series)  

Before he reached the mouth of the Black River in southern Concordia Parish in the spring of 1804, a French traveler on the Red River took a sip of the river water. One taste was enough. It was salty.  

Miles upstream along the Texas-Oklahoma border the Red flows over a salt dome, the source of the brackish water which is at its worst during low water stages.  

The juncture of these two streams in the middle of primitive forests had long been an important crossroads. A Frenchman from New Orleans settled there in the middle of the 19th century. His family had previously fled from France during the French revolution of the late 18th century.  

The man, who made his living off the rivers, called the settlement Acme. He had observed that the land there is higher than the swamps and lowlands in its rear. Acme means “summit.”  

In the early 1700s, a fleet of French galleys and an army of 500 French marines, troops and Native Americans passed this place in pursuit of the Natchez Indians. Even earlier, Europeans had explored this point.  

During the Civil War, federal gunboats prowled the area and coal barges were kept at the juncture to fuel the fleet of ironclads, tinclads and steamer transports working along the Red and Black rivers. In the years before the Civil War, the enslaved arrived at this crossroads in route to plantations along the rivers. Some returned a second time in a run for freedom.  

For much of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, multitudes of steamboats carrying passengers and cargo chugged up and down these waters. Boats of all shapes and sizes still pass by.  

For generations, Native Americans from northwestern Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas followed the Red to this point and then 30 miles downriver to the Mississippi. Several tributaries flowed into the Red along the way.  

The same was true for river travelers from northeastern and central Louisiana and Arkansas, who followed the small streams and bayous into the Little, Ouachita and Tensas river systems which converged and streamed into the Black at present day Jonesville. Forty-one miles downriver at the mouth of the Black is the Red.  

Here in the spring of 1804, Frenchman C.C. Robin, and his fellow travelers rested a minute. They were in route to present day Monroe on the Ouachita River.  

Robin’s journey by boat, which is chronicled in his book (Voyage to Louisiana) began in New Orleans. Onboard was a friend from the city who had decided “to try his luck in the regions bathed by the Ouachita.” Robin tagged along to see the country, which had recently been passed into the hands of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase.  

At the time, white settlers were pouring into Louisiana looking for a new life and rich ground to plant crops. Soon commerce would be brisk, towns would rise up and agriculture and fisheries would become the leading source of income.  

 

CYPRESS BOAT    

 

In the cypress boat transporting Robin and others, oarsmen were evenly divided on each side of the vessel. A tarp covered the cargo. The captain stood at the stern with the boatswain, who occasionally sounded the water for depth at suspected low stages.  

There was a routine to the travel. The boat departed the shore each morning at dawn. Usually there was a rest period every two hours. Three times a day each man was given a drink of tafia, a concoction of rum made from brown sugar or molasses.  

Breakfast was onboard, lunch and supper on shore. Meals usually consisted of salt pork or beef with rice or ground corn and a biscuit, although it was occasionally supplemented by wild game or from food obtained by trading with Indians or the trappers along the way. At sunset, when the vessel landed for the night, the men gathered firewood and slept around the fire that was kept burning all night. They rested on bearskins and if it was cold, used the skins and blankets for warmth.  

After traveling up the Mississippi from New Orleans, Robin’s vessel arrived at a big horseshoe turn known as Turnbull Bend, named after a landowner. Traveling up the Mighty Miss, they first encountered a left turn to the west. As the river turned north again, the mouth of the Atchafalaya was to their left. Straight ahead three miles on the Mississippi’s turn back to the east was the mouth of the Red River, also on the west bank.  

At this vicinity today is the complex of control structures between the Mississippi and the Red and the Atchafalaya in southern Concordia Parish.  

“When one leaves the Mississippi and ascends the Red River, one must take care to ascend along the bank opposite the Chafalaya, where the current runs swiftly,” a situation “respected by all boatmen who go up and down the river. One must be certain in going from one river to the other that the weather is good, and the wind moderate for while the water is quiet near the banks, in the center of the {Mississippi} river, where the two currents flow together, the water is extremely choppy, and with the lightest wind, very dangerous.”  

Robin observed that the “dark and reddish” waters of the Red “are seen long before one comes to the River.” The color is due to the upriver soil that drains into the Red during floods. The “land at the entrance” of the stream “is so low that it is flooded for several months to a depth of from fourteen to twenty feet.”  

Traveling the lower Red was spooky. Robin observed that floods had left their marks high on the trees, leaving debris dangling from high branches. Along the way on the Concordia shore, they neared intimidating swamps connected to Cocodrie Bayou, including Dismal Swamp and Devils Swamp. The now extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker then thrived in Concordia’s swampland.  

“The curves of the {Red} river,” wrote Robin, “are frequent and curve more sharply than those of the Mississippi, forming continuous turns in and out” that obstruct the view of the traveler. When making a turn “one is suddenly surprised by surging waves. This takes place when the wind blows against the current.”  

 

‘TWO FINE PIROGUES’  

 

The boat crew had been hired in New Orleans. Robin said the majority of boatmen in the city were French Canadian, while some were Englishman or from other European countries. They were a loud bunch. Robin distinctly recalled the sounds made by their oars on the water, the grunts and moans of the crew, and the cursing of the captain.  

Hired by the month or by the trip, the men were paid in food plus the equivalent of a dollar a day. That dollar had much more buying value in 1804than it does in 2020.  

Robin claimed that many of the boatmen were drunkards and gamblers who were known to spend all of their money “the very night of being paid off.” That meant that by the time they were hired for another job, their new employer had to give them an advance. Some had even gambled away their clothing.  

In New Orleans, they stayed in low rent inns and most were in a perpetual state of dodging debtors.  

At Acme, Robin’s vessel left the Red and entered the Black. At camp upriver along the shore, the boatmen set fire to a patch of prairie grass “to drive the game to their guns.” Fires lit up the country side like the lights of a city, Robin wrote, and in the canebrakes on both sides of the river he observed some of the most fertile land in the country.  

The next day, the travelers came across a party of Choctaws in “two fine pirogues decorated with deer heads sporting long branched antlers” as they “darted” out of a bayou. The Indians families were heading for the Rapides (Alexandria) and Avoyelles (Marksville) posts to trade.  

While there was excitement throughout the U.S. over the acquisition of Louisiana, Native Americans did not feel that way. Many displaced Indian families continued to follow the trade routes along the rivers.  

“They traded us half a deer for a handful of salt,” wrote Robin. Their pirogues were loaded with bear and deer skins, tallow, bear oil and fat.  

The Indians traded for powder, ball, handkerchiefs and wool blankets. Farther up the Black, Robin’s party came upon an encampment of a dozen Indians families.  

The men were in the woods hunting while the women and children remained at camp. Multiple shed-like structures, without walls, sheltered Indian families. Each hut was about nine feet long and six feet wide, and “thatched with palmetto leaves.” Forked sticks “stuck in the ground supported a cross piece upon which hung drying pelts and meat.”  

 

‘A WRECKED SHACK’  

 

Farther north, Robin found one of those Frenchmen who had drank too much and gambled too much like the boat crew. Caddy Hebrard lived atop a mound still seen in Jonesville today at the juncture of the Black and Little rivers. From there, the mouths of the Ouachita and Tensas are in sight.  

Caddy was married to a “Canadienne who bore him several children.” His heavy gambling losses had resulted in “many journeys” and multiple “unfortunate enterprises.”  

But his new home had enabled him during the Spanish days to operate a profitable ferry business, transporting travelers and livestock from the side of one river to another. Caddy told Robin that up Little River along the “coves of Catahoula Lake bordered by hills” resided “a large number of Anglo-American families.” True frontiersmen, they loved the solitude of the wilderness.  

Up the Ouachita in the vicinity of Harrisonburg, then known as Pine Point, there were other settlers, including the family of Jim Bowie that lived along Byrd’s Creek at the foot of the Catahoula hills. Jim Bowie was then a child but would gain fame as an adult for surviving a duel turned melee. He was armed with a form of a butcher knife during the Sandbar Fight at Vidalia. The weapon became known as the Bowie knife. In 1836, Bowie was one of the Americans killed at the Alamo.  

Miles farther upriver at Monroe, then known as the Ouachita Post, a U.S. Army officer had only recently arrived to take possession of the Louisiana settlement from the Spanish. There, Robin would see dozens of Choctaw families who had arrived at the post to trade.  

At Jonesville, Caddy and his family, the only residents, lived in what Robin described as a “wretched shack, leaky and badly furnished.” A native of France, Caddy had come south from Canada. Robin referred to him as a “Gascon,” another word for “braggart.”  

A short distance away from his home in the forest that would become Jonesville, Robin and Caddy followed a patchwork of paths, one reaching the foot of the 82-feet high Great Mound, built by a people known as the Troyville Indians. They were mound builders and a thousand years earlier had thrived in this region of the world before disappearing.  

The two men followed a spiral path to the top of the pyramid-shaped Great Mound, the centerpiece of several smaller nearby mounds. From the crest, they could see over the tops of the forest trees and gaze down on the rivers.  

By the time Robin arrived back in New Orleans, four months had passed, including six weeks spent at the Ouachita Post in Monroe. Of the many things he observed, the potential river trade stood out.  

In time, Acme’s founder would arrive from New Orleans. He was known as a “boatman peddler,” doing business from his flatboat (or barge) with groceries in the front and living quarters in the back.  

(New Week: The Cocodrie swamps)

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