(3rd in a Series)

At Acme in lower Concordia Parish where the Black River flows into the Red, an American exploration team in a keelboat observed an empty canoe on the western side of the Red. A black man standing nearby ran into the woods when he realized he had been spotted.

Aboard the keelboat were a military crew and the two expedition leaders, William Dunbar of Natchez and Dr. George Hunter from Philadelphia. Both men were natives of Scotland.

A wealthy landowner residing along Second Creek near Natchez, Dunbar was the only expedition member who owned slaves. Two of his black servants were with him on the keelboat. On board with Dr. Hunter was his young son.

The keelboat had pulled ashore so that the crew – a dozen U.S. Army soldiers from New Orleans and their sergeant, who handled the oars and sails -- could eat a meal. As they did so, they spotted the man on shore. When the keelboat returned to the middle of the stream, two crew members secretly remained behind, hidden in the bushes.

In a short time, the black man came out of the woods and returned to the canoe when suddenly he was seized. Shoeless, and wearing only pants and a shirt, he said his name was Harry. He claimed he was a free man, but according to Hunter, “had nothing to show for it.”

They took Harry onboard. He devoured a meal of ham and biscuits and without resistance was adopted as a member of the crew. “He was pleased to go with us,” Hunter wrote.

The keelboat then left the Red to begin the journey up the Black. Dunbar and Hunter were leading an expedition to the explore the Ouachita River, which pours into the Black at Jonesville. Their ultimate destination was the hot springs of Arkansas, where the boiling waters were believed to be medicinal.

This expedition was one of four organized by President Thomas Jefferson, who after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, wanted to find out more about the vast wilderness the U.S. bought from France for $14 million. In 1804, the Acme juncture of the Black and Red was the scene of much traffic – Native Americans wandering about after their homelands were taken from them, and more and more white American settlers headed west of the Mississippi for new opportunities to own land and farm the rich soil along Louisiana’s river bottoms.

Like Mississippi Territory across the river, Louisiana entered its territorial status with slavery a key component. There at Acme in 1804, the question of slavery reared its head, an issue that continues to haunt America today.

To Dunbar, slavery was a necessity. A runaway slave infuriated him.

RUMORS & FEARS

Dunbar was the youngest son of Sir Archibald Dunbar, who lived in a castle and sent young William to the finest schools in Scotland and England. Young Dunbar was described as an inquisitive, smart and “delicate” young man.

At age 22, he sailed to America never to see his family again. Just as the American Revolution began, he partnered with a Philadelphia family that also hailed from Scotland and bought land in the vicinity of Baton Rouge, then under Spanish control. He sailed to Jamaica to purchase slaves and upon returning became a major producer of staves that he sold to the West India market. He also grew cotton.

Like other planters along the Mississippi, he lived in perpetual fear of a slave uprising. On plantations, the enslaved greatly outnumbered the white family owners. In the 1770s, Dunbar reported that some of his own slaves planned an insurrection against him. Those directly involved were executed.

In Pointe Coupee Parish, which borders Concordia to the south, planters heard rumors that a slave rebellion was brewing. Frenchman C.C. Robin, who traveled up the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers in 1804, reported in his book on Louisiana that whites in Pointe Coupee became exceptionally paranoid following a slave uprising in Haiti beginning in the 1790s that became a long-term rebellion.

Robin wrote that in Point Coupee, whites heard rumors of a slave uprising on a plantation there, and went on the offensive. Before it was over, multiple black men and a handful of whites were executed. Others were tortured.

Dunbar had long punished his slaves severely for any breach of the plantation rules. Running away meant either a beating or death. An enslaved woman named Bessy was held in irons and delivered 25 lashes for running away.

In 1772, two black men who sought their freedom were caught and condemned to 500 lashes over a period of time. Chains and a log were attached to their ankles for two weeks.

Dunbar was dumbfounded over the actions of his slaves and expressed it in his journal and in letters.

“Poor ignorant devils,” he complained. “For what do they run away? They are well clothed, work easy and have all kinds of plantation produce.” Standing in water, menaced by alligators and snakes, swarmed by mosquitoes, and laboring from daylight to dark felling trees with an ax were among the many duties of Dunbar’s slaves in the stave-making business. Yet he described this as a “work easy” lifestyle.

Once, while in Dunbar’s boat, a captured runaway slave, his hands and feet bound, was being transported to his trial, where planters acted as the judges. Suddenly, the man jumped into the river and disappeared in the depths. To Dunbar that was a sure sign of the man’s guilt and shame for running away. Dunbar’s heart was so callous, his soul so lost, that he could not see that the man chose death over slavery.

In 1780, a slave named Molly Glass was tried by local planters, including Dunbar, for allegedly murdering a white woman. The trial was a sham. An accusation from a white person alone was enough to condemn a black person to any punishment.

Because there had been a number of runaways and because there was a rumor of a slave uprising, Dunbar and the other planters felt Molly’s punishment should be particularly severe. It was time to send yet another message to the enslaved.

With the slaves from neighboring plantations assembled, one of Molly’s hands was cut off at the wrist. For more than an hour, her shrieks and cries pierced the air.

Then a noose was tied around her neck. Merciful death soon rescued her from slavery.

SETTLEMENT ON THE BLACK

With Harry onboard, as the Ouachita River Expedition began its journey up the Black River at Acme, they saw evidence of flooding along the high banks of the river and attributed it to the backwater of the Mighty Mississippi. They saw alligators. The water was clearer than that of the Ohio, which both expedition leaders had traveled. Hunter proclaimed the Black River water was good tasting.

Upriver at present day Mayna on the Catahoula side of the river near the only island on the Black, Dunbar spotted a small settlement opened up by a man and woman. They housed themselves much like the Indians – in a shed-like structure consisting of “covered frame of rough poles without walls.”

The site inspired Dunbar. Here, he saw what to him was the hope of America, and of the newly acquired territory of Louisiana. This was a promised land.

An exceptionally intelligent man, Dunbar was an astronomer, surveyor, scientist, inventor and explorer. As a planter, he was innovative in his agriculture techniques and in designing his own farm machinery. In Natchez, he was so respected that others sought him out for advice and direction.

The wilderness did not scare him. He went into the hinterlands once to trade with the Indians. He surveyed boundaries in the thickest and most inhospitable forests. He could stand toe-to-toe with any frontiersman.

On the matter of slavery, he never showed a flicker of moral conflict or regret. A slave was property. His property. And it was all business. Those that caused him problems were to be discarded. Those unable to work under his terms were of no use to him.

There at the little settlement along the Black River at Mayna in the fall of 1804, Dunbar observed that having cleared some of the land, the wilderness couple grew two acres of Indian corn. The forest supplied them with game, the river gave them fish and fowl. They could trade their animal skins for flour, salt and sugar and other necessities they could not produce.

As Dunbar daydreamed from the keelboat about the future of the little settlement, he believed the couple would in another year or two become independent.

Ultimately Dunbar saw the beginning of his American dream before him there on the bank of the Black River. In Scotland, Dunbar had left for America with hopes of a better life and of riches. He stood to gain no inheritance from his rich father because he was not the first-born son.

A “new settler in the U.S” does not have to face the “misery of the half starving, oppressed and degraded Peasant of Europe!” he wrote in his journal while aboard the keelboat.

Dunbar believed that in the near future this Black River couple would purchase “horses, cows and other domestic animals, perhaps a slave also who shares with him the labors and the productions of the fields and of the adjoining forest.”

Dunbar’s American dream included the ownership of a human being.

GOODBYE TO HARRY

Nine days after bringing Harry onboard, the expedition leaders observed a white man on the bank of the Ouachita in present day Caldwell Parish waving for them to stop. He was looking for a runaway slave and quickly identified Harry as belonging to him.

Hunter said the man was a planter from Rapides Post {Alexandria} on the Red River. A native of New York, the planter, whose surname was Innes, had been in Louisiana for 11 years.

Harry debarked the keelboat. The crewmen watched as Harry and his master vanished into the wilderness. They never saw or heard from him again.

Did Harry face severe punishment for his escape from bondage? We have no record.

In the years to come, Dunbar’s vision of the future played out along the shores of the Black River. From Acme northward to Jonesville on both the Catahoula and Concordia shores, cotton plantations sprang up around every bend and were populated by hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves.

By then, the name of Harry had long been forgotten. Had he landed his canoe just a half mile up the Red above its juncture with the Black, then the Hunter-Dunbar expedition may have never spotted him on shore.

Just 30 miles downriver to the mouth of the Red was the Mighty Mississippi and apparently Harry’s destination. Had he made it there, although his chances were slim, he may have found his way to a better place and a better life.

(Next Week: Native Americans)

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