Sandbar

A SANDBAR juts out near the juncture of the Black River (below) and the Red (above) in lower Concordia Parish at Acme. Along the Red south of this juncture, between Acme and Shaw, is the Dismal Swamp. (Concordia Sentinel photo)

 

River journeys during the flatboat era tested the mettle of every man, woman and child onboard.

Hardships were to be expected.

Sickness, attack by hidden foes, drowning, harsh weather and other factors made reaching one’s destination a miracle in many ways.

The difficulties of river travel and the beauty and majesty of America’s waterways were reflected in journals and recollections of those who survived.

To follow are excerpts from four river journeys.

 

‘DESTROYING ANGEL’

 

According to the Rev. John G. Jones’ book (A Concise History of the Introduction of Protestantism: Mississippi and the Southwest), when the Revolutionary War broke out, Tories along the Pedee River in South Carolina often harassed families that supported the colonists’ rebellion against England.

By 1779, Richard Curtis Sr. and a few of his neighbors were living in fear for their lives. In the meantime, one son, Richard Jr., was converted to Christianity and became a Baptist preacher.

Looking for peace, they decided to move to Natchez country, a land far removed from the war and known for its fine soil and deep forests filled with game. In the spring of 1780, the families loaded packhorses with their possessions and made their way to the Holston River in Tennessee, where they spent the summer building boats and raising a crop of corn. By winter, when the river stage was navigable, the Curtis family and other emigrant families began the journey to Natchez on three flatboats.

They would traverse the Holston, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers to reach Natchez country. But, according to historian Jones, the initial stage of the journey was particularly perilously because of the “belligerent stand, which the Cherokee Indians had taken against all emigration through their country. They often availed themselves of the narrows, shoals and sudden turns in the Holston and Tennessee rivers to attack immigrant boats.”

The families traveled on the three flatboats -- the Curtis and Jones families on the first, and the families of Daniel and William Ogden, and the Perkins’ on the second. The names of the families on the third boat have been lost to time.

On a short bend in the Tennessee River, the Cherokees attacked the first boat. For several minutes, bullets flew. While preacher Curtis and other men fired their weapons at the Indians on shore, the women and children manned the oars and kept the boat afloat. One of the women was shot in the back; a bullet grazed another’s head, while a child was wounded on the wrist.

In the confusion, the second boat made it around the bend unharmed.

But the Cherokees seized the third boat, which lagged behind the other two. According to Jones, all aboard were massacred with the exception of one woman, who was held captive for three years before being released. But, Jones said, this “was a dear-bought victory to the Cherokees.”

The third boat had kept its distance from the other two – even when landing at night -- because of a devastatingly contagious disease spreading amongst the passengers.

According to Jones, either “from the captured lady or the clothing and other articles taken from the boat,” the Cherokees “contracted the small-pox, which passed through their villages like the destroying angel, until multitudes died.”

Weeks later, the traveling survivors docked at the mouth of Cole’s Creek in Jefferson County, not far from Natchez. Here, they would soon establish a Baptist church led by Richard Curtis Jr.

 

‘THE SUDDEN ALARM’

 

Along St. Catherine's Creek in Adams County, not far from the Natchez fort, lived the family of the late preacher Jedediah Smith, a Presbyterian from Massachusetts. The Smiths and others fled New England as the revolution broke out in 1776.

Suffering many hardships during their journey by ship, the Smiths arrived in New Orleans at the time of a smallpox outbreak.

As they traveled up the Mississippi in the sweltering heat of August, a storm blew up and almost capsized their boat. The heat grew excessive and for days it showered two to three times a day, making the conditions dismal and miserable.

Shortly before arriving at Natchez, the reverend was stricken with a high fever, grew delirious one day and jumped into the river. He was rescued, but his condition worsened. On September 2, 1776, 10 days after the family's arrival in Natchez, Rev. Smith was buried in a common burial ground atop the bluff, a site that has since caved into the river.

Rev. Smith's widow was now left to rear 11 children on her own. Her 14-year-old son, Philander, who would one day become a respected, leading citizen in Natchez and serve in the Mississippi Territory Legislature, recalled when in 1780 "the sudden alarm of a possible attack of Indians" arrived at his mother's house. Everyone was urged to proceed to the fort for protection.

Sarah Smith quickly gathered up food for her children before they cautiously made their way to the fort, scanning the woods and meadows along the way for Indians. The Smith family found the fort so crowded with refugees that not a chair was available for Mrs. Smith to rest her weary body.

Young Philander Smith couldn't stand to see his mama so uncomfortable. To remedy the situation, he slipped out of the fort unnoticed, made his way home, lifted a large armchair to his shoulders and carried it back in the darkness to the fort for his mother.

A few days later the crisis abated, and the Smiths returned home.

 

CONCORDIA’S DISMAL SWAMP

 

More than three decades later, soldiers assembled in southern Wilkinson County at Fort Adams, Miss., a U.S. military outpost. At the most, up to 500 men may have been briefly garrisoned at the fort at one time.

In the early 1800s, the place was bustling with activity as a conflict with Spain loomed to the west along the Sabine River on the Louisiana-Texas border. Though war was averted, General James Wilkinson, encamped at Natchitoches along the Red, sent Sgt. George Davenport to Fort Adams with messages.

In 1806, Davenport, then 25 and living in New Jersey, was recruited for service in the regular army as a war along the Sabine seemed likely. He trained at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania and soon received orders to join the army at New Orleans. Davenport, a sergeant, and another man walked over the Allegheny Mountains to Pittsburgh where "they procured boats, and rowed down the river to New Orleans."

From there, after helping repair and build new fortifications in New Orleans, he and other troops boarded keelboats to join Wilkinson and other soldiers at the Sabine. They rowed up the Mississippi -- an exceptionally difficult task -- and a few miles below Fort Adams they entered the mouth of the Red River.

They moved up the rivers under great stress and hardship. The heat was oppressive, the drinking water bad. Their exposed skin was bloodied by swarms of mosquitoes.

Additionally they suffered "every kind of hardship and fatigue, hot weather, bad water, and any quantity of musquitoes could afford," according to one account.

Davenport was knocked out of the boat on the Red by a steering oar, and barely escaped drowning. At Natchitoches, after getting a rest, Wilkinson sent him with dispatches to Fort Adams.

With provisions in a canoe, Davenport and another man headed down the Red. Along the way, the canoe hit a snag and turned over, and Davenport almost drowned again. Fortunately, both men were able to cling to drift wood and make their way safely to shore.

Davenport decided that their only recourse was to walk eastward to Fort Adams through swamps, bayous and sloughs. Occasionally, the two men built rafts to cross deep water. Their journey took them through Concordia Parish’s Dismal Swamp in lower Concordia.

During this journey, 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. They ate what they could find -- mostly berries and wild fruit.

After an extended period in the swamps, they arrived on the bank of the Mississippi in lower Concordia, made a raft, crossed the river and stumbled into Fort Adams. They were exhausted, bedraggled, hungry and thankful to be alive.

 

‘A GREAT MANY FLOCKS’

 

The Red River, explorer William Dunbar wrote in his journal in the early 1800s, was nine miles below the line of demarcation at the southern tip of Wilkinson County. There, the mouth of the river was approximately 550 yards wide and its waters "have a red appearance from a rich fat earth or marl of that colour born down by the floods from which it derives its name." There was no "sensible" current and "the banks on both sides are here clothed with willows." The mouth of the Red was "3 miles above the exit of the Chafalaya."

Another explorer traveling with Dunbar during the October journey was Dr. George Hunter, who wrote, "We have already seen a great many flocks of wild Geese & Brandt, altho still shy, a few ducks, many large Alligators. Here we picked up a few shells of mother of Pearls Muscels, very light, thin & transparent. Encamped at 6 p.m. at a bank covered with pea Vine, the ground very rich composed of fat earth very deep soil."

He said the temperature rose from the 40s during the early morning to the 80s in the afternoon on a brilliant October day.

After setting off on the Red, 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." He said the river "narrows gradually as we advance; at noon it was about 200 yards wide."

He observed willows growing on one side of the river and "on the other primarily black oak, packawn {pecan}, hickory, elm ... The trees are so exceedingly grand & lofty upon the banks of the Mississippi, that by comparison these bordering on this river seem dwarfish."

Dunbar recorded the high for the day was 48 degrees, the low 46, and complained: "Soldiers do not exert themselves at the oar.”

Hunter found the Red "very crooked” and “very deep.”

At camp, the "men made a large fire on the top of the Bank & slept by it under the shade of the trees, covered by their Mosquito Curtains."

"This night was also cool," wrote Hunter.

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