In 1807, Methodist preacher Jacob Young spent half a day at Natchez Under-The-Hill waiting for a ferry ride to cross the river to Louisiana.
The ferry was docked at Vidalia (then known as Concord) and couldn’t return to the Natchez side because the Mississippi was too choppy due to high winds.
Young had come south from Kentucky to lead Methodist outreach in Mississippi and Louisiana. He had been appointed leader of the district and directed five other preachers who handled the various circuits within the district.
The traveling preachers had arrived in Port Gibson more than two months earlier after a 12-day horse ride from Nashville down the Natchez Trace through Indian lands. Now each was in the field visiting the small settlements where they witnessed and preached, organized congregations and ultimately built churches.
During the first two months, Young preached in Port Gibson, Selsertown, Natchez, Kingston and Pinckneyville – from Claiborne County southward to Wilkinson County.
Travel the back roads on both sides of the river today and you would be surprised to see the number of churches in what otherwise would seem to be the middle of nowhere. In the territories of Mississippi and Louisiana in the early 1800s, the churches became the center of the community where people not only worshipped, but socialized, married and buried their loved ones.
Almost every preacher of just about every faith at one time or another would be required to visit Natchez-Under-The-Hill to catch a ferry across the river or to board a vessel for a trip up or down the Mississippi. None liked it there.
In his book (Autobiography of a Pioneer), Young wrote:
“I have often been among rough people, and had seen and heard a great deal of wickedness, but what I saw and heard there surpassed any thing I had ever seen or thought of. Americans, French, Spaniards, English, Irish, Dutch, negroes, and mulattoes all mingled as ‘fellows well met.’
“Many Kentuckians were lying in their flat-boats, along the wharf, drinking, fighting, swearing, and acting like demons. I had often heard of Natchez under the hill; but never saw it before, and I thought I should be glad never to see it again.
“Just before sundown, I made my escape, and crossed the Mississippi river.”
‘HE HEALTH HAD FAILED’
In Vidalia, Young found a place to stay for the night. The next morning, he headed out on his “fine Arabian horse.”
“I had a miserable swamp to pass, forty-five miles wide, to Catahoolah (Catahoula) lake. Early in the morning, I was on the road along the pleasant bank of the Mississippi, but presently had to change my course, and go into the swamp. I was informed that I would have to pass many cypress swamps before I could get through, and that it was a land of alligators.”
In his book, Young said he was afraid and in a low mood.
It’s one thing to pass through an unknown wilderness and quite another to do so alone.
Ten miles down the bridle trail he saw a man on horseback up ahead. The man looked as if he was at the end of his ropes. His coat was ragged, his wool hat shabby and his appearance “very-dismal.”
Soon, Young caught up and said hello. To Young’s astonishment, he knew the man – Stephen Wilson of Parkersburg, Virginia.
“I perceived he was a sick man,” Young wrote. “He had just been shaking with ague, and was now contending with a high fever.”
Wilson “manifested great anxiety to know” what preacher Young “could be doing” in the middle of a wilderness. “I told him I was doing just what I was in Parkersburg, preaching the Gospel to sinners.”
The preacher knew Wilson to be “an infidel, but he had always been a warm friend of mine. He was in good circumstances, and married into a good family. I was surprised to find him … under such unfavorable circumstances.”
Wilson explained that he had come south on a venture that failed miserably.
Young wrote that Wilson “was exceedingly glad to see me … He inquired where I was going. I replied to Catahoolah. He was going there also; and it was agreed that we should go together, and help each other along the way.
“We traveled slowly along, sometimes through cypress swamps, and would occasionally get upon higher ground, and now and then pass lonely cane-brakes.”
Wilson explained that he was going to the vicinity of Catahoula Lake to build a sawmill.
“His health had failed,” Young wrote of Wilson, “and I suppose, he had run out of money. As he rode on, he appeared to get roused up, talking about old affairs. In the evening, we came to a little log cabin in the middle of cane-brake, just on the bank of a deep bayou.”
‘WICKED OLD MAN’
There, the owner of the cabin, a man named Lee, had “laid two cypress canoes across the bayou, and had pinned cypress puncheons on the canoes, to make a bridge. We led our horses across, it being about twenty feet wide.”
Young and Wilson fed corn to their horses, then “tied them up in a cane-brake and spent the night in the cabin of Lee, “a very wicked old man,” and his “dirty-looking wife.” Young hated staying there, but had no choice.
Mrs. Lee provided “a pretty good supper.” They stayed up late and before going to sleep, Young prayed, but when he began to sing Lee “slipped out the back door, and ran off till I was done.”
Young and Wilson slept on cypress puncheons, covering themselves “with our great-coats, and passed the night in the best manner we could.”
Before dawn, Young “roused the landlord” to retrieve the horses from the cane-brake: “He soon came back, swearing and cursing—saying the horses had broken loose, and run away. I thought, from his guilty look, that he had turned them loose, intending to make us pay him a large fee to find them.
“I said not a word, but put off into the cane-brake, and, after running about a quarter of a mile, I heard my horse eating cane. I called him, he came to me, and Wilson’s horse followed. We fed the horses, ate a little breakfast, paid a large bill, and put off.”
BOWIE’S CATAHOULA HOME
Young doesn’t detail many of the rivers or streams he crossed along the way but later that day the two men arrived at the home of Captain Reason Bowie, the father of legendary frontiersmen Jim Bowie, who was then a child. The home was on or near Bushley Bayou in Catahoula Parish possibly in the Manifest area at the foot of the Catahoula hills, about 15 miles northeast of Catahoula Lake.
Reason’s wife Eve was a Methodist and deeply religious, according to Young. The captain was a kind man but “a desperate sinner.”
The Bowies had moved their young family to Catahoula in 1802 to settle a Spanish land grant. Reason operated a whiskey still on Bushley Bayou for cash and trade and later cultivated cotton. By 1809, Reason owned 20 slaves, more than any other slaveholder in Catahoula, a fact the Methodist preachers abhorred.
Young’s traveling companion, Virginian Stephen Wilson had traveled on to Catahoula Lake to begin work on the sawmill.
At Bowie’s, Young was reunited with James Axley, who had traveled to Natchez country with Young and others months earlier. Axley, like Jacob Young, was about 30, and a product of the frontier. He was assigned to spread the gospel in northeastern Louisiana, a major task.
Young had grown sick while traveling through the swamps with Wilson and by the time he arrived at the Bowies he had a “violent cold” and was bleeding at the nose so much that he feared he would “bleed to death.”
There, they held their quarterly meeting where Young and Axley led services day and night for a week: “The congregations were large, and, I believe, some good was done … I spent two Sabbath days in this place, much to my own satisfaction, and, as far as I could judge, to the gratification of all the people.”
One of the people Young met at Bowie’s was a lawyer named Hughes from Kentucky: “He was a fine lawyer, but the court had become prejudiced against him, and he was out of business, out of money, and in need of clothes to make him comfortable. His feet were entirely bare.”
‘LAND OF TIGERS’
The next morning, Young “set out for the Washita Post,” better known today as Monroe in Ouachita Parish.
“I had to pass a wilderness of a hundred miles, without seeing a house” Young wrote, “I started early in the morning, and, my fine Arabian horse being in good plight, I soon cleared the cane country, and came to high pine ridges. As I had no road but an Indian trail, and the ground being hard, I was much puzzled to keep the track.
“I was now in the land of tigers, as they called them, but I called them panthers; and the region was infested with wolves. I did not know but my life would be in danger, if I should have to sleep in the woods alone, which made me very anxious to reach a settlement before I lay down to sleep.”
Young intended to travel a hundred miles that day – seemingly an impossible goal. By noon, he was lost.
“I wandered east and west till I became weary. I then alighted from my horse by a large pine tree. I had in my post-bags twelve ears of corn, two boiled hens, and five or six corn-dodgers.” (A corn-dodger is a fried or baked cornmeal cake. Today, it’s commonly known as a hushpuppy.)
“I fed my horse, ate my dinner, and turned back again. About 9 o’clock that night, I came within three miles of the place from where I started in the morning at a Colonel Tennel’s. The family received me gladly.
“After some refreshments, I retired to sleep. The next morning, my horse was so stiff that he could hardly walk, for I had rode him seventy-five miles, the day before.”
The next morning, Young returned to Captain Bowie’s and “met again my good friend, brother Axley, who concluded to go with me through the terrible wilderness.”
Young would rest himself and his horse. In three days, he and Axley along with their horses and provisions would set out for Washita Post.