Frenchman C.C. Robin

IN 1803, Frenchman C.C. Robin, traveling up the Black River with a crew of oarsman and others from New Orleans, encountered a band of Choctaws on the stream and an encampment of Choctaw hunters along the riverbank. This 1847 painting depicts a man, two women and two children traveling along a Louisiana bayou. A long rifle rests on the man’s soldier, the child holds a blowgun, one woman carries a basket and the other a sleeping baby on her back. (Credit: Alfred Boisseau, “Louisiana Indians Walking Along a Bayou,” 1847) 

In the spring of 1804, a Frenchman named C.C. Robin was heading up the Black River somewhere between the stream’s juncture with the Red and present day Jonesville, LA, when he came across this scene: 

“A slight wind had sprung up to aid our oarsmen, and while we were proceeding at a good pace on the quiet water two fine pirogues decorated with deer heads sporting long branched anglers suddenly darted out of a nearby bayou. They were manned by Indian families. Women seated nonchalantly near the steersman manned the high oars. We hailed them and invited them to come ashore with us, after which we treated them to a few glasses of Tafia {sugarcane rum}, which they accepted willingly, the women as eagerly as the men. 

“A few words of French, which they understood, a few words of their language, which one of our sailors understood, and many gestures at which the Indians are past masters, enabled us to get along. They traded us half a deer for a handful of salt. Their pirogues were loaded with bear and deer skins, deer, tallow and bear oil. They were on their way to the post at Rapides {Alexandria, LA) and Avoyelles (Marksville, LA) to trade. It is when the hunting season is finished that trading is mainly done.” 

Robin, who wrote (Voyage to Louisiana), partially about his journey up the Mississippi, Red, Black and Ouachita rivers in the spring of 1804, shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, provides a vivid glimpse of the vibrant life of the rivers during that era. His journey up the Ouachita to Fort Miro (present day Monroe) came in the weeks prior to the launch of the Ouachita River Expedition in the fall of 1804. That expedition – destined for the hot springs of Arkansas, and led by William Dunbar of Natchez and Dr. George Hunter of Philadelphia – was one of four explorations of the vast territory of the Louisiana Purchase. 

President Thomas Jefferson envisioned the explorations and he wanted the new territory mapped and described by the explorers. He, like most Americans, celebrated expansion as he put into motion a plan to deal with the Indian nations that many believed stood in the way of white civilization and settlement of the ancestral homes of the Native Americans. 

A widower, Robin had departed France with his son for the journey to the New World. Little is known about the man, but it is known that his son died of Yellow Fever not long after arriving in America. 

In San Domingo in 1803, Robin had learned “the news of the cession of Louisiana to the United States and that Pensacola and West Florida would remain under Spanish dominion. This new order of things will have important consequences.” Robin was in New Orleans in December 1803 when the transfer officially took place. 

“In exchange for powder, ball, handkerchiefs and wool blankets we got deer and bear skins, oil and fat, at quite a good price,” wrote Robin of his visit with the Indians on the Black River in the spring of 1804. 

The Native Americans Robin and his fellow travelers met along the Black River were Choctaw, who traversed the Ouachita and Black regularly. According to Ferriday native Hiram Ford “Pete” Gregory III, an anthropologist, in an article published by “Folklife in Louisiana”: “The Choctaw, once widely met with in the region, are now found only in LaSalle Parish … They once had a village on Bushley Bayou in Catahoula Parish and on Catahoula Prairie near Enterprise … The Jena Choctaw had a community on the Bushley, a large bayou that drains an area between Catahoula Lake and the Ouachita River. Bashli in their language means a "cut," in this case a short cut. 

“ … Dunbar and Hunter met Choctaw near present-day Hebert {Caldwell Parish} on the Ouachita, and the French traveler Robin” who encountered the Choctaw on the Black River, “noted numbers of Choctaw hunters and their families at Ft. Miro … Choctaw hunters and their families prowled the Ouachita in the Spanish Period (1763-1800).” 

 

MANIFEST DESTINY 

 

The Choctaw had moved into this region years earlier. Following the Treaty of Paris of 1763, England had taken possession of French Louisiana east of the Mississippi. 

Historian Jim Barnett of Natchez, who for years has written extensively about Native Americans (The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735 and Mississippi’s American Indians), said in an interview a few years ago that the “tribes that were pro-French and had been traditional enemies of the English felt obliged to leave. This exodus of tribes out of Mississippi across the river into Spanish Louisiana involved a lot of the small tribes like the Pascagoulas, Houmas, Tunicas and other groups that had been allied with the French. It was not an immediate or a mass exodus -- it was just sort of a drifting.  

“When the Spanish took possession they were interested in having these groups come and settle on the Marksville prairie area to use them (as Europeans powers had done throughout the 18th century) as surrogate armies to fight other Europeans powers. 

“Some portion of the Choctaws also immigrated across the river into Louisiana during this period. They had already been hunting there throughout the 18th century. Like all the regional tribes in the late 1700s, the Choctaws were interested in deer skins for the deer skin trade. As the deer began to be hunted out in their closer hunting lands they traveled to the west into Louisiana and present day Arkansas to deer hunt. They brought back the skins to allow the continuous flow of European trade goods into their villages which the deer skins paid for.” 

In 1798, the U.S. and Spain signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo. 

“When the government of Spain handed possession of Natchez and what became the Mississippi Territory over to the United States in 1798,” Barnett said, “no group of people watched more intently than the American Indians. 

“For decades their way of life had been under assault by Europeans. As a consequence, some Indian tribes began to farm and ranch as a means of survival and to continue trade. 

“The deal between the U.S. and Spain for the region -- sealed in the Treaty of San Lorenzo -- contained one article that dealt with the Indians. It said both countries were to ‘maintain peace and harmony’ with the Indian nations within the treaty boundaries. This treaty paved the way for American expansion and the belief of Manifest Destiny. 

“One Indian nation affected by the deal was the Choctaw Nation, which in 1798 had a population in the present day state of Mississippi of about 17,000. They had always been hunters, and although they continued to hunt into the 1790s, many farmed and raised livestock.” 

 

HUTS & FIRES 

 

In the spring of 1804, while C.C. Robin visited with the Choctaw along the Black River, the Indians told the Frenchman that there was “an encampment of a dozen families two days’ travel away.” 

Upriver, the white men came upon the Choctaw encampment. 

“We stopped there,” Robin wrote. “The men were away hunting, scattered throughout the countryside. Each family had its own hut, which consisted of a few poles stuck on the ground, arched over to form a low-roofed hutch about four feet high, in which one could only fit sitting or lying down. These huts are only about nine feet long and six feet wide. They are thatched with palmetto leaves. 

“Outside, a fire burns night and day. The Indians like to sit around a fire, especially at night when they do not sleep. These fires are never large, and everyone crowds around them. This custom traces to their habit in wartime to of never speaking loudly, so as not to be heard, and of never building large fires so as not to be seen. Nearby two forked sticks stuck in the ground supported a cross piece upon which hung drying pelts and meat. 

“These women were impatient to see what we had to trade. Ornaments were what they most wanted. This desire, the source of luxury, is often seen to characterize the fair sex as much in these somber forests as in the heart of great cities. 

“I tasted a reddish gruel, which I saw the Indians eating, and it tasted like a gruel made of potato starch … Each household has its hut, its chickens, its dogs, some iron copper, wooden and clay pots. These last are made by kneading ground-up shells into clay before firing.” 

 

‘A STRESSED POPULATION’ 

 

As Barnett points out, the stress on Indian populations from American expansion was catastrophic. They were often forced to travel farther and farther from their homelands to hunt just to survive, while they attempted to keep their villages alive. 

“Archaeologists who work on Choctaw sites that date to the end of the 18th century and early 19th century find these sites are indistinguishable from the white settlements,” Barnett said. “Their material culture had changed to the extent that they were for the most part living in log cabins, plowing with mules, riding in wagons, herding cattle, raising hogs and chickens. By the 1790s they were planting cotton. Some had black slaves. 

 “ … The Choctaws were really a stressed population because throughout the 18th century they had developed these trade relationships with the English and the French and after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, with the Spanish, too. The tribes had reinvented themselves to adjust to this system and that's how chiefs maintained their power by showing that they could deal with the Europeans and produce a steady stream of trade goods into their villages. 

“After the American Revolution, the tribes were perplexed by the fact that the U.S. did not want to follow these same practices. The United States replaced the English as far as the European group in power and they opposed the Spanish. The Spanish were very interested in maintaining trade with the Indian tribes because these alliances were military alliances. But the Americans were not interested in carrying on this real active trade. By this time the deer skin trade had declined considerably. 

“When Thomas Jefferson became president his strategy for opposing the Spanish was completely different from the strategy followed by the English beforehand. He didn't want to try to trade with the Indians and use them to defend the U.S. border. He wanted to get the Indians out of the South and replace them with white settlers who would defend the U.S. border while defending their homes.” 

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