Ferry transportation

AT PRESENT day Jonesville two centuries ago, a Frenchman named Caddy Hebrard from Canada operated a ferry for men and horses traveling between Natchez and Rapides Settlement (Alexandria) or Fort Miro/Ouachita Post (Monroe). This illustration shows a ferry transporting four men and horses. (Credit: Library of Congress, Currier & Ives, Fanny Palmer, artist.) 

(Fifth in a Series)

More than 200 years ago William Dunbar surveyed the land where four rivers converge at present day Jonesville as efforts to settle portions of the vast wilderness were beginning. 

In his journal, Dunbar called the location “The Last Settlement” on the Ouachita, and predicted that it would “become the site of a commercial inland town, which will hold pace with the progress and prosperity of the country." At the time, the rivers were the great interstates of the day, but in the decades ahead the railroads would change the way many Americans traveled. 

At Jonesville, the Black, Ouachita, Tensas and Little (also known as Catahoula) rivers meet. A traveler in those days could go in many directions from that point – down the Black to the Red to the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and anywhere in the world; up the Little River to Catahoula Lake and other connecting streams; up the Ouachita to Arkansas; or up the Tensas River to its mouth in East Carroll Parish or to the Mississippi by various connecting bayous. 

Dunbar was one of two leaders chosen by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the Ouachita River following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The destination was the hot springs of southern Arkansas, an almost mythical site so widely known that the ill would risk great hazards to travel there to bathe in the waters, which they believed would heal them. 

Since departing in a keelboat at St. Catherine’s landing below Natchez on the Mississippi, the expedition had entered the Red and then Black, where they came upon their first settlement occupied by a man and woman at present day Mayna above Larto Lake in Catahoula Parish. 

One thing Jefferson wanted all of the explorers to do was provide the country with a snapshot of the land and rivers. Most Americans – even transplanted ones like the Dunbar and his co-leader, Dr. George Hunter, both natives of Scotland – were looking for fertile soil and opportunity on the frontier. Surely the amazing fact that four rivers met at Jonesville would attract settlers. 

They both kept journals of the exploration.

 

INTO THE WILDERNESS 

 

In 1771, when the 21-year-old Dunbar first arrived in America from his home in Scotland, he went to Philadelphia, the financial center of the colonies, and the new home of some of the country’s founding fathers, such as Benjamin Franklin, who hailed from Boston. There in Philadelphia, Dunbar did what most immigrants do – find a helping hand from someone who hailed from the same homeland. 

That helping hand belonged to John Ross, who had left Scotland years earlier. In Philadelphia, Ross had become a thriving merchant. Dunbar had arrived with a plan of his own. He had purchased goods for trade with the Indians and with that income intended to buy land to farm. 

According to Dunbar’s biographer, Arthur H. DeRosier Jr., “John Ross liked the young Scot … and befriended him for life. He told Dunbar that if he wanted to participate in the Indian trade, he should moved to Pittsburgh, in southwestern Pennsylvania, and seek out his son, Alexandria Ross, a successful land speculator and entrepreneur.” While four rivers meet at present day Jonesville, three meet at Pittsburgh: the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio. 

As Dunbar traveled westward to Pittsburgh he was amazed at what he saw along the way. At that time in Pennsylvania, a family could look out the front door and watch wagon after wagon of families moving west. DeRosier wrote that from 1769 to 1774, following the French and Indian War, “southwestern Pennsylvania became the first English-speaking trans-Appalachian frontier in America.” 

A man who witnessed the settlement of that region of Pennsylvania, George Croghan, wrote in 1770: “What number of families has settled … westward of the high ridge, I cannot pretend to say positively; but last year, I am sure, there were between four and five thousand, and all this spring and summer the roads have been lined with wagons moving to the Ohio.” 

Mississippi historian Dunbar Rowland picks up William Dunbar’s story: “He engaged alone for two years in the Indian trade and then formed a partnership with John Ross, a Scotch merchant in Philadelphia, which continued until the latter’s death in 1800. He {Dunbar} came down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1773, in one of the flatboats of the time, a very dangerous trip when the Indians were hostile, and selected a tract of land near New Richmond {Baton Rouge}, upon which he decided to make his home as a planter. 

“He visited Pensacola to obtain a grant of land from Gov. Chester, sailed to Jamaica to buy the necessary number of slaves, and with them, returned to his new home by way of the Louisiana lakes and the Amite river. He experimented with indigo, which the British government recommended the colonists to produce, but found the manufacture of staves for West India more profitable.” 

After his plantations were pillaged twice during the Revolutionary War – once by Americans and once by Spanish troops – he relocated to Natchez, Miss., and became a wealthy man. 

 

INDIAN MOUNDS 

 

Now as an American – three decades after arriving in Pittsburgh – he considered the future of his fellow Americans in the new land obtained through the Louisiana Purchase. There at present day Jonesville -- with the expedition's keelboat docked at a Frenchman's ferry landing at the mouth of Little River -- Dunbar explored the Indian mounds on the site and noted in his journal that many Mississippians were settling to the east on Lake St. John in Concordia Parish. 

With a cloudy dawn, the air temperature at the mouth of the Ouachita River was 54 degrees on Wednesday, Oct. 24. The river water was a cool 71 degrees. 

The keelboat’s crew included 12 soldiers and one sergeant; two of Dunbar's slaves and one servant; Hunter's son, George Jr.; and a runaway slave named Harry, who had boarded the Chinese-style boat near the mouth of the Black River five days earlier. 

The ferryman, Caddy Hebrard. was known as "a hunter and great traveller up the Washita & into the western countries,” Dunbar wrote in his journal. “I found this to be a very interesting place … it is the point of confluence of three navigable waters viz the washita river." 

Dunbar said the Tensas River "communicates with the Mississippi low lands by the intervention of other creeks and lakes & by one in particular called Bayou 'd'argent,” which entered the Mississippi 14 miles north of Natchez, He said that "during high water this is navigation for batteaux of any burthern along those bayous." A "large lake called St. John's lake occupied a considerable part of this passage between the Mississippi and the Tensas; it is a horse-shoe form, & has been at some former period the bed of the Mississippi; the nearest part of it is about one mile removed from the river at the present time." 

The "Catahoola bayou {Little River} ... during the time of inundation" provides "an excellent communication by the Lake of that name & from thence by large Creeks to the red river." Dunbar referred to the river as a "little river." That name -- "Little River" -- has been adapted in recent generations as the most common usage to describe the stream known as Catahoula Bayou during the frontier days. 

Dunbar said that the 26,000-acre Catahoula Lake, from which Little River emerges, is drained and "clothed in the most luxuriant herbage" from July until November or later. "The bed of the lake then becomes the residence of immense herds of Deer, of Turkeys, Geese, Ducks, Cranes" that "feed upon the grass and grain; the Duck species being generally found on or near the little river." 

 

FERRYING MEN & HORSES 

 

Dunbar reported that Caddy had received a grant of land during the Spanish days in exchange for ferrying men and horses “to or from Natchez and the settlements on red river and on the Washita (Ouachita) river." He settled on "a most valuable tract" of land. Caddy's house "is placed upon an Indian mount with several others in view; there is also a species of rampart surrounding this place & one very elevated mount." 

Caddy had built his cabin or shack atop what is known today as Magnolia Mound, located near the mouth of Little River at its juncture with the Black. 

But Caddy gave the expedition some bad news, according to Dunbar, who wrote: "The accounts of the low state of the river we receive here are rather discouraging, as it appears, that on the first rapids, seven leagues distant {north of present-day Harrisonburg} there are only 22 inches of water, and we now draw at the stern 30 inches or more." 

Dunbar added: "Went on and encamped within the mouth of the river Washita (Ouachita)."

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