IN 1804, the Ouachita River Expedition docked in present day Jonesville in Catahoula Parish where they visited with Caddy Hebrard, who operated a ferry service for travelers. Caddy lived on an Indian mound still seen today at Magnolia Hill where the Black and Little rivers meet. That’s the community of Trinity between the Ouachita and Little rivers. The old Black River Bridge can be seen at the right of the photo. Looking east, that’s Concordia Parish across the Tensas and the Black rivers. (Photo by Sonny Manning courtesy Bill Atkins) 

(Sixth in a Series)

Near the mouth of the Ouachita River at present day Jonesville in October 1804 – a location where four rivers meet – a group of explorers learned they were facing a problem upriver. 

The Frenchman who lived at the river crossroads and operated a ferry -- which accommodated travelers heading west and north by trail -- delivered the bad news to the Ouachita River Expedition. William Dunbar of Natchez, one of the co-leaders of the exploration, wrote in his journal: "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." 

This did little to help Dunbar’s mood. He was already irritated about two things as they launched the keelboat on the morning of Oct. 24. For one, he had found it necessary to give the soldiers a spirited chewing. They were primarily responsible for powering the vessel if the winds were not favorable for sailing. 

"No current to impede our progress worth estimating," wrote Dunbar, but "made slow advancement as usual with our oars." But he noted that the party "found the shore favorable for tracking or towing, which mode we continued nearly all day." In others words, the soldiers, standing on the bank of the Ouachita, used a rope to pull or leverage the boat up the river. 

A stubborn north wind – “contrary all day” -- added to the snail's pace. Despite that, Dunbar said travel was slow because the crew was lazy: "Soldiers seem at certain times to be without vigour & now and then throw out hints that they can work only as they are paid." 

Dunbar’s co-leader on the expedition was Dr. George Hunter of Philadelphia, PA. Both men were natives of Scotland. Dunbar was the eldest at age 54. Hunter was 49. 

Their crew included 12 U.S. soldiers and their sergeant; two of Dunbar's slaves and his personal servant; Hunter's son, George Jr.; and a runaway slave named Harry, who had boarded the boat near the mouth of the Black River five days earlier. 

One of four expeditions launched by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the Louisiana Territory, the Ouachita River Expedition was headed for the hot springs in present day Arkansas. Along the way -- down the Mississippi from the mouth of St. Catherine's Creek south of Natchez, up the Red, up the Black and now up the Ouachita -- Hunter and Dunbar wrote about the things, places and people they saw along the way. 




But as upset as he was at the crew’s poor attitude, Dunbar was most concerned about the keelboat that had been constructed in Pittsburgh under the supervision of Dr. Hunter – a druggist, chemist, coach-builder and land speculator from Philadelphia who had served as a surgeon for the American Army during the Revolutionary War. 

At the time, Pittsburgh was the gateway to the west and home to a thriving boat-building industry. In May 1804, Hunter commissioned the construction of the 50-foot-long vessel, which he described as “resembling a long Scow in use to ferry over wagons.” It cost $159.20. 

To save money, Hunter – accompanied by his 13-year-old son George Jr. – opted to get the vessel to Natchez without paid labor. He wrote Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, who administered the government’s participation in financing the expedition: “I pay nothing for hands.” During the era, male travelers would often finance their passage by working as crewmen. Hired hands were sometimes paid in provisions. 

But when the time came to leave Pittsburg, Hunter wrote that “three of our hands left us being afraid to go in our boat.” However, Hunter quickly regrouped. 

According to his biographer (John Francis McDermott, The Western Journals of Dr. George Hunter 1796-1805): “On June 15, the Hunters set out with two passengers – an infantry lieutenant ordered to Fort Massac {on the Ohio} and an army doctor to the Arkansas Post {on the Mississippi} – and a crew consisting of an old Spanish fencing master, a Swiss shoemaker, and a German. 

“When the wind favored, they would sail and then ‘went on at a great rate,’ grounding only three times on the way to Limestone {Kentucky}. At this place Hunter went off into Kentucky on private business … the boat continuing on to Louisville. 

“Now they lost the Spaniard and the German, who deserted to boats that offered them wages – ‘we did not regret as they were grown saucy & Lazy.’ Later the poor Swiss fell sick. The doctor gave him the customary ounce of Glaubers Salts and drew the customary sixteen ounces of blood, but in a fit of delirium the man walked off the boat into the Mississippi and was presumably drowned. For a day, the father and son had to manage the ‘Chine stile’ boat by themselves.” 

On July 24 they arrived in Natchez, and the next day traveled eight miles south of town into the country where for the first time Dr. George Hunter met fellow Scotsman, William Dunbar, at Dunbar’s plantation known as “The Forest.” 




While docked at the mouth of the Ouachita, Dunbar and Hunter had talked with the French ferryman, Caddy Hebrard, about the Osage Orange tree, known in French asBois d'arc (Wood of the Bow). (Other names for the tree are hedge apple, horse apple and bow-wood.) The tree is best known today for the Orange-shaped fruit it produces. It is from three to six inches in diameter and turns a bright yellow-green during the autumn. 

 Dunbar mentioned the tree in his report on the expedition that President Jefferson presented to Congress. Dunbar’s account may be the first reference of the tree in the English language, according to Harriet L. Keller in her book, Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them

 Meriwether Lewis – on his exploration of the western reaches of the Louisiana Purchase – sent the President slips and cuttings of the tree that unfortunately didn’t survive transport. 

Frontiersmen like Caddy had observed that the Osage Indians would travel hundreds of miles to get the wood of this tree to make their bows. So would the Comanches. The wood was also used to make tomahawk handles and other weapons and tools. Its original range was in the Red River drainage region of Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. 

Pioneers planted the tree for fencing. Before barbed wire was manufactured to fence in animals, this tree served the same purpose, and planted in the form of a hedge was popular for fencing. The tree has a short trunk and crooked branches. The wood also made good fence posts and wagon wheels. 

Dr. A.R. Kilpatrick, a Concordia Parish physician and planter at Lismore along the Black River, wrote in 1852 that the Osage Orange was “highly adapted to hedging in the swamp lands of our state, because it withstands the high water. I have seen several Bois d'Arc trees which lived through the overflow when the water was a foot deep around them for nearly four months." 

While traveling the Ouachita between Jonesville and present day Harrisonburg, called “Pine Point” by the expedition leaders, Dunbar described the natural beauty of the Ouachita in present day Catahoula Parish: "Vegetation is extremely vigorous along the alluvial banks; the twining vines entangle the branches of the trees & expand themselves along the margin of the river, in the richest and most luxuriant festoons, and often present for a great extent a species of impenetrable Curtain variegated and spangled with all possible graduations of color from the splendid orange to the enlivening green down to the purple & blue and interwoven with bright red and russet brown." 

He added: "A carpet of the finest shrubbery overspreads the elevated margin, composed of a variety of elegant vegetables, to many of which probably no names have yet been assigned by the Botanist; and in positions where the shade is not too deep, the surface is enameled with thousands of humbler plants in full blossom at this late season." 

By midday, the expedition reached Bushley Bayou, a mile south of Harrisonburg. Both Hunter and Dunbar recorded that they had traveled 14 miles up the winding river on this day, Oct. 24. 

Just a few miles away – and not mentioned by the travelers – a pioneering frontier family was thriving. The Bowies were hearty folk and one of the boys -- eight-year-old Jim Bowie -- would die at the Alamo 32 years into the future. But in 1804, he was learning his frontier skills in the wilderness of Catahoula. 

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