Stanley Nelson

 

The beginning of trade between Spanish Texas and French Louisiana – mostly Texas cattle for various goods supplied from New Orleans -- began in the early 1700s. 

By the time frontiersman and horse trader Philip Nolan came on the scene in Natchez during the latter part of the 18th century, the political landscape had changed. The Spanish now controlled Louisiana as well as Texas and the United States was growing as many Americans headed south for new opportunities. 

As a result of these factors and others, the Spanish opposed Nolan’s journey west. When he defied their authority and went anyway with a couple dozen men, the Spanish launched a manhunt. 

Behind the scenes, Spanish officials were growing paranoid that this growing wave of immigrants would threaten the stability of their rule west of the Mississippi. But it was trade and commerce that was driving this trend and it was unstoppable. 

 

EARLY LOUISIANA RANCHING 

 

Historian Jack Jackson (Philip Nolan and Texas) said the trade created diverse relationships and alliances between Louisiana and Texas during the early days. 

“These unions went far beyond trade,” he wrote, “embracing marriage, cultural exchange, and the emergence of a dynamic livestock business in French Louisiana. By the decade of the 1760s, when Louisiana was ceded to Spain, a number of settlements had begun to spring up in the bayou-laced prairie country between the Sabine and the Atchafalaya rivers. Rapides Post (now Alexandria) was established downriver from Natchitoches in 1770, having been a dependence of the older post until that time. Lower on the Red River was Avoyelles Post, probably founded in the 1780s. It was peopled by colonists from the ‘cut’ of the Mississippi known as Point Coupee … Opelousas was founded in 1763, but settlers had lived there some years before … 

“Attakapas Post (St. Martinville), thirty miles below Opelousas, was also established in 1763, though settlement dated from an earlier time. The area was augmented by the arrival of some few Acadians within a year, and by 1765, they had turned their attention to stock raising, encouraged by an agreement which the leaders of these ‘Cajun’ clans signed” in 1765. “With the seed stock provided by this contract, and with trading ventures across the lower Sabine, these hardy colonists soon transformed their region into a stockman’s paradise. 

“By Nolan’s time, Attakapas-Opelousas had a virtual monopoly on the beef market stimulated by a cattle road blazed to connect southwestern Louisiana to the capital" of New Orleans.” 

 

THE CATTLE DRIVES 

 

In the early 1800s, French traveler C.C. Robin (Voyage To Louisiana) observed the cattle in the Attakapas-Opelousas region as “remarkable for the beauty of their horns. Their coats are red, brown, white, but few of them are black. The steers raised from them are also large and stronger. According to the season, these animals browse in the woods, the fields, or the canebrakes.” 

But the cattle from Texas were also herded along the Spanish trail known as both the El Camino Real and the Old San Antonio Road – that ran through Texas and Louisiana (including present day Jonesville and Vidalia) onward to Mexico.  

French-Canadian Caddy Hebrard, who operated a ferry on the Black River at Jonesville during the 1790s, ferried cattle from Texas and south Louisiana across the Black River. In 1803, Robin visited Caddy at his ferry crossing. 

“It is the only route suitable for the droves of cattle, the cavaillades coming from the Spanish provinces to Natchez,” Caddy told Robin. “These droves of animals must cross the river here on the ferry I maintain for the purpose, and it is rare that the travelers themselves do not require provisions or a guide in these difficult regions.” 

Caddy also provided the cowboys and the drovers one of the few spots along the trail to rest up and get a meal for the final stage of the journey through Concordia Parish to Vidalia and Natchez on the Mississippi River. 

One ranch hand, a Frenchman named Polycarpe LaMothe, recalled in a court deposition that he was in Concordia in 1801 “for the purpose of trading in cattle. I was about twenty years old at that time, and soldiers stationed there assisted me in passing the cattle over the ferry. 

“I crossed Black River at the junction of Little River, at a place called Cadet {Caddy} Hebrard’s ferry, after which the road extended up the bank of the {Mississippi} river to the ferry landing opposite Natchez, a distance of three or four miles.” 

 

CORRUPTION ON THE TRAIL 

 

Earlier, during the American Revolution – when Spain warred with Great Britain in the Lower Mississippi River Valley – that cattle trade became somewhat clouded as the Spanish experienced trouble figuring out how to do what governments love to do – tax their citizens for the goods they buy and sell. 

Jackson wrote that residents on the Texas “frontier were eager for Louisiana trade goods and readily engaged in barter. But, by attempting to return home with this merchandise -- failing to pay the designated royal duties – (which was usually the case), they violated His Majesty’s contraband laws. In spite of these restrictions, the lucrative commerce thrived. Officials of both {Spanish} provinces connived at it. So profitable was the illicit trade that its sanction was jealously held and dispensed prerogative – especially in Texas, where governors routinely disgraced themselves by succumbing to its pitfalls. Those who managed to complete their term of office without getting caught, however, usually retired as rich and respected men.” 

Caddy, the Black River ferryman, knew about the government corruption, telling the traveler Robin in 1803: “These animals, if they could only get past the Spanish customs guards (bribery was the usually method) would bring a return of three or four hundred per cent in Natchez.” 

 

‘THREE BARRELS UPON A HORSE’ 

 

Jackson wrote that according to the Spanish Royal Order of 1780, Louisiana citizens “had been permitted to buy cattle in Texas because they were very scarce in Louisiana and because, at the time, {Spanish General} Bernardo de Galvez’s troops needed beef to sustain themselves in the war against Great Britain.” This order remained on the books even after the war ended and became a loophole “for honest stockman and lawless characters. French traders, realizing their opportunity, soon began to obtain passports to buy horses as well as cattle in Texas.” 

By the 1790s “waves of Anglo immigrants swept across the Mississippi and established themselves in various Louisiana posts … they joined their French neighbors in this practice. To do so, they blithely took oaths of allegiance to the Spanish crown and swore to uphold the king’s laws. Since, by that time, cattle were abundant in southwestern Louisiana – and growing scarce in Texas – these multicultured traders eventually narrowed their sights to the more profitable horse business. Like their predecessors, they took merchandize to exchange for horses, even though such trade and intercourse was ‘technically’ illegal. 

“Philip Nolan was the first Anglo-American trader, as far as we know, to avail himself of this opportunity on a systematic basis.” 

English traveler Francis Baily, who spent much time in Natchez in the late 1790s, got to know Nolan, who explained to Baily the difficulty of trading in Texas: “He told me it was a life of extreme fatigue, and very difficult to be procured, as the Spanish governors were very jealous whom they admitted to the privilege; and it would be impossible to carry it on without their permission. His mode of carrying such articles as he takes out is in little barrels, which are placed upon packhorses, three barrels upon a horse; and in this manner he will travel for hundreds – I may say, thousands – of miles … bartering with the Indians as he goes along, and receiving in return skins and furs, or wild horses.” 

 

THE KING RANCH 

 

A half-century after the Spanish killed Nolan in a gunfight at his corral in Texas, the wild horses continued to roam the western country and the livestock business was growing. But it stood no chance of reaching its enormous potential until ranchers figured out how to get fresh beef to the cities of the United States. 

In the early 1850s, Black River planter Dr. A.R. Kilpatrick, who lived at Lismore in Concordia Parish, noted that parish cattle were “not much attended” and did not grow to “any great size,” a bull rarely reaching 1,000 pounds. He added that there “are very few cowhides, horns or bones shipped from here; in fact little attention is given to the skins of any animals.” 

But at the very time Kilpatrick was writing those words, almost 500 miles away in Kingsville, Texas, the cattle business was about to change. Captain Richard King, an Irish immigrant like Philip Nolan, along with King’s partner, Gideon K. Lewis, developed the King Ranch, located in the Wild Horse Desert along Santa Gertrudis Creek. 

According to historian Ogden Tanner (The Ranchers, Time-Life Books), King knew that “Texas longhorns, the captured descendants of abandoned Mexican cattle, were being raised mainly for their hides and fat, which was rendered to make soap and tallow candles; in these prerefrigeration years most of the meat was unmarketable – it was sold locally for a few cents a pound. 

“Beef could not be preserved well long enough to ship to distant population centers, and transporting live animals to market by boat was unfeasible. This was the central problem that had frustrated Spanish and Mexican ranchers, and it was still frustrating the Texas stock raisers north of the Nueces River and around San Antonio.” 

No doubt cattle could be driven long distances, but part of the herd would be lost before reaching the destination and by then cattle prices could fall. But a $3 steer in Texas would bring $30 at distant cattle markets. It took a Texas rancher to envision the long-range solution. 

While Caddy Hebrard watched cattle drives from Texas to Vidalia and Natchez pass by his front door at present day Jonesville, Captain King envisioned a much larger market that would require even longer cattle drives over the Great Plains to Kansas and elsewhere where the livestock would then be loaded onto a transcontinental railroad, a massive infrastructure project that would become a reality beginning the 1860s. 

But 50-plus years before the King Ranch was founded, Philip Nolan was busy in Texas, capturing wild horses and visiting with the Indians. While he planned to return to Natchez and his new bride, he had become a wanted man as 100 Spanish soldiers and militia followed his dusty trail. 

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.