During the fall and winter of 1804-1805, the hunters, trappers and traders in the Ouachita River Valley wilderness of northeastern Louisiana and southern Arkansas were at work.
French trappers had been trading with the Native Americans along the Ouachita for decades.
From north of present day Monroe to the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains in west central Arkansas, an old trade-based river economy was beginning to thrive. Drying bearskins placed atop poles were to be found at the top of the banks. Hunting parties – sometimes made up of Indians and whites -- moved silently from shore to the deep woods. Indians and trappers met at rendezvous points to exchange goods. Their hunting camps were to be seen up and down the Ouachita.
There were two types of hunters – those did it for a living and those who did it to survive on their homesteads.
All the while, a faction of Osage murdered whites and Indians. In response, small parties of Choctaws and Chickasaws were making their way to the White River to challenge the killers.
And along an Indian path that crossed the Ouachita emerged a haunting tale of a voice occasionally heard crying out in the woods for a lost trader who may have been murdered.
In mid-November, Natchez planter and explorer William Dunbar observed "poor inhabitants of the settlement of the Washita (Monroe, La.) turn out to make their annual hunt; they carry no provisions with them but a little Indian corn, depending on their guns and ammunition for the rest. The Deer is now fat & their skins in perfection; the Bear also is now in his prime with regard to the quality of his fur and the quantity of fat or oil which he yields."
Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter of Philadelphia were exploring the Ouachita River on behalf of the United States of America. Their job was to lead a small military company up the Ouachita to the hot springs of Arkansas, which were believed by many to have healing powers.
Afterward, they were to provide Congress a report on the valley. President Thomas Jefferson wanted an account of the natural resources. He wanted a description of the forests and the animals that lived there. Was the soil fertile for crops?
While Dunbar and Hunter also were to make scientific observations, they were additionally to map the river and at the hot springs of Arkansas, determine whether the water there truly had medicinal qualities. For generations, Native Americans had journeyed to the springs to bathe in the waters.
On the expedition, the explorers talked with settlers, Native Americans and with the trappers and hunters who had lived along the Ouachita for years.
Dunbar found that the black bear had "been feeding luxuriously for some time upon the autumnal fruits of the forest, such as pirsimmons, grapes, pawpaws, walnuts, packawns, hickory-nuts, chinquapins, beech-mast, a great variety of acorns … He is particularly fond of Hog's flesh, but no animal escapes him that he is able to conquer; sheep & Calves are frequently his prey and he often destroys the fawn when he stumbles upon it; he cannot however discover it by the sense of smelling notwithstanding the excellence of his scent."
In south central Arkansas, Hunter saw “a canoe with two french hunters belonging to a large party ashore. We heard their dogs & were informed they had just killed a bear of which they had the skin & part of the meat in their boat."
On the Ouachita journey, the expedition met many hunters and even hired one to help guide the party to the hot springs. The man was Samuel Blazier, who had lived north of Fort Miro (Monroe) for 10 years and had been given a Spanish land grant on the western bank of the Ouachita.
The Spanish had established Fort Miro in the early 1790s not only as a fort, but also as a trading post. The location also was known as the Ouachita Post.
Hunter reported that before leaving the fort "we were informed that it was necessary to have a man acquainted with the river & the adjacent country, as a Pilot as well as a hunter to explain & point out the proper manner of passing the shoals, where to get game in plenty, where we might look for salt springs, minerals (etc.). And in short every remarkable object in our voyage which without his assistance might be overlooked."
Accordingly, "we, after sufficient enquiry hired one of the name of Blazier, who ... had been several times to the hot springs & thro that part of the Country on hunting expeditions." Blazier was paid $30 a month and provided provisions and liquor "out of our own rations."
Blazier killed several deer on the journey. Hunter wrote that after one kill, the "skinning & dressing … took up half an hour when after each man had got his proportion to carry, set out again at 3 p.m. SW for half an hour, when we killed another doe."
On another hunt, Blazier "shot a Buck which he skined on the spot in a few minutes, & having made three parcels of meat, carried the whole to the Camp."
On a freezing January day in 1805, Dunbar noted that "our hunters are tolerably successful, bringing in every day abundance of venison and turkies." They also fished, catching catfish, buffalo, gar and "a few small ones of little value." They used "hook & line" and seines.
Dunbar recorded that one "night a band of Wolves howled in our neighborhood a great part of the night." He remarked that in Arkansas "turkeys become now much more abundant & less difficult of approach than below, our hunters generally kill some every day."
Not far from the hot springs in southwest Arkansas, Blazier led the men on a buffalo hunt. Dunbar said the weather was frigid when the hunters "shot two of the buffalo, wounding them so severely that blood streamed from their sides." Because it was late in the evening the men "were unable to follow the chase but returned to the pursuit" the next morning … They discovered the tracks & blood which they followed (a) great part of the day without coming up with the buffalo and were obliged to return without success."
The "great strength of this animal enables him to carry off on many occasions several shots without falling." To be successful, Dunbar wrote, "it is necessary to shoot him thro' the heart to make him fall speedily; we are told that a rifle bullet is by no means certain (if ever so well directed) of penetrating thro' the scull into the brain, or if it does, provided the ball only reaches into the front or fore part of the brain, the animal will not fall; some even assert that the thickness & strength of the scull with the immense quantity of hair which covers the head of the buffalo, will resist the penetration of an ordinary rifle bullet."
OLD MAN PALTZ
Another hunter the party met was a man named Paltz, described as "an old hunter," who was encamped near Arkadelphia, AR, with his three grown sons, a hired hand and a half dozen dogs preparing to hunt bear and deer.
The old man didn't speak English. Paltz was “of German extraction,” according to Dunbar.
Paltz lived at Fort Miro.
“As yet they had only killed a few deer,” Hunter wrote. Their “provisions consisted of a few bushels of Indian corn which pounded … in a hollow block of wood with a short cut of an hicory saplin by way of pestle.”
Through Paltz' sons, Hunter and Dunbar learned that a party of Chickasaws, Choctaws and "other neighboring Indian nations about eight hundred in number" were on their way to the Arkansas River "to drive off ... 400 Warriors of the Osages who had lately come to that country whose hands were against every other description of person white or red."
Paltz had lived on the Ouachita for 40 years and before that lived and hunted on the Arkansas, White and St. Francis rivers to the north.
Hunters were so busy along the Ouachita that Dunbar found a place known as "Cache la Tulipe" (Tulip's hiding place), located near Fordyce, AR, where a French hunter by that name placed his wilderness harvest. The location was also a camping ground for Indians. Hunter observed Indian corn growing there.
Wrote Hunter: "It continues to be a practize of both white and red hunters to deposit their skins ... often suspended to poles or laid over a pole placed upon two forked posts in sight of the river, until their return from hunting; these deposits are considered as sacred and few examples exist of their being plundered."
Dunbar reported a place at present day Camden, AR, was named after a legendary trapper and hunter. An old Indian trail called the Caddo Trace crossed the Ouachita River at that point. The road connected Quapaw villages on the Arkansas River with the Caddos on the Red River. On the bluff above the river, French hunters and trappers rendezvoused with the Indians.
The place was called "Ecore de Fabri” (Fabri’s bluff). There in 1783, the Spanish established their first outpost in the Ouachita District. Two years later, the headquarters was relocated to present day Monroe.
According to Hunter biographer John Francis McDermott, the hunter and trader was “Andre Fabry de La Bruyere who in 1741 was sent out by Governor Bienville of Louisiana in an attempt to reach Santa Fe for trade purposes.” McDermott wrote that the man, a French engineer, in 1740 “surveyed the course of the Arkansas River as far as the plains of the Osages, including the course of a small river he called St. Andrews’s.”
Dunbar noted that Fabri had “deposited lead near the cliff” along the Ouachita to mark the “line of demarcation that run between the French and Spanish provinces, when the former possessed Louisiana.” Hunter reported that another man had been with Fabri when he marked the line.
But in the years to follow, Fabri disappeared. No one knew what happened to him. Was he dead? Murdered? There were reports that the man with Fabri when he deposited the lead plates had also disappeared and possibility was killed near the spot.
Both Dunbar and Hunter said they could not prove the story true. Nor could they prove whether a related story had merit. According to Hunter, the trappers and hunters who encamped there frequently heard the man call out from the woods at night: ‘Fabri! Fabri!’”