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Captain W. W. Withenbury's 1838–1842 "Red River Reminiscences"

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W. W. Withenbury was a famous river boat captain during the mid-1800s. In retirement, he wrote a series of letters for the Cincinnati Commercial, under the title "Red River Reminiscences." Jacques Bagur has selected and annotated 39 letters describing three steamboat voyages on the upper Red River from 1838 to 1842. Withenbury was a master of character and incident, and his profiles of persons, including three signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence, reflect years of acquaintance. The beauty of his writing ranks this among the best of the reminiscences that were written as the steamboat era was declining.

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1. Taking the Challenge

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14    Red River Reminiscences

I

was pleased to see in your issue of this morning that somebody has seen fit to review the New Orleans

Picayune on the point as to who has the right to navigate the “Red and Ouachita Rivers” and share in the results of legitimate competition for the fast increasing business of those two rivers of the South.

I have frequently of late read articles from the Picayune breathing the same spirit as the one reviewed by your correspondent, and have wished that someone would take up the gauntlet so often of late thrown down by this mouth-piece of the New Orleans

Association and the self-constituted exclusives who would shut out Western men and capital from participating in legitimate trade and commerce. And now, with your indulgence, I propose to take part in this discussion, as I know a few things of the past history of the navigation of Red and Ouachita Rivers, which, if brought to light, may serve to enlighten the Picayune and some of these newly fledged steamboatmen who seem to think the

 

2. Up Trip of the Concord

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20    Red River Reminiscences

I

find that by “digging up the reminiscences” of “Coat’s

Bluff,” the Red River Raft and the steamboat “Concord,”

I have brought to life, as it were, the very man who piloted (if feeling one’s way in unexplored waters can be called piloting) the “Concord” on her first trip above the Raft. This man is Erasmus Philley, brother of Mr. Henry Philley, a well known citizen moving daily among the real estate and money sharpers of Third street.1 Mr. Philley’s head is so full of confused recollections of those early days that he insists upon relating anecdote after anecdote, and incident upon incident, that I can hardly decide which to select from his inexhaustible store, as bearing most directly upon my subject or which would prove of most interest to those who now clamor so loudly against “Westerners” coming to

Red River, and who, at the same time, know so little of the men who took the initial steps towards opening to the whole people this great channel of commerce.

Mr. Philley tells me that the Concord was pushed and pulled through the little opening made by the snagboat in the raft, until she found herself free and above all obstructions. Then she cut loose, and away up the broad, smooth river she ran with uncommon speed, without coming in sight of a single clearing or human abode, until near the mouth of Sulphur, some sixty miles above the head of the raft, then and now known as Hurricane Bluffs.2

 

3. Down Trip of the Concord

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The Reminiscences    25

11, 1819, Arkansas Gazette advertisement for town lots in Fulton characterizes it as the principal landing for the import and export freights of Hempstead

County and the principal entrance to Texas from the Missouri Territory.

William McClintock in “Journal of a Trip through Texas and Northern Mexico in 1846–1847” (Southwestern Historical Quarterly, July 1930) arrived at Fulton in September 1846 and says that it consisted of two warehouses, three groceries, one blacksmith shop, and four cabins. The dimensions of the town prior to the Civil War are best represented by Jeremy Gilmer’s 1864 Vicinity of Fulton,

Ark’s, which can be seen online in the digital maps collection of the University of North Carolina Library.

15. The seat of Hempstead County to the northeast of Fulton. According to an article on the town in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture,

Washington was established as the county seat in 1824, with a land auction in

1826 creating the structure of the town.

 

4. The Relief and Hunter Go Up

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32    Red River Reminiscences

given a few notes of her first year’s history, I will quote from the

“log-book” of an old Western friend1 who spent the season of

1841–42 on board of her with Uncle Joe Ross, Jonathan Hildreth,

E. Philley and other “birds of passage,” who in those days knew no better than to go to Red River expecting to share in the profits (?) of the business in proportion as their merits, when compared with others engaged in the same calling, should entitle them.

The Relief was built at Brush Creek, Ohio, in the year 1840.

The necessary capital in cash was advanced by Uncle Joe, others having promised to contribute and failing made the burden fall rather heavy on him, and he left this city a little short. But the picture of prospective profits having been beautifully painted by the Concord’s crew, Uncle Joe bade good bye to home, family and friends, and “shoved out” hopefully.

After many tedious days of toil and peril, the little Relief reached Shreveport, and there the fact became known that the

 

5. The Relief and Hunter Above

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The Reminiscences    37

River County tax rolls. Gamble had been a keelboatman using the eastern route around the raft according to the March 21, 1872, Daily Shreveport Times.

The Mariner under Capt. J. W. Gamble advertised in the January 14, 1841,

Shreveport Intelligencer and Caddo Beacon that she would run regularly during the boating season from the raft to Fort Towson. Gamble was no longer a resident of the state by 1846 according to a court summons in the May 13, 1847,

Clarksville Northern Standard.

9. The voyage of the Rover under Capt. Crooks through this area in 1836 is described in detail in the March 1, 1836, Arkansas Gazette. The Hunter under

Capt. B. Crooks advertised in the January 14, 1841, Shreveport Intelligencer and

Caddo Beacon that she would run regularly during the boating season from the raft to Fort Towson.

10. The Mariner was snagged at Pecan Point on March 10, 1841, according to William Lytle’s Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States, 1807–1868. The machinery was used by John Dyer at Berlin on the Upper Red River to build the Red River Planter, on which Dyer served as captain and Gamble as pilot, as indicated in Letter 18.

 

6. The Relief at Shreveport

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42    Red River Reminiscences but superintended improvement of the route to Jefferson; and that he was then living on a farm near Shreveport.

5. A late raft bypass on the east side of the river through Posten Lake, with a canal built by Alban connecting with Red River. The lake, which was bisected by the Arkansas-Louisiana line and is now extinct, resembled a stomach. A description of this project along with a Corps of Engineers map showing the configuration referred to by Withenbury can be found in my A History of

Navigation on Cypress Bayou and the Lakes. The removal of the raft in 1873 eliminated the need for the bypass.

6. Most financial transactions were conducted on credit at this time, with debts cleared by the subsequent cotton crop.

7. The July 15, 1841, Daily Picayune indicates that the Relief had gone up as far as Fort Towson.

8. The Hunter was aground north of present-day Texarkana.

9. It was common to discharge crews when long delays were anticipated.

The Fulton merchant William Street advertised in the December 8, 1841,

 

7. At Swanson’s Landing

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The Reminiscences    47

5. Cypress Bayou was sometimes referred to as a lake because it provided slackwater navigation up to a few miles from Jefferson.

6. It had only been necessary for the Relief to go to the head of Sodo Lake to take the western bypass in its previous trip.

7. The front of the upper deck.

8. Soda Lake formed in a shallow floodplain depression.

9. Apparently Rees E. Price, head of a prominent Cincinnati family, an abolitionist, and a religious eccentric. An example of his views can be found in J. R.

Buchanan’s 1855 Buchanan’s Journal of Man.

10. The Rochester was apparently not headed to Port Caddo. The March 22,

1856, Clarksville Standard reports that the Waverly from Cincinnati spotted the

Rochester coming out of Sulphur Fork carrying a load of cotton in early 1842.

11. The Republic of Texas until 1845, with the international line running through Caddo Lake.

12. To alert the people at Swanson’s Landing that the Relief was arriving.

7  At Swanson’s Landing

Swanson’s Landing1 was on the south shore of Caddo Lake a short distance past the Texas line and served as a shipping and receiving point for the adjacent Swanson plantation and those of neighbors. Peter Swanson, his wife Elizabeth

 

8. On Ferry Lake

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The Reminiscences    53

8  On Ferry Lake

The Relief moved west on Caddo Lake (then called Ferry

Lake) from Swanson’s Landing to Port Caddo on Cypress

Bayou.1 The lake was formed in 1800 in the valley of Cypress

Bayou by the raft-induced diversion of Red River water to the west. The valley had been forested with cypress, oak, and pine, most of which were killed by the lake waters. The oak and pine deteriorated quickly, producing submerged stumps. The cypress deteriorated more slowly, producing at the time the Relief was passing through Caddo Lake many erect trunks with dead branches.

L

eaving Swanson’s Landing on the morning of the 11th December at early dawn, we felt our way cautiously among the stumps, the tall dead cypress trees which stand there in the water often fifteen or twenty feet deep, silent witnesses of an age when this lake was dry land— and the green cypress and willows which are struggling for life where the water covers their roots fully two-thirds of the year—in many places not able to see a boat’s length ahead of the course we were to go.

 

9. At Port Caddo

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The Reminiscences    59

6. Withenbury is referring particularly to the creation of a cutroad at the northern end of the lake by Capt. Robert Martin in 1855.

7. Robert Potter was in the North Carolina Legislature and the U.S. Congress, emasculated two men to justify a claim of infidelity against his wife, served time in jail on a misdemeanor charge, came to Texas in 1835, signed the Texas

Declaration of Independence, was first secretary of the Texas Navy, established a bond marriage with Harriet Moore in 1836, built a home at Potter’s Point in

1837, served in the Republic of Texas Legislature, and was killed on Caddo

Lake in March 1842 by a posse led by William P. Rose. See the article on Robert

Potter in the Handbook of Texas Online.

8. Bails’ account of Robert Potter’s death is placed aboard the Relief in

December 1841; but Potter was not killed until March 1842. Withenbury probably inserted information concerning Potter’s death into his original logbook account of Bails’ speech. William P. Rose, his son Preston, and his son-in-law

 

10. To Black Bayou

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The Reminiscences    67

home in 1842. On Edwards, see my A History of Navigation on Cypress Bayou and the Lakes, which mentions the marriage to the daughter of the chief, but without any information on the composition of this family. Edwards’ death in

1842 explains why this family was in Port Caddo without protection.

12. A. W. Bently was an 1838 incorporator of the Emigrants Friend Society of Cincinnati, which was involved in the education of emigrants, according to

Acts of a Local Nature, Passed at the First Session of the Thirty-Sixth General

Assembly of the State of Ohio. He located in New Albany, Indiana, in 1850 and entered the insurance business in 1868 according to D. P. Robbins’ 1892 The

Advantages and Surroundings of New Albany, Indiana.

13. New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad.

14. Boats were often delayed by wind because Caddo Lake is broad and shallow.

10  To Black Bayou

The wind died, and the Relief left Swanson’s Landing and headed towards Black Bayou near the foot of Caddo

 

11. Up Black Bayou

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72    Red River Reminiscences

I

t was hardly fair for me to leave the Relief “right on a stump” and “all hands turned in” for the night, as it is not doing “Uncle Joe” justice to suppose that he would allow himself “or any other man” to go to sleep while his boat was in any sort of jeopardy. So I must be allowed to amend my statement and say that the Relief was pulled off the stump and a line run across the bayou to a tree, which held her in the middle of the stream, thus guarding against the wind which sometimes rises very suddenly, and would damage the boat among the overhanging tree tops. Capt. Ross never left his work half done.

Morning came and found us all ready for a start. Not a man had strayed away, for there was not a foot of dry land nearer than the “pint,” three miles up the bayou, where we were promised the bee tree.

I wish it were possible to describe the navigation of Black

Bayou as it was in those early days when none but “Birds of passage” visited its waters with steamboats. I ought not to attempt it, for were the one-quarter of its perplexities and dangers told, and the description compared with the Black Bayou of to-day, this

 

12. At Erwin’s Bluff

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78    Red River Reminiscences

liking, he could not have bettered his Caddo Prairie Plantation, as it was in 1840–41.

The crossing of the bayou had heretofore been done by means of a “ferry flat;” but as a sudden rise in Black Bayou, which any heavy rain would produce, (as it took its rise in the hills in the immediate vicinity,) or a runaway negro, was liable to displace

“the flat” and put the whole plantation to inconvenience, Colonel

Erwin decided to build the bridge; but as the bayou had been made and declared a navigable stream by the Government, and several steamboats had already passed through it, he wisely bethought himself to build the bridge so that it should answer all plantation and neighborhood purposes and still be no obstruction to steamboat navigation. (How unlike some of the men and corporations of our day, who have selfish purposes to serve.)

Colonel Erwin did not know the breadth of the Relief or

Hunter, but in order to be certain of placing the trestles of his bridge wide enough apart to allow them to pass without difficulty, he made a journey up Red Bayou to the “Jim Gamble Trees,” and there he measured the distance between the ends of the remaining logs on either bank, where Captains Crooks and Ross had cut them, and built the bridge of just as wide a span as were these logs, not dreaming that a larger boat would ever attempt to pass this way.

 

13. At the Falls

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The Reminiscences    81

hounds, whose eagerness for the chase could hardly be repressed, and their united, deep-toned baying caused the hills to echo to their music, till we all became filled with a desire to “hie to the hills away.”

But “business first” was Captain Ross’ order, and we at once set about examining into the condition of the bayous above us, and deferred our sports till another day. The yawl was manned with an exploring party, and a party of stragglers on foot accompanied them along the bank; but I will reserve the results of the expedition for another time. OUTSIDER.

Notes

1. The upward growth of the Red River raft caused water to be diverted to the western floodplain higher up when there was sufficient water for navigation, which inundated Caddo Prairie.

2. Harriet Potter in her “The History of Harriet A. Ames During the Early

Days of Texas” indicates that the first steamboat on Caddo Lake went to a place that was soon to be known as Rives’ Landing.

13  At the Falls

The exploratory party went up to look at the conditions on

 

14. Back to Shreveport

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The Reminiscences    87

thence down the river twenty-five miles. A pretty good two days’ work, which we tried to dissuade him from; but he took his stock of provisions and left us at daylight, determined to accomplish the whole distance before dark. Philley and Bently returned to the boat on the evening of the 22d, and reported Captain Ross gone from the raft to Shreveport on the steamer “Southwestern”;4 so until we hear from him again we will consider ourselves deserted by our captain, and will call him an OUTSIDER.

Notes

1. The first of the elevated decks.

2. A popular minstrel singer and dancer, as indicated by Edward Rice’s

Monarchs of Minstrelsy.

3. According to Withenbury’s description, the hunting camp was at the lower end of Black Bayou Swamp to the northwest, from which Black Bayou originates.

4. Captain Ross walked the portage and took the Southwestern to Shreveport, which had been operating from New Orleans to the foot of the raft and stopped at Shreveport in both directions.

14  Back to Shreveport

 

15. To Red River

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The Reminiscences    93

none of my fellow steamboatmen have had a like experience, then

I must ask the soldiers who served in the Southern swamps, in the late war, to draw upon their memories, and I know they can fill up the picture; and many a poor “dark skin” will be remembered as having, like the “Good Samaritan,” poured oil upon his wounds while lingering and suffering by the wayside, and in his truly humane heart blessed God that he had been enabled to lighten the sorrows and add to the comforts of at least one OUTSIDER.

Notes

1. At the downstream end of the third large bluff above Shreveport.

2. A small cake of cornmeal that has been baked or fried hard.

3. This is the last mention of Bails as a participant in the trip of the Relief, although he obviously went back to the Relief with the party. He had left the

Relief by Letter 20.

15  To Red River

Withenbury does not describe how Ross or the party of which Withenbury was a member got back to Erwin’s Bluff; but this letter finds Black Bayou rising and the Relief setting off for Red River. Most of the letter is devoted to a description of Caddo Prairie planters and ends with the Relief reaching Red River.

 

16. To the Raft

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The Reminiscences    101

16  To the Raft

Having entered the Red River, the Relief proceeded immediately downstream to the raft. Withenbury was reminded by Ross of a bear story connected with another trip to the head of the raft.

I

[First part not used.]

sat down to pen this article after having had a conversation with “Uncle Joe,” to-day, on the subject of Red

River reminiscences, and he reminded me that I had not yet told his best Red River bear story; and so my readers must bear with me while I try to tell a long story with a few words.

“Uncle Joe” has told this story himself a good many times, and never yet had an audience where, if a vote had been taken, the majority would not have been largely against a belief in its truthfulness; and now I want it understood that my version of the affair

I am about to relate, if not in his exact words, is intended as a full endorsement of Captain Ross’ bear story.

The last account I gave of the Relief was on the night of

January 1, 1842, when I left her lying in Red River opposite the mouth of Red Bayou. From this point her first move was down stream twenty-five miles to the head of the Raft, alias the “Dead

 

17. To Pine Prairie

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The Reminiscences    107

being depleted every day, bade us do our best towards passing the time pleasantly, keeping at all times men enough on the boat to see that she was properly cared for, and to entertain the old and new friends who came almost hourly to see and welcome us and to enjoy the novelty of a visit and a dinner, or some little amusement on board a steamboat.

On the second day of our stay at White Oak Shoals, our friends arranged for a grand bear hunt; and when I mention among these friends the names of Andy Armstrong,5 the Owens Brothers,6

Captain Grey, Colonel Childress,7 Tom Scott,8 and the famous

Arkansas bear-hunter, “Old Bill Story,”9 no one now living who knew those men, or who has since heard of them, will doubt for a moment that we had a good time in the cane brake, on the boat, and at the homes of these hospitable people. The bear hunt itself was a source of great sport at the time, and the details of it, could I enter into them here, would not, I am sure, be the least entertaining of my roving reminiscences. But for the present I must try to confine myself to “business statistics,” and trust to the opportunity hereafter of reciting some of the amusing incidents of our

 

18. To Berlin

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The Reminiscences    111

18  To Berlin

The Relief dropped off a load at Spanish Bluff in northcentral Bowie County, Texas; landed at Lanesport in then

Sevier County (now Little River County), Arkansas, just before the Choctaw line (the Indian Territory line, now the Oklahoma line); and proceeded to Berlin in northwest

Bowie County. Most of the letter is concerned with the building of the first steamboat in Texas at Berlin.

Berlin was a small community on the south side of Mill

Creek at its entrance into the Red River, as shown on Jacob

De Cordova’s 1867 Map of the State of Texas and, more precisely, on the Texas General Land Office’s 1841 map of Bowie

County. It is first mentioned as a town site in a November

1838 document referenced in Poor v. Boyce (in Reports of

Cases Argued and Decided in the Supreme Court of the State of Texas at Tyler Term, 1854). Town lots were sold in Berlin by at least 1853, as shown in the 1853 Red River County tax rolls. It was established on the basis of a preexisting settlement called Mill Creek, which had been a keelboat landing.

 

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