The Grand Excursion
The Freeman-Custis Expedition of 1806
by Dan L. Flores1
Hammond Professor of History
The University of Montana, Missoula
Part 1: The Grand Excursion
The Real Red River
To learn more, click the numbers on the map.
Amarillo, Texas, has been included on this map merely as a reference point. It was founded in 1887 as a railroad construction camp, and grew to be a center of ranching, wheat farming, and oil drilling. It is on the low divide that separates the Red River drainage from the Canadian River drainage in the Texas panhandle.
Chihuahua, the present capital of the Mexican State of Chihuahua, was originally settled in the 16th century, and "officially" founded in 1709. At the end of the 18th century it was a commercial center on the 1,600-mile Camino Real ("Royal Road") that connected Mexico City with Santa Fe.
I think the striking thing about this expedition is that there was a second expedition into the Louisiana Territory, another Lewis and Clark Expedition, if you will, but not one that was led by Lewis and Clark. Thomas Jefferson clearly intended Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead a singular expedition, one that would traverse the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, but Jefferson never seems to have had in mind the idea that this was the only part of Louisiana that needed to be explored. Almost from the very beginning, in fact, he was almost equally interested in the southern reaches of Lousiana. And I think part of the reason that southern Louisiana appealed the way it did is because the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase on its southwestern side was equally vague in terms of where the Americans and where the Spaniards would draw a line between their respective imperial reaches. It was equally as vague as the boundary in the Northwest between the British and the United States on the other end of the Louisiana Purchase.
And so Jefferson was intrigued not only by his hope to resolve the boundary question, but as he began to learn more and more about the . . . southwestern part of what is now the United States he became intrigued by what kind of possibilities for commerce—that was always one of his interests in exploration in the West—and also what kind of possibilities for science, geography and natural history study would emerge from an exploration of Louisiana. So as early as 1804, even before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left to ascend the Missouri River, Jefferson wrote Meriwether Lewis. He said, "the object of your voyage is singular," and he went on to describe the ascent of the Missouri and descent of the Columbia.
And he said, I will also attempt to send an expedition up the Red River, which was the southernmost tributary of the Missouri coming in from the west, and he said, that expedition then will ascend the Red River, cross over to the headwaters of the Arkansas River, which was the next river, working your way up from the mouth of the Mississippi, coming in on the west side of the Mississippi. The expedition would then cover these two southerly reaches of the Mississippi River system. That would eventually lead an American team into the Southwest.
1. Professor Flores is the author of Jefferson & Southwestern Exploration: The Freeman & Custis Accounts of the Red River Expedition of 1806 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984).
Anthony Nau's map of the "Red River of the Mississippi."
A portion of Anthony Nau's map
The First Part of Captn. Pike's Chart of the Internal Part of Louisiana, 1807.2
To see annotations, point to the numbers on the map.
The point at which the Grand Excursion was turned back by Spanish forces is indicated by hash-marks across the river, just west of its northernmost bend, and by the note "The exploring party stopped here." Beyond that point Nau shows the Red River flowing from the southwest, which is of course incorrect. Nau borrowed some of his information from William Dunbar, and some from the explorer Zebulon Pike (1779-1813), who in turn had relied upon explorer Alexander von Humboldt's best guess, based upon what Spanish consultants in Mexico City thought they knew.
Clark's own draft of his best-known map, the one that was published with Nicholas Biddle's edition of The Journals of the Expedition of Captains Lewis and Clark in 1814, included part of Freeman's map of the Red River, but Biddle chose to delete all of it south of St. Louis.
In July of 1806, under orders from General James Wilkinson, the governor of Upper Louisiana, Zebulon Pike set out on an expedition to find the headwaters of the Red River, which were presumed to be in the vicinity of Santa Fe. Pike marched through present-day Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado, crossed the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and reached the Rio Grande, which he mistook for the upper Red River. There he was captured by Spanish soldiers, taken to Santa Fe, then to Chihuahua, and escorted back to Natchitoches the following June.
Based on Flores, J&SE, 297, and Carl I. Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West (2 vols., San Francisco: Institute of Historical Cartography, 1948), 21.
2. From Donald Jackson, ed., The Journals of Zebulon Pike: With Letters and Related Documents (2 vols., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966) I.
In many details, President Jefferson's instructions to James Freeman were identical to the orders he had issued to Meriwether Lewis in June of 1803. Most notably, he wrote to both that "if at any time a superior force authorized or not authorized by a nation should be arrayed against your further passage and inflexibly determined to arrest it, you must decline its further pursuit and return."
On July 28, 1806, they found two superior forces arrayed against them. One was a contingent of about 700 Spanish soldiers under the command of Captain Don Francisco Viana, under orders to prevent the exploring party from proceeding any farther until the boundary between Louisiana and Spanish territory was agreed upon by their respective governments. Most of them were under cover on the elevated point from which this photograph was taken, a landmark about 615 miles from the mouth of the Red that folklore has dubbed Spanish Bluff.
The other was "not authorized by a nation." It was shallow water, and they were still 200 miles from the homeland of the Pani (Pawnee) Indians, where they had planned to set up an advance camp, and to purchase horses for the final trek to the headwaters of the Red River—which they still erroneously presumed would be in proximity to Santa Fe.
So, on July 30 the "Grand Excursion" started back downriver, secured horses from the Caddo Indians, marched overland around the Great Raft, arrived back at Natchitoches (NAK-uh-tosh) on August 23, and disbanded. Compared Lewis and Clark's, the Freeman-Custis expedition was a failure, and Thomas Jefferson did not wish to call widespread attention to it. Thus the story was quickly relegated to the footnotes of U.S. history—until Dan Flores' edition of the journals, Jefferson & Southwestern Exploration, was published by The University of Oklahoma Press in 1984.
Based on Dan Flores, J&SE, 199-207 and note 35
Santa Fe was nearly two hundred years old in 1806. It was founded in 1609-10 on the site of an ancient Pueblo Indian ruin by the conquistador Don Pedro de Peralta, who named it Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asis, or "Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi." During the 18th century it served as the administrative, military and missionary headquarters, and trade center of the vast Spanish frontier territory, the Provincias Internas.
It was the subject of much interest on the part of many political strategists in the United States at the time. Jefferson directed Meriwether Lewis to gather as much information as he could concerning the possibility of trade with merchants there, and during the winter of 1803-04 Lewis considered conducting a personal reconnaissance of the Indian route to Spanish country that led up the Kansas River. Jefferson quickly vetoed the idea, perhaps because he already was making plans for the exploration of the Red River—which he erroneously assumed would lead directly to the old city.
In July of 1806 General James Wilkinson, Governor of Upper Louisiana, sent Lieutenant Zebulon Pike with a party of twenty-one men up the Kansas, Arkansas and Canadian Rivers, ostensibly bound for Santa Fe and the headwaters of the Red. In February of 1807 they were captured by a Spanish military detail on the Rio Grande, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Pike was jailed for a short time in Santa Fe, and escorted back to Natchitoches by the end of June. There was some speculation at the time that Pike's journey was part of a secret strategy to link up with Freeman and Custis, though that was never proven to be true.
On August 3, 1804, William Clark was told by a trader on the lower Missouri River that Santa Fe could be reached in twenty-five days from St. Louis via the Arkansas and Kansas Rivers. On August 15, 1805, a Shoshone told Lewis his people "could pass to the Spaniards by the way of the Yellowstone River in 10 days." Both claims represented miscalculations or miscommunications, and reflected the common misapprehension that the headwaters of the Missouri River were closer to New Mexico than they really are. Today the highway distance from St. Louis to Santa Fe is 1,029 miles, and from the vicinity of Salmon, Idaho, where the Shoshones lived, is 975 miles. If modern highways are, overall, roughly congruent with old Indian trails, then overland travel times, averaging thirty miles per day, would have been about 34 and 32.5 days, respectively.
On September 17, 1806, just six days from the end of their 28-month journey, the Corps of Discovery met a party under the command of Captain John McClallen, or McClellan, who claimed he was bound for Santa Fe via the Platte River to open trade negotiations with the Spanish. Clark remarked in his journal, "Capt McClellins plan I think a very good one if strictly prosued &c." However, there is no evidence McClallen ever reached Santa Fe.
Trade relations between the U.S. and Santa Fe began immediately after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. The Santa Fe Trail, which began at Independence, Missouri, opposite the mouth of the Kansas River, was opened in that year by trader William Becknell, and served as the main line to the Southwest until the Santa Fe Railroad was completed in 1880.
Based on Dan Flores, J&SE,10; Santa Fe—A Historical Perspective and Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. Santa Fe Trail.
Palo Duro Canyon
Looking down Little Sunday Canyon past "The Lighthouse" (left) toward Palo Duro Canyon Prairie Dog Town Fork, one of the four principal sources of the Red River, rises at the western edge of the Llano Estacado—"Staked Plain"—in eastern New Mexico, flows intermittently for a hundred miles to the eastern edge of the high and semiarid flatland, then falls into spectacular Palo Duro—"Hard Stick"—Canyon.
The Freeman-Custis expedition didn't get that far upstream, of course, but the canyon may have been visited as early as 1541 by explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado.
Tule Creek, which begins south of Amarillo, Texas, is a tributary of Prairie Dog Town Fork, and one of the sources of the Red River.
North Fork of the Red River
Until the region was at last mapped correctly, early in the 20th century, the North Fork of the Red River, which begins a few miles northeast of Amarillo, Texas, was often confused with the Canadian River, which is only a few miles to the north. The hills in the background are the Washitas.
Based on Flores, J&SE, 122; 331 note 20
The Great Raft
The Great Raft
Another part of the Great Raft as viewed through the lens of photographer R. B. Talfour in 1873.
The Great Raft was a gigantic logjam, a series of "rafts," on the Red River that was unique in North America. Possibly it had begun to form around 1100-1200 A.D., though it may have been in progress long before that. Its lower end was about ten miles upstream from Natchitoches (NAK-uh-tosh); by 1806 it reached nearly 100 miles up the river. Freeman wrote of it in early June, 1806:
The first raft is not more than 40 yards through. It consists of the trunks of large trees, lying in all directions, and damming up the river for its whole width, from the bottom, to about three feet higher than the surface of the water. The wood lies so compact that . . . large bushes, weeds and grass cover the surface of the raft. . . .
Next morning we came to the second raft, which crosses the river here 100 feet in width, and extends for 200 yards along its course. . . . With great exertions we opened a passage for the boats, through this raft on one side, by floating the large trees down the river. . . .
On the evening of the ninth [of June] we arrived at the third raft. . . . This raft extends up the river nearly 300 yards. . . . With much difficulty a passage was effected through this; as the vacancy, occasioned by the removal of any part of the logs, was soon filled by others. The labor incident to the formation of a passage, through these small rafts, is so great, that the navigation of this part of the river is never attempted; for it would require to be repeated every time a passage was attempted.
The country is intersected with swamps, lakes, and bayous, communicating with and running into each other, for perhaps 6 or 8 miles on each side of the river. The current of the river is very gentle, seldom exceeding the rate of three fourths of a mile in the hour.
Upon the expedition's return to Natchitoches after being turned back by the Spanish army, Freeman chose to abandon their boats and proceed overland.
The Great Raft grew at the upper end faster than it decayed or washed out at the lower, so that in the course of the next five or six decades it grew to a length of more than 160 miles. Meanwhile, in the mid-1830s a steamboat builder and river captain named Henry Miller Shreve (1785-1851) began systematically removing it, a task that was continued by others until the latter part of the 19th century.3 The above photograph of Raft No. 19, at the head of Dooley's Bayou, was taken by R. B. Talfour in 1873.
—Joseph M. Mussulman
Based on Flores, J&SE, 127-31 and note 10, 1; 133-34 and Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v.
3. In 1807 Shreve extended the fur trade between St. Louis and Philadelphia via keelboat. In the spring of 1815, as captain of the Enterprise, he steamed from New Orleans to Louisville, and the following year, in his new, shallow-draft Washington, made the first round trip between Pittsburgh and New Orleans, thus opening the era of steamboat commerce that would facilitate the westward expansion of the U.S. until the railroad era opened in the second half of the 19th century. Shreve was one of the founders, in 1837, of the city on the Red River that bears his name, Shreveport, Louisiana.
Along the Middle Red River
The middle reach of the Red River of the South extends from the upper end of the old Great Raft, which was just below today's Shreveport, Louisiana, to Burkburnett, Texas, a few miles north of Wichita Falls. While channel of the lower Red has been straightened and deepened for the benefit of river commerce, the middle Red has been modified by dams for flood control and agricultural benefits on tributaries throughout much of its 1,290-mile length, as well as by Denison Dam, north of Dallas, which impounds Lake Texoma.
—Joseph M. Mussulman
Based on Flores, J&SE, 178-80 and notes 6-11