Part 13: Great Raft, Great Swamp
The expedition explored for about three weeks below Natchitoches, in present-day State of Louisiana, which was the last American settlement on the Red River. This is where John Sibly, Dr. John Sibley, the American Indian Agent, was located, and he outfitted the Expedition in June of 1806 with additional trade goods, so that the party could trade for horses from the Wichita Indians when they got far upriver.
Another military contingent was added to the Expedition at this point, and that brought the total size of the Grand Excursion to the Southwest up to fifty individuals, which made it an even larger expedition than the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In fact, it's the largest American exploring party of the age. It included several French guides, who were going to act as guides to the Wichita villages, and it would ultimately include two or three Caddo Indian guides as well.
So on June the second of 1806 the party left Natchitoches fully outfitted, ready to explore to the headwaters of the Red River. It immediately confronted an enormous and what seemed to be an almost insurmountable problem in the form of a log jam that was called the Great Raft. This Great Raft was perhaps as much as a thousand years old, and it stretched for a hundred miles up the river. In order to get around it, the Expedition, which now consisted of seven boats, had to detour eastward around the Red River, through a creation of the Red River which at the time was known as the Great Swamp. It is considered by ecologists today to have been a swamp land that would have been easily the equal of today's Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. It took the Expedition almost two and a half weeks of what Freeman called "incessant toil, fatigue and uncertainty," to work their way through the Great Swamp and gain the Red River once again above the head of the Great Raft.
Caddo grass and pole lodge, photographed in the 1860s by William S. Soule.
Peter Custis, meanwhile, was having a field day cataloging botanical specimens and observing neotropical wildlife. It was a paradise for him, but for the rest of the party this was evidently a real nightmare, trying to get around this Raft. They finally managed to do it in early July of 1806. At that point they stopped at an Indian village of Alabama-Coushattas on the river, where the Caddo Indians, who lived about thirty miles to the west, trooped over and spent four or five days with the explorers, and Freeman went through the classic Jeffersonian presentation to the Caddos and the Alabama-Coushattas about how these Indians, who had formerly been Spanish Indians, now had a new Great Father in Washington, and so forth.
The Caddos told the American explorers that there was already a Spanish army paralleling their movements in the hills about twenty miles to the west of them, and that this army was led by, as the Caddo chief described it, a "very bad man who cut down the American flag that was flying in the Caddo village," and was preparing to violently stop the American expedition. And so the Freeman and Custis party at this point must have been wondering whether or not they were going to live through whatever the next month of exploring would bring.
Dr. John Sibley
John Sibley (1757-1837) was a physician from Massachusetts who moved to Natchitoches shortly after France ceded Louisiana to the United States. In 1804 President Thomas Jefferson appointed Dr. Sibley as "occasional" Indian Agent in the border country, on the strength of the latter's quickly-gained knowledge of the Red River valley and its native inhabitants. In 1805 Sibley received a full-time appointment, and a Congressional appropriation of several thousand dollars for trade goods to use in winning the allegiance of the Indian tribes for the U.S. The Spanish considered his tactics a threat to their hegemony. "The revolutionist and lover of change, Doctor Sikbley" had to be stopped, wrote Don Nemecio Salcedo, the commander of the Provincias Internas.
Based on Flores, J&SE, 30-31 and note 42
A Caddo Indian
The Caddo—properly Kadohadacho—Indians belong to the Caddoan linguistic family, along with the Pawnees, the Wichitas and, on the middle Missouri, the Arikaras, whom Lewis and Clark characterized as "gardners for the Sioux," and sometime allies.
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.1 The above photograph of Raft No. 19, at the head of Dooley's Bayou, was taken by R. B. Talfour in 1873.
Based on Flores, J&SE, 127-31 and note 10, 1; 133-34 and Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v.
1. 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.
The Great Swamp
Owing to the presence of Spanish spies along the preferred detour around the Great Raft, expedition was obliged to thread its way through the Great Swamp to the northeast, a two-week ordeal that impressed the Caddo Indians. Freeman reported that Chief Dehahuit "observed that we must have suffered a great deal of hardship in passing . . . with our boats, and expressed his wonder at our success." Freeman responded diplomatically:
He was informed that we had suffered much, but were not to be deterred by obstacles of that nature, from paying a visit to him, and the other Chiefs and Nations on this River. I then explained to them the wishes of the President of the U.S. and the American People, respecting the Indians of that Country.2
The Great Swamp was a vast watery wilderness comparable to the dense and dangerous Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia and northeast Florida, consisting of interconnected swamps, bayous, islands and lakes—including Lake Bisteneau, which is not a state park—in which the party lost its way for several days.
Based on Flores, J&SE, 127 note 9, 161-162