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.
Another part of the Great Raft as viewed through the lens of photographer 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.