Southwestern Trail

One of the oldest roads in the Red River Valley was the Tennessee to Washington (Hempstead County, Arkansas) to Fulton (Hempstead County) trail that was formed along a geological ridge line. Before American settlement, the trace was an aboriginal path to salt “mines” (actually, just places where salt could be sieved and collected) and to the Caddoan settlements along the Red River, specifically the Nasoni villages.

Now called the “Southwest Trail” by heritage tourism promoters, the trace witnessed pioneers, stage coaches, traders, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Union troops moving towards Indian Territory and Texas.

The centuries of use has “sunken” the trail in some spots. The sunken trace is best seen on the northern side of Washington‘s Franklin Street. Today, the trail north of Washington is very hard to follow – a lot of the “old southwest Arkansas” between Washington and Blevins was leveled in the 1940s to make way for a military proving grounds.

Map snip Arkansas post offices 1840s

The old trail ran from Tennessee to Little Rock to Washington to Fulton. If you want to travel the original route of the old trail – called the Southwest Trail now to entice motor tourists – you can drive AR 195 from Fulton to Washington.

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The sunken part of the old trail can be viewed on the north side of Washington along Franklin Street. On the right side of the photograph stand the 1830s’ era courthouse, wonderfully restored.

Washington Tavern better

Speaking of restoration… in the 1930s – prior to the erection of the proving grounds to the north of Washington – many of the town’s historic, antebellum structures remained standing, albeit in a state of disrepair. This old tavern, at the intersection of Franklin and Columbus streets, once served the likes of Sam Houston. The federal government photographed and documented the historic structure as part of a WPA program

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Today, the tavern has been restored to its original look (as best as could be) through the generous donations and hard work of Hempstead County citizens.

Washington was once the county seat of Hempstead, Arkansas but lost the status when the railroad developed Hope and built the station and town. The whole town, which is home to the Southwest Arkansas Regional Arkives (<– get it?) is now a state park.

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Published in: on February 6, 2018 at 3:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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Caddos along the Red River Valley

Three major Native American tribes called the Red River Valley of the Southwest home long before Europeans staked their claims. The Comanches lived along the western most reaches – their primary economy consisted of hunting and the horse trade (some would say horse taking, or theft). The Comanches, who stemmed from the northern plains but worked their way down into the southern prairies, built an empire at the same time the Spanish, French, and English built theirs, and became formidable enemies of the Texans (both American and Mexican).

The Wichitas inhabited the Cross Timbers region of the middle section of the river. Their domain reached from central Texas all the way to southern Kansas, with large cities and small villages, multiple languages, and an economy based on both agriculture and bison hunting, and later, French trade – they didn’t interact much with the Spanish except to raid them every once in a while.

I’ll write about those tribes soon in much more detail on Red River Historian. This blog post  in particular focuses on the people of the lower portions of the Red River Valley, where the water flowed wider and deeper. Here, the Caddos lived. Some historians label their government as a “confederacy,” tightly knitted in kinship but loosely tied in mutual alliances. Like the Wichitas, theirs was a well-developed society of the Mississippian people, with large villages and a well-developed social class system. Unlike the Wichtias, however, archeologists have documented their society in much more detail than the other two Red River Valley tribes.

Bowie county mound

This photograph from the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory depicts crews employed by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), who in 1938 excavated a Caddoan ceremonial mound that may have been the first mound depicted by Europeans (via the Teran del Rio expedition, 1691).

The mound was a major site (religious, commercial) for the Nasonis, a powerful tribe of the Caddo confederacy. Throughout the years, archeological excavations of this site uncovered almost 100 burials, large circular structures, and plenty of whole pottery pieces that indicate ceremonial burials. Carbon dating and historical records from the Spanish and French indicate that the site was occupied from 1200 to the 18th century. By the early 19th century, the Caddos had been pushed west by American settlers until ultimately, they found a new home in central Oklahoma.

The site is on private property, and I’m unsure of the exact location. I did some aerial survey using Google Maps, and believe I found mound remnants. In any case, it’s in northern Bowie County, Texas, northwest of Texarkana.

 

Natchez

This vessel, found at a Nasoni (Caddoan) settlement in Bowie County (Texas) by archeologists T. Perttula, B. Nelson, R. Cast and B. Gonzalez (principle investigators), was made by the Tunica tribe that lived near today’s Natchez (MS). Other items found in the dig included glass trade beads, most likely traded with the French, that were predominantly blue in color. The dig occurred over several years, but its findings were published in 2010 – making me conclude that there is a lot of history yet to be found along the Red River.

GS Caddo bowls frog effigies found by AC Looney 1962 AHC (2)

These frog effigies bowls were found in Lafayette County in southwestern Arkansas by AC Looney in 1962 and are now housed at the Arkansas Historical Commission (where the photo comes from). They were most likely from the Kadahadacho tribe, which resided on the east side of the river across from the Nasonites. The bowls aren’t very elaborate, but they’re whole – it seems they may have been used for ceremonies, but most likely in a household, not in a communal setting.

There haven’t been many newer archeological digs along the Red River in recent years, and economic activities (pipe line building, for example) is damaging a lot of the potential sites.

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One of the reasons for the lack of exploration in the lower Red River Valley in recent years is that farms have occupied some major sites – for example, the 1,000 year old Belcher Mounds site in Caddo Parish, Louisiana. One of the mounds can be seen in this photograph. Because the site is on private property, one can surmise that it is being preserved. A danger can be that the site is mined for artifact collections (specifically, arrowhead). If you collect arrowheads, please make sure to document the location (co-ordinates, photographs, and journal) to help provide context!

A complaint about access

Indulge me for a moment while I vent a consistent frustration of mine… and probably one experienced by historians (professional and lay alike) everywhere.

This past weekend, I took a trip up to Oklahoma to see if I could spot the remains of historically significant sites. Specifically, I was seeking the Oklahoma historical marker, placed in 1958, for Nail’s Crossing, a stage stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail and Stagecoach route. I was also seeking the possible remains of the Wapanucka Academy, a boarding school established for Chickasaw girls before the Civil War. During the war, the school acted as a temporary hospital.

Wapanucka academy possible ruin

I’m not saying this aerial image (from Google Maps) depicts the old Wapanucka Aademy site; I’m just saying I’d like to have the opportunity to find out.

I was thwarted in my endeavors on both accounts. For one, there were no posted indications at all that anything historic was in their respective vicinities. Not only that, but when attempted to access the places after my careful research to pinpoint their locations, I was met with “no trespassing” signs. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like getting shot, so I heeded the warnings and left the road trip “empty handed.” I was disappointed, to say the least – especially because Google Maps indicated that these sites were, in fact, close to country lanes. These roads no doubt have been taken over by land owners and are now considered private.

Nails Crossing possible site

Notice how Google Maps has Nail’s Crossing Road going all the way to the Blue River? Well, access is restricted past the last driveways on both the southeast and northwest sides. The red circle is where, I surmise, the crossing took place. A bridge was erected there before the Civil War.

It bothers me greatly that important historic are tucked away for only a select few to access. For example  rivers (and their shorelines) and cemeteries are both considered public lands. Yet consistently, I find my access to both restricted. I cannot access the Nail family cemetery at the Blue River, nor the Colbert family cemetery near the old ferry crossing and toll bridge on the Red River. Just getting down to the Red River beyond the obvious access points is a feat in itself.

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The old Nail’s Crossing road can no longer be traversed.

While I love Oklahoma, I must point out that this state is particularly bad about historic site preservation and access. Although mid-century historical committees urged restoration and upkeep of historical sites and continued placement of historical markers, often their advice was not heeded. Instead, the intrepid explorer continually finds herself having to use historical maps and anecdotes to find sites that have been already surveyed and documented previously. The land owners that allowed access to one group may restrict further attempts at visitation, or the descendants/new owners are simply not interested. While I do not mind the research I invest in finding the sites, I do mind that I cannot visit their physical remains.

Nails crossing what the committee wanted to do

http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/v036/v036p446.pdf

Here’s a description of what the historical committee recommended for Nail’s Crossing in 1958. Nothing came to fruition, however. To read more about the 1958 effort to document the Butterfield Overland Mail & Stagecoach route in Oklahoma, read this.

History should be as readily accessible and as much documented as possible. It helps the academic, the genealogist, and the community, as historic properties can bring tourist dollars and lend prestige to an area.

And, it helps me. Who wouldn’t want that?

An historic Death

In the US, death of history is frequent.

I’m not talking about historical events today, even though they have their own share of death and destruction. I’m referencing historic preservation, or to put it more bluntly, the complete and utter lack thereof.

I found myself driving through southwestern Arkansas just this past week, filled with the peculiar anxiety always reserved for the things I hold most dear – old, abandoned buildings that have historical significance but have been neglected and forgotten for new and shinier places. Each time I re-visit a ghost town or some abandoned place that I’ve previously chronicled, my nerves get edgy, as I am scared to discover that another piece of history may have been destroyed.

My fears were confirmed in Fulton, Hempstead County, Arkansas. I have a major soft spot for this little town, which has so much history behind it. It sits right alongside the Great Bend of the Red River, and its levees are still tall and sturdy. Since its inception, Fulton served as a major crossroads. First, it was the river crossing for people headed to Mexican Texas. Then, it was mentioned as the terminus of the first proposed transcontinental railroad (Cairo & Fulton RR). By the 1920s, the Bankhead Highway cut a path right alongside this once very important town.

The lone commercial building that still stood in Fulton, Arkansas…

There are only a handful of reminders that point to this hamlet’s history. There’s the railroad bridge, rebuilt after the flood of 1927. Then there’s the water well, now ensconced in a derelict wooden building. You can still see the steamboat docks and moorings on the eastern bank of the Red River, too. And lastly, a lone commercial building, probably built around the turn of the 20th century, stood in a dilapidated state across from the post office.

When I visited Fulton in August of 2015, I discovered that this beautiful old building had been razed. The facade, with its tin cornice, was nowhere to be seen. All foundations, bricks, wood, shingles… everything had been bulldozed. All that sits there now is an empty, gaping maw.

… is now gone.

I don’t know if anyone in Fulton cried when it went away, this last vestige of a once-important town that the interstate unceremoniously bypassed. But I did. I cried bitter, bitter tears over this death.

The building was in a horrible state, for sure. The back had caved in, and its crumbling walls – whatever was left of its walls – exposed the interior to the elements. But the front part of the building was in good order. It could have been sheered off and then braced. It could have been simply a gateway that stood to frame the levee… anything rather than just some other damned hole in the ground.

You may wonder, what if the property owner didn’t have the money to do all this? The building was a hazard and could have well exposed the owner to lawsuits if someone trespassed. These are all good arguments. But, here’s the thing – we cannot keep letting private property rights and obligations get in the way of historic preservation. This country, these states, this town need programs that allow for the reclamation of history. Let eminent domain take over, if it has to. Compensate the owner and then preserve the building, through federal and state grants. Don’t tell me this country doesn’t have the money, either. We’re the richest country on earth. We just allow our wealth – oil wealth, coal wealth, manufactured wealth – to remain in the hands of the oligarchy who provide mere snippets to the rest of us plebeians,and that’s why we think our country is bankrupt. Believe me, we’re not. If we were, we wouldn’t be able to fight all these wars over which our plebeian sons and daughters get killed.

We’re a nation that loves private property. I get that. I also get that it has been, historically, a detriment for most put-upon people. Native American tribes understand that all too well. So do African Americans, whose ancestors were forced into perpetual slavery and were not even considered fully human. Women get it, too – for centuries, they were their husband’s property and as married women, could not rightfully claim property of their own unless it was specifically bequeathed to them.

And you know what else is put upon? Our heritage. That little building in Fulton was a fantastic link to the past – our shared past, warts and all. And we simply have to stand back and watch our history get destroyed, one building at a time, because we’re not allowed to own that past. And then we scrape up all the money we can to visit Europe, so that we can marvel at their old buildings. Am I missing something here?

Published in: on August 8, 2015 at 8:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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