Spanish Bluff

Spanish Bluff by Ben Jones

Reader Ben Jones graciously shared a vantage point of the Red River that’s rarely seen nowadays – Spanish Bluff on the southern bank of the Red River. Thank you for this lovely photo, Ben!

Located between Bowie County, Texas and Little River County, Arkansas, Spanish Bluff was named after an event that took place in 1806.

An American expedition team from the Corps of Engineers was sent by President Thomas Jefferson to study the flora, fauna, and geology of the Red River as part of the Louisiana Purchase expeditions. Led by Peter Custis, Thomas Freeman, and Richard Sparks (military commander), the ultimate goal was to see if the Red River reached to Santa Fe. However, New Spain believed the Red River to be part of their territory. The Spanish commander Francisco Viana learned about this expedition from James Wilkenson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory and reputedly a spy for the Spanish. Viana pursued the American party and halted its trek at the bluff pictured here. Because the Red River Expedition was not supposed to be a military action, the Americans immediately stepped down from their journey and returned to Natchitoches.

The Spanish mistook their border claims. Since the Louisiana Territory included all western water sheds that drained into the Mississippi River, the entire Red River should have been American territory… as well as the Sulphur River, which drains into the Red River. However, the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty established the U.S. and Mexican boundary at the Red and Sabine Rivers in exchange for Spain relinquishing Florida to the U.S.

 

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Slices of Sibley

John 2

Sibley (1757-1837) is buried in the American Cemetery in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

John Sibley was the first Indian Agent in the Louisiana Territory. Born in Massachusetts, Sibley became a physician in North Carolina and joined the army during the Revolutionary War. Years later, he offered his services again to the army along the Red River frontier. While there, he served as an Indian Agent in Natchitoches. He helped to procure the provisions and guides needed for Thomas Freeman, Peter Custis, and Col. Sparks to explore the Red River after the Louisiana Purchase.

The purpose of an Indian Agent was to ensure the security of the United States and its claims, which meant negotiating treaties, land sales, and agreements with tribes in the areas where they worked. Dr. Sibley documented his work as an Indian Agent through copious correspondence, some of which is reproduced below.

John 1

In 1804, Sibley described the final peace negotiations between the Caddos and Choctaws at the Indian factory in Natchitoches in a letter written to his commanding general. In this excerpt, he explained that the availability of liquor in the “little town of Natchitoches” had a bad effect on all inhabitants.

Sibley all

In 1806, Sibley sponsored an expedition to “recover” a large meteorite from the lands between the Brazos and Red Rivers in Spanish Texas that Indian Trader Henry Glass had relayed to him.

Of course, “recovering” this medicine stone was highly illegal for at least two reason. For one, the Spanish had made their claims on the lands of Texas abundantly clear, and they definitely did not want the Americans invading their lands. Secondly, the Wichitas and the Comanches considered the meteorite an important medicine (religious /medicinal artifact). Sibley thus paid for this expedition out of his own pocket, as he had hoped the meteorite was made of platinum and, I assume, he could retire in luxury if he was able to sell it.

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The “platinum rock” turned out to be an iron meteorite, which eventually up at the Peabody Museum at Yale University.

Sibley’s expedition stole the meteorite from the Texas lands and sent it to geologists in New York once the sample was determined to be iron, not platinum. Purchased by rock collector George Gibbs, eventually the 1,600 lbs meteorite – the largest recovered as of that time period – centered Gibbs’s extensive collection.  Gibbs’s wife donated the rock to  Yale University’s Peabody Museum.

Humphreys’ History

The school in Humphreys closed in 1961 and is now used for storage for cotton farmers

The former elementary school in Humprheys, Jackson County, OK is a bit on the sunny side.

Even though Jackson County (Oklahoma) is home to the air force base at Altus, it is full of ghost towns. Many of them lost population during the Great Depression, but it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century when the communities lost their schools (to me, the loss of a school is the hallmark of a ghost town).

I visited Humphreys in southeastern Jackson County and took a picture of its school, which closed in 1961. This was the “new” elementary school, at least for a while. Three teacherages (teacher homes) sat across the street, but they have been razed. I got a lot of my information from two extremely knowledgeable and pleasant people, Bill and Louise Snodgrass, who came out to talk to me. Mr. Snodgrass attended school in Humphreys. He was born not far from the Red River in a half dug-out. Ms. Snodgrass was the former county clerk of Jackson County!

There is nothing better than hitting the road with a vague destination in mind. You’ll never know what – or especially who! – you’ll find.

Bill and Ms Louise Snodgrass of Humphreys M. Snodgrass was the county clerk of Jackson County for nine years

Bill and Louise Snodgrass from Humphreys shared A LOT of history with me. Lovely people whom I’m so honored to get to know, even in passing!

Transcontinental mapping

1861 John Pope survey expedition for southern transcontinental railroad route David Rumsey

The northern portion of John Pope’s 1854 map to survey a possible transcontinental route through Texas marks the Cross Timbers between Gainesville and Preston on the Red River.

In 1854, John Pope of the US Army (and a veteran of the Mexican American War) was tasked by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to plot out a transcontinental railroad route through Texas. Southern politicians worked very hard to convince the rest of Washington that a southern, not northern, transcontinental route was preferable.

Pope documented his expedition on this map, which was printed in 1861. He denoted where he set up camps along his journey, which started at the Rio Grande in El Paso and ended at the Red River in Preston (Grayson County, TX). This is a small portion of the much larger map – I especially like where he marked the “lower” and “upper” cross timbers around misspelled Gainesville (Cooke County).

It looks a lot like he didn’t “invent” the trail that he took – in many places, it mirrors the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach route, which suspended operations at the start of the Civil War. Southwest of Fort Belknap (Young County), he surveyed a more westerly direction, as the stagecoach route meandered towards Fort Phantom Hill.

When southern states left the Union in 1860-1861, the hopes for a transcontinental line from St. Louis to San Diego (through Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona) seceded with them.

Another portion of the1861 map from the John Pope expedition of 1854 shows that he took a route that closely mirrored the Butterfield

The middle portion of the 1854 Pope map has the proposed transcontinental route going straight southwest from Fort Belknap and bypassing Fort Phantom Hill. (David Rumsey Map Collection)

Fun with maps

map 1754

French map from 1754 (Library of Congress)

Did you know that the now- states of Arkansas and Louisiana once bordered Georgia, North, and South Carolina? It’s true! Until 1785, the original English colonies (after 1783, the original U.S. states) stretched their western boundaries all the way to the Mississippi River. In doing this, the colonies refused to recognize the Indian Reserve that the English had established between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River after the French Indian War in 1763. Inside this “middle ground” lived the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Shawnees, Delawares, and other tribes.

The Northwest and Southwest Ordinances (1785 and 1790, respectively) transformed the lands into territories for the creation of new states.Though George Washington proposed that the Indian tribes use the opportunity to form their own states, this suggestion was not taken seriously. Instead, new states were formed, and ultimately, their citizens advocated for Indian removals.

Lost La Salle

The map by Jean Baptist Franquelin, printed in Paris (France) in 1684, is a facsimile of the original that has been lost. It now resides at Harvard University (this is an image from the Library of Congress).

The map depicts the area of Louisiana claimed by the French, but Franquelin had to rely on descriptions by those who had traveled and surveyed the areas. Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, was one of the people who described the New World to Franquelin. It must have been a really bad description, because the Mississippi River (named Colbert on this map, in honor of the French minister of Finance) doesn’t even empty into the gulf.

If La Salle relied on these directions for navigation, no wonder he got lost. 🙂

la salle

Go here: https://www.loc.gov/item/2001620469/ to see this map in all its zoomable glory.

Published in: on March 15, 2018 at 5:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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.

Published in: on February 6, 2018 at 3:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lone Grave

Along a county road in Jackson County, Oklahoma, lies the lonesome grave of Joel Moseley, 1846-1890.

Aaron or Prairie Hill school grave at side of road 2

Mr. Moseley was born in Georgia and, at one point, made his way to Texas. He died when Jackson County (organized in 1907) was still part of Greer County, Texas until the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the land between the North Fork and the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River belonged to Oklahoma Territory.

Aaron or Prairie Hill school grave at side of road 4

Mr. Moseley may have died on a cattle drive (if it was a long distance cattle drive, it would have been the Great Western or Dodge City trail). He was buried along the trail, as the nearest cemetery was ten miles away.

Locals knew about the grave, which was ringed with native stones and featured the granite headstone placed by his daughter, a Texas school teacher. They became concerned when the land surrounding it began to erode, so the county commissioner and his crew encased Mr. Moseley’s resting place in concrete along a culvert to keep him where he belongs.

I stumbled upon the grave when I was driving out to the old Aaron school, and found the information above from Find a Grave.

Aaron or Prairie Hill school 5

The Aaron school in Jackson County, Oklahoma (near Altus).

The prairie is full of surprises.

Published in: on February 4, 2018 at 8:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Louisiana Respect

Texas is a big state. It’s also my birthplace and the birthplace of my dad, so of course I feel affinity for it… sometimes. It’s also a place with a LOT OF hot air circulating around – or rather, hot airbags. But you know I love you, Texas.

With that being said (and bracing for the pounding I might receive in written form later on), I am going to go on a limb to claim that if you want to visit a whole ‘nother country, it really isn’t Texas – it’s Louisiana.

Ouch! Don’t hit.

Texas may have been the birthplace of Bonnie and Clyde, but they died in Louisiana - near Gibsland, to be exact, where I met this really cool guy and his eclectic collection of antiques that he's not willing to sell.

Texas may have been the birthplace of Bonnie and Clyde, but they died in Louisiana – near Gibsland, to be exact, where I met this really cool guy and his eclectic collection of antiques that he’s not willing to sell.

I mean, just look at Louisianan diversity. They don’t have counties, they have parishes. Their Mardi-Gras is a unique blend of Catholicism, Carnival, Fasching, and Santeria. The mighty Mississippi forms its delta here, for gosh’s sakes.

And check out those who’ve made their homes in LA. The original inhabitants were the Caddos, Natchez, Coushattas, Chickasaws and Choctaws, all of whom built large tiered cities and a sophisticated farming and trading system. Later, the creoles emerged, people of mixed Spanish, French, Native, Caribbean, and African descent who, to this day, populate the Red River. Then there are beautiful places like Natchitoches and the French Quarter, whose buildings mirror Spanish architectural styles in a New World colonial layout (it’s mostly not French construction – after the French Quarter burned down, the Spanish, who controlled New France from 1763 until 1798, rebuilt it using brick and stone). The Cajuns stem from displaced French Canadians (Acadians), who were kicked out of said colony by the British and found their way to southwestern Louisianne, with their unique brand of French and their willingness to adapt their cuisine to native flora and fauna. People of African descent, mostly former slaves, built thriving towns, churches, schools, and businesses under strained circumstances, as it was Plessy v. Ferguson – which established the “separate but equal” doctrine – that began in Louisiana courts. The Germans brought their industry and Christmas customs with them, as did the English with their protestant and free-market ways. The Italians introduced some wonderful foods to Louisiana’s palate – Shreveport once had Italian delis and bakeries all over downtown. Today, large immigrant groups from Mexico, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, and India have made this state into a true melting pot of world cultures.

Louisiana does not just have haunted plantation, but haunted towers, too.

Louisiana does not just have haunted plantations, but haunted towers, too.

And where else can you take a picture of a bridge in downtown Shreveport, right next to gaudy casinos, and realize that it was not an old bicycle seat sticking out from the bayou muck, but an alligator’s head?

I know that Texas compares just as much. After all, SIX flags flew over Texas (although I still don’t buy the French claim to Texas, as La Salle’s colony was pretty much a failed usurpation and New Spain never recognized French claims south of the Red River west of the Great Bend). But Texas doesn’t have Natchitoches meat pies. Or beignets. Or Civil War battle sites.

Vive la Louisianne! Okay, okay, and viva Tejas.

And where else but Louisiana can you find a triangular truss bridge?

And where else but Louisiana can you find a triangular truss bridge?

It’s Here! The Red River Valley in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest

The book will appear at stores and online in February 2014! You know you want it.

Now available all over the place!

I am not one for bragging, but when I opened the box that contained my author’s copies of my newest book, The Red River Valley in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest, I had to admit that the cover NAILED it. It is so, so pretty!

From the back cover:

“The Red River’s dramatic bend in southwestern Arkansas is the most distinctive characteristic along its 1,300 miles of eastern flow through plains, prairies and swamplands. This stretch of river valley has defined the culture, commerce and history of the region since the prehistoric days of Caddo inhabitants. Centuries later, as the plantation South gave way to westward expansion, people found refuge and adventure along the area’s trading paths, military roads, riverbanks, rail lines and highways. This rich heritage is why the Red River in Arkansas remains a true gateway to the Southwest. Author Robin Cole-Jett deftly navigates the history and legacy of one of the Natural State’s most precious resources.” I blush.

Check out my other books, too: Traveling History with Bonnie & Clyde, Traveling History up the Cattle Trails, and Images of America: Lewisville.

Oh, and while you’re clicking away, don’t forget to visit the origination of all of my explorations: www.redriverhistorian.com

I started my website WAY back in 2002 as a way to share my love of regional history with like-minded people. It’s become a really fun conduit to share information, photos, and discoveries. I now keep up with many readers through my Facebook page, too.

Happy Trails!