Ay Chihuahua!

I often spend my evenings (as well as days, weekends, times when I should be grading papers…) perusing old maps. One of my particular interests is mapping the Chihuahua Trail.

The Chihuahua Trial was a short-lived road blazed by merchants from Mexico and the U.S. In 1830, Mexican merchants traveled from Chihuahua to Fort Smith, Arkansas for trade. After the Texas Revolution, American merchants (in particular a Missourian named Henry Connelly) wanted to ensure a continued trade path with Mexico.

Map 1

I superimposed some geographic markers on this map. I figured out that it was Belknap Creek where the Chihuahua bound trading party got stuck in the mud in 1840.

So, in 1840, several American merchants, Mexican dragoons,and circus performers (who were to entertain townspeople along the way so that the party wouldn’t be tolled too much) left Fulton (Hempstead County, Arkansas) and traveled westward. Their route pretty much paralleled today’s U.S. Highway 82.

I found an 1846 map outlining routes to Santa Fe, Chihuahua, Monterrey, and Matamoros at Oklahoma State University’s digital map collection. I saw that at one point, the Chihuahua Trail bisected the Military Road that connected Santa Fe to San Antonio and the Route of the misguided Santa Fe expedition of 1841.

Map 2

I was very curious about this cross roads. One would think it would be an important cross roads even today, but that’s not the case.

As the nosy person that I am, I wanted to pinpoint the cross roads, which, as noted in the 1846 map, was conveniently situated in the Cross Timbers. According to Roy Swift from the Handbook of Texas, it was at this location where the trading party encountered boggy soil that took them weeks to get through. Their mucky delay cost them dearly, because while they were mired, Mexican and U.S. tariffs had increased to the point that trade was severely handicapped. When the party finally arrived, no one was really thrilled, and the Chihuahua Trail was abandoned.

I wonder if this is when the clowns began to cry. Ha ha, I couldn’t resist. <Rim shot.>

Map 3

The place where the west-bound Chihuahua Trail crossed the north-bound route to Santa Fe was along a small arm of Belknap Creek. The proximity to the headwaters of the West Fork of the Trinity River – which are a series of springs – may have contributed to the bogs that the trading party encountered in 1840.

Of course, I could be wrong in my estimation. I’m sure the trading party didn’t call the creek it encountered by its current name of Belknap. When you’re mired for several weeks in mud as they were in 1840, you’d probably call it by the name of that proverbial place you end up where you do not have access to a paddle, ha ha.

Map 4

Using Google maps, I figured that the Chihuahua Trail crossed the military road between today’s Belcherville and Stoneburg (Montague County, Texas).

 

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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.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

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!

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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