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!

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An Arkansas Traveler

The old story of the “Arkansas Traveler” tells of a person coming through the backwoods of Arkansas and happening upon a house. The traveler is lost or maybe just curious, and the house’s inhabitants answer his questions  – such as “Where is the nearest town?” or “What do you do here for fun?” – in a roundabout manner… “It’s closest to the nearest signpost” or “Spit upwind and see on who it lands.” The conversation then devolves from there. Depending on the person telling the tale, it either makes fun of the foreign nube or the Arkansas dude.

"Arkansas Traveler" sheet music cover, 1937, Library of Congress."

“Arkansas Traveler” by Herb Block, 1937, Library of Congress.

 

I’ve been traveling through Arkansas on and off for the last six months to complete my newest book, The Red River in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest (The History Press, forthcoming February 2014), and all I can say is that I’ve never met nicer folks or a more interesting section of the Red River Valley.

The Red River makes a big bend right alongside the old steamboat port of Fulton. All rivers have their bends, some more than others (the Red River exhibits several, actually). What makes the Great Bend so important to the Red is that it changes the nature of the river, as it falls from a west -to-east stream  to a north-to-south stream. This also means that it changes from a sandy, broad, and not-very-navigable river to a narrower, deeper, and navigable channel. And not just that; the culture of the river changes, too. The American West, with its nomadic native tribes and its reliance on range animals, gives way to the Old South, with its reliance on cotton economy, race, and the plantation system. Yeah, I’m painting with broad strokes here, but history bears me out.

The railroad bridge above the Red River at Fulton.

The railroad bridge above the Red River at Fulton.

Maybe that’s why I’ve developed a real affection for Fulton. During the mid-19th century, this city was THE place for cotton shipments. I was also able to find several accounts of a booming slave trade based on the region’s many plantations, both big and small. It was also a genuine frontier town, situated directly across Old Mexican Texas (until 1836) and then the Republic of Texas before the border lines shifted in favor of the Lone Star State. Sam Williams, who grew up in Fulton during the 1830s where his father ran a tavern, reminisced about the town’s propensity as an emigrant gateway, with several inns, bars, restaurants and gambling halls to cater to their needs. He also said – and I can picture a twinkle in his eye – that there weren’t many churches around as Fulton’s inhabitants weren’t exactly “religiously inclined.”

Fulton, like the rest of the Old Southwest before the Civil War, succumbed to the modern age of the railroads and automobiles. There’s not much left to indicate what the area used to look like, or how busy it once was. Floods and new cities, such as Texarkana and Hope, replaced the older settlements in economics and location, just like the older Anglo settlements replaced the Caddoan villages that dotted the Red River before the Louisiana Purchase. Progress, whether good or bad, has made its mark on this small but incredibly diverse portion of the Red River. It fascinates me to no end, and provides me with ample opportunity to try to discover remnants of what used-to-be.

A great place to begin this historical exploration is Washington State Historic Park, located along the Southwest Trail (the Old Chihuahua Trail, now State Road 195) a few miles northeast of Fulton. There, the traveler can discover the importance of Hempstead County’s first seat and the temporary capital of Arkansas during the Civil War, with two courthouses, plenty of vintage houses, a recreation of the blacksmith shop where James Bowie supposedly had his famous knife designed, and the largest magnolia tree in the state. The Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives are there as well, with tons of information – including maps and photographs – about the area.

A scene from Old Washington

A scene from Old Washington

Washington and Fulton are both on this Southwest Trail, the main road that led people like Stephen F. Austin and his original 300 settlers into Texas. What I found interesting is that the trail is well-marked between Washington and Fulton, but north of Washington, the road becomes indistinguishable amid a plethora of dirt roads. I tried to follow the old trail, but got lost.

I reckon the tale of the Arkansas Traveler is still pretty pertinent.

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

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

Published in: on January 2, 2014 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Another Red River Historian

When you take into the account the vast volumes of literature that American historians have produced over the last two centuries, what becomes clear is that the Red River hasn’t been discussed much. Like the Thames in England, the Nile in Egypt, the Ganges of India, and the Tigris in ancient Persia, rivers have defined the civilizations that grew around them, and the Mississippi River has been given that honor in the United States. And that’s pretty much how it should be… the Red River isn’t the grandest of streams, after all. Though it figured prominently in the boundary questions between the US, Spain, France, the Caddoan Confederacy, Mexico, Texas, and Arkansas, the Red River happened to become important just as river traffic was slowly giving way to the railroads, and what could have become a major river in American history was instead left to nature.

Red River bottoms by childress
Certain historians have recognized the Red River, however, and none has done such a good job of it than Dan Flores. Flores, who holds a PhD from Texas A&M and is a native of Natchitoches, has become one of the eminent historians of American West history. His research has focused on the “Old Southwest” (also called the Near Southwest) in many of his books, and what I like best about him is that he emphasizes the past through both geography and art, which allows the reader to obtain a “sense of place.” One of his first projects was as editor to the short but informative Journal of an Indian Trader: Anthony Glass and the Texas Trading Frontier, 1790-1810 (1985). Flores allows Glass to recount his explorations, adding geographic descriptions to create a valuable reference to early interactions between Native Americans and European capitalists. In Horizontal Yellow: Nature and History in the Near Southwest (1999), he again combined geography and history by explaining – very poetically – how the landscape of the Llano Estacado shaped human interaction. He was one of the first historians to offer a thorough treatment of the Louisiana Purchase expedition up the Red River in Southern Counterpart to Lewis and Clark: The Freeman and Custis Expedition of 1806 (2002). As best he could, he recreated portions of the journey himself, and filled gaps with a realistic imagination as so much of the original landscape had been altered over the years.

Carpenter Bluff bridge wide shot tx side
I highly recommend Dr. Flores’ studies on the Red River. Like John Graves did in his classic treatment of the wild Brazos of 1960, Goodbye to a River, Flores makes the Red River a central figure in his histories, and when you read his books, the river becomes as important a figure as any one man or woman. I truly hope that one day, my small contribution to the study of the Red River will be even a fraction as good as his.

Published in: on May 30, 2013 at 4:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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Who’s the Enemy?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Southern Moon, a bestseller that traces the history of the Comanches, particularly Quanah Parker. It’s a great read, with lots of detailed information and well-rounded research (well, except for some glaring geographical mistakes).

Empire of the Summer Moon describes the Comencheria, which consisted of most of northwest and western Texas.

What I admire about Gwynne is that he doesn’t pull any punches. In academia, not many historians are willing to admit to the atrocities and terror perpetrated by the Comanches against white, black, and Mexican settlers; academics tend to portray the attacks as stemming from an aggressor/defender kind of relationship, with the Old World invading the New World. And of course, when one gets down to brass tacks, that’s exactly from where the animosity generated. Still, Gwynne does not shy away from noting the unprovoked brutality of the Comanches (and other Southern Plains tribes), and provides gruesome details of what happened to people taken captive as well as the fates of the hapless soldiers and warriors on the losing side.

Harper’s Weekly examines Geronimo and the Apaches in 1886. Harpers’ editors tended to view Indians as “noble savages” who only needed understanding and helpful guidance to adopt the ways of the whites.

This is where I find the history of Native Americans in the Red River Valley very sketchy. Tribes like the Caddos, Tonkawas, Wichitas, Kiowas, and Comanches all engaged in a very brutal warrior culture that included some severe tortures. European accounts explain how tribes roasted and/ or buried their enemy warriors alive, raped and mutilated women, and, in some instances, cannibalized their conquests. Of course, the Europeans could be just as horrendous – one just has to cite the inquisition and the entire institution of slavery for evidence, and that doesn’t even begin to recount the European inclination for gruesome public executions. Throughout the years, though, historians have tried to minimize the more “uncomfortable” aspects of Native American cultures. Many historians have painted them as “noble” or “innocent,” negating very integral parts of their society. This, of course, does Native American groups a grave disservice, as it treats them as pure victims. Instead, Indians were formidable adversaries of the whites, blacks, and Mexican settlers: pretty much every major American conflict until the Spanish-American War at least partially focused on the hostile interactions between non-Indians and Indians.

That’s what I really like about Empire of the Summer Moon: Gwynne treats the Southern Plains tribes as real adversaries, not simple roadblocks to progress. His ability to be frank and non-flinching is a refreshing way to view the American West.

Published in: on June 18, 2012 at 3:46 am  Comments (1)  
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