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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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)