Red River brought settlers to North Louisiana

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Journal Correspondent

Early Louisiana explorers, settlers, and traders regularly used the Red River to move back and forth between Natchitoches and New Orleans, but it was not until the early 19th century that the river was seriously explored.

President Thomas Jefferson ordered the first expedition up the Red, and on April 19, 1806, Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis led twenty-two men, two flat-bottomed boats and a pirogue out of Fort Adams, Miss. More soldiers and guides were picked up later.

After navigating the river’s treacherous mouth, the men soon noticed watermarks fourteen to twenty feet high on the trees. Freeman later witnessed the floods himself and wrote, “[F]ew men can be found hardy enough to stand the poisonous effects of Half dried mud, putrid fish & Vegetable matter-almost impregnable cane brakes, and swarms of mosketos with which these low lands abound after the waters are withdrawn.” Portaging around the rapids at modern-day Alexandria, the expedition reached a fork in the river near modern-day Boyce where the log jam known as the Great River Raft began.

The western fork was called Cane River because of the numerous cane brakes along its banks. The eastern fork was considered to be the main Red River channel, but local inhabitants called it the Rivi re de Petit Bon Dieu (River of the Little Good God). The name was said to be a reference to a priest losing his “images” there years earlier.Although the circumstances are not known, he may have lost a small statue of the baby Jesus that Catholics often possess.

Guides informed Freeman and Custis that the Rivi re de Petit Bon Dieu was too clogged with logs to pass through. As a result, they entered Cane River, and headed toward Natchitoches. Paddling up Cane River, the expedition began to encounter more and more people. Freeman wrote, “The inhabitants are a mixture of French, Spanish, Indian, and Negro blood, the latter often predominating, and live in small cottages on the banks and near the river.”

After passing Natchitoches, the men reconnected with the Red River just below the high bluffs known as Grand Ecore. When they reached Campti, they began to encounter another series of log jams and had to detour into a small stream known as Bayou Datche. Freeman claimed Bayou Datche was an Indian term meaning a “gap eaten by a Bear in a log.” Today, we know it as Bayou Dorcheat. Paddling up Bayou Datche, the party soon entered Lake Bistineau, and was awed by its splendor. Freeman reported, “[It] is beautifully variegated with handsome clumps of cypress trees thinly scattered on it. ... It is called by the Indians Big Broth, from the vast quantities of froth seen floating on its surface at high water.”

From Lake Bistineau, the men encountered a labyrinth of sloughs, lakes and bayous they called the “Great Swamp.” One of the bodies of water was known as Swan Lake, and may have been located south of modern-day Bossier City.

Some years later, another explorer noted there were a large number of huge alligators in this lake that “roared like great bulls.” One of the most difficult stretches of water for the men was Red Chute Bayou in Bossier Parish. Its current was so swift that they had to tie ropes onto trees and bushes and pull the boats upstream. Increasing the danger was a large number of dead trees that came crashing down whenever a boat bumped them.

From Red Chute Bayou, the boats entered an area Custis called “Badtka,” which may have been modern-day Bodcau Swamp. Freeman claimed that extreme care was taken not to run into the many dead trees that also littered that passageway. In some places the vegetation also crowded around the boats so thick the men could barely see beyond the boats’ bows. After much difficulty the expedition finally made it to modern-day Swan Lake and then reentered the Red River by way of Willow Chute near Benton.

While visiting the Coushatta Indians who lived in the area, Freeman wrote, “Cat Fish were taken at the camp near the village of from 15 to 70 pounds weight. . . .” From the Coushatta village Freeman and Custis continued upstream into Arkansas and points west. However, they never made it to the river’s headwaters because Spanish authorities in Mexico sent soldiers to intercept them in what is now Bowie County, Texas.

In August 1806, the expedition was forced to turn around and head back. Despite their failure to complete the mission, Freeman and Custis made the first scientific study of the Red River. (See Dan Flores, ed., Jefferson and Southwestern Exploration: Freeman and Custis Accounts of the Red River Expedition of 1806.)

Dr. Terry L. Jones is professor emeritus of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe who has received numerous awards for his books and outdoor articles.