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      Red River Raft

In the 1700s the Red River was regarded as the dividing line between French and Spanish territories. In response to the Louisiana Purchase, the Spanish issued a royal cedula proclaiming the river to be the northern and eastern boundary of the Spanish province of Texas. As the United States had purchased half a continent, taking a look at what you got was the next logical step.

In 1805 Dr. John Sibley supplied the United States with a detailed description of the area up the river and westward as far as Santa Fe, New Mexico.  In 1806 President Jefferson organized the Red River Expedition. The Red River stretches from Louisiana into parts of New Mexico. After sending a group of explorers up the Red River, Jefferson wanted to verify their reports that the Red River could provide a water route to Santa Fe.  However, the Red ran through Spanish lands, and American trespassers might not be welcome.

Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore of Red River.  The expedition entered the river in May, 1806.  A month passed before the explorers passed into uncharted areas beyond Natchitoches.  Snags and log jams on the river continually delayed the boats; then the company encountered the Red River Raft, a huge obstruction that clogged the stream just north of present Natchitoches, Louisiana. The men described a mass of red cedar, cottonwood, and cypress trees covered with bushes, grass, and weeds so tightly bound that "a man could walk over it in any direction."  The raft covered the entire width of the river and extended to the bottom of the channel. "An almost impenetrable mass," Freeman wrote in his journal, dammed the river.  The immensity of the raft convinced Freeman that no amount of effort could clear the  river.  It took almost two months to negotiate their boats past the Great Bend of the Red River just past Fulton. 

The obvious question is, where did all these trees originate?  Jacques Bagur,* says that the logs were obtained from the banks of the Red River, which cut back and forth across the alluvial plain, consuming immense quantities of timber.  The noise, he claims, of the falling trees in spring was likened to the distant roar of artillery.However, before the party could reach present McCurtain County, Oklahoma southeast of today's Idabel, they were met by Spanish troops.  While the explorers had followed the river, the Spanish, who had received word of the expedition, had marched overland.  The Spanish soldiers ordered them to leave.  Unwilling to instigate an international incident, the Americans headed down river.  The Freeman-Custis Expedition was not judged a success.

King &  Champney, illustrations, The  Great South, 1875.

As early as 1822 as many as five steam packets regularly plied the Red between New Orleans and Natchitoches.  But the "impenetrable mass" dammed the Red River north of Natchitoches, stifling  commerce from northwestern Texas, Arkansas, and Indian Territory down to the Gulf of Mexico. The raft helped Indians dominate trade along the northern part of the Red River and discouraged new white settlements.  It was clear that removal would promote white migration by uncovering thousands of fertile acres for agriculture.

 Although several attempts would be made to clear the raft almost a century would pass before the Red River above Natchitoches would be safe for steamboats. In addition to the Raft, navigation on the Red Rivers was difficult and dangerous due to snags and frequent low water.  Boats often attempted to go upstream almost year round, but the usual "boating season" ran from January to June.  Although seasonal high freight rates made steamboat operations attractive.

 Keelboats were employed on the Red  River before and after the arrival of steam boats.  Generally they were 40 to 90 feet long with a 7 to 10 foot beam, and had a depth of hold of 3 or 4 feet and could carry up to 50 tons of cargo.  These shallow draft boats, only 2 or 3 feet, were pointed on both ends and had a cabin covering the center of the hull. Around the gunwales of the boat was a walkway 1 or 2 feet wide, on which the crew walked when poling the boat upstream.  The boats could also be rowed and were often outfitted with a sail.

Reproduction of Lewis & Clark keelboat.

In 1831 Ben Milam, who become a hero of the Texas Revolution, conducted the first steamboat voyage to the Upper Red River above Shreveport, Louisiana.  He took the steamboat Enterprise through the swamps and bayous that then made up much of Red River to deliver supplies to Fort Towson, in what is now Oklahoma.  The Enterprise stopped on the way at Long Prairie in Lafayette County, Arkansas in the summer 1831.  This momentous occasion was noted in a letter to the Arkansas Gazette by one James S. Conway  of Lafayette who described the elation of the folks of Long Prairie.

The early planters around Penhook  transported  their bales of cotton by mule drawn wagons or ox carts to the port at Saline Landing on the Little River.  There the bales might be warehoused until the fall rains raised the river to a safe level for a trip down stream, ultimately, to New Orleans. There the bales would be shipped to the mills in the north or in England.If the Red River was impassable there was an alternate route at Camden on the Ouachita river, which also connected to the Red River east of Alexandria and on to New Orleans.  But wagons to Camden took five or six days, whereas a wagon could make it to Saline Landing and back in a single day. John Johnson of Penhook built a steamboat "Enterprise" at Saline Landing to run between New Orleans and Camden. He floated it down to New Orleans and had it fitted with a boiler and other machinery. He managed to get it upstream to Camden in 1828, but it sank at the warf.

The federal government's first serious attempt at clearing the Red River began in 1833 when Capt. Henry M. Shreve, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and 159 men using Shreve's invention, the "snag steamboat," tore logs from the tail of the raft, causing them to float downstream.  By 1836 Shreve had  a cleared path of seventy-one miles. Shreve requested additional funds to keep the river open, but Congress chose to ignore Shreve's request, and by August 1839 the great raft had fought back, barring once again the upper Red River to steam boat travel. During the war steam boat traffic to Arkansas was cut off after the fall of Port Hudson and did not resume until 1866. Word arrived that a steam boat would dock in Fulton in May of that year. A group from Penhook waited in Fulton for two weeks for its arrival. Fulton was crowded with loaded wagons carrying freight to be shipped to New Orleans. When the boat finally arrived it took two days to off load and load all the freight. Johnson family history records that Luta Cheatham and Lula Brunson of Penhook boarded the boat to New Orleans and stayed there two years before returning to Penhook. That was some shopping trip.

Lt. E. A. Woodruff, another army engineer, with congressional approval,  began again  a major attack on the raft in the spring of 1872. Woodruff utilized Shreve's snag boats and combined them with saw boats and crane boats to assault the tail of the great raft as Shreve had done in 1833. Woodruff was determined not to repeat the past mistake of allowing it to reform.  Once they cleared the channel, engineers began digging reservoirs, dredging the main channel, and constructing dams to hold future flood waters. Inspired by Woodruff's success, Congress appropriated funds to patrol the river with boats that could prevent the raft from reforming.  By 1900 the Red River was permanently open for trade from Indian Territory to the Gulf.  The great Red River raft was finally gone; but, ironically, by that time railroads had replaced steamboats as the preferred means of transportation.

 * Jacques Bagur, : "A history of navigation on Cypress bayou and the lakes"