It looked like the whole town of Natchitoches was waiting for us as we drifted up to the dock. Men of every race and color, many who appeared to be of mixed African and French descent, from shirtsleeves to tailcoats and top hats to all manner of dress in between, stood with ladies of equally diverse origin, all gussied up in their finery, some twirling parasols. They were cheering and applauding our arrival as if we were the Second Coming.
We had arrived at about two in the afternoon on Wednesday, March 25. The Ohio was the first boat in, followed by the Arkansaw and the Missouri. For me, it was like a breath of fresh air. A real town, out here in the middle of the frontier. I was eager to explore it.
Looking north up the town’s main street, which bore the name Front, handsome black carriages rolled past men on horseback. Both men and women traversed the wooden walkways as they entered and departed storefronts. Not far away was an elegant two-story building painted white with black wrought-iron railings and embellishments. The ornate sign, lettered in gold, read “Le St. Jean Baptiste Inn.” Its architectural style was decidedly French, quite different from the barn-plain buildings back in Tennessee. Since it had been almost two months since our stay at the Bell Tavern, that sign was a most welcome sight for all of us.
“Bienvenus! Bienvenus!” said a gentleman of obvious authority who had pushed his way through the crowd. He was well dressed in a gray suit, a matching cravat stuffed into a fluffy white shirt, a striped silk vest stretched over a rotund belly, and matching gray top hat. “Je suis Pierre Derbanne, l’administrateur général de Natchitoches. Bienvenus!” He lifted his hat and bowed and said, “Ben Torbett, c’est bon de vous revoir, mon ami! Nous attendions anxieusement votre arrivée…Pardonnez-moi, I should speak to you in English! We have been anxiously awaiting your arrival since your expédition—your journey—was first reported from Pineville. Le St. Jean Baptiste has prepared des chambres d’hôtel—rooms—for you, et aussi— at the boarding house—on the Rue Trudeau. We wish to provide qualité accommodations for all of you, mesdames et messieurs, therefore several of our citizens gladly offer their homes to you. This is un bonne journée for you and for our city! We hope you will enjoy votre temps here.”
Ben stepped up to the administrator, and they shook hands. “Monsieur Derbanne, it has been far too long. Each day up the Red we have dreamt of our arrival at your fine city,” he said. “We thank you for this hospitality.”
Monsieur Derbanne beamed at Ben, then at the rest of us, and said, “Mesdames et messieurs, as Ben knows, there is great interest in your expedition and your plan to navigate through the Great Raft into the Territory of Arkansaw. Others have done it on a much smaller scale, but never with such une grande community as yours. Natchitoches is the gateway to the wilderness of Arkansaw Territory, and you are the first community of settlers to open this new door to that land of riches and wide-open spaces.”
So our mercantile potential is the real cause for this celebration, I thought.
“Félicitations!” He waved his top hat in the air. “Congratulations and again, welcome to our city,” Monsieur Derbanne continued. “And”— he bent to the side as a woman whispered in his ear—“ca alors, oui, merci, May. I nearly forgot. We wish to invite you to a barbacoa later this afternoon in Jefferson Park. That is the Spanish word we use for an outdoor supper.” May tapped Monsieur Derbanne’s arm and whispered again. He nodded and said, “Wonderful food will be prepared, and you will be able to meet many of our townfolk and merchants. We wish you a pleasant rest in Natchitoches and Godspeed as you depart for your new home!”
Monsieur Derbanne turned to leave, and the crowd dispersed behind him. “Yup,” said Mr. Duty quietly to Pa. “No doubt these folks see us as the harbinger of many more settlers passing through their town with money to spend. Includin’ us, to be sure. That expectation should make us quite popular with the merchants of Natchitoches. That is, if we can tell them what we want to buy in French.” We all laughed.
We helped the ladies off the keelboats and for the next hour unloaded those things we would need for a two-day stay. Porters kindly provided by the inn took our belongings to our various accommodations. We were all looking forward to a bath and sleeping in a real bed.
On the way upriver, Ben had told us some about the city. Natchitoches is an Indian word that means paw-paw, or chinquapin. As you may know, the chinquapin is a small nut found in the region that resembles an acorn, but unlike the acorn is quite tasty. The town is named after the Natchitoches tribe, part of the Kadohadacho civilization. At the time, many in the tribe lived in a nearby village or in the town itself. Natchitoches is an old town, founded as a French trading post over a hundred years before our arrival. The French built a fort there and named it after John the Baptist—Jean de Baptiste—and Natchitoches became the region’s trading center. Over the decades, Fort Jean de Baptiste became dilapidated and was replaced by the American Fort Claiborne in 1804, which was built just outside of town by the US Cavalry.
The French built their fort at Natchitoches because it was the head of what most thought of as the most navigable stretch of the Red River. Above us lay the ominous giant logjam up into the Arkansaw Territory, the Great Raft. Since it is mighty difficult to get boats through the Great Raft, almost all river-borne cargo was transferred to and from land transportation at Natchitoches, going east on the trail known as the Natchez Trace, or southwest on the El Camino Real to New Spain. Naturally, that made Natchitoches an important crossroads for commerce—and, unfortunately, a magnet for every scoundrel within five hundred miles.
Pa was able to secure a fine room for Mama and my sisters on the upper floor of the St. Jean, which turned out to be next door to Ben’s and James’s room, which they would share with Pa, Joel, and me. The McKellars had two rooms a few doors down the hall. Myself, Pa, and Joel were entering the inn with our porters when we met Valac LaBrot walking rapidly toward us from the Missouri with two men. He was breathless.
“Gentlemen,” Valac said as he stopped, breathing hard. “I thank you. It was a pleasure traveling with you from Nashville. Just now I have met with my superior, the honorable John Jamison, US Indian Agent for these parts, and have been accepted with gratitude and honor for my new position. I go now with these porters to gather my possessions from the boat, then I will be off.”
“Congratulations, Mr. LaBrot,” said Pa. “May your work here be a great success and help eliminate the possibility of Indian attacks up the river at our new homesteads.”
“Of course. Of course,” said Valac. “If you encounter any trouble, please contact me immediately. And Tom, although we did not have the opportunity to discuss your legal aspirations, feel free to visit me anytime here in Natchitoches. Our offices are just down the street, on Rue Poète.”
“Thank you,” I said and looked over at Pa, who had no reaction. I looked back at LaBrot. The sun was not in my eye, but for some reason I squinted at him nonetheless. “And good luck in your new position.”
In great haste, Valac shook our hands and was off again toward the boat.
“Tom, what did Mr. LaBrot mean about legal aspir-nations,” asked Joel. “Are you in trouble because Peter couldn’t breathe when he got sucked into that quicksand?”
Pa and I burst into laughter. “No, Joel, it is nothing to do with that. Mr. LaBrot was referring to the law as the occupation I wish to pursue. When we were talking one night, he said that he was once a lawyer, and I mentioned my interest. I think Mr. LaBrot was happy to have someone to talk to, although we never did talk. He seems a queer type.”
“Yeah, I think so, too,” said Joel.
“Now you boys, just keep those opinions to yourself. Nothing good comes from speaking poorly about others,” said Pa, with a little wink to me. Seems as Pa had similar opinions of Mr. LaBrot.
We all laughed again. Our spirits were much improved for being off the river.
It was a mild March day, refreshingly clear after the torrents of rain earlier in the week. The streets were still muddy in spots, but the main roads had dried, and fortunately there were boardwalks along several of the main thoroughfares through town. Most everyone who wanted one got their bath, then we headed over to the barbacoa. Sides of pork and beef turned on spits, tables were covered with dishes of baked beans, roasted corn, hot potatoes, and fresh vegetables. Once again, the good people of Natchitoches warmly welcomed us.
“Well children, what do you think of Natchitoches?” asked Mama as we set to eating delicious pork ribs and beans.
“It is a city,” said Joel. “I thought we were going to the frontier where there was nothing but Indians and bears. And here we are in a city.”
“You should be pleased,” said Martha. “I certainly am. We’ll have time enough for bears and Indians when we get to Loooong Prairrrrie,” she added, making it sound quite gloomy.
“Papa, is that right?” said Barney.
“Well, where we are going will not be like this, and that is a fact,” said Pa. “We’ve come almost one thousand miles, but the next hundred or so miles will take us into a land where there are not many settlers. Decades ago, the Indians that lived there moved away, leaving the land for the taking.”
“The Indians are all gone?” asked little Mary.
Pa replied, “No, not entirely. But the ones that remain are peaceful.
As long as we don’t threaten them, they won’t threaten us.” “Why did the Indians move away?” asked Barn.
“Most of them wanted to live closer to their friends and family at a big lake to the west,” said Pa. “Many of their tribe had been taken ill—”
Mama jumped in to change the subject, saying, “John, we ladies plan to visit some of the stores here in Natchitoches tomorrow morning to view their local fabrics. We don’t know when we might have such an opportunity again.”
“That sounds like a fine way to spend the day,” said Pa. “Will you take the girls?” Mama looked at Martha and Mary, whose faces begged to be included. She smiled and nodded. “Good. I will be taking the boys with me to look at cattle and purchase some other supplies. You just take your time, Mag.”
What Pa didn’t say to Barney was that, decades ago, the Kado Indians had been decimated by white man’s diseases, and the survivors had consolidated into fewer communities, one of which was indeed at a lake west of the Red River. The sad truth was that the area around Long Prairie was uninhabited because many of the former residents had died. Thursday turned into a relaxing day off the river for the entire expedition. We had a fine night’s rest at the St. Jean, although James and I lay awake for a time conversing about the challenges of navigating the Great Raft. His father lay in the next bed snoring so loud we probably could have yelled our conversation and he would have never heard a word. How Pa slept through it I do not know, but he was pretty good at snoring himself. It was good to talk with James, since we had not had much opportunity since entering the Red. My opinion of him had changed during our voyage. I did indeed like and admire James quite a lot, no matter his periodic carousing.
Pa had us up early. Joel, Barney, and I went down to breakfast with him in the inn’s dining room, leaving Mama and the girls to get themselves ready for the day. James joined us, but before long his pa came looking for him, and they took off to deal with keelboat maintenance. We dug into eggs, grits, and big slices of ham. Pa gave the three of us a lecture on what we might expect in the coming days and how he expected us to act like men, not boys. “I expect nothing will be easy about getting through the Great Raft, but nevertheless, it must be done cheerfully and without complaint.”
We each nodded and said, “Yessir.”
Our first stop was back to the dock to check on Andrew, Jackson, and Old Nick, who had spent the night down by the Ohio. They had done fine. We fed them and let the dogs run for a while, then we tied them back up so we could get on with our day’s business. We stopped to see Ben and James, who were caulking some cracks in the Missouri’s hull. Ben recommended two establishments where Pa might purchase cattle. We had no plans to purchase cattle now, but instead would meet with the proprietors and plan to come back to Natchitoches in a few weeks after getting ourselves settled at Long Prairie.
We walked down Amulet Street to a large barn surrounded by several pens with a painted sign out front that read, “Natchitoches Compagnie de Bovins.” There were two dozen or so cows in one pen, some few hogs in a second pen, and half dozen horses in a third.
“Good day, Mr. Murrell! What can I do for you gentlemen?” We had met this genial man named Bertrand Abbadie at the barbacoa, where he had introduced himself as the proprietor. He spoke in broken French, with elaborate gestures, “Nous avons vos vaches, ah, cows. We have your chevaux—horses, your pigs. Si vous préférez les, ah, mules? Ou les, um, chickens if you are of a mind.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Pa with a straight face, even though I thought Mr. Abbadie was rather humorous.
“Pardon, Monsieur Murrell. Vous…envisagez de devenir plus qu’un agriculteur? Are you planning on doing anythin’ more than farming, Mr. Murrell?”
“Yes, I believe so. We’re ten families, and most of our neighbors will be farming, so produce should be plentiful. We’ll do our part in that regard, of course. But I suspect that there will be a dearth of beef up our way, and folks will tire of wild game after a time. I’m hoping to do some cattle ranching, which is what prompted me to call upon you today. Livestock will provide my family with a source of food and income if we happen to hit a bad year for the crops.”
“You, monsieur, are a wise and thoughtful man. It is, how you say, surprising how many folks go off into the wilderness without thinking about, um, un virage pour le pire. Things that go wrong, n’est-ce pas? A man in your position needs to employ his thought in imagining all sorts of dire consequences without, you become le cynique? Er, maudlin? If I may say so.”
“You may,” said Pa. “It is simply planning for unanticipated consequences. A man need not feel defeated over that, but instead rather confident that he has prepared well.”
“Eh, bien, well spoken, monsieur. Your planning today will pay you handsomely in the future. How can I be of service to you today?”
“I already know what I want, Mr. Abbadie. Today I am just looking at your stock, mainly cattle. We’ll be back in a few weeks to do our purchasing.”
“That too is a wise stroke of planning, sir. You’ll see we have some fine longhorns here. I’m sure you are familiar with the breed. These come direct from the Spanish cattle brought to these parts by the Avoyelles Indians long before the French built the Jean St. Baptiste fort. But one other matter, since you are a wise planner. I should mention that I am not able to sell on credit to gents living up above the Raft. It is just too much trouble to get up there and back down here, if you understand my meaning.”
“I do, but I have already planned to pay for my livestock upon taking delivery, once we have agreed upon the price, of course.”
“Eh, très bien, very good, Mr. Murrell. Very good indeed,” said Mr. Abbadie. “Now let me point out the animals I feel would benefit your needs.”
We had a similar meeting later that morning at the Centre Commercial de Bétail de la Louisiane du Nord, a fancy-sounding place that was pretty much identical to Mr. Abbadie’s. Pa showed us boys what to look for when buying livestock, and we talked some about pricing and negotiating.
“Thank you for your time, sir,” Pa said to the owner, who had been mucking out the crowded pig sty; the large, malodorous animals all the while grunting and bumping into each other.
As we walked away, Pa was smiling, and Joel asked him why. “Because I’m pleased to have a choice between two livestock dealers,” he replied. “But you’ll only pick one, so how come you talk to two?” Joel asked. “Because I can ask each man to state his best price for my livestock purchase and use the difference between to make them compete for my business,” said Pa.
“Oh, I see. That way you get the best deal, right Papa?” queried Joel. Pa nodded affirmatively.
We were walking back toward the inn when we passed by a short side street named Rue Poète. The name caught in my memory and I stopped. Down the block I could see a clapboard building that resembled a house more than it did a mercantile. A brass plaque was mounted beside the door. I stepped quickly ahead of Pa and my brothers to get close enough to see it read:
United States of America
Office of Indian Trade