"Boys, when you come into a new town, there are two places where you need to call,” Pa told us. “One is the general store. The other is the saloon. You need to open your ears and listen for a while. Then ask questions, for you should always be curious. Folks will tell you things if you let them. What you learn and the folk you meet are both important. Where we’re going there aren’t many people, ’cept for a few Indians. We’ll make all the friends here in Natchitoches we can, whether we can talk French to them or not.”
The saloon. So James was not entirely wrongheaded in his reasons for visiting that establishment.
Having conversed with both livestock dealers, our next stop was St. Denis Magasin General et Notions, in plain old English otherwise known as a general store or mercantile, named after the founder of Natchitoches, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis. He was the French- Canadian who established Fort St. Jean Baptiste de Natchitoches in 1713 to promote trade with the local Indians and the Spanish in New Spain. Pa needed to purchase many things for use during the remainder of our trip and, as usual, learn what he could from the proprietor.
We needed some greased paper to use as a window in the cabin we planned to build. Pa decided that each of us boys would be allowed to purchase a pair of trousers and a shirt, to replace the ones we’d worn out on the expedition. We also needed staples like flour, salt, and cornmeal.
A little tin bell tinkled as we opened the door of the general store and looked around. An older gentleman stood a ways away with his back to us, helping a woman choose some ribbon. A somewhat odd- looking young man wearing knee trousers and a weskit, a white shirt with a fleur de lis foulard, and a beaver hat atop a lot of un-barbered black hair was seated behind the counter to the right of the door, writing with a quill in a black ledger book. He jumped up too quickly and as a result banged his knee on the counter.
“Aïe! Infernal ca-counter,” he cussed in a combination of French and English. “Always gettin’ in the way. Hello. I mean, good ma-morning messieurs. Welcome to St. D-Da-Denis dry goods store. What can we ge-get for you today?”
The young man was clearly excitable. Was it by our entrance into the store? I knew not. Given his dress, which seemed above his station as a store clerk, he struck me as a dandy. I had never met someone of this nature, but there was another odd aspect to him. His dark complexion, thick hair, and brown eyes revealed him as clearly of Indian descent. In speech he stuttered, but otherwise he spoke good English with a French accent, not at all Indian.
“We are the Murrells. I am John, and these are my sons Tom, Joel, and Barney,” said Pa, touching each of us on the shoulder as he spoke our names. “There are goods we must purchase for our continuing journey up the Red River to Long Prairie.”
“I am very pleased to meet you and your boys, Mr. Murrell,” the young man said, shaking each of our hands with a firm grip and a broad smile. “I am George Oat, but most people round about here j-j-just call me Oats. Ih-ih-it has na-na nuthin to do with horse feed,” he said, laughing. “My papa also bore the same name, George Oat, you see. We are one of the Kado Oats from the Natchitoches Village. I’m workin’ here for Mr. Laplace to learn the me-me-mercantile business. He is the owner,” he said, pointing across the store at the older man. “He be ta- tied up now with another customer, but I can get cha what cha need. May I offer these boys here a la-la-lickerish?”
Mr. Laplace glanced over his shoulder at us nervously. “Why, yes, that would be very kind. Thank you,” said Pa.
As Oats removed the cover from the large glass apothecary jar filled with the sweet, he continued to rattle on. “I s’pose ya’ll are from the e-ex-pedition goin’ up above the Great Raft, and ya know Mr. B-Ben Torbett. He’s a fine fellow.” Oats handed each of us a lickerish.
“Yes, we know Mr. Torbett, and I am a friend of his son, James,” I said. Oats grinned. “Oui monsieur, that James. He-he’s a character, ain’t he now? Got thrown out of the Jackson Saloon twice when they was here last year. That boy’s gonna get himself kilt or drive Mr. Ben to distraction.
Pa did not look surprised. I was, however, hearing Oats speak so plain about James, as if he were older and wiser, while it appeared to me he was neither. He could not be more than a year or two older than me or James.
“Let’s have a look at your wool trousers and cotton shirts for these boys,” said Pa.
We walked over to tables with a few neat stacks of ready-made clothing. Oats looked at each of us, sizing us up, and began pulling some handsome shirts out and handing them to us. Pa asked Oats the price and Pa made us put them down, picking some made of what looked to be considerably cheaper material.
Pa asked, “Mr. Oats, what do you think about our expedition into the Arkansaw Territory?”
“Oui, mo-monsieur, of course. Your expedition will be good for be- be-bidness here. How many souls are in your party? Seventy-two? You don’t say! Yessuh, mighty good for our enterprise. Why, in five year we’ll have more people coming through N-Na-Natchitoches headed up your way than we will know what to do with.”
Mr. Laplace had finished up with his customer and walked over to join us as Pa said to Oats, “My interest was not in particular how we would improve your business, which I am sure is a valid concern for you and of which I’m equally certain of its improvement. My interest is in how you regard the success of our travels through the aforementioned Great Raft. Are we likely to encounter Indians, either friendly or unfriendly? What is the likelihood we will find suitable land up to Long Prairie upon which to live and farm?”
“Oh, je comprends, monsieur, of course,” said Oats, but was cut short by the arrival of the owner, whom he introduced as “Monsieur Laplace.” He was a tall, handsome man whose height caused me to notice that Oats was also quite tall. Mr. Laplace was pale-skinned with light-colored hair, green eyes, and a small mouth underneath a brush mustache with twisted, waxed ends. He, too, was well dressed, wearing woolen trousers, leather shoes, a striped waistcoat, a pocket watch on a chain, and a collarless shirt with its sleeves rolled up to his substantial biceps. But unlike Oats, he wore no hat. I presumed they clothed themselves smartly so as to promote the merchandise they sold.
“Gentlemen, greetings,” he said in plain English with a deep French accent. “Je suis Jean-Philippe Laplace, the proprietor of this establishment, the only one of its kind in Natchitoches.” Smiling, Laplace hooked his thumbs in his waistcoat’s armholes. Pa introduced us all round once more. “Oats and I are very happy to make your acquaintance. We wish to serve you as best we can. Besides what you see here in my store, we will always be happy to order whatever you do not see, help you with any questions you may have, or provide recommendations of other businesses in Natchitoches. We are genuinely local townspeople. I have lived here since my youth, my mother being from the Carolinas and my father from down in New Orleans. That is why I am fluent in English, which I helped Oats learn as well,” he said, smiling.
“Oats was born at Natchitoches Village, just a few miles away. I believe we are some of the best English speakers you will find in this town of a hundred languages—French, Spanish, many Indian dialects, and everything in between. And we know pretty much everyone. If we don’t know the answer, we know someone who does.”
“I very much appreciate that, Mr. Laplace. What do you know of the land where we are headed? Has there been any…trouble recently?”
“Indian trouble, I’m sure you mean.” He looked at Barney and Joel. “May I speak frankly?”
“Yes, please do, sir. We are seventy-two souls traveling into the unknown. All of us, including my boys and me, need to know what to expect.”
“Well, I have knowledge that some disreputable French traders and hunters whom we drove out of town years ago are holed up at a place called Nanatsoho, some ways above the Great Raft. As a lot, they are unprincipled men who trade their whiskey and guns for pelts and contraband with the Osage and other tribes to the north. Chief Dehahuit, he is le grand chief of the Kado tribe in the village they call Sha’chahdíinni over by the big Kado Lake. He does not like it and has protested to John Jamison, the Indian agent. Well, monsieur, we white folk do not like it either. Sacré bleu! C’est une band de rufians.”
Mr. Laplace leaned against the counter and, returning to less emotional English, spoke in a confidential manner. “You see, this is the problem, M. Murrell. Land. Everyone thinks the land is their own. Dehahuit and his Kados, the Osage, the French traders and hunters, the American settlers. All of them, tous, think the land is just for their people. We white folk, français or américain or whatever, we think in terms of my land.” He paused, perhaps embarrassed to have spoken so plainly. “I mean, you are natural-born Americans, and this is American soil, rightly bought by the American government from the country of my father. You have the right, but the Indians, the French, well, none of them, is likely to see it your way.” “I am somewhat surprised,” said Pa. “Mr. Jamison’s new assistant in the Indian Trade Office—the man’s name is LaBrot, and he is of a family in the Carolinas, I believe—came with us from Nashville and knows exactly where we are going,” said Pa. “You would think if there was a problem, he would have heard something and mentioned it.”
Laplace leaned over toward Pa and spoke quietly. “C’est vrai, I’ve heard as much myself. I think Jamison got his job because of his predecessor, a doctor whose name was Sibley, who sat that chair for about ten years, as I recall. Sibley tended to side with the Indians against his employer who, bien sûr, is the good citizens of the United States. Jamison seems not to have that particular, ah, how you say, proclivity? Frankly, I do not think Jamison cares much for Indians. But he has to work with all the parties in order to keep Dehahuit from raising some kind of difficulté.”
“Dehahuit is hostile?”
“Non, non, he has not been. But Mr. Murrell, all Indians, given suitable provocation, are hostile,” said Mr. Laplace. “And there can be just as much trouble from some of the French, who have been here since long before the United States came into this territory.”
“For example?” said Pa.
“Well, monsieur, a good example was last winter. Jamison got Major Riddle from over at Fort Claiborne to go with him to them Nanatsoho encampments and arrest—how you say, crooked?—French traders for doing business with the Osage, who have been robbing the Kado for years. They arrested half a dozen of the brutes, confiscated their stolen goods, and sent them down to New Orleans to stand trial. By summer they were all back, along with more of their kind. We do not understand why. That is all I heard.”
Pa scratched at his beard, nodding.
Mr. Laplace went on. “We also hear tell that John Fowler—he’s the official government Indian trader who used to be here—he is setting up a new trading post at the fork of the Red and the Sulphur Rivers. It is to be named the Sulphur Fork Factory, I believe. It is supposed to provide honest and legal trade for the Indians so they will not have to trade with corrupt French traders, but I think these so-called factories are pour le grand spectacle. Just for appearance. Both Jamison and Fowler know that the white man is coming into the Arkansaw Territory. Since the United States purchased this land as the Louisiana Purchase—as I’m sure you know—it is only a matter of time before all these territories become prideful, populated states of these United States, just like Louisiana. Je pense the illegal trading with the Indians is going to continue. It’s a simple case of profitable commerce for the French traders and for the Indians. Bah! French traders! They are not my people.”
“I thank you for that useful information, Mr. Laplace,” Pa was saying. “But I return to my original concern, which is the safety of our party heading upriver into unknown lands.”
Mr. Laplace allowed a smile to play across his lips and scuffed a boot on the plank floor, like a horse pawing the ground. “Well, Monsieur Murrell, I would have to say that if a man like you comes this far, he probably has as good a sense of the place he plans to settle as anyone. And I believe most folks here in Natchitoches would agree and say you will be just fine.”
“What about the Kados over on the lake?” asked Pa.
“To the best of my knowledge, they are quite peaceful. As I mentioned, that is where Dehahuit keeps his people, but there’s also Natchitoches Village close by. The chief there is Tehowainia. You know many of the Kado had to move down here some time ago because they kept getting killed off by the Osage, but now they seem to be doing passably well.” He turned to Oats, who nodded. “I can confirm that they have money to spend here in Natchitoches, and it seems they’re becoming as civilized as you and me. Isn’t that about right, Oats?”
Oats had been silent, looking through the clothing and setting some nice-looking shirts out for our appraisal while clearly demurring to his employer’s opining. “Bien sûr,” he said. “Chief Dehahuit is a wise man who has taken good care of our people. He looks after the welfare of the other Kados that live farther west up the Sabine as well. His p-people and mine come here to trade. The Kados have m-metal t-t-tools and guns. Some wear white man’s clothes they b-b-bought right here in our mercantile. Some even plow their corn fields with metal plows.”
“I see,” said Pa. “All these Kados across this region? They are peaceable Indians?”
“Oh, oui monsieur,” said Oats. Laplace nodded his agreement.
“And one more question, if you please,” said Pa. “How about overland transportation in these parts? We plan to be back to Natchitoches in a couple of months to purchase cattle and other supplies. Will the trails hereabouts accommodate a horse-drawn wagon?”
“I believe you would be taking the Three Notch Trail from Natchitoches,” said Oats. “It g-goes all the way up the direction of the Red but not very close to the river. It’ll get you near Long Prairie. Even up into the mountains to the east of Long Prairie.”
“But most of the Three Notch cannot accommodate a horse-drawn wagon,” said Mr. Laplace.
“Wise advice, quite appreciated,” said Pa. “Is the trail well marked?” “Indeed, it is,” said Oats. “You will find it blazed with three slash marks on trees.”
“I think you will be surprised at the well-marked t-trails hereabouts, Mr. Murrell,” Oats said. “Are you familiar with the Na-Na-Natchez Trace?”
“Indeed I am. A few years ago, I took the northbound Natchez Trace from New Orleans back to Tennessee after a downriver flatboat trip to market our crops. It, too, is sometimes called the Three Notch Trail.”
“Indeed, that is so,” said Mr. Laplace. “But what most folks do not know is that the Natchez Trace is only one of many Indian trails that run partout, all across America. They are often surprised to learn that the Three Notch’d Trail, as it was then known, was developed by Oats’s people, our own Kado Indians. Supposedly they made these trails centuries ago to facilitate trading with other peoples.”
“Oui monsieur, that is so,” said Oats. “In the ancient times, the Kados t-traded with t-tribes from d-do-down in Nueva España all the ways up to the Quebec. That is how the Sp-Spaniard De Vega found his way home, and I ’spect how those French traders get their goods to their buyers, some of them all the way up to Canada.”
Pa and I looked at one another, a bit surprised that Oats would know such facts.
Mr. Laplace explained. “Oats here is quite an authority on the history of his people. He has educated himself with book learning and some school and says he wants to be a teacher someday. Que diriez-vous? What do you think of that? An Indian teacher out here on the frontier!” “Oats, your people sound like a very advanced civilization.” I jumped in, at that moment thinking how Mattie would certainly wish to converse with him.
“Oui monsieur, what you say is true. Be-because of the spelling of the Spanish word for notches, m-most people think the Three Notches trails are the work of the Natchez Indians. But they had nothin’ to do with it. I’ve heard t-tell a t-trail by this same name runs up to Virginia,” he said, pointing at Pa as if to verify his trek upon it. Pa nodded. “But this here Th-Three Notches bears this name because it is the m-ma-mark of my tribe, the Kadohadacho.”
All of a sudden, a lightheadedness passed through my brain. My vision blurred for a moment, and as it cleared I saw once again the arrow which had been shot at me thunk into the tree. The markings. Three bands.
Pa interrupted my imaginings by saying, “Mr. Laplace, Mr. Oats, this has been most useful information. Is there anything else we need to know before setting out tomorrow for the Great Raft?”
“Well, you need to watch out for the alligator,” said Mr. Laplace, with a deadpan look on his face.
“Oui monsieur,” said Oats. “Some of them grow t-tw-twenty foot long. Or longer. They’s monsters.”
Joel and Barney stared at the two men, their eyes as big as saucers. “Papa, are there truly going to be monster alligators?” asked Barney.
Oats and Mr. Laplace were now grinning away. I wondered if they had spoken truthfully about the alligators.
“I would not be surprised,” said Pa, looking down and smiling. “Now let us finish with our purchases. I hope we are not too late to join your mother and sisters for dinner.”