We left Natchitoches on the morning of Friday, March 27. It was overcast and cool but did not look like rain, for which we were grateful after the recent monsoon-like downpours. The stop had been good for all, and the expedition seemed eager to see the wondrous or terrifying Great Raft, depending upon who one spoke to. The exception was the keelboat crews, who were forever expressing their trepidation when out of earshot of the boat captains. Speaking for myself, I had come to bear this treacherous river ill will and expected nothing but the same in return.
In addition to our three keelboats—and at the recommendation of Ben—we hired a canoe-like pirogue from the Natchitoches dock owner, who was known only as T.J., to use as the lead boat for scouting our way through the Raft. As the fallen forestation was always shifting in the river’s currents, the route through the Raft was ever changing, thus the purpose of the pirogue was to determine the best route through. Once committed, doubling back would be a very difficult undertaking, to be avoided except under all but the most calamitous circumstances.
T.J. told us the dugout’s rental charge was one dollar per month. “And once you arrive at your destination, if you will please float it back down to me in the Great Raft. I should have it in another twenty years,” he said grinning. Pa did not fail to note his trust, and indeed the kindnesses of all the Natchitoches people, and allowed that it was a lesson to us all.
James and Ben traded command of the Ohio from time to time. The Ohio had a slightly deeper draft, and Ben wanted to assure it could gain passage upriver. If the Ohio could, he was confident the Missouri and the Arkansaw could as well. With his father at the Ohio’s helm, James cheerfully volunteered for the pirogue.
We had poled and paddled about ten miles upriver from Natchitoches before coming to a fork in the river. I had taken up a position a few yards from the cabin, standing with my mother and siblings and quite a few others who wished to see the Great Raft once it came into view. The Red was smooth as silk, and even as we moved against the current the boats glided along with little energy expended by the boatmen, save to maintain the course. We saw the fork approaching. To the right was a wide channel and to its left a narrow stream, clearly a feeder and also clearly unnavigable by our large keelboats. James led us directly off to the right in the pirogue.
“There it is!” cried Mr. Duty, affirming James’s navigation, or so I thought. At first, it looked as if we were simply pushing toward the river bank but as we came closer, it became apparent that this bank was made not of earth but of a massive tangle of tree trunks, snagged together with their own limbs and roots, bound by ever-growing tentacles of vines and all manner of vegetation. It stretched from bank to bank, which gave it the illusion of being the river’s bank itself.
There was no doubt that this was the Great Raft.
New small tree limbs and saplings, entangled in vines, grew straight toward the sky from the enormous mass, attesting to the tenacity of life and the fact that, even though these trees floated upon a river, they were far from dead. Although Nature is a splendor to most people, this most certainly was not. It was not a reflection of the pastoral earth I knew and loved from the poetry of Rabbie Burns we had read in school, but rather a vile and freakish mistake of Nature. I shuddered just looking at it. As I gazed toward the true riverbanks, I imagined all those proud old trees and the handsome (although nettlesome) underbrush being sucked into the waters and consolidated into the Great Raft. The log jam was immense, stretching upriver as far as the eye could see. I looked about and found that every man, woman, and child on the keelboats was also staring at it, as if caught up in a spell. At that moment, Ben climbed atop the Ohio’s cabin and hailed everyone to listen.
“This here is the Great Raft, people. We’s seeing the termination of it, that part which is farthest downstream. I cannot be absolutely certain, but I believe it has come some distance farther downriver than last year. That is because it is renewed and growed larger every spring when flash floods dislodge all manner of trees and brush from the sandy banks of the river. It is my understanding it grows even bigger at the other end than it does here, though.”
I looked upriver, and although the Great Raft stretched clear out of sight, I could see how there was less and less foliage along the Red’s banks. The Great Raft was pulling everything from the riverbanks into its gullet.
“This here debris you see atop the river also sinks to the bottom. These trees, as they are uprooted and fall, they pull all kinda silt out with their roots. It’s that muck that holds the Raft together. With nowhere to go, the river water spreads out creating new bayous and new natural dams,” Ben continued.
“Now, even though it looks to be an unpassable barrier, it is not. Some of this here water gets through and backs up to form, or just enter, lakes along the Red. The water is powerful, and the Raft can’t stop it. The river flows in and around and through the tangle, no matter what. When the river is rising, the water can’t get through fast enough so it flows out across the land, cuttin’ new streams, makin’ them new lakes and bayous and rippin’ more trees out of the soft soil.
“The raft is not one single logjam, even though you might think so. At some points it’s fifty-miles wide, even a hundered at others, and at least that long or more. The Red, and the nearby Atchafalaya River too, just keep on a-widenin’ and then widenin’ some more, which makes this here entire region into one huge swamp that looks more like a river delta than a runnin’ river.”
“What it looks like to me, Mr. Ben Torbett, is Satan ripped out a forest by its roots, then dropped it into the river,” said Mama. I looked at her, surprised that she spoke and especially because her thoughts were so similar to my own. “Ben, your account back in Nashville hardly did it justice. This is the landscape of the devil.”
“Now, Margaret, if you would please remember,” said Ben, “this here is just a mass of ol’ trees and stumps and brush that this ol’ river has pulled up, then accumulated on these slow-movin’ waters for many hundreds, or perhaps as some say even thousands, of years. Nothin’ evil about it. There’s nothin’ evil about Nature itself. It is just a very uncommon hazard that we must navigate. My boys and me, we done it before, and we can do it again.”
Mama looked around at her boatmates on deck. I could see that she was skeptical, and I saw a few raised eyebrows amongst the others.
“Hard to starboard, men!” Ben shouted as he jumped off the roof and got down to business again. “See that clear runnin’ water just to the right of the Raft? Follow James! Get us headed up it toward that creek up yonder that it’s flowing from. If it’s the same as last year, we’ll run out of clear water in about three miles, then we’ll have to bushwhack the boats over to the other side and get ourselves around this first barrier.”
Mama and the others returned to their tasks. I was not called upon to aid the boatmen, so I stood on the foredeck and watched our progress. As Ben had foretold, the Raft was not a solid mass so far as I could see. With James guiding us, we navigated around it by going up a deep creek and then across a small lake, where we paddled around occasional floating vegetation and small groups of erect but dead trees.
The rain that had fallen the previous week was helping us take this route. Once across the lake and back on river waters, the water level was a foot or two higher than usual, so our boats floated atop the Raft. We did fine with that technique until about two in the afternoon, then we ran out of this blanket of water. James signaled a halt. The river that lay in front of us dropped to no more than two-foot deep, and we started scraping bottom. It was pole time again.
James paddled back to the Ohio and spoke with Ben for a few minutes. Just as he was ready to push off I called out, asking if I could man the pirogue with him. James looked at me, then his pa, then back, eyes twinkling a bit as he said, “Don’t ’spect I would say no to an extra paddler.” I grinned and jumped into the dugout behind him.
The waterway ahead of us twisted and turned, sometimes a stream, sometimes a bayou, once in a while a great spread-out lake. There were a lot of theories about the Raft, some dealing with earthquakes, Indian gods, and other fantastical ideas. The folks in Natchitoches told us one popular theory. They said the Indians believed the Great Raft had been clogging up the Red River for a thousand years or more but wasn’t moving downstream. It was instead backing upstream a couple of hundred yard each year. I figured the people of Natchitoches were probably happy to learn their city’s river access wouldn’t be endangered, at least not any time soon.
The waters were still, and the only sounds were those of birds or an occasional plop from the water, probably fish. Ben’s voice carried clearly from the Ohio so that even James and I could hear him continue talking to the other boats. He said some of the early surveyors who came to the area just after President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase of 1803 reported that the Raft was probably the result of frequent flooding in the river valley, causing the river to jump its channel and head off in new directions. Every time this happened, forests would be uprooted and packed into the head of the Raft. At the same time, storms were continuously breaking off pieces at the tail. The result was like a giant wooden snake crawling backwards up the Red River. Those surveyors were probably right, but their speculation did nothing to address how to free the Red from this ungodly mess.
James called out to his pa. Up ahead was a logjam with absolutely no way to navigate through it, and I thought we were done for.
“All right, men. Let’s get those axes out!” commanded Ben, interrupting his storytelling. Two groups of men climbed out onto the Raft on either side of the boats, each with a well-sharpened ax. James tied up the pirogue, and we set to clearing the way. For the next two hours we chopped trees that lay just above the waterline, then roped the logs and dragged them out of the channel. It was hot, hard work, and my new clothes were soaked with sweat and colored red-brown from river water by the time we finished.
Even after clearing an area in front of our entourage, it remained necessary to cordelle the boats, as they were scraping their keels and occasionally becoming stuck. It was only about an hour before dark when the Missouri was finally secured on the other side of this first barrier.
Mattie, standing pretty as could be at the gunwale with her father and brother Peter, smiled down as she watched me pulling the towrope. “How many more of these logjams do you expect to see?” Mr. McKellar asked James. I looked for Stephen and spied him pulling the towrope on the opposite side of the boat.
“My pa says somewhere between a half dozen and a dozen. It all depends on what has happened to the river over the past year and how much rain falls while we are in these parts,” James said, stealing a look at Mattie and Eliza Hudson, who now stood beside her. “Just settle in and get used to it. This is how things is going to be for a while.”
“Thank you for all your hard labors, Mr. Torbett,” said Eliza in her most charming voice. I could practically feel James swelling up with pride.
“Indeed, thanks to all of you,” said Mr. McKellar, reclaiming the moment.
Once we got beyond the first barrier we were graced with open water, in this case a small lake to the east of the main river channel. But when you are talking about the Great Raft, open water pretty much means anytime you have more than six inches between the boat’s hull and the stumps and logs on either side, and water under the boat at least three-foot deep. That is deep enough to get the boats through without much effort. Even though this first lake was a good size, it was shallow, and we were continually striking stumps and logs as we moved along.
I asked James if these floating obstructions could harm the boats, but he said likely not. “These keelboats is made of thick oak. That’s a mighty tough wood. It would probably take a cannonball to stove in this here hull.”
We pushed on for about another hour, moving from the lake and back into thick underbrush and thin trees, until it was near utter darkness and time to stop for the night. By James’s reckoning, we had only made about five miles.
We were in a channel no more than twenty-five feet wide. On either side was a logjam fifty to seventy-five yards wide. Broad-rooted cypress trees, old enough to stand thirty or more feet tall, grew straight out of the Raft. Cypress, to my mind, are diresome looking trees, with their Spanish moss a-hanging and the roots growing out like snakes. They made the Great Raft look all the more nightmarish. Beyond the logjam there was what appeared to be the river’s bank, demarcated mainly by stands of tall pine trees like curtains that shrouded anything beyond. In front of our boats and behind, the river disappeared around one bend after another. We were in the middle of the hell on earth that James had described to Joel weeks before.
We tied the Missouri up to the Raft behind the other two boats, which had already been secured, and I ambled back to the Ohio. Ben dismissed the boatmen to sup. A silence fell all around us, as if inspired by the end of day. The usual sounds of the river were somehow more eerie. The thought crossed my mind, what if some force dislodged the Raft’s formation and the trees fell, damaging or trapping us? I shook the thought away as needless worry, but I believe similar feelings of discomfort or consternation plagued travelers on all three of our keelboats. Nightfall, trapped in the Great Raft. This was something many said they had thought about, with trepidation, ever since leaving Tennessee. I know for a certainty that I had. I don’t think anyone slept comfortably that night, no matter how tired they were.
The next morning, Joel woke up the whole expedition. “Look! Look! There it is! An alligator!” He had risen just before first light to take care of his business, and there it was, lying in the water right in front of the Ohio. In a few minutes, everyone on our boat was standing near the bow to see it.
The alligator was every bit of fifteen feet long. Probably three hundred pounds unless I missed my guess.
On the way down the Mississippi we had spotted a few far away on the riverbank, but this fearsome, primitive animal was the first alligator we Tennesseans had seen up close, other than stuffed exhibits at county fairs.
“What are we going to do about it?” asked Joel.
“Well, Joel, gators are pretty darned good eating,” said Ben. “Fried up, they tastes something like chicken. A big ol’ boy like this, we’d have plenty of meat for jerking. Want to shoot him?”
“I…I suppose so,” said Joel and turned to Pa. “Papa ? Can I?”
“Son, you’ve got to shoot your first alligator sometime,” said Pa, smiling. “You found him, so he rightly ought to be yours. I’ll get my rifle.” Some of the men and boys from the other two boats had crossed over onto the Raft to see what all the excitement was about. Pa returned with his loaded rifle and handed it to Joel.
“Aim right at the skull. If you shoot anywhere else, we’ll lose him.”
Joel aimed carefully, then squeezed the trigger just as Pa had taught all us boys. That alligator must have jumped ten foot, then it thrashed for a minute and went limp. Joel had become our first alligator killer. Ben had a couple of the boatmen butcher him on the tightly-packed logs of the Raft so as not to spoil our deck. We kept the meat and most of the skin. Joel, as the hunter, was given the teeth, for they are considered good luck. But because Joel is Joel, he gave them away to anyone who wanted one, although he kept the biggest ones for himself.
By that time of the morning, the light had started to change. The black curtain of tall pines gave way to a gray mist. Ben and Mr. Dooley and James went scouting in the pirogue. They came back and reported there were no logjams we would have to chop our way through as we had done the day before, but our winding path through lakes and creeks would likely constrain our forward progress to no more than ten miles.
We set out, James and me now back in the pirogue scouting ahead to make sure the way stayed clear. Yet by nightfall, the Raft seemed to have closed back in on us again. This time, the tall curtain of pines stood even closer but not friendlier. There was no wind. High clouds hovered in the sky so that we could see no moon or stars. It was dark. Very dark. Even more eerie than the night before. The men decided to post two sentries on each boat.
I’m not sure what time it was when I first heard it. The sound was very faint, as though far away, but loud enough that it awakened me. I picked up my gun and quietly walked out of the deckhouse. I recalled the incident with the arrow, reminding myself of the need for continual caution. Surrounded as we were by this wooden prison around our boats, we were easy targets for Indians or pirates. I spotted the Ohio’s night watches, Mr. Batt Robinson, Mary Evelyn’s father, and Jack, one of our boatmen. They were standing at the gunwale, looking out across the expanse of blackness. Then I heard it again.
“What is that, drums?” I asked.
“Indian drums. Quiet!” whispered Jack.
Pa and one or two others came out of the cabin, and we saw stirring on the other boats. There was palpable concern, fear or downright terror across every face visible in the darkness.
Tunk. Pause. Tunk-Thunk-Thunk-Tunk.
The pattern repeated. A single beat, followed by four in succession from two different drums. Maybe not drums. It almost sounded as if hollowed-out trees of differing lengths were being rhythmically pounded upon by something large and heavy. Over and over. Over and over.
“What do you think it means?” asked Batt Robinson of no one in particular.
“I don’t know, but the women ought not be out here,” said Mr. Duty. “We needs be prepared for attack. Just in case.”
That was it for sleeping that night. All the rifles were loaded. Ball and powder were at the ready for reloading. Knives and a few pistols were kept close at hand. The leaders and boat crew discussed defensive strategies with each other. No one on the other boats knew any more than us, but everyone agreed we needed to find out who was doing this drumming and why they were doing it. The leaders decided to pull the boats up close together. James, of course, wanted to mount a party to go find the source of the incessant drumming. Ben told him to sit down and just listen.
All the while they talked, everyone heard it.
Tunk. Pause. Tunk-Thunk-Thunk-Tunk.
Tunk. Pause. Tunk-Thunk-Thunk-Tunk.
It kept on and on. Just before dawn it stopped.
That was all. We never learned the whereabouts or the who-abouts of the drumming. But that unusual rhythm stuck in my mind. It played over and over. I finally gave up on it and decided it was some tribal ritual that we just happened to be passing by. At least that left me with some comfort.
It took us another ten days to hack and drag our way through the Great Raft, more than twice as long as it would have if we had been blessed with clear waters. You could tell that some of our party were getting disheartened. They had thought the stories of the Raft had been exaggerated and that their crops from Long Prairie could be efficiently transported to a waiting market in New Orleans. Now they knew otherwise.
We had made it past the last logjam, the longest stretch of the Great Raft we had seen on our journey, but it was apparent to one and all that there would be no predictable navigation of this portion of the Red River. It might be possible to make the occasional trip downriver by pirogue or even a small barge, had we one, but not without great difficulty and some risk. On the other hand, Pa was not in the least disappointed. He had listened carefully to Ben’s description of the Raft, found it quite accurate, and therefore it had held no surprises for him. That was how my Pa liked things to be.
For my part, once we actually began navigating the Great Raft, it did not live up to my vivid and dark imagination. Rather than being a jungle compelling one to struggle from one step to the next, it was more like canoeing up the Cumberland, where stretches of rapids demanded one’s portaging around them. Although I still unaccountably bore resentments toward the Red River, by the time we reached the other side of the Great Raft, I felt pity for the poor old river’s being stoppered up this way.
Besides, who would say it was sensible for a man to harbor ill will toward a river?
On Wednesday, April 8, we reached the other side of the Raft, the Red River now running much more rust colored than downstream. The vegetation along the banks was still healthy and thick, but every few miles the tree line would break, and we would see vast, glorious expanses of grassland. At those sightings, I would hear yahoos and whoops emanating from the farmers in all three of our keelboats. They were seeing rich river-bottom soil that would grow anything.
There was no reason to stop, since we saw no people or signs of civilization. This was frontier land, and soon we would arrive at our own. We poled on up the river and, encouraged by what we saw, made good time over the following days.
It was noon on Saturday, April 11, underneath a light-blue, cloudless sky that seemed to go on forever, when Ben clambered up top of our cabin once again and called out in a loud and excited voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Long Prairie!”