It was Tuesday, February 17, 1818.
“Thomas Jefferson Murrell!” my little brother Joel yelled from down on the dock, using his best imitation of Mama’s get-your-attention voice. “We could use your help if you wouldn’t mind coming back to the here and now.”
Joel was right. Dawn was breaking, and I’d been staring into the flowing waters of the Cumberland. The reality of our situation was sinking in. Our journey from the Burlingame family’s dock at Little Horseshoe Bend, about three miles northeast of Carthage, Tennessee, was about to begin. We were on our way to the wilderness of the Red River in the Arkansaw Territory. I had done with my formal schooling and since then had been working the fields with my father and sometimes my brother Joel, all the while contemplating a future for myself in the practice of the law.
It had been six years since the three New Madrid earthquakes and almost a year since Papa told us of his decision to move the family to Long Prairie, a tract of land near the Great Bend of the Red River.
With that, any hopes I had of obtaining a legal apprenticeship were dead and gone. Now I knew I would be helping my family settle and farm this new land for the foreseeable future. I saw no promise for me in this future.
By the time we sold our small farm I was nearly eighteen years old; of medium height, build, and strength; possessed of sufficient shooting skills; and—if I may say so—the courage to hold my own in most situations. You might think that with a trip so long in the making, I would have become resigned to leaving Tennessee behind, but that was not so. To save my soul, I could not think of a single thing about this move that held excitement or anticipation. For me, Long Prairie meant little more than the tedium of hard, daily toil trying to scratch a living out of the land in the middle of nowhere. I was a lot more interested in what was going on in the outside world.
Not long after the earthquakes, Papa served in the Second Revolutionary War as an army officer. He fought under the leadership of Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Tohopeka on the Tallapoosa River in Alabama, where the Creeks suffered a crushing defeat. Papa told us it was a slaughter, and he didn’t care much for that kind of fighting. And he didn’t much care for talking about it, either. He was honorably discharged and home by the fall of 1814, so he did not fight against the British the following year with General Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.
After the war and with the Indian threat in Tennessee pretty much over, a flood of new settlers came into the state. The price of everything went up—particularly land. Papa’s dreams of expanding our little place into a proper plantation like Ezekiel Burlingame’s faded with each new family that came to Smith County. Papa was feeling more and more fenced in. And he was not getting any younger. His hair and beard were getting speckled with gray, and his beard was growing longer until it touched his shirt buttons.
All those things were probably weighing on his mind, thinking about the land opening up in the Louisiana and Arkansaw Territories. On one of his flatboat trips to New Orleans he met a man named Duncan McKellar, who lived a few days’ east on the Cumberland and was interested in moving to the new land out west. From Duncan and others, he learned about the nature of the land, the kind of crops that would be good for its soil and weather, the cost of making the trip, the risks of living in a completely unsettled wilderness, and the skills a man would need to possess in order to survive. As time went on, he became convinced that this move was the right thing for our family.
My father was a mighty smart man and a careful planner. Whereas some settlers might leap before they looked, he always knew exactly what he was doing. “Learn all you can and prepare accordingly. It is then all up to what you have in your heart.” I had heard Papa say this many times. He truly did live by it. I have no doubt Papa discussed this journey into the frontier wilderness with Mama, probably many times over, but if so, I never heard it.
Mama was a loving mother who took awful good care of me, my two brothers and two sisters, with a firm but tender hand. She was fond of tousling my hair, saying “you boys all look just like your Pa.” For my part, if I looked into a mirror I would see only that Joel, Barney and me all had brown hair and some shade of green eyes, but otherwise bore no resemblance to one another. Our sisters, however, were different. Both had blonde hair and while Martha, a year younger than myself, had brown eyes, little Mary’s were blue. They were both pretty as pie.
Mr. Ezekiel Burlingame, upon whose dock we had gathered, was a good neighbor and a man who supported my dream of practicing law. When my schoolroom education ended at age fourteen, he had taken it upon himself to help further my learning, giving me instruction in the ways of the law, of our government in Washington City, and generally what a man needed to know to live a proper life in the civilized world. He had even spoken of using some of his contacts in the governor’s office to introduce me as a candidate for a law apprenticeship in Knoxville or Nashville. Thanks to Papa’s new plan those dreams were way back on the shelf, possibly gone forever.
I had sunk into despair. But in truth, Papa could not afford to have me away from the family, and I knew it. He would need all of us to carve out a new life in the wilderness, especially his eldest son. I knew I needed to put my own feelings aside and make the best of the situation. For the moment, I was needed to help get the crates, furniture, food stores, plowshare, and all our other gear loaded on the flatboat for the first leg of our journey, from Carthage down to Nashville.
The morning air was chilly, still possessed of the damp cold of late winter. This was the best time to travel by river in these parts. The water is high, therefore not much chance of getting icebound, and one can avoid the flash floods of spring. But Tennessee is cold in February, cold enough to chill the bones if you aren’t working up a sweat. Good thing we were. Me, my brother Joel, and James Torbett were loading up the flatboat and making ready to cut her loose soon after sunrise. If the weather held, we figured we could make Nashville in four days.
James was Ben Torbett’s son and our raft’s pilot—or at least that’s what he called himself. You could tell that he knew the river trade from the way he handled himself on the dock.
James was about five-foot-eight inches in height, strong, and compact. His arms rippled with muscle and his head sat upon a similarly stout neck. He looked a bit like a ruffian with his long, thick black hair. His dark eyes seemed to catch everything going on around us. He was only a few months older but a couple of inches shorter than me. Despite his looks, James’s knowledge of the river put him in charge. And wearing his thick, loose fitting, knee-length river boatman’s shirt, he did look the part.
In fact, he seemed to really like being in charge of our little crew, which was just fine by me. “Tom, we need the two crates of pots and pans and the washpots next, and we need them toward the stern to balance out the load,” he called over to me.
“I suppose you’re right, James,” I said. “Joel, help me get this crate to the back of the boat.”
James called out, “You know, Tom, you might start calling it a stern if you don’t want to sound like you are fresh off the farm.”
I frowned. He was not the kind of person I wanted to spend much time around. He acted like a hooligan and swore like a sailor. Definitely not a thinking man. He would never be someone I could completely trust, but I held grudging respect for his skill on the river. When manning a boat, he took his job seriously.
When Papa and I first met up with James in Carthage, he told us that this was his third expedition with his father to Natchitoches, Louisiana. Ben had given him the job of securing our flatboat from the boatyard up in Gainsborough and floating it down the Cumberland to the Burlingame’s dock. He had a couple of pole men from the boatyard working for him during the two-day trip down from Gainsborough, but they headed out after the boat was secured at the dock. Our job at this point was to finish loading the flatboat with our worldly possessions, shove off, and get to Nashville by Friday. There we would meet up with Ben, who was handling provisioning, and join the other nine families in transferring ourselves, our animals, and our belongings to three keelboats.
‘Stern’. I ignored what James had said, but it registered. Of course it was a stern. And the front was the bow, port the left side, and starboard the right. I would need to pay more attention to James’s riverman talk if I was going to steer clear of sounding “fresh off the farm.” That was one good thing about this trip. Along the way, we would see and learn something of the wild, untamed, unsettled new country, instead of just thinking about scratching a living out of the dirt. At least for a while.
My brother Joel, who had just turned thirteen, was mightily impressed by James. He had been asking a thousand questions about James’s previous expeditions out to the frontier. James, of course, readily obliged, with what I perceived were considerable embellishments. Joel hung on every word. “James, do you think we’ll see any Injun savages on the way to Arkansaw Territory?”
James answered with the seasoned pride of an 18-year-old veteran. “Well, you never know. I done made the trip twice, all the way from the Cumberland, to the Ohio, down the Mississippi, up the Red River all the way up to Natchitoches, Louisiana. The only Injuns I seen were purty much civilized. There’s a bunch of ’um that’re s’posed to be up north of Natchitoches living next to a big lake, but I never been there. Course, this time we’re goin’ all the way through the Great Raft, so you never know what we might see. Up there we ain’t far away from the Osages. I assure you, Joel, they are a fearsome lot.”
The Natchitoches James referred to is the old French outpost that was once the largest town in Jefferson’s entire and considerable Louisiana Purchase. Natchitoches, pronounced NACK-a-tish, was the highest point on the Red River before onset of the Great Raft and still the most important trading center in the region.
“You ever seen it?” I asked. I was considerably curious about this obstruction of nature that thwarted traffic on the Red River.
“What, the Great Raft?” said James. “Aye. I seen the front end of it. It’s ’bout the goddamnest most frightful thing you’ll ever see in your life. A tangle of sawyers, sumps, huge trees an’ underbrush an’ vine, all manner of things dredged up by the great Red as far as the eye can see. And particular at night, it’s about as close to hell as anything on this earth.”
“My paw says it runs for a hundred miles. Is that so?”
“Yup, over a hunnert miles of log-jam hell standing between Natchitoches and where we’re headed. They say it’s been there for a thousan’ years. Ya’ll gonna be mighty thankful that my paw knows how to navigate that mess.”
Joel asked, “Are you a-skert?”
“Shee-it. It ain’t that fearsome. Just nigh on impassible, that’s all. Pa done been through it once before. Says you just need to keep your head and know what you’re doin’. Don’t be in no big hurry. And be ready to work your goddamn ass off pulling your boat over them log tangles. I betcha if we see any goddamn savages, that’s where it’ll be.”
James was interrupted by the loud barks of Andrew and Jackson, our coonhounds. We all looked up to see them galloping down the hill in front of Papa. James dropped the subject, and we all stepped up the pace of our loading, since we knew what Papa would be asking.
“All right men, how we doin’?” Papa asked sure enough as he walked on to the dock.
James’s answer was confident and purposeful. “We’ll be finished up in just a few minutes with ever’thing we have down here. Then it’ll be time for Miz Murrell’s trunks and the animals, and we’ll be off.” James didn’t swear around Papa.
“That’s good. Joel, go up to the house and tell Mama to get the trunks ready to move.” The smell of fresh biscuits and sausage was drifting down to the dock, so Joel didn’t need to be asked a second time. He ran back up the hill with Andrew and Jackson hot on his heels.
“James, how’s the trim on that boat?” Papa asked.
“Just about perfect, if I do say so myself. My pa’s been teachin’ me the science of loadin’ these here rafts since I was old enough to walk. I guarantee that we’ll have no problems down to Nashville.”
Despite James’s youth, Papa trusted him to know flatboats and to navigate the Cumberland. After all, he was Ben’s son, and Ben had trusted him with our family. That was more than enough assurance.
With Papa’s help, James and I finished up with the rest of the crates. Once we were sure the cargo was balanced and secured on the flatboat, the three of us headed up the hill to fetch Mama’s trunks and the rest of our cargo.
The Burlingame home was a fine, two-story place built on the Cumberland with a small dock used for getting crops downriver to market. We had met Mr. and Mrs. Burlingame almost ten years ago when we first moved to Tennessee from North Carolina and they regarded us as good friends. Mr. and Mrs. Burlingame had lost their two sons in the war, and their daughter had married and moved off to Knoxville. Mr. Burlingame had been an exceptionally good teacher to me, taking it upon himself to feed my hunger for knowledge. I especially liked his telling stories of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two patriots who had forged the foundation of our democracy. Their lives sounded a lot better than what mine would soon be, plowing fields out of a wilderness in the middle of nowhere.
It was just before sunrise as we climbed the hill, and the smell of Mrs. Burlingame’s breakfast cooking was driving us to distraction. As we walked up to the door, it struck me once again what a fine place they had for themselves. We would be a long way from anything like this in Long Prairie.
“Bet you boys worked up an appetite, didn’t you?” said Mr. Burlingame as we stepped inside. Ezekiel Burlingame, who Papa called Zeke, was a tall, somewhat rotund man with little hair and a big laugh. “Come in here and get yourself cleaned up. Your sisters and Mrs. Burlingame are fixin’ to serve vittles. Yessuh, your last breakfast here in Smith County.” The house was humming with activity. My sisters Martha, now eleven, and Mary, now six, were helping Polly Burlingame, with a red and white checkered apron tied around her ample waist, set the table. Mama was packing away the last of the trunks. Joel and our youngest brother, Barney, age eight, were struggling to get another of Mama’s big clothes trunks out to the front porch. Papa was wrapping up a side of bacon that Mr. Burlingame had graciously provided for our trip.
We finally sat down around the Burlingame’s big table to eat. James and I sat by Mama and Mrs. Burlingame, while Papa and Mr. Burlingame sat at opposite ends of the table.
“John, I think you should offer up the blessing this morning,” said Mr. Burlingame.
“Almighty and most merciful Father,” Papa said and clasped his hands. “Bless the Burlingames here, favor their crops, and replenish them with the grace of thy Holy Spirit. Keep our family safe on this journey we’ll be taking, and should it be your will, bring us good fortune in our new home in Long Prairie. And bless this food that we’ll be eating. To the glory of Thy holy Name. Amen.”
Everyone said, “Amen,” and we dug in to Mrs. Burlingame’s biscuits and gravy just as the sun rose through the east window.
The meal was hurried. All knew that we needed to be on the river just after first light, which was upon us. As we finished, Mr. Burlingame excused himself and asked me to join him. We walked over to his bookshelves on the far side of the big room. He pulled out a dozen books and piled them in my arms. “Tom, I want you to have these for your education in Long Prairie.”
From across the room Mama said, “Now Mr. Burlingame, you don’t need to do that. Since we’ve been planning this trip we’ve purchased primers for reading, writing, and ’rithmetic, and a few other books just for Tom. The boy will have more than enough to read.”
“Mrs. Murrell, Tom here is a smart boy,” said Mr. Burlingame. “Just with the books he has borrowed from me over the years, he’s gotten well past those primers. He won’t be having proper schooling, and I believe it is important that he keep up his learning, for himself and to help you teach the other children. And he also needs to be kept up with the goings on in the outside world. I’ve asked John to work something out with Ben Torbett to get a package to you in Long Prairie now and again.”
“Thank you, sir,” I stammered. It was a proper thank-you but didn’t express my true gratitude. I had always enjoyed book learning and had read every book Mr. Burlingame permitted me to borrow from his library. History, law, mathematics—I was always fascinated by the wide world beyond the frontier. Perhaps I would get to see it someday. “Mama, I’ll put these in the trunk with our good Sunday clothes.”
We helped clean up quickly, then got the last of the trunks down to the boat and loaded up Old Nick, not really so old but definitely the best horse for working the fields in our new home.
“Boys, I think we’ve got it. Let’s get this boat on the river.” Papa whistled for the dogs, and they ran down the dock and jumped on board.
“John, I think the dogs are ready to go too,” said Mama, smiling. “Zeke, Polly, we thank you for all your kindness and hospitality,” said my father, lifting his hat from his head and making an elaborate bow. They laughed and waved their good-byes again and again.
With Papa standing atop the deckhouse at the mighty oar that served as our rudder, James and I worked the sweeps to push our boat out into the Cumberland River. Joel, our spotter, stood at the bow looking for sand bars and sawyers. Regardless of my feelings about the journey, it was good to finally be underway, but at the same time I could feel that we all had some sense of trepidation about what lay ahead. We were sadly quiet as we watched the Burlingames, still waving to us. Then we made the turn in the river and their dock disappeared.