"John, we need to be leaving now,” Mama said. She and us children were standing in the hotel room all dressed up. Tonight there was a social for the ten families to get to know each other. Personally, I had the secret hope of spending a few moments alone with Miss Mattie McKellar.
Papa stood in front of the mirror, adjusting the bowstrings of his necktie. It had taken longer to get our things on to the Ohio than we planned, so he and I were running late getting cleaned up.
“All right, Mag, I’m ready,” said Papa, smoothing his beard. “These socials don’t start up on time like a town meetin’. I don’t think we’ll be missing anything important if we’re just a bit late.”
Our family scrambled out the front door of the Nashville Hotel, then proceeded in an orderly fashion to the community hall. We greeted several other families, also just arriving right on the hour. Inside, the big high-ceilinged hall was filled with the noise of cooking pots banging and people talking and laughing. The men stood together in bunches, while the women gathered together in the kitchen area. The sun was setting, and there was a fine spread of suppertime vittles set out on a long table. Children chased each other around the room, but nobody paid them any mind. With Mama’s permission, Barney and Mary were instantly off in their direction. I began looking around the room for Mattie at once, expecting to see her with Jane and the other girls, but I finally located her up near the stage standing with a woman, probably her mother, and an older lad who was likely her brother. He was perhaps my age or a little older, and powerfully built. Mr. McKellar, standing nearby upon the stage, was clearly about to speak. Like Papa, he had donned a woolen coat and britches, but unlike Papa wore a black felt hat with a wide brim. He looked very sophisticated. He tapped his boot heel on the floorboards and the room grew silent.
Welcome everyone!” Mr. McKellar boomed. “In two days, we set out on a great expedition to the Territory of Arkansaw. We are ten families, seventy-two brave souls that will settle alongside the Red River in the new west, a rich, fertile land that is ours for the taking. For people with the courage and strength to take it. We are such a people!” The crowd responded with loud applause, whooping, and hollering.
He went on with details about our preparation for the next two days. This was followed for the next half hour with introducing each of the men who headed a household. Each of them introduced his family and told where they hailed from. Most were recently from Tennessee, and, like ourselves, all were originally from Virginia or the Carolinas. I surmised that, like Papa, these men and their families were making this westward trek because they wanted more land.
Mr. McKellar invited Ben Torbett to join him, introducing him as the most skilled river guide on the Mississippi. Ben climbed up on the stage and said, “I want you to meet your boat captains. My son, James Torbett, will captain the Ohio. This here is George Duty, captain of the Missouri. Big Joe Dyer here will command the Arkansaw.” Each raised a hand as their name was spoken. “If you have concerns, please let me know.” Mr. McKellar announced which families would be on which boat, but by the end I could hardly remember one from another. All I remembered was that Mattie would be on the Arkansaw, not the Ohio, which was our boat. As I looked around, I noticed James was standing with two of the girls from this afternoon, Eliza Hudson—and Mattie. A small pang of jealousy pierced me.
Mr. McKellar asked everyone to join him in a prayer to God to guide us safely on our journey. He concluded by saying, “Amen. Now, let’s all help ourselves to the wonderful meal that our womenfolk have prepared for us!” It was a fine speech, and Mr. McKellar cut an impressive figure. I thought he ought to be in politics.
I got in line behind Papa at the sideboard, my sisters and brothers lined up behind me like baby ducks, and loaded my plate with chicken, roast mutton, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, big slabs of buttered cornbread, and applesauce. All the while Papa was saying hello to the folks around us, talking about the boats and such, being a hail fellow well met.
The piano player got up on stage and introduced a song he was about to perform called “The Rapids,” which he told us was a Canadian boat song by Thomas Moore. He sang in fine voice as he played,
But, when the wind blows off the shore, Oh! sweetly we’ll rest our weary oar.
Blow, breezes, blow, the stream runs fast, The Rapids are near and the daylight’s past!
As we left the serving table, we passed by the table where James, Eliza, and Mattie were seated.
Mattie was first to speak. “Tom, won’t you join us?”
I glanced at Papa, seeking his approval. He gave me a small smile. I nodded and said, “Yes. Thank you.” It was all I could muster as I pulled back a chair. Joel started for another chair, but Papa grabbed him by the shoulder.
“But Papa, I was going to—” said Joel before being herded on toward the table where the rest of our family would sit. I was about to set to my food when Eliza spoke.
“Tom, James here was just telling us about some of the Indian fights he’s been in while sailing up and down the Mississippi. Do you think we’ll see savages?”
I looked over at James. He wore a perfectly straight, serious look on his face. There was no telling what yarns he had been spinning for these girls. I wanted neither to confirm nor deny his claim, so I just spoke of the facts as I knew them.
“Well, Miss Eliza,” I began, passing my gaze to Mattie and James and back to her, “we might see some civilized Indians, but I don’t suspect we’ll see any savages, any more than we did on the Cumberland.”
“But suh,” she replied, “by your own avowal you were attacked by a savage on that selfsame river.” Compared to the other girls, Eliza was a bit plain, and was plain-spoken as well. I confess to liking her honesty and the freckles that crossed her nose from cheek to cheek.
“That is and probably shall remain a mystery to us all,” I said. “My father has traversed these rivers many a time without incident.”
“My father as well,” said Mattie. I was pleased that she joined the conversation. “But there is much to be learned of the Red River and especially the Kadohadacho Indians.”
“That’s true. It is the oldest tribe in that area,” said James, who looked a bit taken aback that she knew the name of the tribe. “Fortunately, they got a reputation as traders – not warriors, and been peaceful for as far back as local folks remember. They live in a few scattered villages, but most have settled around a lake not far from Natchitoches.” It amazed me that James could speak such a cultured tongue when it befit the occasion.
“I have heard that many Indian tribes are hostile to others. Do we need fear these Kado…Kadohaha…”
“Kado-ha-da-cho, Eliza,” said Mattie, with clear and precise pronunciation.
“I think we shall be safe,” said I. “I hear some Cherokee have moved into the area, but they are a benign people. I don’t think we will see any trouble out of them. About the only danger could come from the Osage. They are, I am told, a fearsome tribe, but live mostly in the Indian Territory, quite a ways from us. My father says he has not heard of them in the Long Prairie area to which we are headed.”
James looked at me, a little surprised. Perhaps he thought I, too, was quite ignorant about the Indians around Long Prairie. And, for a fact, I didn’t know much. But Papa had done his research on the area before we left, and I had picked up enough from talking to him to sound knowledgeable.
“Tom, are you educated about these native peoples?” said Mattie. “No, Miss Mattie, I am not. But my natural inclination is to learn something of a new area when traveling.” I sat back, straight in my chair, and began eating my supper. I felt I had comported myself well and could turn the topic of conversation back over to James.
However, Mattie had other ideas. “Have you traveled a great deal, Tom?”
“Uh, no, not much. I have been to Nashville before.” I was getting in over my head.
James was smiling. “I’ve been down to New Orleans four times and up the Red River to Natchitoches twice.”
“Goodness sakes, you are indeed a traveled young man, James,” said Eliza. She turned to Mattie and said, “Mattie also has learned a little something or other about our new land. Mattie, why don’t you speak some Indian you learned for these gentlemen?”
Mattie looked a little embarrassed but then said, “Well, all right. Tsidiah nah Báhtinu, kunahdishchu wiisin Bahat Saansin.”
“What language is that?” I asked, wide-eyed.
Also surprised but more guarded about it, James said, “I think that was the Kado language. Is that not correct?” Mattie nodded and smiled. “Something about the Mississippi River?”
“That is correct on both counts, son.” We turned to look at the well- dressed, prim and proper looking young man who had just spoken. He wore a striped shirt with a poke collar and a black waistcoat. His stringy dark brown hair hung to his shoulders beneath a plantation hat, and a wispy mustache perched above narrow lips. His staring black eyes made me most uncomfortable. But mostly I noticed he held his head a bit too high, so as to look down on us. I could tell James didn’t like this pompous dandy calling him “son.” Nor did I. He wasn’t old enough, nor had we given him permission, to use that appellation.
“The young lady referred to both the Red River and the Mississippi,” said the dandy. “Miss, may I ask how you come to know the Kadohadacho tongue? But excuse me. I forget my manners. I am Valac LaBrot, the new assistant agent for the War Department’s Office of Indian Trade for the district of Northern Louisiana. I am traveling with your party to my assignment in the Natchitoches office.”
Remembering our own manners, James and I stood up to shake hands with the gentleman. Mattie jumped in to address our new arrival. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. LaBrot. I am Mattie McKellar. This is my dear friend Eliza Hudson, and our new acquaintances, Mr. James Torbett and Mr. Thomas Murrell. Mr. Torbett is a boat captain, and Mr. Murrell’s father is one of the organizers of our expedition. As is my father,” she added with pride.
“A pleasure to meet you all,” said LaBrot. “Please be seated, Mr. LaBrot,” said James.
Seated now, LaBrot said, “Again I must ask, Miss McKellar, how does a beautiful young girl such as yourself come to know the language of a savage Indian tribe?”
James looked at me. I think we both felt this LaBrot fellow was being a bit too familiar.
“Well, Mr. LaBrot,” Mattie began, obviously unaffected, “as I’m sure you know, the Kadohadacho are the most civilized tribe west of the Mississippi, not at all savages in the common sense of the word. They build their grass-covered homes and gathering places in a unique architecture shaped like giant beehives that are quite comfortable and utilitarian. Over a year ago when my father informed me of this expedition, I took it upon myself to learn some of the history and language of the indigenous peoples. On a trip such as this, you prepare for everything you can, then it is up to what you have in your heart.”
“My father is fond of speaking similarly,” I said.
“That is interesting, Tom,” said Mattie. “This is a saying I learned from my grandmother on my mother’s side. She was half French, half Choctaw. It was she who most encouraged my interest in languages. Fortunately, my father met a Frenchman called Maurice, paddling his canoe down the Cumberland last April. Father struck up a conversation with him and learned he had spent some time with the Kadohadacho. He invited Monsieur Maurice to stop with us for a few days, and he stayed for a month, teaching me enough Kado to be generally conversant in the tongue. What I said was, ‘I am going to the Red River, west across the Mississippi River. Where are you going?’ He also helped me with some of the French I learned from my grandmother, Je vais à la rivière Rouge, à l’ouest, à travers le fleuve Mississippi. Où allez-vous?” She smiled.
James and I were listening to her slack jawed, he as flabbergasted as me. French? Indian? Speaking different tongues? This Mattie McKellar was not like any other female I had ever met.
LaBrot, momentarily surprised as well, recovered himself and broke the silence. “Why yes, Miss McKellar. Of course, the Kado are, let us say, somewhat civilized. But they are still known to take multiple wives. Some still go naked in the summer months. They continue to worship their native gods, and they are constantly at war with tribes from Indian Territory. Certainly not my idea of civilized.”
“Those things may be true, Mr. LaBrot,” said Mattie, “but I don’t think being different from us is necessarily the test of a people’s being civilized or no.”
Again, I was startled by her boldness. At those words, Mr. LaBrot pushed his back into his chair. I think he was a little offended.
Eliza, who I would later find to be an astute judge of managing such interactions, quickly changed the subject. “Mr. LaBrot, are you aware that Tom here was almost impaled by an Indian arrow on the way here?” “So you are the one,” LaBrot said. “I did in fact hear something of this incident.” Leaning forward, one hand on his knee, he said, “Son, may I ask the circumstances of your attack?”
There he went once more with the condescending “son.” I would have rather taken a thrashing than have this conversation again, especially with this LaBrot fellow. “There really is nothing to tell,” I said. “We stopped for the night above Hartsville. James and I were securing the area when an arrow ripped into an oak tree just beside me. We looked but did not find who shot the arrow, and we saw no sign of any Indian on the remainder of our trip.”
“This is quite disturbing,” said LaBrot. “I would hate to think that the Indians of this area are again becoming a threat. Mr. Duty tells me that you were unable to find this Indian’s tracks, but that you did think to retain the arrow.”
“There were no tracks,” said James, as irritated by LaBrot as I. “Tom’s father has the arrow.”
“I would examine this arrow as soon as possible. It is, of course, my duty as assistant Indian agent to notify the local authorities if the arrow holds any clues to the assassin.”
“On Monday at sunup we’ll be at the Ohio. I’ll be happy to show it to you then,” I said. LaBrot nodded.
About that time a fiddler joined the piano player and they started playing some lively music. Some people got out on the floor, clapping along. They were soon joined by a couple of men who began dancing a jig. We joined in the clapping, and Mr. LaBrot seemed to fade away. I had a fine time for the rest of the evening, mostly because I had the pleasure of conversing with Mattie.
Later that night, I thought a lot about Mattie McKellar. She was such an interesting girl. Perhaps a bit of a know-it-all, but she really did know things. She did not flaunt her knowledge; she just used it when well and good to do so. It was not at all offensive, as was being around that other know-it-all, James, or the arrogant Mr. Valac LaBrot.
Still, in all, I knew I ought not be thinking too much about girls in general, much less this one who was going to Long Prairie. I had The Plan, and Mattie McKellar was not in it. Her involvement would change it drastically, and that was something I did not want to happen. Not that Mattie would care one way or the other, anyway. That night, before bedding down with Joel and Barney in our shared bedstead, I transferred my writings from my Bible to my new journal, adding the last two days of events here in Nashville and promised myself to keep a dutiful record of our expedition and the stories of all those people I would meet along our way.
The next morning was Sunday, a cold, crisp, and sunny February day. All the families headed for the Baptist church. Mr. McKellar had asked the minister to recite a sermon fitting for us all, since some of us were of a different church affiliation. There was a worrisome attitude among many in our group, uncertain what lay ahead for them and their families, but the preacher did a fine job making everyone more at ease. Feeling better after the church service, the women took up strolling that afternoon, wearing their finery one last time. Mama and the girls did all kind of packing and repacking our belongings most of the afternoon. My time was spent helping Papa organize our things on the Ohio. Having a real hotel bed meant I slept well that night, too tired to write in my journal.