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Descent of the Mississippi to New Orleans
A FLATBOAT BOUND FOR TEXAS.-- A FLAT-MAN ON RIVER PHYSICS.-- ADRIFT AND ASLEEP.-- SEEKING THE EARTH'S LITTLE MOON.-- VICKSBURGH.-- JEFFERSON DAVIS'S COTTON PLANTATION, AND ITS NEGRO OWNER.-- DYING IN HIS BOAT.-- HOW TO CIVILIZE CHINESE.-- A SWIM OF ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY MILES ON THE MISSISSIPPI.-- TWENTY-FOUR HOURS IN THE WATER.-- ARRIVAL IN THE CRESCENT CITY.
DURING the afternoon, while rowing out of the cut-off behind an island, I caught sight of a flatboat floating in the contour of a distant bend. There was something familiar in her appearance, and, as I drew nearer, I recognized the pile of nets, the rusty stove, and the civil but silent crew. She was the same flat which had left Hickman, Kentucky, the morning I had departed from that town with my basket of pies. This time the crew seemed like old friends. River life makes all men equal. A pleasant hail now greeted me, and the duck-boat was soon moored to the side of the flat. As we floated along with the current, sipping our coffee, the captain told me his history. The war had reduced him from affluence
to poverty, and in order to support his family, he had built a scow and penetrated the weird waters of Reelfoot Lake, from which he was able, for several years, to supply the citizens of Hickman with excellent fish. The enterprise was a novelty at that time, and there being no competition, he made four thousand dollars the first year. After that others went into the business, and it became profitless. His mind was now bent upon a new field. Hearing that the people of northern Texas were destitute of a regular fish-market, he had provisioned his flat for a winter's campaign, and intended floating with his men down to the mouth of Red River, where he would be towed by a steamer through the state of Louisiana to the northeastern end of Texas. There entering Caddo Lake, which is from fifty to sixty miles long, and where game, ducks, and fish abound, he would camp upon the shores and set his nets. The railroads which penetrated that section would afford means for the rapid distribution of his fish.
The party, anxious to arrive at their scene of action, floated night and day. The society of an educated man was so delightful at the time that I remained beside the flat all night. A lantern was hung above the bow of the boat to show the pilots of steamers our position. Whenever one of these disturbers of our peace passed the flat, I was obliged to cast off and pull into the
stream, as the swash would almost ingulf me if I remained tied to the side of the large boat. I could only sleep by snatches, for just as I would be dropping off into the land of Nod, the watch upon the flat would call out, "Here comes another steamer," which was the signal for me to take to my oars.
The next day was Sunday, but the flat kept on her way. I cooked my meals upon the rusty stove, and we floated side by side, conversing hour after hour. The low banks of the river showed the presence of levees, or artificial dikes, built to keep out the freshets. Upon these dikes the grass was putting forth its tender blades, and the willows were bursting into leaf. We passed White River and the Arkansas, both of which pour their waters out of the great wilderness of the state of Arkansas. Below the mouth of the last-named river was the town of Napoleon, with its deserted houses, the most forlorn aspect that had yet met my eye. The banks were caving into the river day by day. Houses had fallen into the current, which was undermining the town. Here and there chimneys were standing in solitude, the buildings having been torn down and removed to other localities to save them from the insatiable maw of the river. These pointed upward like so many warning cenotaphs of the river's treachery, and contrasted strongly in the mind's
eye with the many happy family circles which had once gathered at their bases around the cheerful hearths.
About ten o'clock in the forenoon the proprietor of the flatboat decided, as it was Sunday, to run into a bend of the river and tie up for the day. That night the banks caved in so frequently that I was in danger of being entombed in my sneak-box; and I rejoiced when morning came and the dangerous quarters were left behind. My flatboat companions made known to me a curious feature of river physics well known to the great floating population of the western streams. If you start with a flat-boat or raft of timber from any point on the Ohio or Mississippi rivers at the moment a rise in the water takes place, and continue floating night and day without interruption, you will in a few days overrun the effects of the rise, or freshet, and get below it. A little later you will discover, at some point a few hundred miles down-stream, that the river is just commencing to swell, as the result of the freshet upon which you originally started.
During Tuesday and Wednesday of January 11 and 12, I was at times with the flat, and at times miles away from it. Near Skipwith Landing, Mississippi, we passed large and well-cultivated cotton-plantations, but the river country in its vicinity was almost a wilderness.
My sleep had been much broken by night-travelling, and about nine o'clock on Wednesday evening I fastened my boat to the flat, and determined to have two or three hours of refreshing slumber. An hour's peaceful rest followed, and then a snorting, screeching stern-wheel steamer crossed the river with its tow of barges, and demoralized all my surroundings, driving me against the flat, and shooting water over the deck of my craft. Only half awake, I cast off from the flat, and thought that I was rowing down-river as usual; but I had dropped back into my nest just for one moment, and was in the land of Nod. I felt in my sleep that I was floating down the Mississippi. I was conscious that I had left the flatboat, and that steamers, snags, and eddies must be looked out for, or disaster would come quickly upon me.
I knew I was asleep, and tried to rouse myself. I seemed to be watching the moon, which shone with silver glory upon the glistening waters, and made the dark forests, rising wall-like on the banks, even darker by comparison. Then I seemed to enter the fields of astronomy, moving through the atmosphere still pulling at my oars. My mental vision stretched across the Atlantic, and enveloped the old astronomical observatory of the French city of Toulouse. It was the hour of sunset, and the learned Director Petit was at his post carefully adjusting
his telescope, eager with the hope of identifying an undiscovered meteorite, the presence of which had been suggested by certain disturbances among the celestial bodies. The savant carefully pointed his instrument to the neighboring regions of the setting sun, when suddenly I saw him start, and heard him mutter, like a philosopher of old, "Eureka, I have found it!" Only a ray of light had flashed across the field of his telescope as an asteroid shot into the gloam of the sun. Its movements were so rapid, its disappearance so sudden, that it was impossible to obtain another glimpse of the unknown body. The god of day had enveloped the satellite in curtains of powerful light, so that no eye but that of its Creator could gaze again that night upon the little stranger which had been seen for the first time by man.
The astronomer moved away from his instrument and the wonderful machinery that had guided it in its search for the asteroid, slowly muttering. "The sun robbed me of a second sight of my discovery, yet only at this hour can I hope to get a glimpse of it. The difficulties attending this observation are the tremendous velocity with which it travels, its very small mass, and the rapidity with which, at the hour of sunset, it passes into the shadow of the earth. I will, however, calculate its orbit, and search for it again; for I have this evening seen what
no human eye has ever beheld, I HAVE SEEN THE EARTH'S LITTLE MOON." While I watched, entranced, the astronomer, aided by his assistants, labored over multitudes of figures hour after hour, day after day; and from these computations an orbit was constructed for the Little Moon.
Their work was finished; and as they left the observatory, a shadow, which had thrown its dark outlines here and there about the professor during his investigations, assumed the proportions of a man; and I saw for an instant the brilliant French writer, Jules Verne, while a voice in the musical language of France fell upon my ear: "Ah, Monsieur, it IS true, then, and we have a second moon, which must revolve round our planet once in three hours and twenty minutes, at a distance of only four thousand six hundred and fifty miles from our terrestrial abiding-place!"
Then the professor and his figures faded out of my vision; and I seemed to be observing a little moon revolving with lightning rapidity round the earth, while I felt that I had, in some way, been sucked into its orbit, and was whirling around with it. Suddenly, with a keen sense of danger pervading my whole nervous system, I awoke. Yes, it was a dream! I was in my boat, gazing up into the serene heavens, where the larger moon was tranquilly following her
orbit, while I was being whirled round in a strong eddy under a high bank of the river, with the giant trees frowning down upon me as though rebuking a careless boatman for being caught napping. And where was the flat? I gazed across the wide river into the quiet atmosphere now full of the bright light of the moon,--but no boat could be seen; and from the wild forest alone came back an echo to my shouts of "Flatboat, ahoy!" For hours I rowed in search of my compagnon de voyage.
As I hurried along the reaches of the river, every island cut-off, every tow-head, and every nigger-head, was inspected. I even peered into the mouths of dark bayous, thinking the party might have tied up to await my arrival, as the larger and deeper craft floated faster than my little boat. All search, however, proved fruitless. No flat could be seen. My endeavors to find my quondam friends had been so absorbing that things above my line of vision were not observed, when suddenly the bright moonlight revealed to my astonished eyes a lofty city apparently suspended in the heavens. By the aid of a candle and my map I discovered that the city and fortifications of Vicksburgh were close at hand, and that it was four o'clock in the morning.
My first view of Vicksburgh was over a long, low point of land, across the base of which was
excavated, during the investment of the city by United States troops in the late war, "General Grant's Cut-off." By using this cut-off, light-draught gunboats could ascend or descend the river without passing near the batteries of the fortified city. This point, or peninsula, which the Union forces held, is on the Louisiana shore, opposite Vicksburgh. A year or two after I passed that interesting locality, a Natchez newspaper, in describing the change made in the channel of the Mississippi River, said that "St. Joseph and Rodney have been left inland; Vicksburgh is left on a lake; Delta will soon be washed away; a cut-off has been made at Grand Gulf, and by another season Port Gibson and Claiborne County will have no landing."
Floating quietly in my little boat, and gazing at the city upon the heights, I thought of the bloody scenes there enacted, and of the statement made that "three hundred tons of lead, mostly bullets, had been collected in and around the town since the close of the war." This lead, it has been asserted, would make nine million six hundred thousand ounce-balls. Of course, in this statement there is no mention of the lead buried deep in the earth, and that lost in the river.
Entering a great bend, the swift current swept me so rapidly past Vicksburgh that a few moments later I was among the islands and
tow-heads of the river. At noon the plantation of Mr. Jefferson Davis was passed. It was situated twenty-five miles below Vicksburgh, and prior to February, 1867, was on a long peninsula with the estate of Colonel Joseph E. Davis and one belonging to Messrs. Quitman and Farrar. Then came the overwhelming river, sweeping across a narrow neck of land, and transforming the cotton-plantations into an island territory. In the old days of slavery, Colonel Joseph E. Davis, brother of the ex-president of the late Confederate States, had a body-servant named Ben Montgomery. He was the manager of his master's estates while a slave, and was so industrious and honest in all his dealings, and so successful in business, that after the war he was able to purchase his master's plantation for three hundred and fifty thousand dollars in gold.
While I lingered in the Davis cut-off to lunch, a boat-load of white men passed me on their way to the plantation of Jefferson Davis, which they said had also been purchased by Ben Montgomery of its former owner, who then resided in Memphis. One of the men said: "Mr. Davis will convey the property to Ben Montgomery as soon as he makes one more payment, and Ben told me he was about ready to close the transaction."
Montgomery was described as being fairly
educated, and possessing the presence and address of a gentleman. His neighbors credited him with being "a right smart good nigger." It is a singular fact that these large landed estates should have become the property of the former slave so soon after the war. Ben Montgomery died recently, leaving an example to his colored brethren worthy of their imitation.
From Davis's Cut-off I followed Big Black Island Bend and Hard Times Bend, past the now silent batteries of Grand Gulf, down to the town of Rodney. I went ashore near the old plantation of an ex-president (General Taylor) of the United States, being attracted by a lot of dry drift-wood which promised a blazing fire. While cooking my rice and slowly developing an omelet, I calculated upon the chances of finding the lost flatboat. It was now evident that she was behind, not in advance of me. It was about four o'clock, and I determined to await her arrival. At half-past six o'clock clouds had obscured the sky, and it was impossible to see across the water, but I continued to watch and listen for the flat. The current was strongest on my side of the river, and I felt certain the boat would follow it and pass close to my camp. Her lantern and blazing stove-pipe would reveal her presence. Suddenly a man coughed within a few rods of the shore, and out of the gloom appeared the dark outlines of the fisherman's craft, but like a
phantom ship, it instantly disappeared. It was but the work of a moment to embark and follow the vanishing flat. I soon overhauled it, and received a warm welcome from its occupants, who had supposed that after the steamer had driven me from them I had sought refuge in a creek to make up my lost hours of sleep. We floated side by side all night, disturbed but once, and then by the powerful steamer Robert Lee, which unceremoniously threw about a pail of water over me, gratuitously washing my blankets.
The next day, January 13, we passed Natchez, Mississippi, about four o'clock A. M. This city, founded by D'Iberville in 1700, is geographically divided into two parts. "Natchez on the Hill" is situated on a bluff two hundred feet above the river, while "Natchez under the Hill " is at the base of the cliff, and from its levee vessels sail for foreign as well as for American ports. Its inland and foreign trade is extensive, though it has a population of only ten or twelve thousand. The aspect of the country was changing as we approached New Orleans. Fine plantations, protected by levees, now lined the river-banks, while the forests of dense green, heavily draped with Spanish moss, threw dark shadows on the watery path.
We arrived at the mouth of the Red River about dark, and my companions were fortunate
enough to find a steamer at the landing, the captain of which promised to take them in tow to their distant goal. We parted like old friends; and as I rowed in darkness down the Mississippi I heard the shrill whistle of the steamer which was dragging my companions up the current of Red River into the high lands of Louisiana.
Up Red River, three miles from its mouth, a stream branches off to the south, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. This is the Atchafalaya Bayou. At Plaquemine, about one hundred and thirty miles below Red River, and on the west bank of the Mississippi, another bayou conducts a portion of the water from the main stream into Grand River, which, with other western Louisiana watercourses, empties into the Gulf of Mexico. There is a third western outlet from the parent stream at Donaldsonville, eighty-one miles above New Orleans, known as the Bayou La Fourche, which flows through one of the richest sugar-producing sections of the state. Dotted here and there along the shores of this bayou are the picturesque homes of the planters, made more attractive by the semi-tropical vegetation, the clustering vines, blooming roses, and bright green turf than they could ever be from mere architectural beauty, while their continuous course along the shore gives the idea of a long and prosperous village.
The guide-books of the Mississippi describe
the Bayou Manchac as an outlet to the Mississippi on the left, or east bank, below Baton Rouge, and the statement is repeatedly made that steamboats can go through this bayou into the Amite River, and down that river to Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico, leaving, by this route, the city of New Orleans to the west. This is, however, far from the truth, as I shall presently show, for it had been my intention to descend the Bayou Manchac, and follow D'Iberville's ancient route to the sea. I soon found that the accomplishment of my plan was impossible, as the dry bottom of the bayou was FIFTEEN FEET ABOVE the water of the Mississippi.
Pursuing my solitary way, I rowed across the Mississippi, and skirted the shore in search of a camp where I could sleep until the moon arose, which would be soon after midnight. During the afternoon I had crossed the southern boundary of the state of Mississippi, and now the river ran through the state of Louisiana all the way to the sea.
About nine o'clock I found a little bayou in the dark woods, and moored my boat to a snag which protruded its head above the still waters of the tarn. The old trees that closely encircled my nocturnal quarters were fringed with the inevitable Spanish moss, and gave a most funereal aspect to the surroundings. The mournful hootings of the owls added to the doleful and
weird character of the place. I was, however, too sleepy to waste much sentiment upon the gloomy walls of my apartment, and was soon lost to all sublunary things. These dark pockets of the swamps, these earthly Hades, are famous resting-places for those who know the untenable nature of ghosts, and who have become the possessors of healthy nerves by avoiding the poisonous influences of coal-gas in furnace-heated houses, the vitiated air of crowded rooms, and other detrimental effects of a city life. In such a camp the voyager need fear no intrusion upon his privacy, for the superstitions rife among men will prevent even Paul Pry from penetrating such recesses during the wee sma' hours. Of course such a camp would be safe only during the winter months, as at other seasons the invidious foe, malaria, would inevitably mark for its victim the man who slept beneath such deadly shades.
At midnight the light of the moon illuminated my dark quarters, and I stole noiselessly out of the bayou into the river, rowing until sunrise, when the small port of Bayou Sara was passed. It was soon left in the dim distance, and the little white boat floated ten miles down a nearly straight reach in the river to the frowning heights of Port Hudson, a place that figured prominently during the late war.
The country round Port Hudson is thickly
settled by descendants of the old Acadians, who came down the great rivers from Canada in the early days of Louisiana's history. Entering the mouth of the False River, on the west bank of the Mississippi, the traveller will penetrate the heart of an old and interesting Acadian settlement. If his mind be full of poetic fancies, and his eyes in search of Gabriels and Evangelines as he travels along this part of the Mississippi, his ears will be startled by the unmistakable Yankee names that are given him as representing the proprietors of the various estates he passes. Here and there the old French names appear; but in almost every such instance its possessor is a bachelor, and with him its musical accents will die away. Searching into the cause of this patent fact, I discovered that the creole women, descendants of the old Acadians, appreciated the sterling qualities of the Anglo-Saxon race, and found in them their ideals, leaving in a state of single blessedness the more indolent, and perhaps less persuasive, creole gentlemen. The results of these marriages are the gradual extinction of old family names; and in the not very far future the romance connected with these people will be a thing of the past, and the traveller, instead of thinking--"This is the little village famed of yore,
with meadows rich in flocks, and plenteous grain,
whose peasants knelt beside each vine-clad door,
As the sweet Angelus rose over the plain,"
will be introduced to Mrs. Hezekiah Skinner, and partake of her baked beans.
My informant in these matters was an educated creole gentleman, and I must have the honesty to give his remarks in regard to these persistent "Yankees," who, he said, "were always successful with the fair maidens, but invariably selected those who owned fine plantations, having in love, as well as in war, an eye to the main chance."
About the middle of the afternoon I ran the sneak-box on to the sloping levee of Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana; and, locking the hatch, went to the post-office for letters, and to the stores for provisions. Returning to the levee, I found a good-natured crowd had taken possession of my boat, and at once availed myself of the local information in regard to the chances of a passage through Bayou Manchac, which was only fifteen miles below the town. Each told a different story. One gentleman said, "You will have to get four niggers to lift your boat over the levee of Mr. Walker's plantation, and put it into Bayou Manchac, which is about one hundred yards from the banks of the Mississippi. Its mouth was filled up a long time ago, but when once in the bayou you can float down to the Amite River, and so on to the Gulf." Another voice contradicted this statement, exclaiming, "Why, the bayou is dried up for a distance of at least eight miles from its head." At this point a
well-dressed gentleman advanced, and quietly said: "I live on the Bayou Manchac, and can assure you that after you have hauled your boat through the Woodstock Plantation of the Walker family, you will find water enough in the bayou to float down upon to the Amite River."
The crowd now became fully alive to the discussion of the geography of their locality. Each man who favored me with an opinion on the Manchac question contradicted his neighbor; which was only a renewal of old experiences, for I always found LOCAL knowledge of geography and distances of little value. As the debate ran high, I thought of D'Iberville, who had thoroughly explored the short bayou several generations before, and who might now have enlightened these people in regard to a stream that ran through their own lands. D'Iberville was, however, born in Canada, and probably had more time to look into such matters, or he would not have travelled several thousand miles to explore Louisiana.
I thanked the company for their interest in the discussion, which, like the questions before a debating society, had ended only in opinions. I promised to let them know the truth of the matter if I visited Baton Rouge again, and pushing out into the current, pulled towards Woodstock Plantation, where I arrived soon after dark; but fearing to land on account
of the dogs, whose reception of a stranger in the dark was, to say the least, unceremonious, I tied up to a high bank, and "turned in" for the night.
Having left the wilderness and its protecting creeks and islands, I was destined to feel all the annoyances attending a camper in a cultivated and settled region. The steamboats tossed me about all night, so that morning was indeed welcome, and having refreshed myself with a dip and a déjeûner, I climbed the bank, and was rewarded with the sight of a noble mansion, with its gardens of blooming roses, and lawns of bright green grass. This was the Woodstock Plantation, of which I had heard so much. I leisurely approached the large establishment, breathing an atmosphere laden with the fragrance of roses and orange-blossoms, which seemed to grow sweeter with every step. Finding an old negro, I sent my card to his master, with the request for information in regard to the Bayou Manchac. The young proprietor soon appeared with the "Report of the Secretary of War," 27th Congress, 3d session, page 21. December 30, 1842. This pamphlet informed me that the bayou was filled up at its mouth by order of the government, in answer to a petition from the planters of the lower country along the bayou and Amite River, to prevent the overflow of their cane-fields during freshets in the Mississippi River. We walked to a shallow depression near the house.
It was dry, and carpeted with short grass. "This," said Mr. Walker, "is the Bayou Manchac which D'Iberville descended in his boat after having explored the Mississippi probably as far as Red River. The bed of the bayou is now fifteen feet above the present stage of water in the Mississippi." A field-hand was then called, who was said to be the best geographer in those parts, white or black.
"Tell this gentleman what you know of the Bayou Manchac," said Mr. Walker, addressing the negro.
"Well, sah!"the darky replied, "I jus hab looked at yer boat. Four ob us can hf him ober de levee, an' put him on de cart. Den wees mus done cart him FOURTEEN miles 'long de Bayou Manchac to get to whar de warter is plenty fur him to float in. Dar is some places nearer dan dat, 'bout twelve miles off whar dar is SOME warter, but de warter am in little spots, an' den you go on furder, an' dar is no warter fur de boat. Den all de way dar is trees dat falls across de bayou. Boss, you mus go all de fourteen miles to get to de warter, sure sartin."
Mr. Walker informed me that for fourteen miles down the bayou the fall was six feet to the mile. At that distance from the Mississippi, sloop navigation commenced at a point called Hampton's Landing, from which it was about six miles to the Amite River. The Amite River was
navigated by light-draught vessels from Lake Pontchartrain. The region about the Amite River possesses rich bottom-lands, and many of the descendants of the original French settlers of Louisiana own plantations along its banks.
Mr. Walker then pointed to a long point of land some miles down the river, upon which the fertile fields of a plantation lay like patches of bright green velvet in the morning sun, and said: "Below that point a neighbor of mine found one of your northern boatmen dying in his boat. He rowed all the way from Philadelphia on a bet, and if he had reached New Orleans would have won his five thousand dollars, but he died when only ninety-five miles from the city, and was buried by Adonis Le Blanc on that plantation."
I had heard the story before. It had been told me by the river boatmen, and the newspapers of the country had also repeated it. The common version of it was, that a poor man, desirous of supporting his large family of children, had undertaken to row on a bet from Philadelphia to New Orleans. If successful, he was to receive five thousand dollars. The kind-hearted people along the river had shown much sympathy for Mr. John C. Cloud in his praiseworthy attempts to support his suffering family, and at any time during his voyage quite a liberal sum of money might have been collected from these generous men and women to aid him in his endeavor.
There was, however, something he preferred to money, and with which he was lavishly supplied, as we shall see hereafter.
So much for rumor. Now let us examine facts. A short time before Mr. Cloud's death, two reporters of a western paper attempted to row to New Orleans in a small boat, but met with an untimely end, being run down by a steamboat. Their fate and Mr. Cloud's were quoted as precedents to all canoeists and boatmen, and quite a feeling against this healthful exercise was growing among the people. Several editors of popular newspapers added to the excitement by warnings and forebodings. Believing that some imprudence had been the cause of Mr. Cloud's death, and forming my opinion of him from the fact of his undertaking such a voyage in August,--the season when the swamps are full of malaria,--I took the trouble to investigate the case, and made some discoveries which would have startled the sympathetic friends of this unfortunate man.
One of the first things that came to light was the fact that Mr. Cloud was not a married man. His family was a creation of his imagination, and a most successful means of securing the sympathy and ready aid of those he met during his voyage, though his daily progress shows that neither sympathy nor money were what he craved, but that WHISKEY alone would "fill the bill!"
Mr. Cloud had once been a sailor in the United States navy, but having retired from the cruel sea, he became an actor in such plays as "Black-eyed Susan" in one of the variety theatres in Philadelphia. Mr. Charles D. Jones, of that city, who was connected with theatrical enterprises, and knew Mr. Cloud well, was one day surprised by the latter gentleman, who declared he had a "bright idea," and only wanted a friend to stand by him to make it a sure thing. He proposed to row from Philadelphia to New Orleans in a small boat. Mr. Jones was to act as his travelling agent, going on in advance, and informing the people of the coming of the great oarsman. When Mr. Cloud should arrive in any populous river-town, a theatrical performance was to be given, the boatman of course to be the "star." Mr. Jones was to furnish the capital for all this, while Mr. Cloud was to share with his manager the profits of the exhibitions.
A light Delaware River skiff, pointed at each end, was purchased, and Mr. Cloud left Philadelphia in the month of August, promising his friend to arrive in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in twelve or fourteen days. After waiting a few days to enable Mr. Cloud to get fairly started upon his voyage, which was to be made principally by canals to the Alleghany River, the manager went to Pittsburgh with letters of introduction to the editors of that busy city. The
representatives of the press kindly seconded Mr. Jones in advertising the coming of the great oarsman. Mr. Cloud was expected to appear in front of Pittsburgh on a certain day. A hall was engaged for his performance in the evening. An immense amount of enthusiasm was worked up among the people of the city and the neighboring towns. Having done his duty to his colleague, Mr. Jones anxiously awaited the expected telegram from Cloud, announcing his approach to the city. No word came from the oarsman; and in vain the manager telegraphed to the various towns along the route through which Mr. Cloud must have passed.
On the day that had been settled upon for the arrival of the boat before Pittsburgh, a large concourse of visitors gathered along the river-banks. Even the mayor of the city was present in his carriage among the expectant crowd. The clock struck the hour of noon, but the little Delaware skiff was nowhere to be seen; and, as the sun declined from the zenith, the people gradually dispersed, muttering, "Another humbug!"
At midnight Mr. Jones retired in anything but an amiable mood. His professional honor had been wounded, and his industrious labors lost. Where was Cloud? Had the poor fellow been murdered? What was his fate, and why did he not come up to time? Revolving
these questions in his mind, the manager fell asleep; but he was roused before five o'clock in the morning by a servant knocking at his door to inform him that his "star" was in Alleghany City, opposite Pittsburgh. Mr. Jones went to look up his man, and found him in a state of intoxication in a drinking-saloon. A hard-looking set of fellows were perambulating the streets, bawling at the top of their voices, "Arrival of John C. Cloud, the great oarsman! Photographs for sale! only twenty-five cents!"
When the intoxicated boatman had returned to a conversational state of mind, he explained that he had actually rowed as far as Harrisburgh, Pennsylvania, where he had been most generously entertained at the liquor saloons, and had been so fortunate as to make the acquaintance of some "good fellows" who had engaged to travel in advance of his boat, and sell his photographs, sharing with him in the profits of such sales. He had made his voyage from Harrisburgh to Alleghany City by rail, his boat being safely stowed in a car, and tenderly watched over by the red-shirted "good fellows" who had so generously taken him under their wing. The "great oarsman" had, in fact, rowed just about one-third of the distance between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The disgusted manager left his man in charge of the new managers, and going at once to the
editors, explained how he had been duped, and begged to be "let down gently" before the public. These gentlemen not only acceded to the request, but even offered to get up a "benefit" for Mr. Jones, who declined the honor, and waited only long enough in the city to see Mr. Cloud with his boat and whiskey fade out of sight down the Ohio, when he returned to Philadelphia considerably lighter in pocket, having provided funds for purchasing the boat and other necessaries, and full of righteous indignation against Mr. Cloud and his "bright idea."
The little skiff went on its way down the Ohio, and was met with enthusiasm at each landing. The citizens of Hickman, Kentucky, described the voyage of Mr. Cloud as one continuous ovation. Five thousand people gathered along the banks below that town to welcome "the poor northern man who was rowing to New Orleans on a five-thousand-dollar bet, hoping to win his wager that he might have means to support his large family of children." One old gentleman seemed to have his doubts about the truth of this statement, "for," said he, "when the celebrated oarsman appeared, and landed, he repaired immediately to a low drinking-saloon, and announced that he was the greatest oarsman in America," &c.
The "boys" about the town subscribed a fund, and invested it in five gallons of whiskey,
which Cloud took aboard his skiff when he departed. He plainly stated that the conditions of the bet prevented his sleeping under a roof while on his way; so he curled himself up in his blankets and slept on the veranda floors. The man must have had great powers of endurance, or he could not have rowed so long in the hot sun at that malarious season of the year. His chief sustenance was whiskey; and at one town, near Cairo, I was assured by the best authority, ten gallons of that fiery liquor were stowed away in his skiff. Such disregard of nature's laws soon told upon the plucky fellow, and his voyage came to an end when almost in sight of his goal. The malaria he was breathing and the whiskey he was drinking set fire to his blood, and the fatal congestive chills were the inevitable result.
The papers of New Orleans had announced the approach of the great oarsman, and the planters were ready to give him a cordial welcome, when one day a man who was walking near the shore of the Mississippi, in the parish of Iberville, and looking out upon the river, saw a boat of a peculiar model whirling around in the eddies. He at once launched his boat and pushed out to the object which had excited his curiosity. Stretched upon the bottom of the strange craft was a man dressed in the garb of a northern boatman. At first he appeared
to be dead; but a careful examination showed that life was not yet extinct. The unknown man was carried to the nearest plantation, and there, among strangers whose hearts beat kindly for the unfortunate boatman, John C. Cloud expired without uttering one word. The coroner,
[Dying in his boat.] [36KB]Mr. Adonis Le Blanc, found upon the person of the dead man a memorandum-book which told of the distances made each day upon the river, while the entries of the closing days showed how the keeper of the log had suffered from
the "heavy shakes" occasioned by the malaria and his own imprudence. The story of the cruise was recorded on the boat. Men and women had written their names inside the frail shell, with the dates of her arrival at different localities along the route. I afterwards examined the boat at Biloxi, on the Gulf of Mexico, where it was kept as a curiosity in the boat-house of a citizen of New Orleans.
They buried the unfortunate man upon the plantation, and Mr. Clay Gourrier took charge of his effects. The most remarkable thing about this rowing match was the credulity of the people along the route. They accepted Cloud's statement without stopping to consider that if there were any truth in it, the other side, with their five thousand dollars at stake, would surely take some interest in the matter, and have men posted along the route to see that the bet was fairly won. The fact that no bet had been made never seemed to dawn upon them; but, like too many, they sympathized without reasoning.
Being forced to abandon all hopes of taking the Bayou Manchac and the interesting country of the Acadians in my route southward, I rowed down the river, past the curious old town of Plaquemine, and by four o'clock in the afternoon commenced to search for an island or creek where a good camping-ground for Sunday might be found. The buildings of White Castle
Plantation soon arose on the right bank, and as I approached the little cooperage-shop of the large estate, which was near the water, a kindly hail came from the master-cooper and his assistant. Acceding to their desire "to look at the boat," I let the two men drag her ashore, and while they examined the craft, I studied the representatives of two very different types of laboring-men. One was from Madison, Indiana; the other belonged to the poor white class of the south. We built a fire near the boat, and passed half the night in conversation.
These men gave me much valuable information about Louisiana. The southern cooper had lived much among the bayous and swamps of that region of the state subjected to overflow. He was an original character, and never so happy as when living a Robinson Crusoe life in the woods. His favorite expression seemed to be, "Oh, shucks!" and his yarns were so interlarded with this exclamation, that in giving one of his stories I must ask the reader to imagine that expressive utterance about every other word. Affectionately hugging his knee, and generously expectorating as he made a transfer of his quid from one side of his mouth to the other, he said:
"A fellow don't always want company in the woods. If you have a pardner, he ort to be jes like yourself, or you'll be sartin to fall out. I
was riving out shingles and coopers' stock once with a pardner, and times got mighty hard, so we turned fishermen. There was some piles standing in Plaquemine Bayou, and the drift stuff collected round them and made a sort of little island. Me and Bill Bates went to work and rived out some lengths of cypress, and built a snug shanty on top of the piles. As it wasn't real estate we was on, nobody couldn't drive us off; so we fished for the Plaquemine folks.
"By-and-by a king-snake swimmed over to our island, and tuck up his abode in a hole in a log. The cuss got kind of affectionate, and after a while crawled right into our hut to catch flies and other varmin. At last he got so tame he'd let me scratch his back. Then he tuck to our moss bed, and used up a considerable portion of his time there. Bill Bates hadn't the manners of a hog, and he kept a-droppin' hints to me, every few days, that he'd 'drap into that snake some night and squeeze the life out of him.' This made me mad, and I nat'rally tuck the snake's part, particularly as he would gobble up and crush the neck of every water-snake that cum ashore on our island. One thing led to another, till Bill Bates swore he'd kill my snake. Sez I to him, 'Billum,' (I always called him Billum when I MEANT BIZNESS,) 'ef you hurt a hair of the head of my snake, I'll hop on to you.' That settled our pardnership. Bill Bates knowed
what I meant, and he gathered up his traps and skedaddled.
"Then I went to New Orleans, and out to Lake Pontchartrain, to fish for market. A lot of cussed Chinese was in the bizness, and when they found COARSE fish in their nets, they'd kill 'em and heave 'em overboard. Now, no man's got a rite to waste anything, so we fishermen begun to pay sum attention to the opium-smokers in good arnest."
Here I interrupted the speaker to ask him if it would be safe for me to travel alone through the fishing-grounds of these Chinese.
"Oh, shucks! safe enuf now," he answered. "Once they was a bad set; but a change has cum over 'em--they're CIVILIZED now."
A vision of schools and earnest missionary work was before me while I asked HOW their civilization had been accomplished.
"Shucks! WE dun it--WE WHITE FISHERMEN civilized 'em," was the emphatic reply; "and not a bit too soon either, for the wasteful cusses got so bad they wasn't satisfied with chucking dead fish overboard, but would go on to the prairies, and after using the grass cabins we WHITE fishermen had built to go into in bad weather, the bloody furiners would burn them up to bother us. They thort they'd drive us teetotally out of the diggins; so we thort it was time to CIVILIZE 'em. We hid in the long
grass fur a few nights and watched the cusses. One morning a Chinaman was found dead in a cabin. Pretty soon after, one or two others was found floatin' round loose, in the same way; and after that lesson or two the fellers got CIVILIZED; and you needn't fear goin' among 'em now, fur they're harmless as kittens. They don't kill coarse fish now fur the fun of it. Oh, shucks! there's nothin' like a little healthy CIVILIZATION fur Chinamen and Injuns. They both needs it, and, any way, this is a WHITE MAN'S country."
"And what of negroes?" I asked.
"Oh, the niggers is good enuf, ef you let 'em alone. The Carpet-baggers from up north has filled their heads with all kinds of stuff, so now they think, nat'rally enuf, that they ought to be office-holders, when they can't read or write no more than I can. I'd like to take a hand CIVILIZING some of them Carpet-baggers! They needs it more than the Chinamen or Injuns."
During part of the evening, Mr. Sewall, the nephew of the owner of the plantation, was with us round our camp-fire. We spoke of Longfellow's Evangeline, the bay-tree, and Atchafalaya River, which he assured me was slowly widening its current, and would in time, perhaps, become the main river of the basin, and finally deprive the Mississippi of a large portion of its waters. From his boyhood he had watched the falling in of the banks with the widening and
increasing of the strength of the current of the Atchafalaya Bayou. Once it was impassable for steamers; but a little dredging opened the way, while the Mississippi and Red rivers had both contributed to its volume of water until it had deepened sufficiently for United States gunboats to ascend it during the late war. It follows the shortest course from the mouth of Red River to the Gulf of Mexico.
I left White Castle Plantation early on Monday morning, when I discovered a lot of fine sweet-potatoes stowed away in the hold of my boat. The northern cooper had purchased them during the night, and having too much delicacy to speak of his gift, secreted them in the boat. I fully appreciated this kind act, knowing it to be a mark of the poor man's sympathy for his northern countryman. The levee for miles was lined with negroes and white men gathering a harvest of firewood from the drift stuff. One old negro, catching sight of my boat, called out to his companion, "Randal, look at dat boat! De longer we libs, de mor you sees. What sort o' queer boat is she?"
Twenty miles below White Castle Plantation is the valuable sugar estate called Houmas, the property of General Wade Hampton and Colonel J. T. Preston. General Hampton does not reside upon his plantation, but makes Georgia his home. Beyond Houmas the parish of St. James
skirts the river for twenty miles. Three miles back from the river, on the left side of the Mississippi, and fifty-five miles from New Orleans, is the little settlement of Grand Point, the place most famed in St. James for perique tobacco. The first settler who had the hardihood to enter these solitudes was named Maximilian Roussel. He purchased a small tract of land from the government, and in the year 1824 shouldered his axe and camping-utensils, and started for his new domain. He soon built a hut, and at once began the laborious task of clearing his land, which was located in a dense cypress swamp, alive with wild beasts and alligators. A rough house was completed at the end of a year, and into it Roussel moved his family, consisting of a wife and four children. Here "he lived till he died," as it has been expressively said.
Octave and Louis, two of his sons, and both now grandfathers, still live on the old place, and are highly respected. Only a few years ago the old homestead echoed to the voices of five of Roussel's sons, with their families; but death has taken two, one has removed, and two only now remain to relate the history of the almost unimaginable hardships encountered by the old and hardy pioneer.
There are at present nineteen families in the settlement, and they are all engaged in the cultivation of perique tobacco. An average farm
on Grant Point consists of eight acres, and the average yield of manufactured tobacco is four hundred pounds to the acre. These simple-hearted people seem to be very happy and content. They have no saloons or stores of any kind, but their place is well filled with a neat Catholic church and a substantial school-house. Every man, woman, and child is a devout Roman Catholic, and in their daily intercourse with each other the stranger among them hears a patois something like the French language. The whole of the land cultivated by these people would not make more than an average farm in the north, while compared with the vast sugar estates on every side of it the dimensions are infinitesimal.
Villages were now picturesquely grouped along the shores, the most conspicuous feature in each being the large Catholic church, showing the religious belief of the people. Curious little stores were perched behind the now high banks of the levee. The signs over the doors bore such inscriptions as, "The Red Store," "The White Store," "St. John's Store," "Poor Family Store," &c. Busy life was seen on every side, but here, as elsewhere in the south, men seemed always to have time to give a civil answer to any necessary inquiries.
Only a month after I had descended this part of the river, Captain Boyton, clothed in his famous swimming-suit, paddled his way down
the current from Bayou Goula to New Orleans, a distance of one hundred miles. The incidents of this curious voyage are now a part of the river's history, and this seems the place for the brave captain to tell his story. He says:
"I arrived at Bayou Goula on the 'Bismarck,' about six o'clock on Thursday morning; and, after considerable delay, succeeded in obtaining quarters at the Buena Vista Hotel in that village. At that point I engaged the services of a colored man named Brown, to pilot me down the river. At ten o'clock I took a breakfast, consisting of five eggs, bread, and a glass of beer, and ate nothing else during the day. At five o'clock precisely I took to the water and began my trip down to the city of New Orleans--a trip which proved to be a much more arduous one than I had anticipated, in consequence of the want of buoyancy in the water, the terrible counter-currents, and the large amount of drift-wood. It was some time before I could master the difficulty about the drift-wood, and at one time I was so annoyed and bruised by the floating debris, that I became somewhat apprehensive about the success of my enterprise. In some of the strong eddies particularly the logs played such fantastic tricks, rolling over and over with their jagged limbs and again standing upon their ends, that I feared I must either be carried under, or have my dress stripped completely off. By constant watching,
however, I was enabled to steer out of harm's way and to keep steadily moving down the stream.
"Above Donaldsonville I was met by a fleet of boats filled with spectators, who accompanied me down to that point, which I reached about eight o'clock in the evening. The town was illuminated, and the citizens tendered me a polite invitation to land and take supper; but of course I was obliged to decline, accepting in lieu a drink and a sandwich. Of the sandwich I ate only the bread.
[Boyton descending the Mississippi.] [32KB]
"Below Donaldsonville I was caught in the great eddy. It was about four o'clock in the morning when I got into it, and it was good daylight before I succeeded in getting out again into the down-stream current. It was a singular sensation, this going round and round over the same ground, so to speak, and for the life of me I could not understand how I seemed now and then to be passing the same plantation-houses and familiar landmarks. The skiff which accompanied me was also in the same predicament, sometimes pulling up and sometimes pulling down stream. I tried to guide myself by the north star, but before I was aware of it that luminary, which ought to have kept directly in my front, would pop up, as it were, behind me, and destroy all my calculations. When daylight came, however, and the fog lifted sufficiently, I was able to paddle out into the middle of the stream, and keep down it once again.
"Early in the morning, above Bonnet Carre, I asked several persons on shore for some coffee, but most of them seemed too much excited to attend to this pressing want of mine. At last a gentleman who spoke French got his wife to go and get me a cup of coffee, after drinking which I felt greatly refreshed. The sandwich and drink at Donaldsonville, and this cup of coffee next morning, were the only things in the shape of refreshments which I took during the twenty-four hours' voyage. At times I was almost certain I was being attacked by alligators, and thought I should have to use the knife with which I always go armed, but it only proved to be the annoying drift-wood in which I would become fearfully entangled. I only suffered from the cold in my feet. These I warmed, however, after the sun came out, by inflating the lower part of my dress, and holding them up out of the water.
"The banks all along the way were crowded with people to see me pass down. At one point, when I had allowed the air to escape from the lower part of my dress, and was going along rapidly, with nothing showing above water but my head and my paddle, I met a skiff, which contained a negro man and woman, who were crossing the river. The woman became fearfully alarmed, and her screams could have been heard for miles away. The man pulled for dear life, the woman in the stern acting the cockswain, and urging the boat forward in the funniest manner possible.
"While in the great eddy I drifted into an immense flock of ducks, and but for the noise made by those in the skiff I could easily have caught several of them, as they were not at all disturbed by my presence, but swam leisurely all about me.
"At the Red Church, the wind blowing up
against the current kicked up a nasty sea, which gave me a great deal of trouble. By sinking down very low, however, and allowing only my head above water, and taking the shower-bath as it came upon me continuously, I was enabled to keep up my headway down stream. When at my best speed I easily kept ahead of the boats, going sometimes at the rate of seven miles an hour without difficulty.
"This feat was a much more arduous one than my trip across the English Channel. Then I only slept two hours, and was up again, feeling all right; but when this thing was over I slept all night, had a refreshing bath, and still suffered from fatigue, to say nothing of my swollen wrists and neck-glands."
Having finished his remarkable voyage successfully, Captain Boyton concluded that his life-saving dress had been fully tested in America, and determined to rest on his laurels, and avoid Mississippi debris in future. In consequence of being caught in the eddy below Donaldsonville, this great swimmer estimated the distance he traversed from Bayou Goula to New Orleans as fully one hundred and twenty miles.[*note]
About dusk I rowed into a grove of young
willows, on the left bank of the river, on the Shepard Plantation. My boat was soon securely fastened to a tree, and having partaken of my frugal meal I retired. A comfortable night's rest was, however, out of the question, for the passing steamers tossed me about in a most unceremonious manner, seeming to me in my dreams to be chanting for their lullaby, "Rock-a-by baby on the tree-top." Indeed, the baby on the tree-top was in an enviable position compared with my kaleidoscopic movements among the swashy seas. Many visions were before me that night, of the numerous little sufferers who are daily slung backwards and forwards in those pernicious instruments of torture called cradles.
Memory brought also another picture I hoped it had been my good fortune to forget. It was a scene on the veranda of a country house. Five sisters, all pretty girls, whose grace arid vivacity I had often admired, were there, each in her rocking-chair, and each swinging to and fro, as though perpetual motion had been discovered. Why must an American woman have a rocking-chair? In no other country in the world, excepting among the creoles of South America, is this awkward piece of furniture so popular. Burn the cradles and taboo the graceless rocking-chair, and our children will have steadier heads and our women learn the attractive grace of quiet ease.
The following day I struggled against head
winds and swashy seas, until their combined forces proved too much for me, and succumbing as amiably as possible under the circumstances, the little white boat was run ashore on the Picou Plantation, where the coast was fortunately low. The rain and wind held me prisoner there until midnight, when, with a rising moon to cheer me, I forced a passage through the blockade of driftwood, and being once more on the river, waved an adieu to my last camp on the Mississippi.
I was now only thirty-seven miles from New Orleans. Rowing rapidly down the broad river, now shrouded in gloom, with the fleecy scuds flying overhead in the stormy firmament, I fully realized that I was soon to leave the noble stream which had borne me so long and so safely upon its bosom. A thunder-shower rose in the west--its massive blackness lighted by the vivid flashes which played over its surface. The houses of the planters along the river's bank were enveloped in foliage, and the air was so redolent with the fragrance of flowers that I seemed to be floating through an Eden. The wind and the clouds disappeared together, and a glorious sunrise gave promise of a perfect day. With the light came life. Where all had been silent and restful, man and beast now made known their presence. The rising sun seemed to be the signal for taking hold where they had let go the night before. The crowing of cocks, the cries of plantation
hands, the hungry neigh of horses, the hundred and one sounds of this work-a-day world, greeted my ears, while my eyes, taking a rapid survey of the surrounding steamers, coal-arks, and barges of every description, carried quickly to my brain the intelligence that I was near the Crescent City of the Gulf. Soon forests of masts rose upon the horizon, for there were vessels of all nations ranged along the levee of this once prosperous city.
Anxious to escape the officious kindness always encountered about the docks of southern cities, I peered about, hoping to find some quiet corner in which to moor my floating home. Near the foot of Louisiana Avenue I saw the fine boat-house of the "Southern Boat Club," and being pleasantly hailed by one of its members, hove to, and told him of my perplexity. With the ever ready hospitality of a southerner, he assured me that the boat-house was at my disposal; and calling a friend to assist, we easily hauled the duck-boat out of the water, up the inclined plane, into her new quarters.
The row upon the Mississippi from its junction with the Ohio down to New Orleans, including many stoppages, had occupied nineteen days, and had been accelerated by considerable night voyaging. The flow of the Mississippi was about one third faster than that of the Ohio. Lloyd's River Map gives the distance from the
mouth of the Ohio to the centre of New Orleans as ten hundred and fifty-five miles, but the surveys of the United States Engineer Corps make this crooked route ten hundred and twenty miles only.
My floating home being now in good hands, its captain turned his back on the water, and took a turn on land, leaving the river bounded by its narrow horizon, but teeming with a strange, nomadic life, the various types of which afforded a field where much gleaning would end in but a scanty harvest of good. Already my ears caught, in fancy, the sound of the restless waves of the briny waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and my spirits rose at the prospect of the broader experiences about to be encountered.
[*note] Since this voyage ended, Captain Boyton has, in the same manner, successfully descended the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers from Cairo to New Orleans.