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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 44

This webpage reproduces part of
Fortescue Cuming's
Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country

published in
Thwaites, Early Western Travels, Vol. IV.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 46
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Tour to the Western Country

[264] Vol. IV
Chapter XLV
The Devil's Race-ground — The Devil's Elbow — Swans — Observations on game — Remarkable situation — Enormous tree — Join other boats — First settlements after the wilderness — Chickasaw Bluffs — Fort Pike — Chickasaw Indians — Fort Pickering.

Rowing into the right hand channel of No. 36, we entered the Devil's Race-ground, as the sound is called between the island and the main, from the number of snags and sawyers in it, and the current setting strongly on the island, which renders it necessary to use the oars with continued exertion, by dint of which we got safely through this dangerous passage of three miles, leaving several newly deserted Indian camps on the right. At the end of the Devil's Race-ground the river tuns from S. W. by W. to N. N. W. and here  p290 opposite a small outlet of twenty yards wide on the left, we met a barge under sail, bound up the river.

After three miles on the last reach the river turns gradually with a bend, to its general southerly direction, the bend being encircled by a low bank covered with tall cypresses, which keep the traveller in constant dread of falling on his boat, which in spite of his utmost exertion is forced by an irresistible current close into the bend. The two other boats stopped here among some willows on account of a breaking short sea raised by a fresh southerly wind.

Nine miles from the Devil's Race-ground, we came to the Devil's Elbow, which is a low point on the left, round which the river turns suddenly, from S. W. to S., and from that to E. an island being in front to the southward, which intercepts the drifts, and fills the river above half channel over with snags and sawyers. There was a very large flock of swans [265]on the low sandy point of the Elbow. These were the first swans we had seen on the river, although they are said to abound throughout this long tract which is destitute of inhabitants. We had been long accustomed to see numbers of bitterns and cranes, mostly white as snow, and a few grey ones, and some duck and teal sometimes shewed themselves, but took care to keep out of gun shot. Travellers descending the river have but little chance of obtaining any game, as its having become so great a thoroughfare, has rendered both the four footed, and feathered tribes fit for the table so wild, that it is rare that any of them, even when seen can be shot, and if one lands for the purpose of hunting, the boat must stop, or else he is in danger of being left behind, as the current runs never or in no place slower than three miles an hour, and mostly four or five.

The easterly bend is six miles long, and about a mile wide, gradually inclining to the south, and on the right are eight creeks or outlets of the river, five of them divided  p291 from each other by narrow slips of land about fifty paces wide each, and the other three by slips of one hundred and fifty paces. Their general direction from the river is S. S. W. and a point rounds the whole way from E. to S. E. — This is one of the most remarkable situations on the river.

Two miles lower we stopped at island No. 40, for the night, and moored by some willows at a sand beach, near a drift tree, the trunk of which was one hundred and twenty-five feet long, and from its thickness where broken towards the top, it must have been at least fifty feet more to the extremity of the branches, making in the whole the astonishing length of one hundred and seventy-five feet. Capt. Wells with two boats from Steubenville, passed and stopped a little below us.

The Musquitoes as usual plagued us all night, and hastened our departure at four o'clock in the morning. [266]Wells's boats were in company, and after floating six miles, we overtook two other boats from Steubenville under the direction of captain Bell. — The four boats had twelve hundred barrels of flour for the New Orleans market.

This accession to our company served to enliven a little the remainder of this dreary and solitary part of the river, the sameness of which had began to be irksome.

In a league more Bell's boats took the right hand channel round an archipelago of islands, while we kept to the left through Mansfield's channel, which is very narrow and meanders among several small islands and willow bars.

This archipelago which is designated by No. 41 in the Navigator, is three miles long. At the end of it we rejoined Bell's boats, and passed a settlement pleasantly situated on the right, which was the first habitation since Little Prairie (one hundred and thirty-two miles). Here we observed a fine stock of horses, cows, and oxen, and half a mile farther we landed in the skiff at Mr. Foy's handsome settlement  p292 and good frame house. Foy was the first settler fourteen years ago on the Fourth Chickasaw Bluffs, which are opposite his present residence, to which he removed eleven years ago; since when five families more have settled near him, and about half a dozen on the Chickasaw side, just below Wolf river. Soon after Foy's first settlement, and very near it, the Americans erected a small stoccado fort, named Fort Pike, from the major commandant. After the purchase of Louisiana by the United States from the Spaniards, Fort Pickering was erected two miles lower down at the end of the bluffs, and Fort Pike was abandoned. There are two stores on each side the river, one of which is kept by Mr. Foy, who owns a small barge which he sends occasionally for goods to New Orleans, from whence she returns [267]generally in forty days, and did so once in thirty. Mrs. Foy was very friendly, amongst other civilities, sparing us some butter, for which she would accept no payment. This was the first instance of disinterestedness we had experienced on the banks of the rivers.189

Wolf river is the boundary between the state of Tennessee and the Mississippi territory. It is not more than about forty yards wide. The bank of the Ohio and the Mississippi, the whole way from Tennessee river is still owned by the  p293 Chickasaw nation, who have not yet sold the territorial right.190

On the point immediately below Mr. Foy's (whose negro quarter gives his pleasantly situated settlement the appearance of a village or hamlet) was formerly a Spanish fort no vestige of which now remains.191

Rowing across the river and falling down with the current, we landed under Fort Pickering, having passed the Fourth Chickasaw Bluffs, which are two miles long, and sixty feet perpendicular height. They are cleared at the top to some little distance back, and the houses of the settlers are very pleasantly situated near the edge of the cliff.

An Indian was at the landing observing us. He was painted in such a manner as to leave us in doubt as to his sex until we noticed a bow and arrow in his hand. His natural colour was entirely concealed under the bright vermillion, the white, and the blue grey, with which he was covered, not frightfully, but in such a manner as to mark more strongly, a fine set of features on a fine countenance. He was drest very fantastically in an old fashioned, large figured, high coloured calico shirt — deer skin leggins and mockesons, ornamented with beads, and a plume of beautiful heron's feathers nodding over his forehead from the back of his head.

We ascended to Fort Pickering​192 by a stair of one hundred and twenty square logs, similar to that at [268]Jeffersonville. There was a trace of fresh blood the whole way up  p294 the stair, and on arriving at the top, we saw seated or lazily reclining on a green in front of the entrance of the stoccado, about fifty Chickasaw warriours, drest each according to his notion of finery, and most of them painted in a grotesque but not a terrifick manner. Many of them had long feathers in the back part of their hair, and several wore breast plates formed of tin in the shape of a crescent, and had large tin rings in their ears.

On seeing so many Indians and the trace of blood before mentioned, an idea started in my imagination that they had massacred the garrison, but on advancing a little farther, I was agreeably undeceived by seeing a good looking young white centinel in the American uniform, with his musquet and fixed bayonet, parading before the gate of the fort. He stopped us until permission was obtained from the commanding officer for our entrance, and in the interim he informed me that he was a Frenchman, a native of Paris, that he had been a marine under Jerome Bonaparte, when the latter commanded a frigate, and that he had deserted from him on his arrival in the Chesapeak. We were ushered by a soldier to the officers' quarter where we were received by lieut. Taylor the commandant, with civility not unmixed with a small degree of the pompous stiffness of office.​193 He however answered politely enough a few interrogatories we made respecting the Indians. He said they were friendly, and made frequent visits to the garrison, but except a few of the chiefs on business, none of them were ever admitted within the stoccado, and that this was a jubilee or gala day, on account of their having just received presents from the United States' government. They have a large settlement about five miles directly inland from the river, but the most  p295 populous part of the Chickasaw nation is one hundred miles distant to the south eastward.

[269]When we were returning to the boat, one of the Indians offered to sell us for a mere trifle, a pair of very handsome beaded mockesons, which we were obliged to decline, from having neglected to bring any money with us.

Fort Pickering is a small stoccado, commanding from its elevated situation not only the river, but also the surrounding country, which however is not yet sufficiently cleared of wood to make it tenable against an active enemy. There are some small cannon mounted, and several pyramids of shot evince its being well supplied with that article.

The Editor's Notes:

189 The first fort known to have been erected on the site of Memphis (Fourth Chickasaw Bluff) was that built by Bienville, governor of Louisiana, during his campaigns against the Chickasaws (1735‑40) and called by him Fort Assumption. After the expedition of 1740, however, this was abandoned, the place not being fortified until the Spanish commandant Gayoso, in defiance of the authority of the United States, crossed (1794) to the Chickasaw territory and built Fort San Fernando. Two years later, after Pinckney's treaty was signed, the Spaniards reluctantly surrendered this outpost, whereupon the American Fort Pike was built (1796).

Judge Benjamin Foy, of the Arkansas town of Foy's Point, was a pioneer of German descent, whose settlement is said to have been the most healthful, moral, and intelligent community between the Ohio and Natchez — due to the influence of its first settler, and his magisterial powers. Volney, the French traveller, spent the winter of 1805 with Foy in his Arkansas home. — Ed.

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190 The Chickasaws maintained their right to the territory between the Mississippi and the Tennessee until 1818, when commissioners for the Federal Government bought the tract for $300,000. The town of Memphis was laid out in the same year. — Ed.

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191 This was the fort called Esperanza, where the village of Hopefield, Arkansas, now stands. — Ed.

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192 Fort Pickering (at first called Fort Adams) was erected by Captain Guion on the orders of Wilkinson. Meriwether Lewis was for a brief time (1797) in command of this post. — Ed.

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193 This was Lieutenant Zachary Taylor, later the twelfth president of the United States. His military commission dated from May 8, 1808, so that his manner was doubtless due to his youth and the unaccustomed novelty of his position. — Ed.

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