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Captain W. W. Withenbury's 1838–1842 "Red River Reminiscences"

Edited and Annotated by Jacques D. Bagur

Publication Year: 2014

W. W. Withenbury was a famous river boat captain during the mid-1800s. In retirement, he wrote a series of letters for the Cincinnati Commercial, under the title "Red River Reminiscences." Jacques Bagur has selected and annotated 39 letters describing three steamboat voyages on the upper Red River from 1838 to 1842. Withenbury was a master of character and incident, and his profiles of persons, including three signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence, reflect years of acquaintance. The beauty of his writing ranks this among the best of the reminiscences that were written as the steamboat era was declining.

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xx

During the late 1860s and early 1870s, steamboats from the midwestern commercial centers of St. Louis and Cincinnati began to enter the trades of the Red River and one of its major tributaries, the Ouachita, in direct competition with New Orleans. Midwestern boats had traditionally operated through New Orleans, but began bypassing New Orleans and dealing directly with the Red River ports and landings, ...

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pp. 1-12

Most of Withenbury’s letters, and all that have been selected, are concerned with trips to the Upper Red River. The term referred to the portion of the Red River above the raft in which boats operated (first keelboats and flatboats and then steamboats) and also to the region serviced by those boats (Figure 1). ...

The Reminiscences

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1. Taking the Challenge

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pp. 13-17

In this first letter, Withenbury takes up the challenge of responding to the Picayune’s attacks on westerners (that is, midwesterners) as intruders in the trade of the Red and Ouachita rivers, as suggested by the letter signed “Bird of Passage.” Withenbury lays out an ambitious plan of response, which is never fulfilled. ...

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2. Up Trip of the Concord

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pp. 18-25

A number of steamboats had positioned themselves to go to the Upper Red River in the wake of Shreve’s raft removal efforts. The Concord was the first to go through (on March 7, 1838, according to Shreve’s official report in the 1838 Report of the Secretary of War) and arrived at Conway, Arkansas, on the ninth (according to the Arkansas Gazette of the 21st). ...

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3. Down Trip of the Concord

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pp. 25-29

In my communication of yesterday, I left the Concord and her crew in the hands of Squire Nunnaley, where they enjoyed his hospitality until their exhausted larder had been bountifully replenished from the abundance found at this well conducted Arkansas plantation, ...

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4. The Relief and Hunter Go Up

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pp. 30-37

This letter concerns the trips of the Relief and Hunter to the Upper Red River in 1840, where both stayed through 1841 (the subject of the next letter). Withenbury was not on this trip of the Relief. Capt. Hildreth of the Concord had returned to Cincinnati and told Joseph Ross that the river was open and that the commercial possibilities were great, ...

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5. The Relief and Hunter Above

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pp. 37-42

The Relief and Hunter remained on Upper Red River through 1841, operating upriver from the head of the raft in conjuction with boats from New Orleans to the foot of the raft, with the portage serving as the point of transfer for up and down freights. ...

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6. The Relief at Shreveport

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pp. 42-47

This is the first of 32 letters concerning the trip of the Relief to Upper Red River in 1841–1842, when Withenbury was 26. The Relief had spent much of the second half of 1841 being refurbished in Cincinnati, went back to New Orleans, and advertised in the November 30, 1841, ...

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7. At Swanson’s Landing

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pp. 47-52

Swanson’s Landing1 was on the south shore of Caddo Lake a short distance past the Texas line and served as a shipping and receiving point for the adjacent Swanson plantation and those of neighbors. Peter Swanson, his wife Elizabeth Amelia (“Milly”), and their family were among the earliest settlers on the lake. ...

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8. On Ferry Lake

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pp. 53-59

The Relief moved west on Caddo Lake (then called Ferry Lake) from Swanson’s Landing to Port Caddo on Cypress Bayou.1 The lake was formed in 1800 in the valley of Cypress Bayou by the raft-induced diversion of Red River water to the west. The valley had been forested with cypress, oak, and pine, most of which were killed by the lake waters. ...

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9. At Port Caddo

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pp. 59-67

Port Caddo1 was a few miles upstream on Cypress Bayou from Caddo Lake and was the primary outlet for the cotton of Harrison County, which was one of the largest cotton producers in Texas. The town was laid out in 1838 and was used late in the year as a base for Republic of Texas troops ...

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10. To Black Bayou

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pp. 67-69

The wind died, and the Relief left Swanson’s Landing and headed towards Black Bayou near the foot of Caddo Lake, but not before Withenbury recounts a fish story at Swanson’s Landing. ...

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11. Up Black Bayou

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pp. 70-76

The Relief proceeded up Black Bayou, which is located on the Red River floodplain, but ran fairly close to a line of bluffs on the west, and arrived at Erwin’s plantation (Figure 5). The plantation was owned by James Erwin, but run by his brother Leander and Leander’s son Albertus. ...

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12. At Erwin’s Bluff

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pp. 77-81

The Relief was at Erwin’s Bluff, waiting for a rise to proceed upstream through Sewell’s Canal. In the latter part of the letter, an exploratory party in a skiff and on land sets out to see what the conditions are above. ...

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13. At the Falls

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pp. 81-87

The exploratory party went up to look at the conditions on Sewell’s Canal and at the falls, which extended from the head of Sewell’s Canal for a mile up Red Bayou and therefore was more appropriately called a rapids. The falls were caused by the fact that the water level in Red Bayou was higher than in Black Bayou. ...

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14. Back to Shreveport

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pp. 87-93

The Relief was at Erwin’s Bluff without its captain. A party, including Withenbury, set out by skiff to Shreveport, taking the way they came, to consult with Capt. Ross about turning the Relief back because of the continuing low water. ...

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15. To Red River

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pp. 93-100

Withenbury does not describe how Ross or the party of which Withenbury was a member got back to Erwin’s Bluff; but this letter finds Black Bayou rising and the Relief setting off for Red River. Most of the letter is devoted to a description of Caddo Prairie planters and ends with the Relief reaching Red River. ...

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16. To the Raft

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pp. 101-103

Having entered the Red River, the Relief proceeded immediately downstream to the raft. Withenbury was reminded by Ross of a bear story connected with another trip to the head of the raft. ...

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17. To Pine Prairie

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pp. 104-110

The Relief headed upriver from the raft with the mouth of the Kiamichi River as the ultimate destination, stopping in this letter at White Oak Shoals; Nunnely’s Landing in Sevier County (now Little River County), Arkansas; Scott’s Landing in Bowie County, Texas; and Pine Prairie in Sevier County. ...

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18. To Berlin

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pp. 111-115

The Relief dropped off a load at Spanish Bluff in northcentral Bowie County, Texas; landed at Lanesport in then Sevier County (now Little River County), Arkansas, just before the Choctaw line (the Indian Territory line, now the Oklahoma line); and proceeded to Berlin in northwest Bowie County. ...

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19. To Jonesboro

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pp. 115-127

As this letter began, the Relief was still at Berlin, and Withenbury recounted the story of a load of salt that the Relief had left at Berlin on her last trip up in 1841. The Relief then proceeded to Pecan Point in northeast Red River County, Texas; Roland in northeast Red River County; and Jonesboro in northwest Red River County. ...

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20. To Fort Towson Landing

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pp. 127-139

Most of this letter is concerned with people and events in the vicinity of Jonesboro; but the beginning of the letter reverts back to the previous night when the Relief was tied up four miles below Jonesboro and to an event on the way to Jonesboro. ...

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21. To Kiamitia

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pp. 139-151

The Relief had gone the additional mile and a half and reached the mouth of the Kiamichi River, although a part of the letter is devoted to an incident downstream. There was a landing that served the needs of Doaksville that was separate from the Fort Towson landing. ...

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22. At Doaksville

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pp. 151-162

The Relief was at the mouth of the Kiamichi River on the Indian Territory side, and Withenbury made an overland trip to Doaksville, which was one mile northwest of Fort Towson across Gates Creek. Withenbury apparently took the road beginning at the ferry landing on the west side of the Kiamichi ...

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23. Wright’s Landing

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pp. 163-173

Most of this letter is concerned with Travis Wright1 and Wright’s Landing in northwest Red River County, Texas, across from the mouth of the Kiamichi River. The first half provides a discussion of the earliest routes around the raft far downstream (Figure 9) as a prelude to the description of Wright’s flatboat and keelboat activities. ...

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24. Home Amusements

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pp. 173-179

The Relief was still on the Choctaw shore at Kiamitia, and the crew was looking for amusement, which was found in a cock fight on a Red River sandbar and a trip to Gates Creek to gather Bois d’Arc wood (also called Osage Orange because of its fruit and its association with the Osage Indians). ...

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25. Dr. McDonough

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pp. 179-184

The Relief was still on the Choctaw shore at Kiamitia, and Withenbury recounts a promised (in Letter 22) story about Dr. McDonough and his wife Visey of the mixed-blood Chickasaw Colberts. Levica “Vicy” Colbert1 was the daughter of the mixed-blood Chickasaw Chief George Colbert. ...

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26. Fort Towson

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pp. 184-189

On the last day at Kiamitia, Withenbury took an overland trip to Fort Towson.1 The fort was erected in 1824 with logs and was abandoned in 1829, after which settlers burned the structures. It was reestablished with new log structures under the name Camp Phoenix in 1830 in the context of the removal of the Choctaws to the Indian Territory and was renamed Fort Towson in 1831. ...

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27. Back to Jonesboro

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pp. 190-197

The long-awaited rise finally came, and the Relief left Kiamitia, stopping for the night at Jonesboro, where an incident is recounted concerning a “buzzard dance” conducted by Choctaws who had come across the river. The letter ends with the Relief tied up at night in Texas 25 miles below Jonesboro. ...

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28. Back to Berlin

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pp. 198-202

The Relief arrived back at Berlin in Bowie County. The first half of the letter provides a followup to the incident in Letter 19 concerning the temporary loss of the ferry flat by William Boyce’s ferryman Tom in the altercation with the Choctaw mounted police. ...

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29. To Spanish Bluff

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pp. 202-213

The Relief left Berlin and proceeded downstream to Spanish Bluff, stopping on the way at Lanesport and Smith’s Landing. Lanesport was located in the southwest corner of Little River County, Arkansas, a short distance from the Choctaw Nation line and on the first high land above the floodplain. ...

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30. To McKinney’s Landing

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pp. 213-223

McKinney’s Landing was the landing of Collin McKinney1 located in his headright in northeast Bowie County in an area that was called Hickman’s Prairie. It had been a keelboat landing and was a steamboat landing of modest importance. ...

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31. At Pine Prairie

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pp. 223-225

Pine Prairie was located in southwest Little River County, which in 1842 was part of Sevier County. The name referred to a settlement that is still in existence, a landing to the south, and the prairie on which the settlement was located. ...

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32. A Practical Joke: Part 1

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pp. 226-232

While at Pine Prairie, Withenbury was reminded of a practical joke that was perpetrated a few years before on an unnamed traveler by Tom Scott (the son of Judge Robert H. Scott), his wife Betty (Elizabeth), and his friend Andy Armstrong. ...

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33. A Practical Joke: Part 2

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pp. 233-242

In the conclusion of my last chapter, I left Andy Armstrong entertaining the New Yorker at the hospitable home of Colonel Scott, while their host and hostess were preparing the evening meal, and making every possible arrangement for their guests to enjoy the interval between tea time and bed time. ...

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34. At Nunnely’s Landing

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pp. 242-251

The Relief had arrived at Nunnely’s Landing in Letter 31, but Withenbury interrupted his account in the next two letters to provide a description of the practical joke played by Tom Scott and Andy Armstrong. Although the present letter deals with Nunnely’s Landing, much of the content is related to an incident concerning the Concord in 1838 ...

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35. To Dooley’s Ferry

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pp. 252-260

Most of this letter is concerned with events above White Oak Shoals while the Relief was waiting for a rise in the river. With the rise, the Relief proceeded to Dr. O. S. Jones’ landing, Fulton, and Dooley’s Ferry, where the night was spent (Figure 10). On Dr. O. S. Jones, see the next letter. ...

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36. Dr. O. S. Jones

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pp. 260-271

The Relief reached Dooley’s Ferry in the last letter, and Withenbury refers back to Orlando Jones, whose plantation landing was six miles downstream of White Oak Shoals. The landing is not mentioned in the newspaper records concerning steamboat movements, which is not surprising given its proximity to the White Oak Shoals landing, ...

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37. At the Raft

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pp. 272-280

The Relief arrived at the head of the raft, where there was a company of troops for Fort Towson who had been brought from New Orleans to the foot of the raft by the Houma. The troops had gone around the raft by the portage road and were waiting for negotiations to be completed by the clerk of the Houma ...

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38. Near Dooley’s Ferry

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pp. 280-291

The Relief left the head of the raft and proceeded upstream. This letter actually brings the Relief past Fulton and McKinney’s Landing and within striking distance of Lanesport; however, most of the letter is concerned with Dooley’s Ferry and vicinity far downstream. ...

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39. Man Overboard

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pp. 292-302

With its load of soldiers picked up at the portage and bound for Fort Towson, the Relief was nearing Lanesport and arrived at Davis’ Shoal two miles below, where an incident occurred. According to U.S. General Land Office land records, Levi Davis acquired property in 1841 along the river about two miles southeast of Lanesport. ...

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pp. 303-306

The letters end with the Relief arriving at Pecan Point on the night of February 11, 1842, only two months from its departure from Shreveport on December 10, 1841. ...


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pp. 307-310


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pp. 311-316

E-ISBN-13: 9781574415575
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574415476

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 10 maps
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Steam-navigation -- Red River (Tex.-La.).
  • Red River (Tex.-La.) -- Navigation -- History.
  • Steam-navigation -- Southwest, Old.
  • Inland navigation -- Southwest, Old.
  • Inland navigation -- Red River (Tex.-La.).
  • Withenbury, W. W. (Weatherly W.), 1815-1880 -- Correspondence.
  • Withenbury, W. W. (Weatherly W.), 1815-1880 -- Travel -- Red River (Tex.-La.).
  • Southwest, Old -- Description and travel.
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