Journey to the Indian Country

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It had been arranged that I should remain on my circuit till the middle of May, and then take the coach for St. Louis, and thence ascend the Missouri river to Fort Leavenworth; from that place I should visit the Indian Manual-Labor School in the Shawnee tribe, in order to become acquainted with their plans of operation, and best methods of imparting instruction to children who did not yet understand our language. My instructions directed me to travel by land from the Shawnee tribe, through the Indian country, to Fort Coffee, a distance of three hundred miles.

As my duty would be to teach, it was supposed that my services in the mission would not be required till the time of the Opening of the Academy. My arrangements were made accordingly. I was almost ready to set out upon that tedious, romantic, and somewhat perilous journey, when a letter was received from Mr. Goode, which wholly changed the plan. He wished me to come directly to Fort Coffee, as my services were required immediately. His arrangement was made to leave on the twentieth of June, to go for his family. He would travel the route which had been designated for me; and it was arranged that I should take his place, and superintend the repairs and improvements at Fort Coffee during his absence.

Having taken leave of the kind friends of Mooresville circuit, and made a short visit to my parents and friends, Mrs. Benson and myself set out on the eighth day of June upon our journey to the Indian country. We reached the Ohio river at the Falls, and went on board a steamer at Louisville on the thirteenth day of the month. As there was no boat bound for the Arkansas river, we were forced to take one destined for New Orleans. The Ohio was in a flooded condition, caused by the late and unusually heavy rains. There were immense quantities of driftwood, which rendered it perilous at night, owing to the darkness caused by the dense fogs which prevailed.

On board we were introduced to the Rev. J. D. M., a local preacher of the Methodist Episcopal Church, who resided, at Jackson, Mississippi. He had been to Cincinnati to place his two daughters in the Female Collegiate Institute. Mr. M. seemed to be an intelligent and earnest Christian; antislavery and conservative in his principles.

On the morning of the 17th our steamboat landed on the east bank of the river to take on board a lot of Negroes, who were shipped for a cotton farm on Red river, Texas. As we should be delayed an hour while the chattels were taken aboard and stowed away, I went ashore to make observations. I had never before had a view of a cotton plantation, extensive and well-worked. The land was remarkably level, with a rich, deep alluvial soil. The river served as a fence on one side of the farm. The cotton was growing beautifully, and not a weed was to be seen. Every thing gave indication of energy, intelligence, and thrift.

The family residence was about two hundred yards from the river. It was an elegant mansion, of the style which prevails in the south. It was almost square, with flat roof, concealed by balustrades. The balconies seemed to encircle it; while its long veran­das were embowered with roses, jasmines, and honeysuckles. The ornamental shrubs and plants were of the greatest variety and most luxuriant growth. The shades were apparently cool, delicious, and inviting, being made by the China-tree, the catalpa, and others which are only found in the south.

About midway between the “house” and the river, a little to the south, stood the “quarters,” or cabins, which were occupied by the servants. There was a cluster of them, numbering perhaps thirty, of uniform size and appearance. They were frames, about twelve or fourteen feet square, with steep board roofs. They were white, neat, and comfortable on the outside; and if we had judged from what we saw in the externals of the “quarters,” we might have been led to regard slavery as a beautiful, humane, and merciful institution.

But we were only gazing upon “ whited sepulchers;” we saw the other side; “within they were full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” On that morning cords were to be severed–ties were to be sundered–families were to be divided–separations were to be made, which contemplated no reunions till master and slave, parent and child, husband and wife, all should stand before the dread tribunal. A band of Negroes–a part of the family–were to be sent a thousand miles away, to plow, hoe, gather, and pick cotton for another master.

The overseer soon had them assembled on the bank of the river, where adieus were hastily spoken, farewell tears were shed, and last embraces given. There were about sixty destined to go to Red river. They were men, women, and children, of all descriptions and ages, from the hoary-headed and decrepit old man down to the infant which clung to the mother’s breast. They were stowed away in the lower portions of the boat among the cotton bales, flour bar­rels, and hen-coops. They were measurably indifferent, stupid, and stoical; and although they were almost in a nude state, and indecently exposed, yet they were apparently as incapable of the sense of shame as so many cattle would have been under similar circumstances. Those Negroes were in the care of a very genteel (?) young man, who sported a gold watch and any number of costly rings upon his fingers, and who, no doubt, could trace his lineal descent from one of “the first families.”

At four o’clock, Saturday, the nineteenth of the Month, we arrived at Napoleon, which is situated on the west bank of the Mississippi, at the mouth of the Arkansas.

Here we were doomed to stop, and wait, how long no one knew, for a boat to ascend the river, and carry us to our destination. At all events we escaped traveling on the Sabbath; to that extent we were thankful. Suspense is always horrible, but it was more with us–­it amounted almost to agony–situated as we were on the border of a “dismal swamp” on the Mississippi, late in the month of June. The little village was built up on the brink of the river, the banks of which were so low that it required but a moderate swell of its volume to send navigable currents around and also through the center of the town. In the rear of Napoleon there were low marsh lands, extending back for a score of miles, that were not inhabited. In that dense jungle of timber and brushwood there might have been wild beasts without number, of the most ravenous and formidable character for aught we could know, for it was impenetrable. Of one part we were painfully cognizant; it generated mosquitoes by the million not the diminutive and insignificant species known further north, but genuine gallinippers of vigorous and huge proportions. By waging a ceaseless warfare against them we succeeded in preserving life, but were alarmingly reduced by our daily loss of blood. Depletion by venesection is secundum artem in the allopathic school of medicine, but in that particular case it was manifestly empirical. We were daily relieved of several ounces of blood. At first we were puzzled to determine how it would be possible for us to take food, as our hands were employed every moment in battling with the enemy. But our landlord had suspended a number of paste­board’s with paper pendants, at convenient distances from each other over the dinner table. These paste­board rattlers were attached to each other by wires; and a little negro lad stood at each end of the table with a cord in his hand, the end of which was attached to the mosquito machine, and by learning each other’s motion, they would pull back and forth, keeping the papers rattling just before our faces.

By that contrivance we were enabled to eat with considerable comfort, as there were not more than a score of gallinippers permitted to prey upon any one of us at a time.

But having finished our meals we resumed the fight in good earnest, from which we had not a moment’s respite till we were inside the netting which was to be our cage for the night. Even then we had but little refreshment, for the weather was so intensely warm that we could scarcely rest or sleep till the dawn of the morning.

There were a number of persons, like ourselves, detained, waiting for a boat to ascend the Arkansas. One fine old gentleman, from Nashville, especially excited our sympathy. He was quite corpulent and a little lame, and consequently not sufficiently active to carry on the war to advantage. He had been at Napoleon four days at the period of our arrival, ” waging the unequal strife,” and his courage and strength were well-nigh exhausted. Pine Bluffs was his destination, where he owned a cotton plantation, stocked with negroes, and worked by a Yankee overseer. The old gentleman was carrying some improved stock to his firm; farm; had a few fine pigs, a pair of young dogs, supposed to be blood-hounds, and a well-developed negro “boy” about forty years of age. He kept his dogs and boy chained securely in the wood shed.

The second day of our detention was the Sabbath, and a consultation was held in the morning, as to whether or not there should be preaching. But, upon examination, the little school-house in the outskirts of the village was found to be inaccessible; for a strong current of water, which flowed through the center of the town, could not be crossed. In the afternoon we had an invitation from the proprietor of the other ho­tel to have preaching in his bar-room. In a few minutes the congregation was assembled, occupying the room and front porch. There it was my privilege to publish the glad tidings of salvation for the first time west of the father of waters. The congregation numbered about fifty souls, a fourth of whom were travelers, waiting the arrival of boats to carry them forward to their several points of destination.

On Monday at diner we found the corpulent old gentleman greatly depressed in spirits–his strength was rapidly falling him. He had fought the mosquitoes vigorously and heroically, but proved unequal to the conflict. “I have been here,” said he, “six days fighting these bloodthirsty gallinippers, night and day, without intermission–I can’t stand it any longer–­they will certainly kill me. Now, if a Cumberland river boat should come today I shall return home directly.” In less than an hour a Nashville

Boat came, and the old planter took his boy and dogs and returned homeward, thoroughly disgusted with Napoleon and the contiguous swamp. In less than two hours after his departure the ardently-desired Arkansas boat came, and our relief and joy at getting away were without bounds.

Our hearts swelled with grateful emotions at our deliverance from the foul water, the tainted meat, the intolerable heat, the malarias atmosphere, and the countless myriads of noxious insects that swarmed on the margin of that pestilential lagoon. Our devout prayer was that we might never again be doomed, in midsummer, to spend three days upon the border of a Mississippi swamp. On going aboard the boat we were introduced to two of the dignitaries of the sovereign state of Arkansas-Colonel Sevier, of the United States senate, and Judge Johnson, of the house of representatives. They were returning from Washington City. Colonel Sevier we knew to be a man of marked ability, whose influence was felt and fully recognized in the senate. He was in the meridian of life, a stout, well-developed, social gentleman, quite communicative, jovial, and somewhat facetious in his intercourse with his friends.

Judge Johnson was a brother of the Hon. R. M. Johnson, of Kentucky. He was tall, lean, and bony in person; dignified and gentlemanly in deportment. It was impossible to form a judgment with reference to his talent, for he was by no means inclined to enter into conversation with any one– his reserve amounted to taciturnity.

There was one other gentleman on board scarcely less distinguished than Sevier and Johnson. It was General Arbuckle, at that time Commander-in-chief of the Southern Division of the United States army; his headquarters were in the vicinity of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was going up to his farm in the vicinity of Dardanelle, some distance above Little Rock city. He had a servant, a fine horse, a supply of guns and ammunition, and a pair of dogs. His purpose was to spend the summer season in shooting and hunting the game in the neighborhood of his cotton plantation. The General was a single man, about eighty years of age, tall and well-formed, with a bright countenance, indicating perfect health and temperate habits. He was very affable and gentlemanly, and seemed devoted to literature and the ladies.

Shortly after that period General Arbuckle was succeeded by General Zachary Taylor in the Southern Division, and he was placed in command of the South-Western Division, making his headquarters at Fort Smith, where I afterward frequently saw him.

In ascending the river toward our point of destination, We first entered White river at Montgomery’s point, and running up a few miles, we came to what is known as the ” Cross Cut,” which is a natural canal uniting White river with the Arkansas. Our boat passed through the “Cross Cut” into the Arkansas river. We might have entered the latter river at its mouth; boats enter either the one or the other as they choose. White river, though not large, is navigable up to Batesville, a distance of about four hundred miles.

For many miles we were passing through low, level marsh lands, that were subject to frequent inundations, to an extent that rendered them worthless for agricultural or grazing purposes. The river seemed to be without current, having the appearance of a pool or lagoon formed from the waters of the Mississippi.

As we ascended the river we saw but few indications of settlement or civilization. All was wild, rough, and desolate, on both sides of the river, as far as sight could extend. The soil was a deep, rich alluvial deposit of unsurpassed fertility. The growth of cottonwood, willows, swamp oak, cane, and brush­wood was of the most astonishing character; but there was a dearth of inhabitants–the solitude was undisturbed.

Late in the afternoon of the first day after leaving the Mississippi we came to the “Arkansas Post,” where the French, in an early day, located a small colony, and made some improvement. The “Post” was older than Cincinnati, yet was an insignificant village, and utterly destitute of all legitimate claim to taste, thrift, or enterprise. Our boat came to and tied up for an hour, to deliver a few packages of goods to an old French merchant, who, in appearance, very much resembled the old Hollanders of New York, and might readily have been mistaken for a lineal descendant of the venerable Rip Van Winkle. His black servants came down to take charge of the goods. They were a tatterdemalion set of boys, clothed in garments supposed to have been made of cast-off gunny-bags. But as the boys were remarkably jolly and garrulous, and exhibited their shining ivory, making their thrusts of wit and repartee with indescribable gusto, we concluded that their Gallic lord was merciful in his treatment of them, and so we refrained from shedding tears of sympathy.

Supper being announced, the venerable Monsieur took a seat at the table, and went to work with a relish and an energy that did honor even to a Frenchman. Before the supper was finished he had disposed of two entire bottles of wine. It was evident that he had been thirsty for a length of time.

As we continued our journey up the river we saw an occasional field, with a smoky log-cabin, and then a swamp or considerable stretch of forest. We rarely saw a cotton field till we had reached the Pine Bluffs neighborhood. In that country agriculturists do not reside upon farms–they are all “plantations.” Even the small squatter in the woods or canebrake, with his smoky but and few acres of corn and pumpkins, aspires to the dignity and title of a planter.

Around Pine Bluffs we saw a few fine farms, in a good state of cultivation. There were large and comfortable family residences, surrounded by orchards, ornamental shades, and other evidences of taste and intelligence.

We finally came to Little Rock, the capital of the state. We had ascended the river three hundred miles, passing only two small villages, the united population of which could not exceed three hundred souls. The capital had a respectable statehouse, a courthouse, and a prison, and a number of other permanent and tasteful edifices. There were a few elegant family residences in the outskirts of the city, and good farms in the neighborhood. But we could not resist the conviction that we were journeying through a wilderness region, which neither industry, enterprise, nor wealth would ever redeem from its barren, rugged, and inhospitable condition. Subsequent travels through various portions of the state only served to strengthen the conviction, that a very considerable part of that country is, and must be regarded as waste lands for ages to come. The lands generally would be of some value for grazing purposes, and a few of the counties have rich, arable, and well-watered lands; but the sterile sections are much more extensive, while the fertile bottoms, on the large rivers, are rendered almost worthless by reason of the floods to which they are liable in midsummer. As we continued to ascend the Arkansas we narrowly watched for evidences of enterprise and indications of promise for the future; but we looked almost in vain. In the journey of three hundred miles, from Little Rock to the western border, there were but three or four small villages, the entire business of which would probably not equal that of a single country store and blacksmith shop located at a cross-roads, in any populous community in a northern state.

Van Buren and Fort Smith are not included in these remarks, as they were situated on the border, and dependent for their success on the Indian trade. The former stands on the north side of the river, three miles from the Cherokee line. It was unquestionably, in point of commercial importance, the first town of the state. Fort Smith was also a brisk and stirring village, on the south bank of the river, three miles further up, and directly on the Choctaw line.

Those towns were both built up and sustained by the Indian annuities, and the moneys expended in erecting the military fortifications and for the support of the troops. Let the annuities and the army appropriations be withheld, and those rapidly increasing and flourishing cities will be abandoned before five years. The sources of wealth are not in the country; they are external, borne to it, and then divided out among the most enterprising and unscrupulous, not a few of whom are genuine Yankees, born and bred in the vicinity of Plymouth Rock and almost within sight of the Bunker Hill Monument.

At these points there were many intelligent, well­-educated, and interesting families–a few of whom were pious and devoted to the work of advancing and building up the Redeemer’s cause and kingdom in that land. Nearly all of those who had been born and educated in New England were slaveholders. Men who in Massachusetts would have been not merely antislavery in sentiment, but uncompromising abolitionists, were now slave masters, and ready to buy and sell Negroes without any compunction of conscience whatever. We found a few who would speak of slavery as “a great evil,” condemning it in the abstract; but we scarcely saw one who from principle alone refused to avail himself of the conven­ience and profits of the institution.

Such, alas! is human infirmity. We are bold and fearless in the advocacy of truth when no sacrifice is demanded and no self-denial to be practiced. We are ready and courageous in wielding the sword of the Spirit when we may smite and pierce our enemy, or neighbor even, but incapable of enduring trial, and “counting all things loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus the Lord.”

At one o’clock on the morning of the twenty-sixth of June the boat arrived at Fort Coffee, and we were put ashore, with our trunks and baggage. The captain took his lantern, and kindly conducted us up the hill to the buildings, where we succeeded in arousing the cook, who gave us a room in which to pass the remnant of the night. Thus ended our long and tedious journey to the Indian country.



MLA Source Citation:

Benson, Henry C. Life Among the Choctaw Indians and Sketches of the South-West. L. Swormstedt & A. Poe. 1860. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 22 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/journey-to-the-indian-country.htm - Last updated on Sep 27th, 2013


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