Freshets in the Streams
It will be remembered that, during the spring of 1844, unprecedented floods prevailed in the southwest. The rivers west of the Mississippi all overflowed their banks, inundating all the low lands adjacent. The Arkansas and Red rivers had never been known to be so high. Having their sources in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and having numerous and lengthy tributaries, the continuous rains and the melting of the immense quantities of snow in the mountains, caused vast torrents of water to pour down the gorges and flood the channel of each stream. And as the rains continued to fall, with but little intermission for seven weeks, the rivers overflowed their banks, inundating the low lands, and proving fearfully destructive of the improvements and growing crops in the bottoms. Such rains for so long a period we had never before witnessed. The forest-trees literally bent beneath the weight of their luxuriant growth of foliage.
At Fort Coffee the river rose forty-four feet above low-water mark; but still we were secure, as it yet required an additional rise of twenty-one feet to reach the top of the rocky cliff. But on the opposite side of the river, where the bank was not so high, the country was inundated for miles. Vast numbers of cottonwood-trees were uprooted by the floods, and carried down the current to the imminent peril of the steamboats on the river, one of which was wrecked and sunk with all its cargo an entire loss. On Red river the damage was much greater than on the Arkansas. Here, the banks being low, the floods swept over the plains to the utter destruction of the growing crops of grain and cotton, together with the large herds of horses and cattle that were unable to escape the deluge. Whole farms were inundated, and many families were reported to have perished. Some fled to trees, upon whose branches they sought a temporary refuge from the desolations of the flood. In some instances steamboats would quit the channel of the river, and go to the rescue of those who were in peril. It sometimes occurred that horses and other domestic animals would swim to the boats, and exert themselves to leap upon the guards, to save themselves from perishing. And to prevent them from sinking the boats the crew were under the necessity of beating off the poor creatures till their strength would become exhausted and would sink to the bottom.
During the time of the flood Rev. Wesley Browning, of the Missouri conference, came to Fort Coffee, en route for the seat of the Nunnewaya Academy, on the Kiemichi river. The institution was to be located at the base of a small mountain of the Ozark range. Nun-ne-wa-ya signifies “bending mountain.” Mr. Browning had been appointed Superintendent of the Academy and was on his way to the place of its location.
Mr. Browning had once been a prominent member of the Ohio conference, and had been once stationed in Cincinnati. Afterward he was a member of the Pittsburg conference, and was the presiding elder who officially signed the first license given to M. Simpson–now Bishop–to exercise his gifts as a preacher in accordance with the doctrines and usages of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was transferred from the Pittsburg to the Missouri conference, and placed at the head of the Indian manual-labor school in the Shawnee tribe, in the vicinity of Fort Leavenworth. Afterward he was presiding elder of the St. Louis district, and, finally, he had been appointed to the work of establishing a seminary in the southern part of the Choctaw nation.
He had come as far as our mission, but could proceed no further; the creeks and rivers were still impassable and the rains were still falling in copious abundance. After waiting five weeks for the floods to abate he became discouraged and returned to St. Louis. The Indians were dissatisfied because nothing was done; the Agent himself thought there was a lack of energy, and the result was the appropriations were withdrawn and directed into a different channel.
Of Mr. Browning’s talents and character as a minister too much can not be said. The ten discourses we heard him preach at Fort Coffee were of a very superior style; they were among the best we ever had the privilege to hear.
The floods did not begin to recede till the first of June, and heavy rains were frequent till the beginning of July. With such excessive freshets, so late in the season, we apprehended an unusual amount of violent bilious sickness during the autumn. The marshes and lagoons were overflowing at midsummer, and the intense heat must soon render those pools stagnant and putrid, and, hence, the atmosphere must be loaded with malaria of the most noxious character. The unparalleled rains had added materially to the crop of grass upon the gravelly prairies and hill-sides; the grazing lands every-where resembled rich meadows, and the herds of cattle and horses were in the most thrifty condition.
As the waters began to abate we found the river abounding with fish of excellent quality. Having a little leisure, one Saturday afternoon, I took a rod, hook, and line and went down to the river for amusement. An ounce of fresh beef served as “bait” upon the hook, which was cast out into the deep water. In a few minutes there was a “bite “–not a “nibble” but a veritable bite, such as would have thrilled the soul of an amateur angler. It required some patience and ingenuity to bring the fish to land and secure him; his weight upon the scales was twenty-five pounds and four ounces. But, just as I had deposited the prize at the threshold of the kitchen, Sam and Allen, two of our smallest Indian boys, came up the hill with a huge catfish suspended from a pole borne upon their shoulders, while the tail of the fish was trailing in the dust. They had caught their prize at the boat-landing; it weighed a fraction over fifty-four pounds. The two were equal in amount to a medium-sized venison, and were fat and well-flavored. There were no small fishes in the Arkansas, as the large ones, being voracious, either consumed or drove out the small ones; the least one caught at our mission weighed over twelve pounds.