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Story Archives: Construction of Fort Adams; huts built of cane; Wilkinson arrival; Dismal Swamp
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|Construction of Fort Adams; huts built of cane; Wilkinson arrival; Dismal Swamp|
In the wilderness of Loftus Heights on Oct. 21, 1798, U.S. soldiers busied themselves constructing a fort along the Mississippi River, a fort which would soon guard what was then the southwestern corner of the United States of America.
A short distance away, the staff of the commanding general of the U.S. army raised a large tent for a banquet to be hosted by the commander himself.
Gen. James Wilkinson was in Natchez country with the army as the United States began to set up government in the newly-formed Mississippi Territory. The territory included much of present day Mississippi and Alabama, which had become a U.S. possession following the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain.
Wilkinson descended the Mississippi and arrived in Natchez in August. He made an entrance not soon forgotten by the people. George Willey, 10-years-old in 1798, watched as the general rode from the river bank to the top of the bluff "in all the pomp and style of a conquering hero. Then, for the first time was seen an American coach, and it was an object of more curiosity, with its four splendid black horses, than even a steamboat was in later years."
By October, Wilkinson and his staff had traveled down the river to Loftus Heights, located 55 miles below Natchez in present day Wilkinson County. This was the site chosen for the U.S. fort then under construction. It was called Fort Adams, named after President John Adams.
Six miles below that point, a team of American and Spanish surveyors and workmen were marking a new boundary on the 31st parallel, the new demarcation line between the two nations from east of the Mississippi to the Atlantic. That line still separates Mississippi and the boot of Louisiana today.
Nine miles below the line on the western shore of the Mississippi was the mouth of the Red River.
The presence of Wilkinson and the U.S. Army in Natchez country made quite an impression, as did the construction of Fort Adams. This was a big deal.
Imagine what it would be like if a major military base was under construction here today.
Imagine if the commanding general of the military came and spent months here.
Imagine the arrival of an officer at your home in mid-October 1798 with an invitation to join the general for a meal along the Mississippi River at Fort Adams.
Dr. J.F. Camichael, an Army surgeon, arrived at Fort Adams the day before the general's dinner party along the river.
"There was a new encampment forming, some distance back in the woods, parallel to the river, but there were several officers who remained still at the first encampment on the bank of the river," including Col. John F. Hamtramck, 1st Regiment, U.S. Infantry, Captain Kingsbury and others. "The day after I arrived, a number of officers and some citizens, dined with the General, and a large marquee, or tent, was on that morning, pitched for the purpose."
Carmichael said the general handled his correspondence in the marquee, and dined there, but "slept in his boat during that period of time...It was more convenient for business, and comfortable also, in a hot climate, to spend the day under a shade or marquee, and at night to sleep in a boat, provided with a close apartment, which was a security against the heavy dews of the country, and the damps of the rainy season; his baggage and stores of every kind being also there..."
Dr. Theo Elmer arrived at Fort Adams on October 5 with the general. He said the general's tent was pitched on October 15th on the bank of the river "in the bottom in rear of the right of the tents of the line." He said Wilkinson "held his office and table in his marquee, and slept on board of his boat, then lying in the river, until about the fourth of November following, when the boat was drawn up."
Afterward, he remembered seeing the general's bed "mounted in one end of the marquee; that some few days after the boat was drawn up, the General's marquee was struck, and re-pitched at the park: that during the whole time the marquee remained in the bottom, which was from about the 12th or 15th of October, to about the 5th or 8th of November, 1798, one partitioned end of the same was occupied by Lieutenant Lovell, then very sick and chiefly in bed."
Elmer "then did duty as surgeon, and visited Lieutenant Lovell, often daily in the marquee, having for the patient a singular friendship, and his case being grave..."
Col. William M. Scott arrived on the evening of October 23 and as adjutant made reports to the general every morning in the marquee.
DESCRIPTION OF FORT ADAMS
Ten years later, Fortescue Cuming traveled southward on horse to Fort Adams along a "good road with a ridge of hills called Loftus's heights on the left, and the swamp which commenced at Buffaloe creek on the right." He traveled six miles to Fort Adams and observed "a few plantations on both sides of the road, those on the right joining the swamp, and the left hand ones being on the broken land beyond the cliffs and hills."
By 1808, the little town below the fort was called Wilkinsonburg, in honor of the general. Cuming called it a "poor little village" of a dozen houses "most of them in decay, hemmed in between the heights and the river. The fort from whence it derives its first name, is situated on a bluff overhanging the river, at the extremity of the ridge of Loftus's heights."
The fort, said Cuming, was 100 feet "above the ordinary level of the Mississippi, which is not more than three hundred yards wide here, so that the fort completely commands it, with several small brass cannon and two small brass howitzers mounted en barbette" (high platforms so the guns could be fired over the fort wall, which was brick, and not through openings in it.)
The fortification had one bastion (tower), and a small barrack inside.
One hundred fifty feet above the fort was a blockhouse built "on the sharp peak of a very steep hill, which in time of war might serve as a look out, as well as a post, as it commands a most extensive view over the surrounding wilderness of forest, as well as the meanders of the river for several miles." Cuming took a look from the peak and spotted "two gun boats moored a little above the fort."
A path descended from the blockhouse along "a very narrow ridge" to the town of Wilkinsonburg, later called Fort Adams. Midway down this path was a military cemetery, which included the graves of officers and privates.
Officer plots were distinctive because they had headstones listing the name, rank and the time of death of the deceased. Also buried in the cemetery were "two or three men" who had been killed in duels, which Cuming called "a barbarous custom," to which "they are much addicted in the American army."
Because of the fort's location along the river, it was considered unhealthy and most of the garrison didn't live there. Instead, the fort was operated with one officer "with a platoon being left in it, to guard the pass, and prevent smuggling..."
In Wilkinsonburg, Cuming spent the night at Marsalis' tavern, the only tavern in the little town. While there, he ran into an old friend he called "Doctor H," who "lodged" there. The two men enjoyed "a tolerably good supper, according to the custom of the country, of coffee, bread and butter, sliced bacon, and a fine dish of gaspar-goo (freshwater drum), the best fish I had yet tasted of the produce of the Mississippi."
THE NEAT MILITARY CAMP
Traveling from Fort Adams southward "on a good road," Cuming was now mounted on a fresh horse supplied by Dr. H. The road traversed "the most broken and hilly country I had yet seen in the territory." This road, maintained by the soldiers, followed "high and steep precipices."
Four mile's distance on the road to Pinckeyville, a turn to the right led to the military camp a mile away on a high hill, where most of the soldiers and officers based at Fort Adams lived. At the outskirts, Cuming met people "returning home from a market which is kept there every Sunday morning."
Once there, Cuming's was "much surprised with a village, differing from any I had ever before seen." Twenty-four huts "faced a wide open space cleared for a parade, in which is held the market. In the rear of these, with a narrow street between" were 10 "snug and well furnished cottages" where the officers lived, some bachelors and some married men with families.
But most remarkable was that the "whole camp is constructed with cane (the large reed) in such a manner to render every dwelling perfectly tight and warm." Each cottage was floored "with plank, and the officers' quarters are glazed, and each a little garden."
The camp had a "an air of neatness" and "cleanliness," where everyone he met was well behaved and mannered.
He said the camp was on "the slope of a very high hill, and the whole country for some miles round, particularly towards the Mississippi, is nothing but a continuation of steep and broken hills, covered with forest timber, and an impenetrable cane brake, except in a few places, where some adventurous settler has found a small spot, not too steep for the plough, or where narrow paths of communication have been cut through the canes."
JOURNEY THROUGH DISMAL SWAMP
At the most, as many as 500 men may have been stationed at Fort Adams at its peak. Two years before Cuming's visit, the place was hustling with activity as a conflict with Spain loomed to the west along the Sabine River. Though war was averted, Gen. Wilkinson, encamped at Natchitoches along the Red, sent Sgt. George Davenport to Fort Adams with messages.
Davenport's journey is an example of the mettle of the men who served the Army in the early 1800s, especially on remote posts such as Fort Adams. In 1806, Davenport, then 25 and living in New Jersey, was recruited for service in the regular Army as a war along the Sabine seemed likely. He trained at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania and soon received orders to join the army at New Orleans. Davenport, a sergeant, and another man walked over the Allegheny Mountains to Pittsburgh where "they procured boats, and rowed down the river to New Orleans."
From there, after helping to repair and build new fortifications in New Orleans, he and other troops "were placed in keel boats" to join Wilkinson and other soldiers at the Sabine. They rowed up the Mississippi -- an exceptionally difficult task -- and 17 miles below Fort Adams they entered the mouth of the Red River. They "worked their way up" the rivers "suffering every kind of hardship and fatigue, hot weather, bad water, and any quantity of musquitoes could afford..."
Davenport was knocked out of the boat on the Red by a "steering oar," which he "seized" in the water and barely escaped drowning. At Natchitoches, after getting a rest, he was sent by Wilkinson with dispatches to Fort Adams.
With provisions in a canoe, Davenport and another man headed down the Red. Along the way, the canoe hit a snag and turned over, and Davenport almost drowned again. Fortunately, both men were able to cling to drift wood and make their way safely to shore.
Davenport decided that their only recourse was to walk eastward to Fort Adams through swamps, bayous and sloughs. Occasionally, the two men had to build rafts to cross deep water. Their journey took them through the lower end of Concordia through the Dismal Swamp, which is a flood basin at the confluence of the Black, Red and Mississippi rivers.
During this journey, the mosquitoes swarmed so thickly that at night they built fires to keep them off with the dense smoke. While one man slept, the other kept the fire going and watched for alligators. They ate what they could find -- mostly berries and wild fruit.
After several days and nights in the swamps, they arrived on the western bank of the Mississippi, made a raft, crossed the river and stumbled into Fort Adams. They were exhausted, bedraggled, hungry and thankful to be alive. Though their bodies were covered with mud, mosquito bites, cuts and bruises, Wilkinson's messages were delivered to the fort commander.
A glass of whiskey, a good meal, a bath and clean clothes revived them. For Davenport, this isolated frontier outpost known as Fort Adams was a welcomed site.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|