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Story Archives: William Dunbar, John Henry, the Lovelaces and Catahoula cotton
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|William Dunbar, John Henry, the Lovelaces and Catahoula cotton|
During the winter of 1804-1805, William Dunbar of Natchez and Dr. George Hunter of Philadelphia, accompanied by 12 U.S. soldiers and their sergeant, explored the Ouachita River following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
At present day Jonesville (30 miles west of Natchez), Dunbar walked the ground, examined the soil and wrote in his journal that the site where four rivers met was an excellent location for a town. A major cotton producer back in Natchez, Dunbar predicted that as the area became populated that farmers could grow cotton and other crops and barge their harvest in any direction. One promising route available then was down the Black into the Red and then into the Mississippi 18 river miles below Fort Adams and onward to New Orleans.
At this very time, less than a handful of people were settled in what is now Catahoula Parish. Among the tiny population was frontiersman Jim Bowie, then just a boy, who lived with his family near present day Harrisonburg. To the north at present day Sicily Island lived Edward Lovelace and his brother, Richard. Both families -- the Bowies and the Lovelaces -- came to Catahoula during Spanish possession.
At the age of 21 William Dunbar left his native Scotland in 1771 for the two-month voyage to Philadelphia. Dunbar had a game plan. (He always did.) On arrival, he looked up merchant and land speculator John Ross, also a Scotsman. The Ross and Dunbar families were acquainted in Scotland.
In the days before the American Revolution, Dunbar determined that he would first learn about America by trading with Indians. The path for this work led to the hinterlands.
John Ross told Dunbar to go to Pittsburgh and visit his son, Alexander Ross. There, Alexander Ross reportedly pointed west to the wilderness and told Dunbar that's where the Indians were. After some questioning, the well-prepared Dunbar headed out. Months later he returned with bundles of pelts. The Ross's -- father and son -- took notice. For the rest of their lives these two men would be Dunbar's partners and friends.
This association led Dunbar to Pensacola, the capital of British West Florida, where he and the Ross's acquired land grants in the 1770s in what is now Baton Rouge. By 1792, Dunbar was a Natchez country citizen and one of the wealthiest. A major cotton producer, he made innovations in the farming and ginning of cotton and other crops.
Dunbar's trip up the Ouachita during the winter of 1804-05 created a buzz all through Natchez country and in the days to follow a migration into this new U.S. possession began. Black River planter, writer and physician A.R. Kilpatrick of Concordia wrote in the early 1850s in "DeBow's Review" that after the invention of Eli Whitney's saw gin in 1793 that Elias Carter was building a rolling gin in Catahoula Parish in the early 1800s.
Kilpatrick said it consisted "of two upright pieces in which two horizontal cylinders were fixed and turned by a crank, which was worked by hand, or by means of a strap and paddle moved by the foot; the first named cost $3, the later $5." He said Carter "made a great many of them. These required two hands to attend them, or sometimes three...one to turn the crank, one to feed, and one to stand behind with a sack or basket and pull away the lint."
Kilpatrick said the first saw gin and gin house was built by John Henry near the mouth of Little River at present day Jonesville around late 1805. Kilpatrick didn't know the names of the mechanics who constructed the gin, but described it as "very small and light, requiring only one small horse to turn it. Cotton was brought to it from Catahoula and Boeuff prairies (Franklin Parish), and it was quite an object of amazement."
Henry's gin at Little River operated until 1813, but Kilpatrick said it was "frequently out of fix." To the north at Sicily Island, however, at the head of Lake Louis, a gin operated for years and was, said Kilpatrick, known for its reliability. In operation by 1807, it was built by Edward and Richard Lovelace. The construction, said Kilpatrick, "was attended with a great deal of trouble, as they had only a few oxen (three yokes) to haul the timbers, and lacked many other things. At that time, iron cost a great deal, and most of the nails used were wrought out on the anvil. They were nearly two years building the house and getting the machinery completed."
Kilpatrick said Shadrach Taylor made "the running gear and the wood work of the gin-stand; while James Wright made the saws and all the iron work. The gin had fifty saws and every part of it was made there on the ground by the two workmen." He added: "There was great joy and rejoicing when it was all completed and set in motion."
The original Lovelace gin was destroyed by fire in 1829. Another gin built at the same location was still in operation in 1835. While other gins went up in the parish during those years, Kilpatrick said the Lovelace gin was the only one "kept in constant repair."
Betty Peck Shaffer of Sicily Island, a descendent of the Lovelace family, said a brick structure marks the site of that original gin just south of Sicily Island High School. Her great-great grandfather, W.S. Peck, bought the property from John Lovelace after the Civil War. She owns the land today and said each new generation of Pecks is instructed not to remove the old brick structure because of its significance as the old gin site and as a property line.
(Stanley Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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