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|The perilous river journey of Anthony, Anne & Toney -- Spring 1773|
River travel was dangerous enough for the solitary trapper in the 1700s but imagine loading your children, spouse and every possession you owned onto flatboats and riding the swift river currents of springtime through hostile lands to your destination hundreds of miles away.
This was the task facing Anthony Hutchins of North Carolina during the early spring of 1773. He was taking on this monumental journey because the place he once called home was being ripped apart by a brewing revolution pitting neighbor against neighbor.
Five years earlier in the spring of 1768, Hutchins had faced an angry mob of about 100 men at the Anson County courthouse that was furious with the British government over taxes, fraud and the officials who governed them. Hutchins had served the British in the French and Indian War, rising to the rank of captain. After the conflict ended, he received a half-pay pension. He was appointed sheriff by North Carolina governor William Tryon, who based his political choices on the recommendations made by justices of the peace, who were elected.
In 1768, some of the anti-British forces in Anson County took over the courthouse, held judges as hostages in the courtroom and later complained to Gov. Tryon about Hutchins and other county officials. They said Hutchins oppressed the people, failed to properly carry out his duties and complained that as sheriff he imprisoned men and then acted as judge with the prisoner never having a trial. They also complained about taxes, telling the governor what was becoming a widely-held stance: "We conceive that no people have a right to be taxed but by consent of themselves..."
Hutchins' was caught in a crossfire between rebels and loyalists. He and some of his neighbors made the difficult decision to leave the turmoil of the colonies and head west to the vast wilderness of Natchez country hoping to escape the hostilities and to carve out a new life in the wilderness far from the civilized world.
At a time when the average life expectancy of a colonist was about 43 years, Hutchins defied the odds. He was already 53 in 1772 and would live another 30 years in Natchez country. His slave Toney, who came from Africa on a slave ship, was around the same age at the time and may have lived to age 100. Hutchins' wife, Anne, was apparently quite a bit younger than Hutchins but shared Anthony and Toney's rugged frontier moxie. Anthony and Anne had four children by 1773. The first two were twins born in February 1768, when Anthony was 49.
Hutchins traveled alone to Natchez in 1772. Upon his return, he staked a claim with the British West Florida government in Pensacola for 1,000 acres on Second Creek. Hutchins selected a home spot beside two large Indian mounds which parallel Hwy. 61, about nine miles from the present city limits south of Natchez.
Toney says during the early spring of 1773 the party of neighbors packed furniture, belongings and farm implements on wagons and began the journey west while herding livestock along the way. They crossed the Blue Ridge and Smokey mountains to the Holston River in eastern Tennessee. There, they encamped and built flatboats for the journey by water to Natchez.
A frontiersman had many skills and one crucial to survival was the ability to build a raft to cross a stream or a flatboat to travel by water with cargo. The men began cutting timber, carving plank from green oak and using wooden pins to fasten the planks together to form the bottom, applying pitch, tar or other material as caulking.
Flatboats varied in size, but were usually rectangular with boarded sides two to three feet high. The crafts were eight to 10 feet wide, about 35 feet long, had a light draft, a cabin in front for the family and maybe a shed in the back for livestock. In the Hutchins' case, a number of flatboats were built, some just for livestock, and as the flotilla moved downstream it looked very similar to a western wagon train but on water instead of land. It was also noisy -- the sounds included men shouting and cursing as they steered the flatboats, children laughing and crying, cows mooing, chickens cackling and horses neighing.
The journey would carry them from the Holston to the Tennessee River for 650 miles to its confluence with the Ohio, and a short distance from there to the Mississippi River. At Mussel Shoals on the Tennessee, the party was attacked by Chickasaws, some of the flatboats grounded and one loaded with hogs abandoned. Toney said the firing from the edge of the forest along the bank was so hot at one point that he and others had to swim from one boat to another to get out of the line of fire. One of the men in the party was shot and survived. Some historians say Hutchins received the wound and survived, but Toney's account indicates that it may have been another male member of the party. As an old man, Toney would recall that those Indians were "the worst" he encountered in his life. The party moved down river all night without stopping and eventually escaped their attackers.
Once they entered the Ohio River, they stopped and rested for a week. After resuming their journey, they arrived at New Madrid on the Mississippi three days later. The population there consisted of Spanish, Africans and Native Americans. Toney said it was a tough place, but that some in the party walked the countryside, found the soil to be "level and rich" and were considering settling there. But that idea was dashed when one night a black man warned them that some of the Spanish planned to rob and murder the whites and confiscate their belongings, livestock and slaves. Alarmed, the party moved out in the darkness and traveled the 600 miles down the Mississippi without stopping and without any more trouble.
The flotilla eventually docked at the mouth of Cole's Creek in present-day Jefferson County, where some of the travelers remained. Toney said the Hutchins pushed on to Natchez and landed at the mouth of St. Catherine's Creek, which was then located at the northern end of Ellis Cliffs. He said the flatboats were unloaded and the belongings and livestock taken three miles inland to their new home on Second Creek where they camped and rested.
When they arrived in May 1774, no one welcomed the dry land under her feet more than Anne Hutchins following the 1,500-mile, two-month journey. Despite Indian attacks and the dangers of river travel she had kept her four children safe. The twins, Mary and Samuel, were each six, and they had two younger siblings, Elizabeth and Thomas. She was also seven months pregnant.
Robust people, these pioneers.
(Stanley Nelson can be reached at email@example.com)
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