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|Frenchman Villemont, Jim Bowie early Catahoula settlers|
Across the Ouachita River from present day Harrisonburg in Catahoula Parish two centuries ago was an expansive prairie that in the early 1700s had been the site of a plantation owned by a Frenchman named Henri Villemont.
Decades earlier the forest at this site -- later to be known as Villemont's Prairie -- had been swept clean of trees and shrubs by annual fires ignited by the Indians.
The Ouachita River Expedition, charged by President Thomas Jefferson and Congress to explore the valley, got a good view of Villemont's Prairie on a cool October day in 1804. Led by William Dunbar of Natchez and Dr. George Hunter of Philadelphia, the expedition was headed to the hot springs of Arkansas to determine whether the waters there truly had healing powers.
Onboard the keelboat on which the explorers were traveling, were 12 U.S. privates and their sergeant, four slaves, including a runaway named Harry, and Hunter's son, George Jr. In his journal, Dunbar referred to the location of present day Harrisonburg as Pine Point, where the pine hills meet the Ouachita.
About a mile or so below Pine Point, Bushley Bayou once flowed into the Ouachita. A levee separates the streams today. A few miles from this spot along that bayou and Bird's Creek, lived in 1804 one of Catahoula Parish's earliest American pioneer families. There, eight-year-old Jim Bowie resided with his parents and brothers.
At Pine Point (Harrisonburg), Dunbar wrote in his journal about the expansive land on the opposite side of the Ouachita known then as Villemont's Prairie.
"The prairie obtained its name in consequence of its being included within a grant under the french Government to a gentleman of that name," Dunbar wrote. "Some of the family & name yet remain at New Orleans but I have not heard of any claim for this land."
Although Villemont's plantation operated for only a short time, his arrival here established him as among the first European settlers along the Ouachita as part of France's plan to colonized the Mississippi River and her tributaries through private industry, which failed miserably.
According to Grace King's book, "Creole Families of New Orleans," Villemont was a native of Poitiers, France, located in the west central region of the country. A lieutenant in the French Army, he sailed to America in 1719 with his family abroad the ship "Deux Freres" (Two Brothers). In his party was his wife, Antoinette, and their two daughters, Jeanne and Marie Anne.
Villemont also brought 12 laborers to work on his plantation which stretched from opposite Pine Point (Harrisonburg) southward to the mouth of the Bushley. King wrote that the location was 120 leagues (288 miles) by rivers from New Orleans. It was reported by the Spanish in the late 1700s that a heavily-loaded bateau could journey from New Orleans to the mouth of the Ouachita at present day Jonesville in six days, but this time frame when measured against the current was likely achieved with perfect conditions and strong oarsmen.
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