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|Warfare, pirogues, Indians & portages|
The world during the late 18th century was changing rapidly. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 had revamped ownership of the planet, especially in North America. Historian Francis Parkman wrote that "half a continent...changed hands at the scratch of a pen."
As the victor in the French & Indian War in North America and in the global Seven Years War, Great Britain now commanded a vast empire, but was drained financially. No region in the world was growing faster than the American colonies, home to two million people. The British saw the colonies as a means to rebound financially. Taxes were enacted -- without representation -- and the Americans didn't like it one bit. In time, they would rebel.
In America, one in five people lived in bondage. Massachusetts had 5,000 slaves, Virginia 170,000. In Charlestown, South Carolina, ships docked almost daily loaded with human cargo from Africa.
In the meantime, Native Americans were becoming more and more dependent on European trade goods, particularly the rifle. By this time the Choctaws in Mississippi, 14,000 strong, were primarily using weapons to hunt and in war.
The colonists had learned how to fight like Indians. When the French and Indian War broke out in 1754, no one was more stunned than 24-year-old George Washington at how ineffective British commanders and troops were in frontier warfare. They soon adapted, but Washington never forgot it.
Wrote Alexander Rose in his 2008 book, "American Rifle," when "they first experienced the Indian style of fighting, English settlers (especially those with a soldier's background) were amazed by how different it was from their own. In European warfare of the time troops formed long, thin lines spread across a chosen field of battle and efficiently marshaled by their officers. They would fire a volley or two from their muskets, then attempt to advance toward the enemy army as quickly as possible to use bayonets against them. Essentially...warfare was based on these factors: volume of fire, officer imposed discipline and shock combat at close quarters."
The Indians fought much more simply, but effectively. "By contrast" to the European way of war, said Rose, "the Indians relied on individual accuracy, initiative and surprise."
TUNICAS & PORTAGE
One prominent Indian tribe in this region during the late 18th century was the Tunica. Between 1763 and 1784, the Tunicas lived near Pointe Coupee along the Mississippi River. In prior years, the Tunica resided north of present day Vicksburg along the Yazoo River. In 1702, an estimated 2,000 Tunicas, about 300 families, were living there.
But in 1706, because of slave raids by the Chickasaw, the Tunica migrated to a place known as Portage of the Cross, a strategic location on the Mississippi on grounds now occupied by the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Historian Jim Barnett of Natchez, who has written extensively about the Natchez Indians ("The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735") and other Native Americans ("Mississippi's American Indians"), said the Tunica's numbers were reduced to 460 by 1719 due to "contact with the Europeans," which resulted in disease outbreaks such as small pox.
The Tunica had established during this period a relationship with a French missionary named Father Anthony Davion, who came to live with the Tunicas on the Yazoo in 1699 and made the move with them to the Portage of the Cross on the Mississippi. Davion established a mission at the heights of present day Fort Adams in Wilkinson County, Miss. For six decades this place was known as La Roche a Davion. From 1764 until the late 1790s the site was known as Loftus Heights, named after a British general whose fleet traveling up the Mississippi was attacked there by the Tunicas.
The Tunica were French allies. They hated the British, who in the early 1700s depended on the Chickasaw for Indian slaves. When the Tunica left their village on the Yazoo behind and moved south, says Barnett, "they appeared to have driven the Houmas out of the settlement known as Portage of the Cross. When they migrated down river they really put themselves in danger because they were leaving behind their corn fields and granaries. They felt they didn't have the option to find an unsettled place and blaze a new trail. It made more sense to them to take the existing village and fields of the Houmas."
The Portage of the Cross was located on the east side of the Mississippi River near the mouth of the Red River. There, the Tunicas "came into their own as traders," said Barnett.
William Dunbar of Natchez, who led the U.S. exploration of the Ouachita River in 1804-05 following the Louisiana Purchase, said the mouth of the Red, 15 miles below Fort Adams, was 550 yards wide and "three miles above the exit of the Chafalya (Atchafalaya)" River.
The Tunica traded with the French and the Spanish during the early to mid-1700s. "They quickly fell into supporting roles for the French and Spanish and could make a living supplying food and other goods," said Barnett, "The Tunica, like other tribes, survived by becoming a support industry to the Europeans."
The Tunica settlement was at a wide bend of the Mississippi, which was also known at that time as the Great Bend as well as the Portage of the Cross. Upon reaching this location while traveling down river, says Barnett, "You would turn right to the west and then another bend would take you south and yet another would take you east again to a point only six miles below where you first turned and began traveling this loop...At the western end of this big loop you would go by the mouth of the Red River."
There was six miles distance on a straight line from where the meander began and ended, but 30 river miles from the northern point of the meander to the southern point.
"If you were paddling down river in a canoe, it was very convenient to make portage there," Barnett said. "A portage typically means that you get out and carry your canoe by land, in this case six miles instead of 30 miles by river."
Unless it was excessively dry, river travelers could remain in their vessels and take the six-mile short cut through a slough.
When you arrived at the Portage of the Cross, you were at the door step of the Tunicas. So strategic was the location, said Barnett, the French built a way station there in 1716 at the same time they were constructing Fort Rosalie at Natchez.
In 1763, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, the French lost all their holdings in North America although they continued to operate in Louisiana until the Spanish took possession of the colony. At that time, the Tunica, who like other tribes that hated the British, left the Portage of the Cross, which was British land on the east side of the river, and crossed the Mississippi, settling in the Pointe Coupee area on the west side, where the Spanish established a fort. Later, the Tunica called Marksville home.
The Indians and early frontiersmen depended on the pirogue for survival on the frontier.
Historian Dunbar Rowland said in his 1907 book -- "Mississippi: Comprising Sketches of Counties, Towns, Events, Institutions, and Persons, Arranged in Cyclopedic Form" -- that the "words pirogue or canoe were often used interchangeably" during the frontier days. Rowland said both the canoe and pirogue "were quickly made, but while the canoe was paddled and easily glided up stream, the pirogue was pushed by oars and setting-poles, ran easily with the current, and only ascended the stream by the expenditure of much effort. Both were boats of a primitive and undeveloped period...
"It is nevertheless true that prior to the close of the Revolutionary War, the canoe, pirogue and batteau types of river craft reigned supreme on the inland waters. The customary freight of the canoe was wampum and Indian goods and presents, packs and peltries. Nor should its carrying capacity be underestimated. Though frail, and commonly built from the bark of trees, it could be made long, and freighted with a score of men and their supplies for an extended voyage."
Canoe or pirogue-building was developed and perfected by the Indians, but quickly adapted by the French. Concordia native Dr. Hiram "Pete" Gregory, an archaeologist, wrote in a "Louisiana Studies" article in the 1960s, that the "primary mode of water transportation in Louisiana in the 1700s was the dugout log canoe, or in colloquial parlance, the pirogue. The pirogue, carved from half an ash or cypress log, was originally an Indian craft, but the French, and later the Anglo-Saxons, were quick to adapt it to their own needs. Their steel tools, especially the round adze or tille ronde, were applied to the manufacture of the pirogue at an early date...In early times, pirogues, often capable of carrying several persons, were made by almost every carpenter."
In the 1960s, Gregory said the "small, sleek, 'peashell' variety of southern Louisiana is to be seen in any numbers, but very few of even these small vessels are being manufactured at present. At one time, families often specialized in the 'building' of these craft, and their technical skills were passed on from generation to generation."
In the 1930s, ethnologist John R. Swanton found a pirogue-builder on Catahoula Lake in Rapides Parish. Emrick Sanson, who lived in Deville at the time, represented the "last generation of Louisianians to participate in what was in colonial times a thriving profession -- pirogue-building."
Like other pirogue builders, Sanson used the tille ronde handed down from his father and previous generations. Sanson's came from a cane hoe made by his French ancestor, M. Belgard, at the Rapides post (Alexandria) in 1790.
Sanson told Swanton that pirogue-building was a vanishing art for three reasons:
-- The last generation of craftsmen like Sanson, then aging, had few young people interested in learning the art because "mechanical propulsion and pre-fabricated boats are preferred."
-- "Saw-lumber or board lumber makes it unnecessary to spend long hours in hollowing and shaping the inside and gunwales of these craft."
-- "The lack of suitable timber...especially true of the pirogue-maker's favorite wood, Bald cypress...since most of Louisiana's virgin swampland long ago fell to the ax and saw."
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