The dusty trail from Vidalia to San Antonio
by Stanley Nelson - posted Wednesday, February 6th, 2013 @ 3:17 pm
Two centuries ago, it took horses and mules to move an army.
In September 1846, while the United States was at war with Mexico, the quartermaster of the Army was tasked with moving supplies, livestock and food to south Texas for distribution to the front lines.
As part of that massive effort, the Army organized a horse and mule drive from Vidalia to San Antonio, Tex., after its original transportation plan had to be revamped due to the low river stage of the Red. It was a hot, dusty, grueling affair. Getting from Vidalia to Alexandria was apparently the toughest part of the 600-mile journey.
S.H. Drum, an assistant quartermaster in the Army, was the military's supervisor of this effort. In August 1846, he signed a contract with David White in Cincinnati, Ohio, for the delivery of 800 mules and horses from there to San Antonio.
"He is regarded here as a responsible man," Drum said of White, who was also familiar with the trail through Texas. As a contractor, White was responsible for feeding and caring for the animals and because of that, said Drum, "it is his (White's) interest to have as little delay as possible" and to insure the health of the animals since White wouldn't be paid until delivery. But Drum intended to carefully monitor the journey.
Drum's original plan was to have the mules and horses delivered on the Red at Alexandria, La., by steamboat, and then drive the animals by land the rest of the way. Before leaving Cincinnati, Drum hired 200 teamsters -- also known as drovers -- to drive the animals.
Teamsters loaded supplies, and mules on two steamboats -- the Art and Townalenka -- on August 26 and 27 in Cincinnati, Ohio. On August 31, the horses were loaded onto the steamer Louis Philippe at Louisville, Kentucky.
On August 22, the Steamer Concordia had arrived at Vidalia with a group of volunteer soldiers who had just completed a hitch in the Mexican War. They were known as "Sparrow Volunteers," led by parish lawyer, Gen. Edward Sparrow.
Sparrow's Volunteers included men from Concordia and Adams County who, according to Concordia historian Robert Dabney Calhoun, made up "a unit in the Montezuma Regiment...their service had consisted in keeping open and uninterrupted the navigation of the Rio Grande."
Some of the volunteers had re-enlisted and remained in Mexico. The Concordia Intelligencer in Vidalia reported that the returning men looked tired and haggard. Gen. John Quitman, who resided at Monmouth in Natchez, was at that moment fighting in Mexico with great success. This politician, planter and attorney would return home a hero.
A few days after the return of Sparrow's Volunteers, on September 6, the steamers Ark, Townalenka and Louis Philppe docked at Vidalia loaded with men, horses and mules. Along the way, four horses and two mules had died from injuries "received from other animals and from hot weather." In fact, it was excessively hot and dry.
At Vidalia, Crum learned the Red River, which entered the Mississippi 18 miles below Fort Adams, was too low to navigate. He quickly determined that the drive would begin at Vidalia.
Because of this, Crum felt that the "wagons would impede my progress," so he decided "to ship all except (a) light one to New Orleans, and to pack only such stores as will be absolutely necessary on the route." Forty-two men, including three federal officers, remained to drive the herd to Texas, while the remaining rode the steamers to New Orleans.
Drum expected "to make a rapid march across the country." But in a letter to his superior just before the drive began, he noted: "The weather is extremely hot - thermometer 90; and I shall have to drive very slowly at first, but I think I shall do better after passing Red river."
Crum divided the drive into eight droves of 100 animals each. The last two headed out on Sept. 9. Captain Smith led the drive and Captain Gilbert rode with the middle droves "with directions to exercise a general supervision, and see that the contract is faithfully complied with." Drum departed on Sept. 10 behind the last drove.
Almost immediately there was a stampede, which Drum attributed to the animals "not being accustomed to each other." But it was quickly controlled.
The drive followed what was known as the Trinity Road, which from Vidalia followed much of the present day Hwy. 84 route to the Black River at present day Jonesville. This crude road was first laid out by Tommy Thompson from the Post of Concord (Vidalia) to Cocodrie Bayou in the early 1800s, connecting to a trail cleared out by Caddy Hebrard (Jonesville) in the late 1700s. Each man received from the Spanish government a land grant and a ferry franchise for building the connecting roads.
During the horse and mule drive in 1846, other travelers along the road had to move out of the way as the whinnies, grunts and brays of mules and horses, and the yips and whistles of the trail hands, echoed throughout the countryside. The only expedition creating as much noise and disruption as this drive were earlier trail drives by Philip Nolan, the great horse hunter, who in the late 1700s drove wild horses from the Texas prairies back to Natchez.
The expedition that may have been the biggest to cross the parish was in September 1863 when during the Civil War an army of federal troops, horses and wagons followed the Trinity Road through Concordia in route to Catahoula Parish to destroy Fort Beauregard on the Ouachita at Harrisonburg.
TRINITY: BIG TOWN
Between Vidalia and Alexandria, several horses were lost, later rounded up and sent to New Orleans. Other horses, said Drum, which were injured by "kicks and strains" and unable to travel were put down.
The first destination was Trinity, the little community that is nestled along the peninsula between the Little and Ouachita rivers at present day Jonesville. In 1846, Trinity, with a population of about 250, was bigger than Vidalia.
Dr. Andrew Robert Kilpatrick, a planter and writer who lived along Black River at Lismore in Concordia Parish, said Trinity was "nearly directly west of Natchez, twenty-eight miles by the mail route, and eighteen miles on an air line." The town had a steam-powered sawmill, four "grocery establishments," two tailor shops, one tavern, one blacksmith, two billiard halls, two bowling alleys and "an aggregate capital of $35,000."
Three "profitable" ferries operated at this point where four rivers still meet (Black, Tensas, Little, Ouachita), and each busy due to "the immense amount of western emigration." (The word "Trinity," according to Kilpatrick, "derives its name from its position at the triple confluence of the Tensas, Ouachita and Little rivers...")
Vidalia included "the courthouse, and offices of parish functionaries, with lawyers' and doctors' shops, and a boarding house, but not one single store of any kind, or even warehouse." The two-story courthouse was new, built by James M. Vandervoort on a contract signed with the Police Jury on May 12, 1843.
The old courthouse had been leveled by the 1840 tornado. A man who survived that storm when it hit Vidalia was David Stacy, an attorney who with Edward Sparrow made up the famous 19th century Concordia law team of Stacy and Sparrow, renowned statewide.
At this time, the Police Jury was comprised of William L. Poindexter, president, D.F. Miller, S.H. Lambdin, Isaac Lum, Charles Crossgrove, James M. Williams, Joseph E Miller and Edward P. Williams.
Almost immediately, the hot weather slowed the progress of the San Antonio-bound drive. At Trinity, Drum reported the "thermometer stood at 100 on Sunday (13th) and yesterday it was 95 at this place. The nights, too, are hot, so that little or no relief is experienced after the sun goes down."
Following the road north of Little River and Catahoula Lake, the last drove crossed the Red River at Alexandria on Sept. 16, six days after it left Vidalia. By this time, Drum had his fill of locals. He doesn't explain specifically why he was perturbed, but he noted:
"In all my life, I have not had so many lies told me as since I have started this expedition. No confidence can be placed in anything that is said to me by the citizens. They are either interested for themselves or their friends, and some lie wantonly."
He added that from Vidalia to Alexandria "we crossed three of the worst swimming places on the whole route." In Texas, the streams were crossed "without difficulty," but one night on a prairie a thunderstorm spooked the herd causing the second stampede of the journey.
The animals were driven from Vidalia through Trinity, Alexandria, Holt's Springs, Sabine, Milam, San Augustine, Nacogdoches, Crockett, Washington, LaGrange, Gonzales, Seguine and into San Antonio in four weeks, the last two droves arriving on October 5.
Drum said the mules "arrived in good condition, only seven having been lost on the route." But the horses didn't do as well as 30 died along the dusty trail and "many more" were "nearly broken down."
The animals, fed corn at a cost of 90 cents per bushel, suffered greatly from "the screw-worm," which was the "greatest evil on the route." If an animal "got snagged or rubbed with the saddle so as to draw blood," said Drum, "a small green fly would deposit its eggs on the blood, and in less than 12 hours a sore would be filled with screw-worms, boring their way into the flesh. I have seen a small sore converted in a few days into a hole large enough to place my closed hand in."
Unsure what to do, several animals died before Drum learned in Crockett, Tex., that "calomel was a good remedy...by applying it to the sore." The heat caused more problems than anything, said Drum, and at one time sickened half of the cowboys.
Drum figured the expedition averaged 21.5 miles per day and traveled exactly 616 miles from Vidalia to San Antonio. The mules and horses were originally intended to be used by Kentucky troops, but the soldiers had already moved onward to join the ranks of Gen. Zachary Taylor, the commander.
Reported Drum, "The animals arrived in season to be employed in the trains for supplying the army under (Gen. John Ellis) Wool." Wool, age 62, had previously served in the War of 1812 and would later serve in the Civil War. He was 77 when that war began, and by then renown for his organizational skills.