In 1804, under the new United States Territorial government Rapides became one of the 12 counties into which the Territory of New Orleans (later the State of Louisiana) was divided. The county was described as meant "to comprehend the settlements of Rapides, Avoyelles, Catahoula, Bayou Boeuf, Bayou Robert, and all other settlements who now or may be made in the vicinity thereof, and which in the opinion of the Superior Court be nearer or more convenient to the Court House or seat of justice of another country."
The settlements sprawled at a convenient location below the rapids continued to grow. The Red River bed was clogged with a centuries-old collection of fallen trees and debris at a point above Natchitoches for a distance of about 100 miles. This Great Raft was decades away from clearance, and the fact of its existence affected the growth of the settlement at "les rapides."
Alexander Fulton, an Indian trader who came into central Louisiana in the early 1790s from Pennsylvania, owned tracts of land along Red River. He and his partner, William Miller, obtained a monopoly to trade with the Indians of this section, and they built a store on the banks of the river near the present heart of Alexandria. Part of their business was obviously to secure the Indians' land. Fulton married a local girl, Mary Henrietta Wells, seventh child of Samuel Levi Wells I in 1793. She was a sister of Levi Wells whom Miller and Fulton employed as surveyor of their lands.
Many planters and traders and others moved into the area around the time of the Louisiana Purchase.
On February 1, 1805 Alexander Fulton laid out the town he named Alexandria. A plat, reported by Alexandria Attorney T. Wynn Holloman, contained the following:
"I certify that at the request of Alexander Fulton, Sq., I have laid off the Town of Alexandria.
February 1, 1805 Frederick Walther"
Streets paralleling the river were given numbers designating their positions from the Red River, as was done in many another river town. Names were given to intersecting streets.
How Alexandria was named is not documented, although family papers or the like may some day be found to settle the question. The very fact that the land belonged to a man named Alexander Fulton suggests the city's name derived from this source. But was the name taken directly from the landowner's -- or was there an infant daughter named for her father, Alexandria, who died about the same time the town was laid out for whom the settlement was named? Dr. G. M. G. Stafford, genealogist of the Wells family, lists no such daughter, although tradition insists there was one.
In any case, by 1805 the crude little settlement that had been developing at the site below the rapids had formed now with the plans of Fulton, and it had a name: Alexandria. In that year there were a total of about 1550 residents in the county called Rapides.
Officials of the County of Rapides in 1805 were announced by a newspaper in New Orleans June 25, 1805: Judge of the County Court--William Miller; Clerk of Court--Hatch Dent; Sheriff--Frederick Walther; County Treasurer--Ennemond Muellion; and Coroner--Alexander Fulton.
According to the newspaper, these men took their oaths of office on June 5, 1805.
After the purchase of Louisiana by the United States, William Miller left the Indian trading business and settled on land in the vicinity of present-day Lecompte where he became a cotton planter.
He continued his restless moves after remaining a few years on his plantation. This time he returned east where he lived for different periods in Kentucky, Ohio, and Maryland where he died.
William Miller served as judge of Rapides County until 1807. His successor was a man named Thomas Dawson who took office May 8, 1807. In 1808 he was succeeded by Major Richard Claiborne, according to the New Orleans newspaper.
Hatch Dent , named as Clerk of Court, became a major influence in Rapides. Dent also came to the Spanish colony, and he acquired large land holdings in Spanish land grants.
He held a number of political offices, including Territorial Representative to Congress and, after Statehood, State Senator. He held the Clerk of Court post until he died in 1815.
Two of Hatch Dent's daughters, Jeanette Amelia, and Martha Lucie, married two prominent brother--Montfort and Jefferson Wells. With property inherited from two great landholders, Samuel Levi Wells II, and Hatch Dent, the couples owned two of the parish's most famous plantation, Wellswood and Dently. Wellswood, located near present-day Meeker, was "the front" plantation which specialized in row crops. Dently, on the other hand, was located in the gently rolling hill country located between present-day Lecompte and Forest Hill. The specialty at Dentley was fine livestock, and a circle of scattered crepe myrtle trees today marks the outline of the old race track where the famous race horse, Lecomte, was trained.
Major Richard Claiborne , appointed County Judge in 1808, was an unfortunate political appointment by his distant kinsman, Governor William Cole Claiborne. he was charge with extortion and malfeasance in office during his tenure, and as County Judge, he was also Tax Collector in which position he defaulted in the sum of $1061.73. Such information is contained among the published letters of Governor Claiborne.
In 1820 Isaac Baldwin was elected President of the Alexandria Trustees and A. J. Davis, who succeeded to the presidency the next year, succeeded Baldwin as president.
There may have been no election held in 1822 and 1823, else why did the Legislature reenact the granting of the charter? In 1823, a definite date, July 1, 1823, was fixed by laws as the time of the election.
Revenue for the town came from a property tax, but the tax brought in little money. The property assessments were low and the tax was only 33 1 3 of a cent on the dollar of the assessment. The tax limit that could be collected, however, was $500. This limitation was removed a few years later, and the boundaries of the town were extended.
Alexander Fulton was elected to represent this area in the Legislature and served until his death which occurred shortly before Louisiana's admission to the Union.
In 1807 the legislature divided the Territory of Orleans in 19 parishes, one of which was Rapides. The parish lines stretched from Catahoula to the Sabine River and from Natchitoches to a point in present-day Avoyelles.
Between 1807-1810 the first Rapides Parish Police Jury was created.
The enabling act in 1811 to secure statehood resulted in the election of three representatives to the constitutional convention: Levi Wells, John Hall, and Thomas F. Oliver.
The only voting place was at the courthouse in Alexandria. Cheneyville was next and after that "some house of Bayou Cotile to be designated by the parish judge."
What was Rapides Parish like when Louisiana became the seventeenth state in the Union in 1812?
Major Amos Stoddard, writing in 1812 regarding his impressions gained in travels up the Red River from Avoyelles, commented:
"The next settlement of consequence is at the rapids about sixty miles still higher up the river. The Village of Alexandria is situated just below them. . .Most of the settlers have planted themselves some miles back; and the whole population may be computed at about 640 whites and 200 slaves. The greatest proportion of this part of the country is cultivated by emigrants from the United States. The land is of good quality, and produces abundantly.
"A sawmill has been erected on a bayou or steam near the settlements. . .The plantations about the rapids exhibit the appearance of wealth. The wood lands and prairies are so happily intermixed as planters, who raise many cattle and swine and cultivate such articles as are common to the country."
For transportation involving any distance, waterways were essential. Keelboats and flatboats--barges of one kind or another--were used throughout the 1700's. It was 1812 before the first steamboat came down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. In 1815, Henry Shreve steamed up Red River in his boat, the Enterprise , returning veterans of the Battle of New Orleans (January 8, 1815) to their homes. The use of steamboats for routine transportation on Red River was still a few years away.
Alexandria was still near the head of north bound navigation. The Great Raft remained in the river from Natchitoches northward up the Red, and for many years the water level between Natchitoches and the upper falls was so low that navigation was difficult. It was 1832-'34 before the capable Henry Shreve used his famous snag boats to first jar loose the miles of raft webbed together with an accumulation of debris that supported huge trees.
The very business of unloading steamboats or rafts to relieve the burden sufficiently for the boats to negotiate the rapids provided a livelihood for some Alexandria inhabitants.
During this period a man named William Waters, a contemporary of Henry Shreve, apparently successfully operated packets of keelboats and flatboats on the Mississippi and Red River. He is credited with being one of the first to bring a steamboat--the "Newport"--to Red River waters. Like many another steamboat captain, Waters finally located a place where he waited to settle. The spot he chose was in the piney woods country north of Pineville where he built his home, "Rural Retreat," and raised his family.
The history of steamboating on the Red, the business that flourished in commerce between New Orleans and Alexandria, would itself take a big volume. At Pineville, on one side of the river, and Alexandria, on the other, merchants at the small port town financed farmers living miles away from Red River. the advanced supplies against new, unplanted crops, bought the cotton, corn and other produce from the producers and shipped it downstream to New Orleans where they expected to see for a profit. The presence of the raft above Natchitoches caused the river port of central Louisiana to figure importantly in affairs of farmers and businessmen who might have found alternatives but for the presence of the Great Raft. That obstacle was not finally removed until 1873.
The importance of water in frontier transportation and commerce influenced the fact that settlers chose their wilderness homes at sites where they would be accessible to a navigable stream, if possible. Rivers, or bayous, or creeks often dictated homesites, and English-speaking settlers moving into Rapides sought lands along the Red, the bayous in the lowlands or creeks in the hill country.
Volumes could also be written on the development of agriculture in Rapides Parish. Small family farms in the hill country and plantations in the low country near Red River and the bayous had one major thing in common: the raising of cotton.
Eli Witney's cotton gin in 1793 coincided with the final decade of Spanish rule, and was making the growing of cotton singularly attractive by the time the first English-speaking settlers began to pour across the Mississippi River to settle in the wilderness-frontier that was Louisiana.
The earliest planters located on the small bayou forming a loop to the west from the rapids of Red River. At different parts of the stream the name changed from Bayou Rapides to Bayou Jean de Jean. the stream formed an enclosure of doubly rich delta land which came to be called "The Island."
Here, men like Pierre Baillio from the Natchitoches post moved downstream and with no thought of affluence or wealth established themselves comfortably on cotton plantations. Slaves were necessary for such operations, and most of the "wealth" of the planter class was invested in slaves. By terms of the Louisiana Purchase, Louisiana could not import slaves from abroad, but instead had to depend on domestic increase. Even with the cotton gin making the growing of cotton feasible, it was a way of living that required large numbers of cotton hands.
A list of slave holders owning more than 50 slaves in 1860, included among others: E. Archinard, 70 slaves; Gervais Baillio, 107; Henry Boyce, 332; William Brown, 77; Jesse A. Bynum, 74 slaves; Meredith Calhoun, 709 slaves; T.G. Calvit, 54 slaves; Adelia Casson, 416 slaves; Josiah Chambers (owned plantation where LSU-Alexandria stands), 335 slaves; A.P. Chase owned 153 slaves; Compton Estate owned 377 slaves; Winder Crouch, who lived on Wempland Plantation now owned by Philip Wemple, owned 122 slaves; Neal Davidson, owned 80; Robert Hynson, owned 122; Esther Jackson, owned 85; Patrick Keary, from Catalpa Plantation near Cheneyville owned 67; the Kelso Estate, 105; Duncan Lintory had 209; Thomas Maddox, owned 241; Anderson McNutt, owned 94; Thomas Overton Moore, Governor of Louisiana, 226; Overton Estate, 122; William Polk, who owned Ashton Plantation, 167; Leroy Stafford, 214; Martha and Jenetta Wells, 246; William Waters (former steamboat captain) and son, 127 slaves; Slias Talbert, owned 142 slaves, and Levi Wilson on Red River owned 160.
Caterpillars, drought, rain, floods, and low prices plagued the cotton planters and farmers alike.
By the 1840's the struggle to make a living or support the plantation unit on cotton caused planters to experiment with growing sugar cane. On some plantations cotton was largely, or wholly, replaced with cane which was made into molasses or raw sugar, stored in barrels built by local coopers, and shipped to market at New Orleans.
Planters on Bayou Boeuf were often plagued also by expensive delays in shipping their produce, and cotton or sugar and molasses had to be shipped downstream and held in warehouses for re-shipment to market.
General stores grew up around the country areas which became centers for purchasing all supplies which the family did not produce for itself. Drugs, clothing, flour, even pork, farm equipment, seed - all these needs and more were supplied by the country store which became a part of the lifestyle, supplying a communication center for neighboring farmers, along with everything else.
Ezra Bennett's Store on a bend of the bayou settled around 1813 by Randal Eldred Jr., was such an emporium.
The story of cotton planting in Rapides Parish has not been told nor of the activities of planters in planting operations simultaneously carried on elsewhere. Was it a coincidence that Bayou Boeuf planter families in those early years were involved in some way in sugar cane plantations on the coast? Were there others, like Dr. Jesse Wright of Cheneyville? His daughter described his business activities:
"My father was a doctor, but various other businesses developed as his family increased until finally I believe he stopped his country practice altogether and perhaps all of his practice. (Dr. Wright's health was not good--stomach trouble--for some years before his death in 1850, and he returned on more than one occasion to his old house in Saybrook, Connecticut to consult physicians there and in New Haven and New York, besides visiting brothers and sisters.) He had a store in Cheneyville, and had his nephew, Orimel Wright of Connecticut to work in it, and by and by he owned a sugar plantation managed the St. Mary Place which was on Bayou Salle. . ."It was Bayou Salle that Soloman Northup as a slave went with a large number of other slaves from the area in 1845. The cotton crops had failed in central Louisiana, and the slaves were sent to cut cane on Bayou Salle in St. Mary's Parish. Such notations give us our concepts of the lifestyle of the people which is not to be found in census records or recital of major events.
Corn was a staple--corn for bread, corn for grits, corn itself for food, corn for livestock. This crop was raised, along with a money crop, most often cotton. Rapides Parish did have a number of sugar cane plantations as well, and many sugar and syrup mills, as their ancient smoke stacks and brick foundations which survive substantiate.
Poultry was raised for family consumption and eggs. Turkeys, guineas, ducks, and geese were usually the care of the farmer's wife.
Cows provided milk, butter, and cheese which the housewife made in her kitchen.
Hogs were grown--but pork for slaves was shipped the length of the Mississippi River, and shipped upstream by the barrel to consumers in Rapides, as well as elsewhere over the state.
Flour was a luxury item also shipped downriver at great expense to New Orleans and reshipped to the hinterland. (Consequently, only the more prosperous could afford it.) Corn was the staple used in meal for bread by most of the population.
The plantation system flourished in the rich lowlands of Rapides Parish. The plantations mostly developed in the nineteenth century, and none approached the wealth and grandeur of vast estates along the Mississippi River formed a century before during the colonial period.
There was a class or even caste system with planters and their families at the top of the social ladder, small white planters and farmers, craftsmen, and others in the second layer and the black at the bottom of the ladder, themselves divided into various groups arranged in a hierarchy from the free colored to the lowest slave.
Plantations themselves were largely self-contained with the planter responsible for all the people, black and white, and the operation itself. The plantation system involved political control, included lawyers, banks and financial agents, the transportation system, the exercise of the law and police control, churches and whatever existed of an educational system. All of these were dominated by the plantation system.
Rapides planters were dedicated farming people who took great pride in the production of their fields and they were equally dedicated politicians. They were less devoted to cultural enterprises--the theatre, opera, art, or literature. Actually, there were comparatively few showplace homes or Georgian mansions along Red River or the bayous. Large farm houses of unpainted but durable cypress, a generous hospitality, and comfort there were, but these Rapides plantations were workaday producers of cotton and sugar cane. That was it. They operated almost invariably in debt with liens on unplanted crops from year to year, and plantations frequently changed hands. What kept most planters going was the security of land which could be parceled off and sold when the debts had to be satisfied. So much was in most of the tracts that, even after such a sale, all the land that could be successfully cultivated by the planter remained.
To the west of Alexandria along Bayou Rapides (or Jean de Jean or Cotile) a circle of plantations grew thousand of acres of cotton, and along the smaller streams, Bayous Robert, Boeuf, Lamourie, Clear, and all the rest were other plantation communities, and there were the plantations along Red River as well.
Prior to the 1806 establishment of a buffer area between the United States Territory and that of Spain to the west, governor Claiborne called on Rapides Parish, along with Natchitoches Parish, to supply men in an emergency border situation. Rapides men responded swiftly and organized themselves with Hosiah S. Johnston as Lieutenant Colonel. Hatch Dent was named Major and Valentine Layssard Captain.
Governor Claiborne and General Wilkinson met at the home of Alexander Fulton on Bayou Rapides where the former made his headquarters during this period. It was here that a decision was made and General Wilkingson retired from the Bayou Rapides Conference on the Spanish borderland to return to Natchitoches. The governor left for Opelousas after the September 19-22nd meeting was over.
All of the Rapides men involved, including Fulton, were members of the planter class, and this was typical of the stance the ruling planter class held in public life--undisputed leaders against whom the less affluent would not have run for office or successfully taken action. This was, of course, the pattern of which Rapides was only a part: the planter class ran the political affairs of Louisiana. The explains why there were no public schools. There were provisions for public schools in the state's Constitution but as a practical matter, those who could afford private schools or tutors did so, and those who could not had to find their own solutions to education of their young.
"The thirty-mile horseshoe from the town of Boyce to Alexandria," whose history Patsy Barber has written in Cotile , early formed an important plantation settlement. Plantations laid out in the last years of the Spanish colonial period, like that of Pierre Baillio and others settled in the beginning years of the 1800's, formed the physical base for "the Island" settlement that nurtured Alexandria.
Cotile itself was built on a high bluff at the periphery of "The Island." A stagecoach route followed Bayou Rapides to Cotile and hence northward to Monette's Ferry, Isle Brevelle, and Natchitoches. Bayou Jean de Jean and Bayou Rapides, sectors of the same stream, once served as waterways themselves. (Records of the late 1700's and early 1800's give many versions of the spelling of both these names and of Cotile).
Boyce, once Cotile Landing, and Carnahan Landing on Red River became important shipping points on the river, and muddy trails connected these settlements with the river. As river traffic developed, "Cotile Landing" grew in importance, and the little inland settlement of Cotile withered away.
Springs of soft, pure water gushed from the earth and were no small attraction to early settlers. One spring retains the name of an early owner: Grubb's spring .
In 1802, Pierre Baillo , who located on Bayou Rapides in 1794, observed that 25 cents for an arpent of woodsland was a high price.
Indians--Biloxi, Natchitoches, Avoyel, Tensaw--lived in this area until white settlers began to penetrate this far west. Around the turn of the 19th century, Alexander Fulton and William Miller had exclusive trading rights with the Indians. From operations in Alexandria they allowed the Indians to purchase merchandise on credit. The same type transaction happened over and over, as it did at Cotile, and documentation survives after 1804 from the records of John Sibley, appointed by the United States to be in charge of Indians affairs in the region. Thousands of acres of the Indians' land was demanded to take care of small debts or alleged debts.
The Indians gave up their land and moved on west, where the same chain of events usually occurred, and white settlers moved into the rich farm lands of "The Island."
Migrants in the restless move of Americans moving west came from older southern states where they or their ancestors had set up similar planting operations to the ones they coveted in the new country in the heart of Louisiana.
Benjamin Grubb came over from Natchez to which he had migrated from North Carolina; Johns and Francis Henderson came from North Carolina, the Blanchards from Virginia, the Neals from Georgia. William Clark James, Thomas H. Jones Bowles, Joseph Hoy, Carey Hansford Blanchard, Levi Wells, Joseph Marshall Walker, Pleasant Hunter, John Carnahan, General George Mason Graham, Dr. T. H. Maddox, Robert Alexander Crain, Neal Davidson, and the incredible Ann Coashti Neal Dar, a pioneer woman who successfully ran a plantation in that area, were among early settlers.
Names of Island plantations of the ante bellum period survive, and include Rosedale, Plaisance, Corinne, Ulster, Roselawn, Cordelia Place, Engleside, Eagle's Nest Quadrate, Crescent, Eden, Oakland, Hope Place, China Grove, Mound Place, and Castille.
With the planters came slaves, and the population of Rapides Parish before the Civil War became predominantly black. Along Red River, on "The Island," Bayou Robert, Bayou Lamourie, and Bayou Boeuf were comparable developments. With the large slave population there grew up another group of people who were neither black nor white. These were free people of color who were designated in legal documents f.p.c., f.m.c., or f.w.c., meaning free white men, women or people of color. Almost no research has been done on the subject, although their numbers were considerable, and their plight too often a sad one.
Patsy Barber in her book, Cotile , notes two outstanding free men of color in the early history of the island on plantations adjacent to Alexandria. Tese were Dr. Jack Jones a medical doctor who also did some farming and Carroll Jones who later went to Natchitoches Parish. The latter was a businessman, a trader who furnished fresh horses and feed for stage coach drivers passing his way. Carroll Jones kept a stable of race horses and was also known as an expert marksman.
At Ashton Plantation on Bayou Boeuf a pioneer settler comments on a lifestyle, details of which are mostly lacking:
"I wish to have a house Built for Viney a free woman of Collour which has Lived with me for a number of Years. Have it Built on the opposite side of the Bayou at the upper Side of the Turnit Patch. She can have a good Garden & truck patch. Give her a Cow or Two to milk, also give her some sows & Pigs & let her be furnished with meat & meal from the plantation. Viney is a good harmless woman & it is my wish that she will be kindly treated. . ."
In 1811 William Fendon Cheney of South Carolina located on a farm on Bayou Boeuf. Two years later, he was joined by as many as a hundred migrants originally from his home state. This group started west around 1800. They had one thing in common: they were all either descendants or family members through marriage of Rev. Pierre Robert, a French Hugenot, who had settled in South Carolina on the Santee River in the late 1600s.
Peter Robert was the head of the clan with his son-in-law, Robert Tanner, who moved to the area on the Boeuf where Cheney had already settled. The Hugenot descendants had stopped off east of the Mississippi for nearly a decade--time enough to lay out Woodville, Millissippi, found a Baptist Church, and leave some of the clan to move west.
Plantations were laid out on both sides of the Boeuf, many belonging to Tanners, members of the large family of Robert and Providence Tanner, as well as other migrating kinsmen by the same name. A few of these places still remain in the hands of descendants of the original settlers.
With their political acumen and economic strength, planters along Bayou Boeuf became competitive with the Alexandria planters and their urban colleagues and attempted to have the parish divided and set up their own capitol in the southern part of the parish. Isolation of the lower part of the parish when water was the only means of traveling any distance was the key to the serious effort to split the parish geographically.
Three Rapides planters became governor of the state--Joseph Marshall Walker (1786-1856) was governor from 1850-1853; Thomas O. Moore (1805-1876) was governor from 1860-1864, part of the time unter the Confederate government; and James Madison Wells (1808-1899) became lieutenant-governor, then governor under Union rule. Later, during the Bourbon rule of the state, Newton Crain Blanchard (1849-1922) born on a Bayou Jean de Jean cotton plantation, became governor for four years beginning in 1904.
Neither slaves, free people of color, nor women voted, and few of the whites in the lower social and economic brackets participated in elections.
Planters were, indeed, authoritative patriarchs who ordinarily handled their families and their slaves, as well as their community affairs, with a lordly air. Yet, with the position they assumed went a concomitant sense of responsibility in which the planter assumed the burden not only for the well-bing of all residents on his plantation, but he took as his responsibility the wholehearted participation in state and national political affairs. From Rapides went ment to join Galvez in the American Revolution. Rapides Volunteers rushed to the Mexican War in 1846, as they had rushed from the area in the 1806 crisis and in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. During the period before the Civil War vigorous political groups whose ideas differed radically on the subject of Union or Secession debated these issues through newspapers they established in Alexandria. They were a diverse group. Local planters participated with great vigor in deciding political issues in the state and nation.
Noblesse oblige is the phrase most often used by writers to describe this sense of responsibility felt by those more economically secure for those of lesser status. The attitude was characteristic of the planter class.
With more than half the population slaves there has been little of this phase of the parish's history written. Most details have been lost, lists of sales and slave inventories, court cases involving slaves, and other related documents burned with the Courthouse during the Civil War fire.
However, personal letters from the period, drawings, business records, as well as artifacts involving Rapides slaves survive. Police Jury records from adjoining parishes contain some Rapides references and church records, diaries, and memoirs, federal and state records afford some insight into aspects of slavery.
Rapides Parish has two firsthand slave accounts dealing with life in the parish. One of these Twelve Years a Slave, 1841-1853 , by Soloman Northup has been described as the best firsthand account of slavery to survive anywhere. Northup spent two of the twelve years in Rapides Parish and the other ten in neighboring Avoyelles; he writes vividly of both people and places during that period. The other book is ghost-written around 1898 by William O'Neal, a Cheneyville slave. In adjoining Avoyelles Parish, at Bunkie, the house of Edwin Epps, Northup's owner for ten years, has been preserved as a museum.
With a larger number of slaves than whites, rigid rules for control of this majority by a minority of the population were strictly enforced. Patrols appointed from the planters, or the planters themselves, served as patrols of the plantation communities at night. Only one threatened insurrection is reported, though there were probably others in which strict secrecy was maintained in order to keep the delicately balanced equilibrium between the two races in operation. An account has not been found in Louisiana newspapers, though "Niles' Register" reprinted an article from an Alexandria paper which itself did not survive, so far as we know. The year was 1837.
(Niles Register of October 28, 1837)
"On the 18th instant intelligence was received at New Orleans that the Negroes in a portion of the Parish of Rapides near Alexandria, had projected an insurrection. One account says it was divulged and frustrated as follows:
'A slave of a planter, Mr. Compton, informed his master that the Negroes were forming plans to kill all the white males and spare the females where his negroes assembled for the purpose of preaching, he would discover all their plans. Mr. Compton did go in company with four others, but learned very little more of the matter. His informer then told him that the ringleader of the gang was one of his own slave, and that he had sworn revenge against his master for taking him out of the house and sending him to the field. The plan of this fellow, it appears, was to raise an insurrection at Alexandria, next to Natchitoches and then to turn steps to New Orleans, and kill all the whites. The negroes, however, could not agree, which frustrated all their plans. One party was for sparing the women and children: the other for an indiscriminate massacre. Mr. Compton, upon learning these facts, arrested his house servant, the chief, and he confessed on the gallows that it had been his intention to kill his master.
"On the 10th and 12th (August), nine were hung and thirty others were taken and imprisoned. It is hoped that all their plans will be discovered. A strong patrol and guard is constantly kept up, day and night and confidence is continued.
"Besides the slaves, three free negroes have been hung, and it was intended to drive away all free persons of color.
Two companies of United States troops had been stationed throughout the disaffected district. Everything was quiet and the negroes completely subdued."
Lewis Cheney, who informed the whites eregarding these alleged plans was paid $500, by the Rapides Parish Jury, which had been authorized to levy a special tax on slaves, to provide these funds for Lewis Cheney and to slave owners whose slaves were hanged by whites at the Alexandria Courthouse.
There is little information regarding rental of slaves which may have been a practice much more widespread than present writing suggest. Were pools of slave labor kept in such a center at Alexandria and rented? There were commonly arrangements made between a slave owner and a person in need. William O'Neal, another Cheneyville slave, was one of a group of slaves rented by a Cheneyville planter from a Woodville, Mississippi owner. O'Neal also reported the practice of allowing slaves to work on their own time (after work and Sundays) for wages which they were allowed to keep. Certainly, each planter set different rules, and each plantation was run as differently as each ordinary household anywhere. Not all permitted slaves to work after work hours for wages for themselves.
"A law was passed in 1836 making it illegal to teach a slave to read and write--but there is little doubt this law was not always enforced.
Planters on Bayou Boeuf, Bayou Rapides and Jean de Jean, and Bayou Robert--indeed, wherever plantations existed in the parish--had summer homes in the hill country where they and or their families lived during the warm months of the year. One such hill country retreat was at what is now called Fishville.
But most of the planters formed a second community in the piney woods near present-day Forest Hill on Spring Creek, or some of the smaller creeks in the neighboring woods. The community was called Spring Creek.
Spring Creek residents formed a church, the Spring Hill Baptist Church, and in 1837 a school. The school was Spring Creek Academy, a private boarding school for both boys and girls.
The reason for the upland retreats was a very serious one. The lowlands along Red River and the ayous were very unhealthful places to live. A miasma, or ground fog, was credited by some early writers with being poisonous to those who breathed it, and the fevers that swept through the low country, killing so many, seemed to hit residents of the low country hardest.
No history of Rapides Parish could be written without reference to the famous chestnut race horse named Lecomte.
According to most versions, the promising colt was given to Jefferson Wells by his friend, Ambrose Lecomte, a planter living near Natchitoches. Accordingly, Wells named the fine young animal Lecomte, the spelling later being accidentally changed so that it has forever been recorded Lecompte.
Jefferson Wells raised the colt at Dentley where he specialized in fine livestock and, especially in developing race horses. He had a particularly talented black trainer at Dentley, a man by the name of Harkness, who rightfully, shares some of Lecomte's glory.
For Lecomte made history when in 1854, he met his half-brother, Lexington, at Metairie Race Track near New Orleans. Lecomte beat Lexington in what was called "the greatest four-mile race on record." A great deal of betting was done.
Lecomte won the first heat with a world-record breaking 7:26 time. The second heat he won at 7:38 3/4 and was crowned the champion of the American turf.
Richard Tenbroeck bought Lecomte for $10,000 and shipped the animal to England in the spring of 1856. Lecomte developed pneumonia on the ocean voyage and died shortly after arriving.
This description of Lecomte was published in "Spirit of the Times," November 9, 1856:
"Lecomte is a rich chestnut, with white on one hind leg, which reaches a little above the pastern joint. He stands fifteen hands three inches in height. Is in a fine racing form, and well spread throughout his frame, with such an abundance of bone, tendon, and muscle, that he would be a useful horse for any purpose. His temper is excellent; he is easily placed in a race, and yet responds to the extent of his ability. He never tears himself and his jockey to pieces y attempting to run away. His action is low, smooth, and easy. His stride is about twenty-three feet, and he gets away from the score like a quarter-horse. He has a constitution of iron, the appetite of a lion, would eat sixteen quarts of feed if it was given to him, and can stand as much work as a team of mules. In a word, he has all the good points and qualities of both sire and dam, without their defects; consequently, he is about as fine a specimen of a thoroughbred as can be found in this or any other country."
How much contribution to improving Rapides Parish livestock did Wells make on Dentley? The Wells brothers attended Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, right in the Blue Grass country, and they absorbed ideas of improved livestock and fine horses both here and in South Carolina which they visited.
How universal was horse racing as a sport of the planter group? There was a track on Bayou Rapides, and there were smaller tracks scattered over the parish.
As late as early twentieth century railroad cars of mules were shipped to Rapides from Kentucky, and other planters went to Kentucky and Tennessee, and purchased the work animals and drove them home. There were barns in Alexandria and in other places over the parish where mules were sold or rented. What do we know of this phase of our past in Rapides Parish?
Rapides Parish in 1827 was the home base of participants in the incredible Sandbar Duel held on neutral ground in the Mississippi River, between Louisiana and Mississippi. The amazing affair, which resulted in the deaths of prominent Alexandrians and the injury of others, was, perhaps, the last enactment in the area of the outmoded custom for settling affairs of honor. The ante bellum plantation system's undeniable kinship with the old feudal orders of Europe seems reflected in its waning days by this somewhat Quixotic affair.
Cause of the duel has been discussed from whispers of scandal about a female relative of one of the principals to political differences or the inevitable conflict between newcomers and first settlers, who felt they had priority on making decisions on all area matters.
James Bowie, who later died at the Alamo, was in business with his brother, Rezin, who became sheriff of neighboring Avoyelles Parish. James Bowie had become the hero of a popular legend that covers several states and involves his designing of a famous knife known as the "Bowie Knife". Whether or not it was designed by James or Rezin Bowie, whether the blacksmith shop where it was hammered out was located in Rapides Parish, in south Louisiana, or Arkansas, will likely never be documented. That the Bowie brothers did live in central Louisiana and James was at least an occasional resident of Rapides Parish is documented. He and his brother were interested in land speculations, and, according to Historian Whittington and others, he was involved in the sale of slaves captured by Jean Lafitte and his men.
James Bowie, as colorful a personality as ever came to Alexandria and Rapides Parish, became friends with the Wells brothers, Thomas Jefferson, General Montfort, Samuel Levi, and James Madison Wells.
Dr. T.H. Maddox of Maryland migrated to Alexandria and went into a partnership with Dr. Robert H. Sibley. Maddox was reputedly very popular and built up a large practice, but he talked too freely, and passed on gossip about a lady in high social circles which provoked General Montfort Wells to take a shot at Maddox as he passed in his buggy. But the shot missed the talkative doctor and hit a third party.
Montfort Wells did not answer Maddox's challenge to duel so Colonel Robert A. Crain took the part of an offender and Challenged Wells himself. Wells still did not answer the challenge.
Samuel Levi Wells, a bachelor, concluded to answer the challenge for his brother, which by then had been re-phrased to include a street fight the first time Montfort Wells was caught in Alexandria.
Several places were considered as sites for the duel - necessarily in neutral territory where state laws against dueling would not be violated. Burr's Ferry on the Sabine was in No Man's Land, but General Walter H. Overton, friend of all the belligerents, persuaded them to veto Burr's Ferry as the site. Finally, a sandbar opposite Natchez in the Mississippi River was agreed upon, and these Rapides Parish duelists rode east to Natchez the night before the confrontation.
In the Wells party were Thomas Jefferson Wells, James Bowie, General Samuel Cuny, George C. McWhorters, and Dr. Richard Cuny.
Opposing this group was Norris Wright, banker who had reportedly refused a loan to Bowie, Colonel Robert A. Crain who had killed a man who would not take his note in a rent payment; the Blanchard brothers from Bayou Rapides, one of whom (Alfred) had once shot and wounded, Thomas Jefferson Wells, and a surgeon named Denny.
In due course, the principals with their seconds and physicians met on their appointed field of honor. The friends who accompanied them had agreed to remain a half mile distant from the scene.
Either both principals were incredibly bad shots, or both, at last, used more judgement at the actual duel than they had in arranging for such a display in the first place. When the principals were in place, both fired and both missed. Each reloaded his duelling pistol, and on proper signal aimed and shot again. Neither was touched. Wells offered his apologies, and Dr. Maddox accepted them.
The duelling party started for a willow grove where a refreshment table was set up for drinking to the newly-acquired peace. But General Cuny and James Bowie violated the agreement to stay apart from the duelling field. Cuny called to Crain that now was the time for them to settle their differences and drew his pistol. Instead of firing at Cuny, Crain fired at Bowie, and struck him in the hip. Then Crain was hit.
Dr. Cuny tried to prevent his brother from re-entering the fight, but he could not restrain him. Crain fired his remaining shot at Samuel Cuny and killed him. Bowie, who was wounded, was still able to try to stab Crain with his knife, but Crain, using his pistol as a club, knocked Bowie out.
Norris Wright, the banker, attacked Bowie with his sword cane. The blade struck his breast bone and broke off, but in spite of the bleeding wound, Bowie managed to reach Norris Wright and stab him to death with his famous knife.
Alfred Blanchard was wounded by a shot from a pistol.
Norris Wright and Samuel Cuny were burried in nearby Vidalia. James Bowie was taken to Natchez where he managed to recover.
Samuel Levi Wells died shortly after returning to Alexandria of natural causes, but Dr. Maddox, the cause of it all, lived to be near ninety.
Rapides Parish had a surprising number of weekly newspapers. As early as 1810 the "Louisiana Planter" was published in Alexandria, and in 1813 "The Red River Planter." Others included "The Louisiana Rambler" (1818), "The Louisiana Herald" (1820-28), "Louisiana Messenger and Alexander Advertiser" (1827), "Planter Intelligencer and Rapides, Avoyelles, and Catahoula Advertiser," (1830), and "The Alexandria Gazette" (1831).
The student, looking for historical information, finds the rare copies of these old newspapers a far different production than modern newspapers. Published weekly, or, at most, biweekly, the small sheets, usually involving no more than four pages, contained little news. Legal notices, for sale signs and advertisements provide little insight - though there are occasional surprises - into everyday living in the parish.
What copies are available to the public are scattered in libraries and museums over the state.
An example of an advertisement:
WANTED: An overseer for the present year. A man of small family, and of steady sober habits would be preferred. William Marshall, Bayou Boeuf, Feb. 10, 1820.
It was the "Planter Intelligencer" which Ralph Smith Smith, builder of the Red River Railroad from Alexandria to Lamourie, both in the 1830's. His purchase was obviously for the purpose of advertising for investors in the corporation which built the railroad in 1837, the first west of the Mississippi River. A few years later Smith had sold enough stock to extend the railroad six more miles to a bayou landing called "New Town." The railroad terminal soon brought a change in the name of the crossroads settlement: Smith's Landing. Later, it was changed again, this time to Lecompte.
A warehouse-boarding house was built at the terminal.
Esther Wright Boyd, a daughter of a very prominent Cheneyville medical doctor, reminisced around 1900 regarding the 1840's. Esther Boyd's comments are particularly important since she married David F. Boyd of the Louisiana State Seminary; her husband was later the first president of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and it was her son-in-law, Historian Walter Fleming, who recorded her comments on life in Rapides Parish.
"When I was a child in the 1850's there was one (Possibly more than one) railroad in Louisiana running into New Orleans, and another line about 15 miles long between Alexandria and Lecompte. Lecompte was about 8 miles from Cheneyville and we went there by carriage and took the car for Alexandria, when we went shopping. We had coffee and a light breakfast very early, and left Lecompte at 8 or 9 A.M. and got back before dark. The "train" consisted of a locomotive, baggage car and passenger car. When the Yankees destroyed the road they "laughed until they cried" over the "loco" which was so antique that they had never seen its like. But the road was built and operated by a Yankee - Mr. Ralph Smith of the Northeast who lived and died in Alexandria and whose descendants are still living there or in the Parish. The stage was running all through my childhood and youth, and the war probably ended its day. There are now (1905) two railroads running through the Parish Texas and Pacific and the Morgan. Cheneyville was 7 miles from Red River and there was a good road made between, but when the water is high, the road was flooded and impassable. Bayou Boeuf was navigable except in very low water . . ."
Next - The Ante Bellum Period continued
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