The Americans
By Edward Southerland
Jul 28, 2021
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Editor's note: In memory of an extremely gifted columnist, the late Edward Southerland, enews will try to republish as much of his work as possible.

The Corps of Exploration led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had not returned from their traverse of the northern reaches of the territory acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, when President Thomas Jefferson set another expedition on its way west investigate the new southern boundary of the United States. The idea for an exploration of the Red River to search for a watercourse to the southern Rockies and to open trade and make alliances with the Indian tribes was part of Jefferson’s search for knowledge about the nation’s new lands.

Sketch of a Wichita village

The “Grand Excursion,” as the president called the Southwestern effort, began during the winter of 1804-1805, with a trek up the Ouachita River headed by William Dunbar. Emboldened by the Dunbar successes, congress set aside $5,000 for a Red River Expedition later that year, and by the time the party started out in April 1806, the money had increased to $11,000, three times the amount of the Lewis and Clark effort.

Captain Richard Sparks and forty-five soldiers accompanied the group, but the emphasis was on the scientific aspects of the expedition. It was led by Thomas Freeman, a surveyor and astronomer, Peter Custis, a medical student from Pennsylvania, and Benjamin Barton Smith, a naturalist. The group entered the Red at its confluence with the Mississippi on May 2, 1806 and started up river. They arrived in Natchitoches, Louisiana on June 2.
But the expedition was fated for failure. As the Americans worked up the river, two Spanish military operations marched to intercept them. Forewarned of American plans by General James Wilkinson, a freebooter and sometimes conspiratorial ally of Aaron Burr in the latter’s scheme to set up an independent state in the West, a Spanish force led by Francisco Viana intercepted the expedition 615 miles from the river’s mouth, in what is now Bowie County. The spot gained the name Spanish Bluff.
There was no fight, the Americans merely turned back, and the hope for political gain from hostilities that underlay the actions of Wilkinson and Burr, did not materialize. The United States put diplomatic pressure on Madrid, and as a result, the Spanish eased their opposition to incursions from the North Americans.

Randolph B. Marcy, date unknown
Texas joined the American union in 1845, and with the conclusion of the Mexican-American War that followed, it fell to the U.S. Army to explore the western reaches of the Red River. In March 1852, Captain Randolph B. Marcy, West Point class of 1832, took command of a seventy-man expedition at Fort Smith, Arkansas with orders to explore the Great Plains and locate the source of the Red. His second in command was Captain George B. McClellan, who eventually became Marcy’s son-in-law, when he married Mary Ellen Marcy in 1860.

It was not Marcy’s first foray into Texas. He had served with Zachary Taylor’s army in South Texas and northern Mexico in the late war and had laid out the “Marcy Trail” from Fort Smith to Santa Fe in 1849. Two years later, he commanded the escort supporting Brigadier General William G. Belknap’s tour to select sites for a string of forts to protect the Texas frontier line.

The Marcy Expedition of 1852 was a notable success. The soldiers covered more than 1,000 miles of previously unexplored territory, documented twenty-five new species of mammals and ten species of reptiles, and discovered a prairie dog town that covered 400,000 acres. They became the first white men to see and explore Palo Duro and Tule canyons, gathered information on the little-known Wichita tribe, and created the first dictionary of the Wichita language. When the expedition returned home, Marcy’s report confirmed that Cynthia Ann Parker was alive and living with the Comanche.

Of even greater import, Marcy discovered, or thought he had discovered, the headwaters of both the Prairie Dog Town Fork and the North Fork of the Red River. He determined, at least to his satisfaction, that the Prairie Dog Town Fork was the true source of the river.

The headwaters of the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River in Palo Duro Canyon

Marcy's contentions were disputed then, and some historians suggest he never went far enough up the river to verify his claims, but eventually they were confirmed and the border between Texas and Oklahoma Territory, which had been the North Fork, adjusted back to the south. Marcy’s book, Exploration of the Red River of Louisiana, In the Year 1852…With Reports on the Natural History of the Country, was a popular as well as scientific success.

The title page of Marcy’s book on his explorations.

Well before the success of the Marcy Expedition, the annexation of Texas by the United States, and even the Texas War of Independence, Americans were crossing the Red to settle in the inviting county on the south bank. The relative ease of this early migration, at least from a legal standpoint, was aided by the unsettled and conflicting understanding of the actual boundary between Spanish territory to the south and the lands acquired by the United States from France with the Louisiana Purchase.

For ninety years, beginning in 1673, France had laid claim to the Mississippi River Basin and the adjacent territories based on the discoveries and explorations of Jolliet, Marquette, la Salle, and others. New Orleans was founded in 1718, and became the capital of French Louisiana five years later. In September 1762, the North American aspect of the Seven Years War (the French and Indian War in the New World) ended leaving the British in full control of Canada, and two months later, France formally, though secretly, ceded all of Louisiana to Spain with the Treaty of Fountainebleau.

Spanish Louisiana before its retrocession to France in 1800

The vast Louisiana territory remained under Spanish control until 1800, when Spain gave it back to France under pressure from Napoleon Bonaparte. The official transfer of sovereignty took place in October 1802, but the Spanish continued to administer their former possessions until French representatives arrived in 1803. By the time Spain officially transferred Louisiana to France in November, Napoleon had agreed to sell it to the United States for $3 million and that action became official three weeks later in December.
Both Spain and the United States generally agreed that the eastern boundary between the two countries extended from the mouth of the Sabine River to the 32nd parallel and then due north to the Red River. As there was no survey of that part of the boundary, both countries claimed the area, and in 1806, representatives of the two nations agreed treat the region as neutral territory. Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans on January 8, 1815, settled any lingering question of American primacy on the Mississippi and in the territory acquired from France, but the final word on who controlled what and where along the Red River was not formally determined until the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. Even then, the actual situation on the ground remained unsettled.

Map of the upper Red River by Captain Marcy, probably from his book.

American traders and hunters started moving south of the Red under the premise that it was part of the United States as early as 1817. By 1818 there was a settlement at Jonesborough in what is now Red River County, and soon there were other communities at Burkham’s Settlement and Pecan Point.

In 1821, the successful Mexican War of Independence transformed New Spain into the Republic of Mexico and brought a new player to the table, but the boundary questions between northeast Texas and Miller County in southwest Arkansas Territory remained.

James Clark came to Texas and Arkansas to hunt and trade with the Indians in the 1820s from Virginia. For several sessions he represented Miller County in the Arkansas Territorial General Assembly and held other posts in the local government. In 1830, when he moved across the river to Jonesborough, he took an oath of loyalty to Mexico and applied for a Mexican land title to protect his interests. Clark continued to hold offices in Miller County until 1833 when he moved his family twenty-five miles south to Sulphur Fork Prairie where he settled and laid out a town that became Clarksville. Other Americas soon followed and Clarksville became an early entry point into Texas from the north.

In 1835, Able Warren, a trader from Fort Smith, set up a post and built a fort in the northeast corner of what is now Grayson County where Choctaw Slough flowed into the Red. The trading post at a crossing farther up river, later called Preston Bend, began operation that same year, and soon other pioneers followed, generally settling east and south of Fort Warren.

The settlements along the river sent five delegates to the convention at Washington-on-the Brazos that declared Texas’ independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836, and then sent three companies of militia south to join Sam Houston’s army. The soldiers arrived too late to take part in the battle at San Jacinto, but stayed with the army for several months before returning north.

When the first congress of the new Republic of Texas met in 1837, petitioners from the Red River district requested formal recognition, and on December 14, President Houston sign a bill organizing two counties along the river, Red River and Fannin. Eventually Texas would carve thirty-nine counties from the land encompassed by those first two.