Pleasant Hill

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Chapter X

Ira Hawkins finally set his sights on Texas-Mexico, only ten years independent from Spain. They were offering generous land grants to Americans who would settle there. He also heard of something called the Texas Trail, a trace that ran across northern Louisiana to the Mississippi River at the port of Vicksburg. It was said to be a route of growing trade and travel. After studying maps of the region, Ira made a plan. He would take his family up the Mississippi to the Red River, then up to the Texas Trail, heading west to stake his claim.

Ira assumed that Rubin and Nancy would want to stay behind, where they could legally remain free. Outside New Orleans the laws changed from place to place regarding free blacks. In some areas people of color had no rights whatsoever. But Rubin and Nancy made it very clear to Ira, as long as they were welcome, they wanted to join them in search of a new home, even if it meant giving up the outward appearance of freedom.

After another year of careful planning and saving money, Ira sold his home and business and said goodbye to his many friends. Then his little crew of six boarded passage on a steam-powered riverboat, a new contraption of the 19th Century. The boat stopped briefly in Baton Rouge, picking up more settlers, soldiers and workers. Then it steamed up the Red River to Natchitoches, a little settlement that was even older than New Orleans. Workers were being sent to help break up the Great Raft, a massive logjam that covered the entire surface of the Red River from Natchitoches to Arkansas, over a hundred miles to the north.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” said Ira as he crossed himself, seeing the Great Raft for the first time. “What on earth could cause such a thing?”

“Some say it’s from a big earthquake ‘bout a hundred years ago off in the Rocky Mountains,” replied an old soldier with master sergeant stripes and the grizzled look of a veteran. “But the Indians say a legion of giants once played a stick and ball contest long ago, far out West. The losing team was forced to relinquish their mallets to the river. What you see now is an ancient conglomeration of that sacrifice.”

“Is dey really giants up dat way, mista’?” asked little Sarah.

“Don’t worry, little girl,” said the soldier as he lit his pipe. “The losing team died off, and the victorious ones hitched a ride on a shooting star that’s now circling the sun.”

Ira learned from the soldier that another small settlement called Shreve Town had been founded where the Texas Trail met the Red River, seventy miles north of Natchitoches. Farms and plantations were just being developed in the rich fertile region, but the Great Raft prevented a steady flow of goods downriver. Ira saw a business opportunity in this, and decided to blaze a freight line between the two points.

“I see even more prosperity in our future, my love,” said Ira, wrapping his arms around his exhausted, smiling wife. “Hard work and heaps of prosperity.”

“Well, let’s get to it, then,” Dorothea replied.

After a day of prayer and fasting, Ira decided to open another dry goods business in Natchitoches. He wrote letters of request along with a partial down payment to friends back in New Orleans, asking that they extend him a line of credit on the supplies he needed. Provisions were adequate in Natchitoches, but Ira knew he could do better with his own supply line.

After a week getting settled in, Ira and Rubin set out to cut a path to the Texas Trail, over half-a-day’s ride through tough, rugged country. They rode along the east bank of the river, amazed at the dense, century-old conglomeration of driftwood. Living islands of trees, grass and vines grew up out of the silt, a floating forest teaming with wildlife that stretched from riverbank to riverbank. Most of the work dispersing the Great Raft was done at its south end near Natchitoches. But for the past three years men had been using snag boats and explosives, clearing narrow canals up river that soon refilled with debris because of the lack of travel.

“A man could walk rat ’cross dat dair riv’va,” said Rubin, “an’ not get ’is feet wet.”

“Maybe, but I d’nie think he’d make it to the other side,” replied Ira. “Somethin’ might eat’m.”

By early evening, Ira and Rubin came to a well-worn wagon road running east and west. The Texas Trail. A few miles back they had accidently angled away from the river, The Great Raft so thick and loamy it was indiscernible from the land. They took the trail west a short distance until they came back to the river, surprised to find it completely cleared in both directions for about a quarter-mile. On the west bank they could see the small settlement of Shreve Town, no more than an outpost of sorts. A few snag boats and barges lined the little town’s shore. To their right, off in the distance, a group of men cleared away trees on what looked to be the beginnings of a farm or plantation. Straight ahead of him, Ira noticed a large cypress tree ten feet from the river’s edge. Wrapped several times around its trunk was an inch-thick piece of rope that ran passed a short pier. The rope then stretched all the way across the river, hanging slack but not touching the water. On the opposite side the rope ran to another pier with a barge-ferry parked next to it. After ringing a large bell attached to the tree, some men on the other side looked up noticing Ira and Rubin.

“Welcome to Shreve Town,” said the ferryboat man as he docked back across the river. “Population eighty-seven, count’n you and your slave here.” When Ira did not respond, the man glanced at him. “He is your slave, right?”

Ira looked at Rubin, who smiled and winked. “Aye,” he said turning back to the man. “He’s mine.”

“Well ’at’s good, cause we don’t ’llow no free blacks round here.”

“Well,” said Ira, stepping off the ferry with his horse. “This one’s for sale if you’d like’m.”

Rubin gave Ira a puzzled look as the ferryboat man gave him a once over.

“Pretty strong look’n,” the man said, stroking his chin. “Wa’cha want for’m?”

“Ten-thousand dollars, cash,” Ira said, looking away from the man, surveying the small town.

“Ten-thousand dollars!” balked the man. “Lord’a mighty! What’s ‘ee do, lay golden eggs!?”

“He might at that, my friend,” said Ira, smiling and winking at Rubin who now looked slightly perturbed. “He might at that.”

Ira spent the rest of the day learning what he could about the little township, named in honor of Henry Shreve, a riverboat captain from the Northeast. Now in charge of clearing the Great Raft, Captain Shreve was a bit of a legend on the rivers. Ira was familiar with at least one story about the man. He and a few others had hauled and poled a barge loaded with goods all the way from New Orleans up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to Browsville, Pennsylvainia, a grueling 2200-mile trek that took five months.

“Yes, that was no steamboat,” said Shreve to Ira after they met at the Office of Western River Improvements, a small agency that fell under the U.S. War Department, tasked with the formidable undertaking of the Great Raft. “We made that trip on muscle, grit and little mule-power. That was the voyage that gave me my start. If I had not been late on my return trip for that fight with the British, I doubt that I’d been thrown in jail for breaking that stupid river monopoly.”

“Nie only that, sir,” replied Ira. “If you’d arrived just a day or so earlier with all the munitions you had, we’dov’ captured the whole British expedition. Nie just run’m off. And you’d have a statue of yourself somewhere down there in New Orleans.”

The two men talked for an hour. Shreve explained to Ira that a handful of plantations were already functioning in the area. Large loads of the raw cotton and other crops were piled high, everywhere to be seen. No set route was yet established in getting the crops down to Natchitoches, or the necessary goods up to Shreve Town. The task was done randomly in haphazard fashion with no routine schedule. Many loads had been lost to the river, or spilled somewhere in the thick, dense woods along its west bank.

The next morning Ira purchased two wagons full of raw cotton and two extra horses. After everything was ferried over to the east bank, he and Rubin carefully made the return trip to Natchitoches, arriving just before dark.

“Well, now,” said Dorothea when she saw the two wagons bulging with cotton, “ya certainly made that look easy.”

“Look’n easy an’ be’n easy are two different things.” Ira said, before kissing his wife. “Remind me to show ya later.”

For the next two weeks, Ira and Rubin made seven more round trips to Shreve Town. Loads of flour, sugar, coffee and other necessities were taken up before returning the next day with two wagons of cotton. Ira’s first shipment of goods had arrived from New Orleans by then, and his first barge of cotton was ready for transport down river. While the men were gone, Dorothea and Nancy fared well, finding the settlers and river men of rural Louisiana much more agreeable than the fussy folks of New Orleans. Little Sarah kept a close eye on baby David, who was himself venturing out getting into anything he could.

Ira had considered his stay in the area somewhat temporary, a year or two at the most. But as he inquired further about the land grants in Texas, he began to have second thoughts. As conditions to receiving the grant, the Mexican government would require him to convert back to Catholicism, and conduct all his official business in Spanish. And he had to settle no less than sixty miles from the American border. After learning all this Ira decided he liked the fertile, rolling hills of northwest Louisiana. Besides, Dorothea was pregnant again. And trouble was brewing in Texas.

Within a year passable trails had been blazed down both sides of the Red River from Shreve Town to Natchitoches. The Great Raft had been cleared to almost ten miles north of Natchitoches, and even further south of Shreve Town. A narrow canal that allowed one barge at a time had also been cleared through the Raft between the two settlements. Although it was occasionally clogged with large floating dead falls, it was still progress.

Not long after Paul was born, Ira moved his family and business up to Shreve Town, which had more than tripled in size and was still growing. Ira’s Dry Goods and Freight Services was now at the corner of Commerce and Cotton, the town’s third official intersection.

Ira made a deal with the indigenous Caddo Indians, buying two hundred acres of thick, wooded land just north of the town. A large swampy bayou ran from the west into the river, through the southernmost quarter of the land. The first thing Ira and Rubin did was build a sturdy wooden bridge across the bayou where he would make his home and grow his crops. The two men cleared the land while Dorothea and Nancy ran the shop, Sarah looking after David and Paul. The following summer the first cotton crop came in at a very nice profit.

“Here ya go, Rubin, me boy,” Ira said to his friend, handing him a heavy fist-size bag of coins as they crossed over the bridge they had built, back to the farm from the market. “Three hundred dollars. Put it in a safe place where nie a soul can find it. For that hard rain surely to come.”

“Tree hun’ard dollas!?” balked Rubin, his eyes bugging wide. “What’am I go’n do wit dis, Massa Ira?”

“That’s your business,” said Ira, shooting Rubin a playful glance. “An’ stop call’n me, Massa. I’ve known ya since I’sa nip. An’ in case ya forgot, I use’ta follow your lead. Remember?”

“Well,” said Rubin, “maybe if ya started follow’n my lead again, I’d be get’n two’a deez here bags instead’a one.”

Ira glared at Rubin, then threw his head back and laughed.

One day Ira was in town and saw two men beating on a slave that had dropped and broken a jug of whiskey. At first he considered it none of his affair. But when the white men started making the already battered black man lap the whiskey off the ground like a dog, he stepped forward.

“That’s enough, don’t ya think?” asked Ira, in his syrupy accent.

The two men looked at Ira as if he’d lost his mind. “Wad ju say?” asked one of the men.

“I tell ya what,” Ira said, pulling out a few coins. “I’ll pay for the whiskey. Now stop beat’n on’m. I’m sure it was an accident.” He tossed them the coins and started to walk away.

“D’ya hear dat, boy?” the man said, reaching down grabbing the slave by his shirt. “Dat feller dair done paid fer da whiskey ya done slopped all over da ground.” Then he kicked the black man in the stomach. “But I still gotta learn ya right.”

Half expecting this, Ira turned on his heel and punched the man in the stomach so hard he fell to his knees and vomited. When the other man tried to hit Ira, the cagey Irishman ducked and grabbed his arm, twisted and bent it behind his back, slamming his face into a nearby post.

“Now, listen good, cause I’m only gonna say this once,” he said after the second man crumpled to the ground. “I gave ya enough for the jug a whiskey and then some, so ya’d stop beat’n on’m. But ya kept beat’n on’m. Since I didn’t get the services I paid for, consider this an official grievance.” Then he reached down and helped the bleeding slave to his feet. “What’s your name, lad?”

“Isaac, sir. My name’s Isaac and I thank ya, but ya gonna gets me kilt later on when dey get’s me alone.”

Ira knew Isaac was right, and since he needed more help on the farm anyway, he pulled out a bag of coins and threw it at the first man’s feet. “That should buy ya enough whiskey to get ya through the winter.”

After the paperwork was done, Isaac told Ira that he had been sold and separated six months earlier from his wife and thirteen-year-old son who were at a plantation southwest of Shreve Town near the Texas line. The next day Ira went and bought the two slaves at well over their market value. But for Ira, it was well worth the look on their happy faces when they were reunited as a family. Mary, Isaac’s wife, cried, laughed, then cried some more as she and their son, Jacob, huddled around the man who was taken from them on a mere economic whim.

The situation worked out better than expected on the Hawkins farm. Isaac proved to be a strong, competent worker and when paired with Rubin, under Ira’s direction, the three men cleared more land, making way for even more crops. Mary turned out to be a remarkable cook, so good that Dorothea suggested they open a small cafe next to the dry goods shop using her recipes. The little restaurant was a hit, filled with hungry patrons most every day. Ira decided to open a produce stand across the street, forming a cozy little spot that would come to be known as Hawkins’s Corner. A residual benefit Ira had only vaguely hoped for was his slaves’ children. Jacob was a good-natured boy who followed instructions well and was capable of many tasks around the farm. He took an immediate liking to Sarah, adoring the little girl and the two made excellent babysitters for David, who was just beginning to blaze a series of trails along the river and bayou. And little Paul was now up and walking around, acting like the new boss.

Even before Ira and his family left New Orleans, it was known that Texas was challenging Mexican authority. On one of his early visits to Shreve Town, Ira met a man from the Carolinas traveling west on the Texas Trail, going to help the settlers there fight for their sovereignty. Ira wished him well and it became one of the many reasons he decided to stay put in Louisiana. He noticed that in the two decades since the war with the British, his thoughts seemed to dwell more and more on those that had been killed and maimed, and less on the victory itself. He could only imagine what kind of nightmares must haunt the survivors of the defeated. And he never stopped asking God to forgive him for the men he killed that day, especially that first one. Others had passed through Shreve Town to go and fight with the Texans, men from Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, men with a hard look of resolve and not an ounce of duplicity.

One day, seven-year-old David was playing near the bridge that crossed over the bayou when he saw a rare sight: two strangers riding toward town from the north. Everyone that traveled the road to the bridge was well known to David. The only strangers he ever saw were in town or on the Texas Trail. Both men were large and broad-shouldered, like his father. They had pistols tucked in their belts and rifles slung across their backs, an extra fully-loaded packhorse apiece with all sorts of gear, including more rifles. One man wore a coonskin cap, its tail hanging over his shoulder. The other had on a wide-brimmed leather hat and a huge knife about two feet long tucked into his belt.

“Howdy,” said David, standing as tall as he could near the rail of the bridge. “Y’all lost or somethin’?”

“Well, son,” said Coonskin Cap, leaning forward on his saddle with a handsome grin. “I don’t think so, but maybe you could help us. How far to the Texas Trail?”

“Shoot, Mister,” David laughed. “You could spit’n hit the Texas Trail from here. ’Cept we call it Texas Street in the town limits, but it’s all the same. Just keep go’n straight after ya cross the bridge here, an’ you’ll run right into it.”

“How’s about a good place to eat?’ asked the man with the large knife.

“Take a left on Cotton Street,” said David “and you’ll come to Mary’s Manners, right on the corner next to my pa’s shop, Ira’s Dry Goods. They got chicken-sausage gumbo today or you can have a Delmonico steak with a potato and green beans. But mind your manners, my Aunt Mary don’t put up with no nonsense.”

“Oh, don’t worry son,” said Coonskin Cap. “We’ll behave.”

The two men smiled and waved at David, then crossed over the bridge into Shreve Town.

Sometime later, news reached Shreve Town of the bold yet futile stand made by the Texans at a mission-turned-fort in San Antonio, called the Alamo. Although the fighting was almost five hundred miles away, the Texas-Mexican border was less than a half-hour’s ride from Shreve Town. A town meeting was called to discuss the matter. Three single men volunteered to set out and take up arms with the Texas-Americans. Ira and a few others donated weapons, supplies and even some cash.

“Give’m hell,” said Ira to the men before they left. “But try to remember that you’re men, not animals. Helps ya sleep better later.”

In a little over a month, word came that Sam Houston’s ragtag army had routed Santa Anna’s troops at the Battle of San Jacinto, screaming “Remember the Alamo!” winning Texas their Independence. Later that summer, it was learned that all three men had survived the fighting and were now married, living on generous plots of land given to them by the new Republic of Texas.

By 1839, Shreve Town had become Shreveport, with a population of over a thousand by the decade’s end. The Red River was now cleared of the Great Raft from a point ten miles north of the city, all the way south to the Mississippi. It had become a busy port, with daily steamboat traffic churning its dark rust-colored waters, bringing up the goods and folks that make a city and sending out its raw yields to be dispersed abroad. Besides cotton, there was sorghum, millet, oats, rye and many other crops that grew luxuriantly throughout the region. The native grasses also possessed rich nutritional properties, excellent for cattle grazing, and soon beef became second in the area only to cotton. Salt, lumber and oil were also abundant. More roads and bridges were laid as little towns began to crop up all over Northwestern Louisiana. Little towns like Blanchard and Vivian to the north, Minden and Ruston to the east, Greenwood to the west, and to the south were Mansfield and Pleasant Hill.

In Ira Hawkins’s older years, when his health had faded and Dorothea and Paul were gone, when David was out West chasing his adventures, he would look back on those early days of settling Shreve Town as his fondest. Before the town became a city and the simple things became complicated. A time when Mary’s Manners was the only sit-down restaurant in town, when Rubin and Isaac could set with their children to enjoy a meal and no one would complain. (Someone did complain once but they were tossed out on their ear by Ira and told to mind their manners.) Had Ira Hawkins been more ambitious, he too could have been a cotton king, owning the town and the city it became. But he didn’t want all that. He was no robber baron. He only wanted his modest little portion. .

But for a while Ira earned himself a little bit more than modesty. The farm prospered and a gin was purchased, paying for itself in no time. The clever little contraption omitted the process of taking the raw cotton to one of the large plantations to be sifted of its seed, a costly time consuming affair. The fluffy, ginned cotton was then hauled into town where it was formed into large bales by a huge steam powered press. After making his sale to the speculators, Ira would always stand on the dock with David and Paul at his side, watching as his crop was loaded onto a steamboat, often stacked as high as the captain’s helm. Sometimes Ira would look around, trying to find the exact spot where he had first arrived in Shreve Town, but things looked so different now. David and Paul would always wave goodbye to the cotton, pointing out the different bales that had come from their farm. It was only a fraction of the massive cargo piled three-stories-high on a two-hundred-foot-long steamboat sounding its horn, puffing smoke and spinning its gigantic red paddle wheel in a rainbow spray downriver.

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