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Dunbar and Hunter on the Ouachita, 1804

By Worth Camp, Jr.

Editor's Note: The following is a narrative from George Hunter's journal of the 1804-1805 expedition along the Ouachita River, including analysis and observations by Worth Camp, Jr.

In 1804, William Dunbar and George Hunter were commissioned by President Jefferson to explore and map the Ouachita River. The following story is a partial narrative of George Hunter's writings as typed from his manuscript journal that he transmitted to the "Government & was found in the Office of the Adjutant & Inspector General of (the) Army, U.S.A: Parker."
The matching of geographical locations with current Hot Springs, Arkansas, places and creek names was configured from city maps, visits, and interviews with Marcus Phillips, a reputable Hot Springs historian, and co-author of Indian Folklore Atlas of Hot Springs (1994).
For place names along the river, Hunter and Dunbar hired Samuel Blasier, a French guide from Ft. Miro (today's Monroe, Louisiana) to "pilot" their boat and tell them the common names of the creeks, swamps, lakes and rivers as they entered what would in 1819 become Arkansas Territory. He was paid $30 a month. From the French we get "Smackover" and thousands of other words that describe Arkansas rivers, creeks, and mountains. The Ouachita River varied in width from 100 yards to 30 yards.
Dunbar and Hunter's original boat was too big, so they left it at Ft. Miro and rented, for $1.25 per day, a long shallow two-foot draft boat with a cabin for Dunbar and Hunter to sleep in. The soldiers and guide slept under tents on the banks. A big canoe loaded with provisions was tied to the big boat. Twelve soldiers with a sergeant from the U.S. garrison in New Orleans rowed the big boat. They rowed in two shifts of six men, or they were hauling and poling (which kept the boat away from the shore) along sandy shallow shores. At shoals they unloaded the big boat, then winched, tugged, and shoveled through the gravel and sandy shoals. They used the canoe to bring the unloaded supplies through the shoals to reload the big boat. They traveled from daylight until late in the afternoon, leaving time to set up camp and cook for the night.
When the French first explored down the Mississippi from Canada as far as the Arkansas River, the French asked the Illinois Indians what tribes to expect down river. One of the interpretations of the name given was their word for "Land of the South Wind" for the Native Americans living on the Arkansas River.
For river traffic going up river from the Gulf, early boats used square sails to be blown north by the prevailing south wind up the rivers when possible, and rode the current downstream on the return. The Dunbar and Hunter boat had a sail. It was used when they made a river bend that gave them wind from the stern
Dunbar and Hunter were on the river between Monroe and Hot Springs from November 11, 1804, to January 16, 1805. They observed Choctaws on the Ouachita below and above Ft. Miro (Monroe).
They saw (white) pelicans, alligators, a deer killed by a Panther, black bears, and evidence of buffalos. Six miles south of the present-day Arkansas state line, they identified Bayu (creek) Frangueur, already named by the hunters for the guy who lost his life at that spot "in the chase of the Buffaloes." They saw "Spanish Beard" hanging in the trees until they passed Bayou Bartholomew, just north of Monroe, at Sterlington, Louisiana.
They saw deer, unfenced cattle, whooping cranes, turkey, ducks, and mallet (mallard) ducks. "We see constantly large flocks of wild Geese and Ducks which fly as we approach, so it is difficult to get a shot at them," wrote Hunter. They found the catfish, buffalo, and gars to "be soft and insipid compared to those (fish) near the sea."
They passed "the 'Island on Mallet' where the line between the Territories of Orleans & Louisiana crosses the Ouachita (at) Lat.33." This is today's Arkansas state line. There is another reference in the journal to the Mallet Brothers who came down from Canada.
On their return trip they observed an eclipse of the moon, total darkness, just below the Arkansas state line at Mallet Island on Monday, January 14, 1805.
Now in Union County, Arkansas, they "passed the Bayu de Grande Marais (or great swamp) on the left. This has but a small opening, but extends some distance up, nearly parallel with the Ouachita ... The banks are low, having Prairies & ponds behind them. Timber Trees, soil etc. much the same as the two or three last days ... Passed Bayu de la Tulip . . .at l½ past 11 am, (passed) a small pond on the right shore, called Marais de Saline (Saline Swamp) about a mile in circumference, a Retreat for wild fowl, it is surrounded by Cypress. . . at half past 12 came to Bayu de Saline on the right, of considerable extent. This afternoon the banks begin to rise by slow degrees. Passed several Hunting Camps, but the Hunters were gone."
From November 16, 1804: "Came 17 miles, 158 perches this day. About 4 p.m. (same day) it began to hail, & in time turned into rain, continuing with encreased violence the greatest part of the night. Encamped on alluvial ground.
"Nov. 17. Saturday. Therm. At 7 a.m. 40, in the river 54, at 3 p.m. 51 at 7p.m. 44. Fog on the river, Cloudy, Calm. . . . The current being more rapid than usual."
Near present day Arkadelphia, at 4 p.m. they "came to Grand Claise,
[Hunter left the English name blank] opposite to Bayu de Cypri (Cypress Creek) having a number of Cypress trees growing round it; remarkable, because these trees terminate hereabouts, & are seldom found north of this place.'
" Here, we met with a Delaware Indian, painted round the eyes with vermilion. He called himself Capt. Jacobs, (and) exclaimed when he saw our boat, "O! Canoe damned big." (and) said that a large number of Chickisaw & Choctaw Indians had gone to hunt on the waters of the Arkansa."

The expedition reached their destination, Hot Springs, the "boiling springs" on December 4, 1804, after walking seven miles beyond "Ellis Camp." They came to the "Bayu of the Hot Springs" and followed today's Hot Springs Creek north to the springs.
The Ellis Camp (Landing) was 100 yards below the Forche (fork) a Calfat, the mouth of today's Gulpha Creek, where the expedition left their boats and a camp. Dunbar and Hunter with the guide and their group stayed in a wood cabin left vacant by previous travelers to the "Warm Springs" as some local trappers referred to Hot Springs. The party had met several travelers on the Ouachita River that had been to the hot springs.
Hunter's journal records a report that Major Ellis, who lives near Natchez on the Mississippi, heralds the healing powers of the hot springs for him. He periodically travels to the hot springs with his servants. The "Ellis Camp" could be named for him, and he could have built the cabin.
While in Hot Springs for 30 days, the Ouachita Expedition endured several three-day periods of 10 to 30 degree low temperatures with wind, rain and sleet. For one of these episodes, George Hunter was out with three of the soldiers and the guide, Samuel Blasier, exploring over and around the immediate mountains east of the 20 or so hot springs where the expedition had set up camp on today's Central Avenue and Bath House Row.
George Hunter's journal describes this bad weather trip as follows:

Dec. 27th. Thursday. Therm. In the morning 26, at 3pm 45, at 8pm 38. Weather clear and cold. Wind northeast.'

After an early breakfast, I left our encampment on an excursion for three or four days, according as it should prove interesting, with a party of three men besides the Guide, carrying a tent, two Rifles, a spade, a mattock, an ac & two days provisions depending on what game should fall in our way for the rest. I put a small compass in my pocket to serve in cloudy weather.

As in the two former short tours [to the northwest and west of Hot Springs] we could only proceed for about half a day at a time the other half being necessarily occupied in returning to camp. It was now determined to go in a straight line for two days, except circumstances should point out otherwise; & then to return by another way.

Therefore, we directed our course towards the northeast and continued & all this day. Sometimes, over hills & steep craggy mountains, with narrow valleys between them, then up these valleys generally by the side of a branch of the Calfat (Gulpha) where we pitched our tent, having made only 12 miles this day, we had no path & were often impeded by the hills, waters, briars etc. ...

On ascending the high grounds, one can perceive as far as the eye can reach, at the height of 50, or 60 feet, a visible commencement of the piney region, straight on a line from that height to the top. This (yellow pines trees) is the more remarkable now as the other trees are deprived of their leaves.

Now the hilltops are entirely destitute of other trees or the valley without pines, But the Pines chiefly occupy the upper regions, leaving the valleys for the other timber. The soil in these narrow valleys is very thin, & full of stones ...

Towards evening the weather grew raw, and penetrating, portending a storm, which came in the night with rain & sleet; however by means of a good fire, we slept comfortably under our tent.

Dec. 28th. Friday. Terhm. at 7 am 34, at 3pm 32, & at 8 pm 30, weather, raw, cold & disagreeable, Wind N.E.

After an early breakfast, set out again in the same direction as yesterday, passing the source of the Calfat & the ridge which gave it birth.

We had scarcely proceeded two miles when a violent storm set in from the N.W. right in our faces, accompanied with rain & sleet; this obliged us to return to our late fire where we pitched our tent again, until the storm should abate, which it did about 11 am when we immediately struck tent & set out again towards the N.E. as before, continued that course till one pm We now turned east, for half an hour, over a steep mountain. Then South for ¾ hour. Then S.W. over the hills till half past 2 pm.

Here we shot a Doe. The skinning and dressing of which took up half an hour, when, after each man had got his proportion to carry, set out again at 3 pm S.W. for half an hour. Our Guide now shot another Doe, which being treated in the same manner as the other; we now set out again & proceeded on till we came to a "brach" of the Bayu de Saline, which stretches towards the river Arkansa & emptys into the Ouachita many leagues below this place. On this small brook we pitched our tent for the night; Having come about 12 miles this day, without a path or sight of the Sun, being directed by the pocket compass.

The soil, stones & timber much the same as yesterday or rather poorer.

Having made a good fire, began to regale ourselves with the nice delicate pieces of the game we had killed; These being perforated by as many small twigs sharpened at the ends & struck in the ground before the fire, served as spits to roast the venison; A large slate raised from the creek, & supported by three pegs drive in the ground, was our table, on which we kneeded our flour & caked it in the ashes like a potatoe. Smaller Slates were our plates, our drink was the pure (spring) fountain. The exercise & fine air of the hills gave us a keen appetite; & although the snow & sleet drifted by the N.E. gale, assailed us in all quarters, (never sat a pleasanter meal in my life) or slept sounder than I did here on the ground before the fire.

Dec 29th. Saturday. Therm. At 7am 25, at 8am 24, weather raw & overcast. . . .

On our arrival we found that Wm. Dunbar had removed with all the Soldiers & baggage from this (our Camp at the hot springs), to our old encampment on the banks of the Ouachita, at Ellis's Camp, where the boat lay, leaving my Son and one Soldier to wait our arrival, & we prepared to follow him in the morning (a distance of about 7 miles).

Today in Hot Springs, the "Bayu of the Hot Springs" is Hot Springs Creek and flows southeasterly past the downtown train station headed to the north bank of today's Lake Hamilton south of the Hot Springs Country Club. The expedition walked four miles up this creek "to the mountain which give birth to the hot springs." The City of Hot Springs has recently completed new facilities for two miles along the bank of the creek where the expedition walked to and from Ellis Camp on the river.
The Forche a Calfat (Gulpha Creek) is three miles further east of Hot Springs Creek. It can be seen flowing through Gulpha Gorge just north on Gulpha Gorge Road from US Highway 70E, the Little Rock Highway, to State Highway 7. The Creek flows into today's Lake Catherine east of where the US 270 By-Pass joins US Hwy 270 to Malvern. George Hunter's three days bad weather excursion to the east was likely in the Gulpha Gorge direction through the mountains towards Hot Springs Village. The South Fork of the Saline River is southeast of Hot Springs Village.

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