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The Great Red River Raft

Have you ever heard of the Great Raft on the Red River? It took the Freeman-Custis crew 14 days to maneuver around it. What was it exactly? The Great Raft was an impressive mess—a gigantic logjam, or a series of “rafts,” on the Red River in present day Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. 

Here’s what explorer Freeman, of the Freeman-Custis Expedition, had to say about it in his journal:

“The first raft is not more than 40 yards through. It consists of the trunks of large trees, lying in all directions, and damming up the river for its whole width, from the bottom, to about three feet higher than the surface of the water. The wood lies so compact that...large bushes, weeds and grass cover the surface of the raft....

Next morning we came to the second raft, which crosses the river here 100 feet in width, and extends for 200 yards along its course....With great exertions we opened a passage for the boats, through this raft on one side, by floating the large trees down the river....

On the evening of the ninth [of June] we arrived at the third raft....This raft extends up the river nearly 300 yards....With much difficulty a passage was effected through this; as the vacancy, occasioned by the removal of any part of the logs, was soon filled by others. The labor incident to the formation of a passage, through these small rafts, is so great, that the navigation of this part of the river is never attempted; for it would require to be repeated every time a passage was attempted.

The country is intersected with swamps, lakes, and bayous, communicating with and running into each other, for perhaps 6 or 8 miles on each side of the river. The current of the river is very gentle, seldom exceeding the rate of three fourths of a mile in the hour.”

For hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans, the Red River was affected by a phenomenon unique among all the great rivers in North America. An enormous log jam that extended 100 to 150 miles clogged the lower part of the river. The Red River alluvial valley contains the most erodible soils of any major river valley in the U.S. For centuries before the arrival of the Industrial Age and westward migration, periodic flooding of the river carved into the forests that lined the banks. Torn loose from the soil, trees filled the river and formed a series of intermittent log jams stretching from the present-day Arkansas-Louisiana border to the area of Natchitoches.

The Great Raft was not stationary. As pieces of the raft deteriorated or broke up and floated downstream, new logs and debris were added to the upper end. Over time, although the raft was constantly changing, its overall length remained consistent – between 130 and 150 miles. For centuries, the Caddo Indians were the great beneficiaries of this phenomenon. The raft afforded them protection from competing tribes. They also understood and successfully exploited the ever-changing nature of their environment caused by the Great Raft. As log jams in the river shifted and stream courses changed, left behind were fertile, open fields where the Caddos grew abundant crops of corn, beans, squash and other foods.

Prehistoric Caddo artifacts and other archaeological evidence indicate that a dense population thrived along the Red River from the Great Bend area near Fulton, Arkansas, south to area of the Great Raft before European contact. The first intrusion by Europeans was the Hernando de Soto Expedition in 1542, under the leadership of Luis de Moscoso following de Soto’s death near the Mississippi River.

In part because of the conditions caused by the Great Raft, the Caddos remained largely untouched by Europeans for another 150 years before an expedition under the direction of the first Spanish Governor of Texas, Domingo Teran de los Rios, made contact with them in 1691. That expedition produced the first map of a Caddo settlement on the Red River that illustrates that the Caddos occupied small farmsteads and family compounds that seem best suited to exploit sites created by the meandering river and its distributaries.

Following the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the Missouri River and beyond to the Pacific Coast, and, in 1806, the lesser known Freeman and Custis Expedition to seek the headwaters of the Red River.

Before the Expedition was turned back by Spanish troops in the vicinity of Oklahoma, they encountered the Great Raft on the river north of Natchitoches and described the river as a concentration of cedar, cottonwood, and cypress trees covered in bushes and weeds so thick that “a man could walk over it in any direction.” It was, Freeman wrote, “an almost impenetrable mass.” Freeman was convinced that no human effort could ever dislodge the Great Raft from the river.

Nevertheless, riverboat men ventured into the waters of the Red and searched for routes that would reach the Arkansas Territory. Other interests complained that the Great Raft stifled commerce and development, helped the Indians dominate trade, and discouraged white settlement. In 1828, Congress authorized $25,000 for the removal of the Great Raft. After several unsuccessful attacks on the Great Raft ended in frustration, one man emerged who was convinced the Great Raft could be removed.

Captain Henry Miller Shreve was an inventor and steamboat captain who is credited with breaking the Fulton-Livingston steamboat monopoly and opening the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to navigation. In 1832, he was Superintendent of Western River Improvement and began the task of removing the Great Raft. Using snag boats of his own design and a work force of 200 men, Shreve attacked the bottom of the raft and began pulling loose the trees and debris, digging channels, and restoring flow within the river’s banks. By 1838, Shreve had opened the Red River for navigation to the present day site of the city named for him, Shreveport, and soon steamboats from New Orleans were regularly involved in trade there.

Shreve had warned that the river would require constant maintenance or the raft would reform. His predictions were borne out over the next 30 years as numerous logjams continued to form and large raft segments began to accumulate. Some efforts were made by private ventures and contractors working for the Army Corps of Engineers, none were successful on anything but a temporary basis, and commercial navigation became undependable. Texas had joined the Union in 1845, and land owners there joined with Louisiana planters to lobby Congress, fearing that thousands of acres of productive farm land lying in the Red River valley were threatened by the inevitable flooding that the reformation of the Great Raft would produce.

Even though pressure mounted on Congress to appropriate new funds to clear the Red River to improve navigation, no significant work was done before the outbreak of the Civil War. Low water conditions and the dangerous log jams that had been reforming since Shreve’s work had ended thwarted Union efforts to invade northwestern Louisiana and southwestern Arkansas, and ultimately Texas, via the Red River.

In 1871, Congress again authorized the Corps of Engineers to clear the Red River of the Great Raft. The following spring, under the direction of Lt. Eugene Woodruff, the work began. Woodruff used snag boats that Shreve had invented and steam operated saws. The crews began again at the foot of the raft, above Natchitoches and worked to cut and pull apart the logs and debris. The work went faster than it had in Shreve’s time because Woodruff had at his disposal a tool that had not been available earlier – nitroglycerin. Anticipating future floods, Woodruff and his engineers dredged the channel, created reservoirs, and constructed dams. Sadly, Woodruff would not live to see the completion of the project. He contracted yellow fever and died in Shreveport in August 1873. His brother George completed the project before the year ended.

The use of explosives and advanced steam-powered machinery, and alterations made in the channel by both Shreve and Woodruff, had consequences beyond improving the river for navigation, however. The geological integrity of the Red River valley was changed forever. Water levels began to recede in the raft lakes. In time, only those lakes where dams were constructed would survive.

[Source: The Great Raft Invasives Program (GRIP) is an effort to provide public information and education about giant salvinia and other invasive aquatic species in the lakes that were created by the historic log jam on the Red River known as the Great Raft, and in other lakes and streams connected to or affected by them. All photographs via InvasivesWatch.org; courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, Noel Memorial Library, LSUS.]