History of Towns in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana
THE STORY OF MARKSVILLE, LA.
By Joe Mitchell Pilcher.
Let us set back the hands of the clock of Time some two or three centuries, after which we shall unroll the map of the great continent of North America and look upon it as it was then. Beyond the Alleghanies to the majestic Father of Waters, let your eyes wander. Then glance down this mighty river to the mouth of the Red, where the two streams are confluent. There let your eyes rest.
Before you a beautiful prairie rolls and stretches to the land of the setting sun. It is an unshorn field, boundless and beautiful, a region whose every object wears the image of its Maker. His Spirit—the Great Spirit—speaks in the roars of its mighty rivers and moves in the wind as it "wakes to ecstacy the tall grass of the great prairie of Avoyelles.
All up and down this prairie roamed the wolf and bear. In the tall grass lurked and skulked the dusky savage, and the
earth was made to tremble as the vast herds of bison and buffalo swept cyclone-like across this beautiful and romantic prairie.
The original denizens of this Garden of God were the Avoyelles, a tribe once puissant but long since departed. The Avoyelles proudly boasted of a classic antiquity in their supposed descent from the Aztecs. However, this is a question of grave doubt and speculative debate. If not classic in history, the country of the Avoyelles is at least classic and historic in soil, for the legions of De Soto, the missionary crusaders of France, and the British regulars crossed its borders and traversed its plains.
The word "Avoyelles" signifies "People of the Rocks," and was ascribed to them by Iberville, who sojourned with the tribe several days. But the origin of the word is lost in obscurity. However, it is the supposition of a few that its derivation arose from the fact that the Avoyelles secured flint from the Arkansas and traded it to the neighboring tribes.
In 1700 Iberville met forty Avoyelles warriors in the village of the Houmas, offering their services to suppress an invasion of thft formidable Choctaws. From the Avoyelles Iberville learned that they once lived with the Natchez, but because of the perpetual wars which raged among them they were forced to leave the Natchez and live elsewhere. They crossed the Mississippi and came over to what is now Avoyelles Parish.
St. Denis, who figures prominently in the early history of Natchitoches, met the Avoyelles in 1714 on his way to Mexico in company with Penicaut. La Harpe, the French explorer and historian, speaking of them, says:
'' On the 21st we became aware of some savage hunters to the left of Red River. I sent one of my pirogues to find them; they were of the tribe of Avoyelles. They made us some presents of quarters of bear and deer. I kept them many days in order to hunt. They killed for me ten deer and a bear, a quantity of bustards, ducks, some rabbits and many squirrels; they also caught many fish for me. I made them a present of two guns.''
Du Pratz, another French historian of the period, states that the Avoyelles were middlemen in trading horses between the Mexicans and the French.
Like all other Indians, the Avoyelles were of a restless nature, and they wandered from place to place. They lived at various points on the Red River, and finally came to Spring Bayou and Old River, their last abodes.
We trace the course of their wanderings by huge earth mounds which they left here and their in their train. These mounds were of two sorts, domiciliary and mortuary. As the words imply, mounds of the former type were those upon which the Indians built their cabins so as to insure their safety from the annual floods; and the mounds of the latter type were built for burial purposes. The mound near Old River, about a mile south of Marksville, is of the mortuary type, while the one a few- yards away is of the domiciliary.
At certain intervals these Indians gathered the bones of their dead and placed them in one huge mound. The Indians held the remains of the dead in great reverence and accompanied these burials with pomp and ceremony. With the bones were placed certain relics, such as arrow heads, earthen pots, beads and the like.
There is one mound of this interesting chain which deserves particular attention. It is" the one situated about a mile from the mouth of Bayou L'Eau Noire, in the woods, but now crossed by a levee. This mound, about square, faces the cardinal points of the compass, obviously showing that the savages must have had some knowledge of astronomy.
Today this great tribe is completely extinct, and as far back as 1805 its last remnant was two or three women living among the French. The Indians living near Marksville are not Avoyelles stock, but are descendants of the Tunicas.
The name '' Tunica'' signifies '' Men " or " People.'' De Soto encountered them in Northeastern Louisiana at a salt lick on the Ouachita. Marquette met them in 1676 on the Yazoo, where they had several small villages. In his famous voyage of 1682, La Salle did not .visit them, because of their enmity with the Arkansas. Tonti only makes mention of them. During the hunting season Joutel encountered their camp in Northeastern Louisiana.
The first white men to meet them on the Yazoo were two missionary priests from Canada. These priests converted many of them, baptizing several dying children and the chief. One of these priests was Father Davion. He had great influence among these Indians. On one occasion his great zeal prompted him to demolish the idols of one of the Tunica temples. The Indians sought his life, but the chief shielded him from harm.
Some time later they captured an English trader, who, upon escaping, assembled the Alabamas, Carolinas and Chickasaws to war against them. Feeling that they were not strong enough to resist the attack, in October of 1706, they migrated to the mouth of the Red. Father Davion's mission was moved along with the tribe. This good old man was a power among the Indians in advancing the teachings of the Catholic Church. He was a pioneer, too, in the spreading of education. The Indians reposed in him complete confidence and looked upon him as their guardian.
In 1714 St. Denis passed through their village and persuaded the Tunica chief to accompany him on an expedition through Texas. During the Natchez war Penicaut and many refugees found an asylum in the Tunica village. It was at this time the Tunicas offered their services to Bienville, but he declined them because of the prevalent rumor that they had offered rewards to certain warriors for his scalp.
La Harpe met the Tunicas in 1719, and states that Father Davion had completely induced them to abandon their idolatry. In 1721, Father Charlevoix, the historian of New France, visited them. He stated that the chief prided himself on wearing French apparel. Father Charlevoix further states that the chief's cabin was exquisitely adorned and that his wealth was great.
When the Capuchin Fathers came over to Louisiana, Father Davion returned to France, where he died soon after. Passing through their village in 1727, the missionary, Poisson, told the Tunicas of Father Davion's death. They mourned his death, and the chief "seemed to wish for a missionary." But Poisson remarks that the chief bore no mark of being a Christian, except the name, a medal and a rosary.
In 1723 the Tunicas accompanied Bienville on his second expedition against the Natchez, and their chief was severely wounded. When the great Natchez war broke out in 1729 they again aided the French, and were of considerable assistance as scouts. Their chief took an active, prominent part in this campaign. But he crossed his Rubicon in so doing, for the Natchez proved to be an inexorable foe. After their war with the French, the Natchez engaged the Tunicas in battle and almost annihilated them. Among the first to fall was the Tunica chief.
In March of the year 1764, in company with the Avoyelles, they pounced upon some English pirogues under the command of Morgan, and killed six Britishers, wounding several. The refusal of the English to surrender a slave who fled from them aroused them to this attack.
Some time between the Revolutionary War and the annexation of Louisiana to the United States, occurred their final migration to the great Marksville prairie. The' cause of this movement is unknown. Here they obtained a grant of land, where a few families are still to be found, among them the old Valsine Chiki, considered to be the chief of the Tunica remnant.
The arts, crafts and daily life of the Tunica were very similar to those of the great Natchez. Their houses consisted of a framework of slender poles covered with palmetto leaves, corn husks and grass. Gravier tells us that their manner of dress resembled that of the Natchez. The women were deft at spinning a kind of cloth which they called mulberry cloth. In diet they were vegetarians, their chief foods being squash, wild fruits and roots.
Like all other tribes ,they had a temple dedicated to the Great Spirit. It. stood upon a mound, where spirits were thought to dwell. The Tunicas were sun-worshippers, and among their household gods were symbols of the sun. Among their religious traditions is an account of a great flood, of which they were warned by the Great Spirit.
The Tunicas observed several annual feasts, their chief feast occurring at "roasting-ear time." In observing this feast, corn was roasted and placed in pots at the head of the graves in their cemetery. This act was repeated on four consecutive days, on the last of which the Indians fasted until noon, when they assembled at the home of the medicine man or priest. This medicine man, who was keeper of the cemetery, harangued the assembly with a speech, after which he sat them down to a feast. At the feast he regaled them with the deeds of heroism of their ancestors. The feast over, the Indians gathered in a ring to witness the war dance. Until a score or more of years ago the Tunicas continued to hold these war dances, which were attended by the citizens of Marksville and the surrounding country. But all these things have become history. The Tunicas themselves are fast becoming extinct, and the tribe will soon be no more. The great tale of a passing race is written on the faces of the remaining half-breeds now living near Marksville.
With the passing of the Avoyelles a new race of men came to inhabit their land. This race came in due time to make the prairie blossom as the rose. It was a sturdy race which brought with it civilization. Following its advent great changes are taking place. The few Tuncas that remain are becoming civilized. The warwhoop is heard no more, for the hatchet has long been buried.
The aspect of this country has greatly changed. Men with coonskin caps and bearskin suits are seen chasing the deer where once the crafty red man followed the bison and bear. The wigwams are seen no more, and in their stead are the log cabins of the first settlers scattered here and there over the prairie, each with a few rows of corn surrounding it. These wide borders are fast becoming populous. A village springs up and the wilderness recedes.
It is the Caucasian who has come. He has brought civilization into the land of the Avoyelles.
This great move was begun in 1809 by a sturdy French pioneer from Pointe Coupee. He was a trader and planter, and owned a considerable tract of land in the great prairie of Avoyelles, part of which bordered the Red.
This was Marc Elishe. In 1809 he set out in a covered wagon with a few slaves to settle this country. A certain scout by the name of Rabelais accompanied him on this journey.
In those days such a journey was a perilous adventure. So these staunch pioneers braved its dangers, and in so doing they made history.
After an uneventful journey the settlers reached the Tunica village of Coulee des Grues, where the chief met them with the pipe of peace. Marc Elishe, being eager to push forward, was not long in resuming his journey toward Red River.
In the colonization period, when the railroad was unknown, cities and towns were built on rivers or at crossroads. This facilitated trade and transportation. It was the intention of Marc Elishe to locate on the Red. Such a location would ad
vance trade and render a steady market for his farm products. At this time the Red was plied by the flatboat and paddle-wheel scows. Under such favorable conditions he could also establish a trading post and slave market.
But, according to tradition, fate had somewhat to do in selecting the site for the town of Marksville.
It so happened when this little band of pioneers reached the site of our Courthouse Square, the mishap of a broken wagon wheel befell them. Being unable to repair the wheel, they were hindered from journeying further. Moreover, the friendly attitude of the Tunicas and the fertile prairie lands readily induced them to settle here. The wagon was converted into a store and trading post, about which was built the town.
After Marc Elishe blazed the trail, other settlers began to move in. It did not take long for this obscure trading post to grow into a village. This shambling settlement was not laid out according to plans or map. It just grew by itself, after its own way, like an ungoverned child. These first settlers did not even mark out thoroughfares. To them it was easier to follow the winding cowpaths. This accounts for the meandering course the Marksville pedestrian sometimes finds himself describing.
Although little is known of Marc Elishe, we know that he was the godfather of Albert Gallatin Morrow. It was to the latter he bequeathed a certain tract of land which comprised the site of the Courthouse Square and the estate of G. L. Mayer. This bequest was made with the express proviso that Mr. Morrow was not to sell or dispose of this property in any way except for the education of his children. Beyond this nothing else is known of Marc Elishe, and he flits into the past like a shadow. Even tradition is silent concerning his later life, and the date of his death and place of burial are matters of conjecture. Indeed, that entire period of our history, ranging from the coming of Marc Elishe against the end of the first half-century, is a total blank and may well be called our dark age.
Following the resignation of Judah P. Benjamin from the United States Senate, the old Pelican State seceded. The Spirit of '61 had thrilled the South.
Louisiana was a power in the Confederacy, and the town of Marksville did its part. Our men and boys responded to the call and fought bravely. Some of the old veterans are still living, and it is a rare treat to sit at their feet while they tell of the battles fought around Marksville.
There were a few skirmishes in the vicinity of Marksville, and in the Parish of Avoyelles; prominent among these are the engagements at Mansura and Yellow Bayou. There were some noted battles fought at Fort De Russey on Red River, five miles from Marksville.
This fort was constructed at the inception of the war by the Confederates, under the auspices of Colonel De Bussey. He meant to control the Red with a chain of forts along its banks. At the bend in the river, at Gordon's Landing, he built this fort. The fort stood about five hundred yards from the river over which it had a most commanding view.
Early in the war the Federals attempted to blockade the river. To accomplish this purpose Admiral Porter sent the Queen of the West up the river to reconnoitre: Having safely passed the batteries at Vicksburg, the Queen steamed up the Red to bombard the fort. Upon nearing the fort she Was discerned and fired upon. Under a heavy fire of the fort's battery she got aground on a sandbar and was boarded by the Confederates. The crew were obliged to desert the Queen to prevent being captured. The Queen was refitted and added to the Confederate ram fleet. Later she was captured by the Federals and destroyed. A full history of this old ram would be a very interesting feature of the war. She accomplished more than any other vessel in the inland service.
In May following, Banks planned a vigorous campaign against Alexandria. He was to lead the troops on land while Rear Admiral Porter shelled the town with his' ironclads. In pursuance of this plan Lieutenant Hart was sent up the river with a small fleet to ascertain whether Fort De Bussey was abandoned. Upon reaching Black River, he learned that neither boats nor soldiers had been seen in the neighborhood for some time.
That night some of the officers landed and learned from two Frenchmen that the Confederates were planning to abandon the fort the next day and were going to take the guns up the river to Alexandria and there prepare for Banks. On the following morning, as the fleet came in sight of the fort's advance picket,
rushed out from the woods declaring that he was a strong Union man. He proved to be a cowardly deserter. He readily divulged the plans of the fort and piloted the fleet up the river to the fort.
In the meantime Captain Kelso, of the Confederate army, had been sent down with two armed steamboats to take the guns of the fort up to Alexandria. He had also constructed a heavy raft across the river and secured it to trees on either shore. Behind the levee he had thirty or forty cavalry armed with carbines. When the Federal fleet steamed into view they commenced the action with a discharge of five guns. The Confederates returned it promptly, and it was kept up vigorously until the smoke obscured their view. When the smoke cleared away, the firing was repeated. A 32-pounder ball from the Confederate steamer Cotton carried away the wheel, killing the pilot of the main Federal ram.
The cavalry were busy picking off the officers; they were a great help. After an hour's engagement the Federal fleet turned around and steamed down the river. Captain Kelso immediately evacuated the fort and took the guns up to Alex- dria. These guns had been taken from a Federal ram some time previous. The Federal losses were far more than the Confederate. It was a great battle, probably the greatest fought on the Eed.
On reaching the mouth of the river the retreating fleet met the fleet of Admiral Porter coming up the river on its way to Alexandria. They found the fort evacuated and had no trouble in passing through the obstruction. They destroyed the fort's casements and burned all Confederate property. The fleet then proceeded up to Alexandria, which was also found evacuated. At Black River the fleet was repulsed and all Federal gunboats were ordered down the river.
A part of Banks' army returned to Simsport. Two days later the remainder left Alexandria and were on the road to Simsport. They followed the road along the river and their rear was protected by Lieutenant Ellet's rams. Upon reaching Fort De Russey they left the river and marched through Marksville.
In the fall of 1863 the Confederates again occupied the fort and were employed for five months strengthening it. A formidable barricade was built across the river, firmly held by piles driven into the mud. The garrison was 5,000 strong, in command of General Walker. The battery was iron-plated and casemated. The Confederates depended upon this fort to stop all advances made by any army or navy in that part of the country.
A huge fleet of ironclads assembled at the mouth of the Red, joined by 10,000 troopers from Sherman's command, and proceeded up the river to capture the fort and join Banks at Alexandria. On arriving at the mouth of the Atchafalaya, part of the fleet ascended that stream while the remainder steamed up the river to amuse the forts by feints until the troopers could arrive and attack the fort from the rear.
The detachment of the fleet which went up to Simsport encountered a body of Confederate soldiers. The crew drove them back, and upon the arrival of the Federal soldiers the Confederates retreated to Fort De Eussey. General Walker left the fort in charge of 300 men and retreated toward Alexandria with the others. Soon after, the boats joined the main part of the fleet at the fort. The obstruction had already been removed. After a brisk musketry fire, the Federal soldiers took the fort. About fifty Confederates were killed and the rest were taken prisoners.
When I made a trip to the City of New York in the summer of 1916, I did not go there to see the skyscrapers of that great city; I went there to see the author of '' Sonny.'' After a brief correspondence I arranged for an interview with Ruth McEnery Stuart. The great teachers of the world are never without their disciples, and, as the late Elbert Hubbard tells us, the world always makes a beaten path to the ^bode of a good author. I was, therefore, but one of the many who repaired from time to time to the residence on West Fifty-eighth Street. But on arriving there, I was shocked to learn that the master writer of fiction was ill as a result of overtaxed mentality.
God often goes to somewhat obscure places for His great men. He also goes to such places for His great women. The quaint little village of the prairie—Marksville of 1856—was the scene of the nativity of Ruth McEnery, later Mrs. Stuart. This little girl was destined to become a novelist whose genius the South is proud of.
The McEnery family resided in an humble home—a true nestling place for the offspring of genius—which stood on the present site of the residence of the late Mayor Couvillion. Writing for the Times-Democrat in 1897, Mrs. Eva Sewell Gaines thus describes the McEnery residence:
"* * * The dwelling, with its dim gray stucco walls and quaint saddle roof seems a bit of old-time history. The ceilings are low, with rafters painted; the walls are of brick and stucco, the latter peeling off, leaving unsightly scars. The mantels are high, narrow and of carved wood. Altogether, the place wears an eerie aspect."
Ruth was the daughter of James and Mary Routh (Stirling) McEnery. Her father was an unassuming merchant, but a man of distinction personally, as was his family for generations, both in Ireland and in Louisiana, where they have been men of professions and where they were called to high positions in public life. Two McEnerys have been elected Governor of Louisiana. Moreover, Mrs. Stuart was the kinswoman of five Governors.
Her mother came from a long line of sturdy Scotch ancestry, the Rouths and Stirlings. It was the Stirlings whose crest bore the oft-quoted motto: "Be sure you 're right, then gang forward." With such a noble ancestry Ruth McEnery, the woman, was possessed of all the inherent qualities of a high-bred Southern woman.
Ruth, when but a child, was sent to New Orleans, where she was educated until 1865. In 1879 she married Alfred O. Stuart, a cotton planter in Southwestern Arkansas, where she lived until her husband's death, occurring four years after their marriage. Later she moved to New York with her only son, Stirling McEnery Stuart.
Mrs. Stuart was born with a pen, and she soon realized it. In New York her literary career was begun in earnest. The Stuart Apartment soon became a literary center.
Among her many stories and novels, "Sonny," Salina Sue," ."Babette" and "Mary Ellen" stand first and foremost. In her writings she has not forgotten her native State and its Crescent City, where she received those childish impressions which ever cling to one. Her recollections of the inland country folk of Arkansas are depicted in "The Woman's Exchange" and other stories. ' ' ''