Red River Steamboats Brought Settlers to East Texas
An artist’s rendition of the Heroine steamboat shows the vessel’s combined purpose of carrying passengers, soldiers, and shipments. In 1999, the remains of the Heroine were uncovered from the Red River near the Lamar-Red River county line. The ship is believed to have hit a submerged log and sank in about 1838. The joint excavation and study by Texas and Oklahoma authorities greatly enhanced the understanding of steamboat travel on the river..
Photo courtesy of Dr. Kevin Crisman, Texas A&M University.
Taking a look at the Red River today—often shallow and showing many sand bars—doesn’t conjure up images of passing seafaring vessels, but the Red River of yesteryear was a key passageway for transporting early settlers and facilitating commerce to and from the nation’s newest frontier.
The first steamboat traversed the Red River 200 years ago. Back before railroads crisscrossed the expanding west, a primary mode of transportation if not hauled by teams of horses were ships. All that was needed was a waterway — various luminaries like Sam Houston, David Crockett, and James Bowie came to Texas via steamboat, according to The Handbook of Texas.
And not just one or a few steamboats forged the river either. Armchair expert Mike McCrary of northwest DeKalb has documented some 200 steamboats making the voyage. He believes that the Red River is under appreciated and overly ignored by people today.
“It was simply a way of life for the early settlers; it’s a story never told,” he said.
McCrary, 71, lives a few miles from the river. He began studying it with a particular interest in steamboat travel 20 years ago and has collected 25 notebooks of information.
The Red River borders the northern edge for some 200 miles of its total 1,600-mile stretch from the Texas panhandle to mid-Louisiana. From there it joins the Atchafalaya River and proceeds to the Gulf of Mexico. Geographically, the river’s Texas portion connected the Northeast Texas region to “civilization,” including vibrant New Orleans and points further up the Mississippi River — St. Louis and via man made canals Chicago, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.
The Texas portion enters the state on the very northeast corner and divides the state’s northern border from Oklahoma. The river’s prominence has resulted in historic land deals between the U.S. and Spain, Mexico, and the Republic of Texas itself. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 solidified the river’s presence on U.S. maps of the time.
Early steamboats were named Laconia, Violet, Red Warrior, Bull of the Woods, Belle Gates, Napoleon and Arkansas Traveler. They carried passengers, pecans, corn, buffalo hides, cotton, ammunition, bootleg alcohol, coffee, tobacco, and cattle. McCreary said the only other option—travel by horse-drawn wagon—would have taken several months whereas steamboat travel took a week from New Orleans. They also carried both Confederate and Union troops at times.
Seeing a ship on the river today would be shocking. Since the 1890s, merchants and travelers started preferring the faster and more direct routes of the growing railroad industry. Besides, a good look at a map shows that the Red River’s disadvantage was its meandering course.
Still, the river and the boats that traveled it were instrumental in settling the area and then supplying its people with products, staples, and equipment. In return, the river’s eastern and southern route helped settlers sell cotton, animal hides, wood, and other items to big city markets.
Several plantations, including those owned by Native Americans in northerly Indian Territory, were located along both sides between Texas and Oklahoma. The latter state’s Fort Towson, opened in 1824 north of where the river meets the Red River and Lamar county lines. The fort was a key frontier outpost that played roles in protecting settlers and keeping the peace.
The river was a gateway to Texas then. Early Anglo settlements offering welcoming ports were at Pecan Point and the former Jonesborough in Red River County. Fannin County also includes various state historical markers related to early steamboat travel and its settlement.
“There sometimes were eight boats at a landing at one time; they were thick on the river,” McCrary said. Some catered more to passengers by offering private cabins and dinner service. One journalist said menu items on the R.W. Powell steamboat rivaled any restaurant in New Orleans.
It was on a trip to the fort to deliver military supplies and troops for the Texas Revolution against Mexico that gives a good understanding of steamboat traffic 200 years ago. In 1999, waters in the area receded enough to reveal a sunken steamboat called the Heroine, which ran aground more than 150 years earlier. Teams from both states, including Texas A&M University raised what remaining pieces of the boat they could and they’re now on display at the Oklahoma History Center.
Dr. Kevin Crisman, professor of nautical archeology at A&M, was instrumental in resurrecting the ship and conserving and restoring what remained of its body and the cargo. Artifacts included barrels of pickled pork, beans, and flour—a year’s worth of food for the fort’s soldiers.
Another tragedy occurred on Caddo Lake when the Mittie Stephens steamboat caught fire, killing more than half of its 107 passengers in 1869 while in route to Jefferson. Jefferson became an important port in Texas between 1845 and 1872 because an impassable logjam that stretched 75 miles on the Red River north and south of the city of Shreveport caused the waters of the lake and Big Cypress Bayou, flowing through Jefferson, to rise enough for steamboat travel. Today, the Graceful Ghost Paddle Wheel Steamboat in Karnack retells the story during a ride on the lake.
It all started to change after the Civil War. Ambitious railway companies started laying tracks in Texas that originated from all points east. The International Railroad Company built to Longview in the early 1870s and the Red River Railroad Company arrived in 1879.
Once called the “Almighty’s natural highway” in a newspaper of the day, the river’s importance subsided in time. The unpredictable water level, rising or falling 15 to 20 feet in many cases, made travel decisions a daily task. Railroad systems were transforming travel and moving freight. The river was eventually dubbed a “steamboat graveyard,” said McCrary.
One of the busiest ports, Jonesborough, had even vanished by 1950.
“You hardly see anyone on the river now when it was once a busting area; it’s pretty dead now,” said Crisman. “The importance of the steamboats really can’t be underestimated. They were like interstate highways and airports are to us today.”