Today’s Echo of our Past will examine an interesting topic, the type of people who were the first settlers of what is today Webster Parish in the years between 1822 and 1843.
No one lived in “Webster Parish” until February 28, 1871, when the parish was created by the legislature. Prior to that date, parts of modern-day Webster were included in Bossier, Bienville, and Claiborne Parishes. Until 1843, the cutoff date I am using in this article, all of modern-day Webster Parish was part of old Claiborne Parish.
I chose that cutoff date because Bossier Parish was created that year and all of modern Webster Parish, west of Bayou Dorcheat and Bayou Bodcau was part of Bossier Parish from 1843 until 1871. Many different reasons dealing with geography, topography, culture, and even genealogy entered into the decisions to settle here.
We can really break the groups of early settlers of Webster Parish into two major groups, divided around the date 1836. In that year the Indian Removal Act began to be severely enforced in Alabama after the Second Creek War.
The elimination of the hostile Indians from Alabama opened the path for the great east-to-west migration from South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia that eventually populated most of North Louisiana.
However, first let’s look at the reasons those very first settlers, those that came even before 1836, chose to settle in the area that is today Webster Parish.
Even though we all now know it didn’t exist, throughout the remainder of this article I will use the name Webster Parish for those early dates, to avoid confusion with our Claiborne Parish neighbors to the Northeast.
Probably the first settler in Webster Parish was Newitt Drew, ancestor of the distinguished line of Drews that have made such a mark in the legal profession in Louisiana history.
Yet, Newitt Drew was an exception from the typical settler drawn to our area in those early years. He originally began farming in what is now Claiborne Parish, but later relocated and founded the ill-fated community of Overton, at the site of what came to be known as Minden Lower Landing.
Here he built a sawmill and a gristmill operated by water power where Cooley Creek entered Dorcheat Bayou.
Overton thrived and became the seat of old Claiborne Parish; however, its unhealthy location soon made it subject to epidemics of malaria and yellow fever and also subject to flooding.
The town vanished less than two decades after its founding. A more typical settler had other reasons for settling in Webster Parish.
Although it was “interior land” not bordering on a major body of water, Webster Parish was accessible through a north-south water pathway even in the 1820s.
This allowed settlers to reach the inland, more healthy uplands of Webster Parish, without having to cross the territories in Alabama and Mississippi occupied by hostile Indians.
From the north, the route followed by the pioneer settler of Claiborne Parish John Murrell, a settler could enter either the Arkansas or Ouachita River, follow that stream into the Mississippi River, then leave the Mississippi River, and sail north into the Red, on into Loggy Bayou, through Lake Bistineau, and into Bayou Dorcheat and reach Webster Parish.
The southern route, involved only the second step of coming up the Mississippi, Red, Loggy Bayou, Bistineau and Dorcheat.
These adventurous first settlers thus avoided risking the lives of their families to both drowning on the perilous river journeys and the attack of hostile Indians, cutting the danger in half.
Of course, the trip up these bayous and rivers was on flat boats or small craft, as the smaller streams were not navigable by passenger boats. So it was no easy trip, but safer than the overland route.
In addition, the Native American population in our area was not hostile. In fact there is no record of a hostile attack ever occurring in the area of old Claiborne Parish.
So a large part of the attraction of settling in Webster Parish in those early years was the prospect of free land without the risk of Indian attack.
Thus, in the 1820s and early 1830s, several families and even some groups, such as the members of the Germantown Colony made such a trip.
One of the first lessons these newcomers learned was that they had to move to the uplands away from the bayous. The settlements at Overton and the first colony of the Germantown settlers at Grand Ecore proved to be death traps. But many settlers avoided the disease ridden shorelines and moved into the hills.
What type of land did they find? The following description of the land comes from Harris and Hulse’s “History of Claiborne Parish:”
“The country then was almost entirely covered with a dense thicket of brush, briars and vines. Cane was abundant on all the streams and abutting hill points, but fire breaking out and spreading, all over the land, killed this mass of brush, while a second fire cleaned off all the face of the land, leaving it an open, beautiful country. You could see a cow or deer as far as the eye could reach through the intervening living timber. New grasses sprang up, the wild pea vine and switch cane, and a better range for farmer’s cattle, hogs, deer and turkey was never seen.
“Murrell cultivated his first crop with the hoe, both his ponies having died. The woods abounding with all manner of game, he got his main supply there from. A turkey for dinner required only a few minutes hunt, venison steak was to be had at any hour, and bear in the proper season was readily converted into the best of bacon. Wolves, too, abounded. It was common to see them, of moonlight nights, traveling around the house or cow pen. Mrs. Murrell left her churn at the creek side one night and the wolves carried it off it to a tree top fifty yards away and knawed (sic) it to pieces. They were fearful on young pigs and calves.”
A similar description comes from “Biographical and Historic Memoirs of Northwest Louisiana:”
“North Louisiana at this time was covered with a dense mass of brushwood and interlacing vines the home of the wolf, the bear, and the panther. Numbers of horses and cattle, the progenitors of which had wandered from the inhabited sections of the territory to this wilderness, ran free and wild. Several tribes of Indians were living here and there, now and then visited by tradesmen in search of peltry, and the country by hunters in search of game.
The few earlier settlers that ventured into these wild regions had to fairly hew their way, for only a few devious trails and paths were to be found. Roads, there were none, save the road that connected Monroe and Natchitoches. Subsequently the United States having established a garrison several hundred miles above, on Red River, at Fort Towson, opened what was known as the Military Road, connecting this post with Natchitoches and Alexandria, for the purpose of transporting supplies to that far-off post.
“The settlements in those early days being so wide apart, and hunting and traffic with the Indians being the chief occupations, direct roads were impossible. But gradually, settlement followed settlement, clearings increased, and from these clearings and the camps of the hunters, fires broke out sweeping over all the land, killing the tangled undergrowth or brushwood, even destroying the foliage of lofty trees.
“In the following years fires again raged, consuming all the dead and fallen rubbish that then encumbered the ground. Being thus relieved of its heavy undergrowth or brushwood, in its place forest grass and switchcane sprang up, and in one season a mantle of green covered the nakedness of the earth. Then all north Louisiana appeared as an immense park, diversified with vast openings and vistas most enchanting. Game of every kind, peculiar to this region, increased rapidly, particularly the deer and the turkey. The buffalo came up from the wide prairies of the Attakapas, and in a few years North Louisiana became known as the Hunters’ Paradise.
“The surveyor’s chain was stretched across the land, and both surveyor and hunter carried back to the older settlements, and to the States east of the Mississippi River, such glowing descriptions of the beauty of the country, the fertility of its soil, its health, its abundance of game, the streams abounding in fish, and in winter every pond and lake crowded with all manner of water fowl, that a regularly increasing tide of emigration set in to this promised land.
“So rapid was this emigration that it became necessary to divide this immense parish of Natchitoches, for the seat of justice was too far to be reached by distant settlements, consequently, in 1828, the Legislature passed an act incorporating the parish of Claiborne, naming it for Louisiana’s first governor.”
Thus prior to 1836, it was intrepid spirits that set forth for the wild frontier of Webster Parish, but seeking a wild frontier with just as much hard work needed to create a lifestyle, but perhaps a little more security from life-threating attacks.
After 1836, when the majority of the hostile Indians were removed from the southeast in the era that produced the “Trail of Tears” other motivations became the predominant force in migration to Webster Parish.
What we today label the “Bible Belt” is a land very similar in topography, extending from Georgia to East Texas, broken only by the Delta of the Mississippi River in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
Crossing this region, you will see similar names for counties, churches, towns, streets, and families. It is in fact one large cultural region.
The expansion of this cultural region was perhaps the strongest force behind the settlement of the late 1830s and the 1840s in Webster Parish.
The free land was still available, only it was even more desirable, after the fires mentioned in the quoted material above had eliminated the underbrush.
The hill country land form didn’t lend itself to large plantations, but these new settlers were coming from a region that didn’t have large plantations either. They were happy with the idea of prosperous individual farms, but not grand estates.
Entire communities came in mass migrations. Examples such as the Mt. Lebanon Community in Bienville Parish, which involved a large group of families coming from the Edgefield District of South Carolina and in essence transporting a community four states to the west.
Webster Parish received a substantial number of the leading citizens of Houston County, Georgia, who came in several different wagon trains of a few families each in the 1840s.
These people were seeking “elbow room” and available land, in a country populated by a people they knew on a type of land they had known their entire life.
The vast majority of the settlers of Webster Parish in those antebellum years followed the path from the Atlantic seaboard west to Louisiana. If those of you whose families came here in those years check, you will likely find ancestors born as the family moved in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, before the family reached its new home in Louisiana.
Another group represented in Webster Parish was a surprising number of immigrants from Great Britain.
In the late 1840s, John Chaffe settled here and throughout the 1850s, the number of natives of the British Isles grew in Minden.
These settlers came because word of mouth spread that there was a colony of Englishmen in Minden and many of our early business leaders and prominent families that still play a key role in our community today were attracted to Webster Parish because of this little outpost of Britannia.
Thus, while the earliest settlers of Webster Parish came because of the promise of change with added safety, the later arrivals came, whether from Georgia or England, for the promise of new opportunities while retaining some of the flavor of home. These settlers of the earliest years of local history started the Echoes of Our Past that reverberate in our community today.
John Agan is a local historian, an instructor at Bossier Parish Community College and a published author. His column appears Fridays in the Minden Press-Herald.