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 east of 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 grist mill 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 three 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 attacks of hostile Indians. 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. Thus, 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. 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:”
To be continued…
Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald