There is no original documentation - the primary sources of the historian - to support the idea that a post was established near the rapids in Red River in central Louisiana in 1723. At least two respected historians - secondary sources - have used the 1723 date and an earlier date as the time from which formal beginnings of a religious and political establishment in central Louisiana can be dated, but the indisputable evidence of documents from that era is lacking. As more and more work is done in French archives, it remains a possibility that documents may be found to substantiate that an official's recommendation that such a post be established at this point was, in truth, carried out as early as 1720. They are not available now.
Sieur Diron d Artaguette, Inspector General of the Troops of the Province of Louisiana, came up Red River on an official inspection troop in 1722, and he wrote in his report:
The Red River is abundant with fish of which there are many varieties. It is navigable only seven to eight months per year, and dry during the other four or five months, being such that only with difficulty can it be traveled with a little pirogue carrying two or three men. For this reason, the garrison at Natchitoches often lacks the supplies it needs, and that is why Sieur Diron, the inspector, has the honor to tell to the commissioners that it is desirable - if the post at Natchitoches is to be maintained - to establish a post at the place called 'le grand rapide' which is a place about halfway the 'road of the entrance of the Red river to Natchitoches' and where the river ceases to be navigable during part of the year. The new proposed post would be much more necessary than is generally thought, for no one could lay in ambush for a passerby. One such case happened last April to a poor unfortunate Frenchman named Pierrier who was going from New Orleans to Natchitoches. The Indians attacked him in this place as he was drying his clothes, cut off his head, and scalped him and took the scalp with them, and threw his body and his head to the scavengers: it was eaten by birds and wild beasts; he had with him two of his daughters, one aged 12 years and the other 8; they were captured and made prisoners. He also had three Natchitoches Indians who escaped his misfortune because two were hunting when the Chickasaw attacked and the third saw them coming from afar and, knowing their bad intentions, escaped and went to his village.The report reflects the fact that early explorers and travelers found that the rapids necessitated a portage at this point on Red River, a place as the name meaning "carry" suggests, where the boat had to be carried around the falls. The business of getting the boat out of the water and carrying it and supplies overland around the falls provided opportunity for hold-up gangs who found it advantageous to lie in wait here for victims whom they could relieve of supplies.
Bienville, "the father of Louisiana," himself signed the Inspector General's report, attesting to the importance attached to the report and recommendation, but whether or not the post was actually built is a matter of assumption.
Certainly, such a post was of critical importance, if the French were to retain their claim as far west as the Red River. The Spanish in Texas considered Red River their eastern-most boundary, and it was for this reason the little garrison up the river in the land of the Natchitoches Indians had been established in the first place. Maintaining their right to this area made a French lifeline of the Red River. Louis Juchereau St. Denis started Fort Jean Baptiste with the garrison left to guard the site in 1714, and in 1722 St. Denis was appointed commandant of the Natchitoches post which developed there. With such authority he could have established a supporting post down the river at the rapids. Certainly, from such documents as do exist it is clear that, at whatever date the Poste du Rapide became a reality, it was a dependent of the older and more important fort at Natchitoches.
At some time during the French period which ended in 1762, the first French colonists settled in the wilderness near the "grand rapide."
Among the riches for the historian at Louisiana State University Archives is a deposition (testimony under oath; especially, a written statement by a witness for use in court in his absence) made before Judge Thomas C. Scott, Rapides Parish Judge in 1819. The deposition is that of Valentine Layssard, son of Etienne Layssard and a past post commandant, and Ennemond Muellion, also a former commandant of the post at the rapids. The document states " . . . that place (the burying ground) was always considered the situation of the Post of Rapides and that his (Valentine Layssard's) father resided within a few hundred yards of the burying ground during all the time he was commandant except about one year immediately before his death." Another Layssard, making a deposition in 1774, stated that he was "twenty-seven years of age, a native of Rapide on Red River and engaged in the Indian trade.& Being 27 and "native", young Layssard clearly was born near the rapids in 1747, according to this record. His parents, Etienne Maraffret Layssard and Helene Fazende Layssard, were representatives of an elite group of prominent families of French immigrants to the New World who were involved in Indian trade and very successfully so. Relations with the Indians became a way of living since it was essential for the conduct of business, and the Layssards built an expertise through several generations in their knowledge of the Indians, their language and customs, which the government needed in its political movements. On the other hand, the official positions secured at the French posts afforded the Layssards positions needed for securing good the Indians wanted in exchange for their bear oil, furs, and peltries. Other Indian traders listed by historian J. Fair Hardin are: Le Sage, La Cour, Chevallier, Poiret, La Forrest, Deville, Belgarde, Coit, Dubois, and Vallerie.
"One of the earliest documentary evidence of a white inhabitant residing near "la Rapide" dates from mid-November 1767. Chevallier de Villiers, who was en route to Natchitoches, reported that he had been given assistance at the rapids by Monsieur Layssard. Three years later, this French pioneer was appointed commandant of the Rapides District in 1770 by Governor Alejandro O'Reilly. O'Reilly's correspondence reveals that his actions were part of an effort to establish order in that region which was infested with "deserters, evil traders, and disreputable people." Shortly, thereafter, O'Reilly issued lengthy instructions to Sieur Layssard concerning mule trains traversing his district (probably to prevent smuggling).
O'Reilly, the Spanish Inspector-General of the Royal Armies, who came to Louisiana in 1769 to re-establish the nation's claim to the territory after the abortive revolutionary attempts of a few French colonists, made a survey of the people in the colony. Two commissioners who took a census from the area of the Rapides were Eduardo Nugent and Juan Kelly. their report was that 33 "Blancos" or white were residents of the area and 18 esclavos or slaves.
Nugent and Kelly reported:
"This place is composed of eight houses belonging to a like number of poor inhabitants who cultivate tobacco and corn, and keep a few cows for their subsistence. The soil is of the same quality as that of Natchitoches, and can produce, if adequately tilled, the same products.In 1770, Governor O'Reilly and the Priest Dagobert, recommended that a priest be sent to Rapides. Among parishioners expected to be served were "Catholic Appalache Indians settled there." Rare church records from the Rapides Catholic mission are discovered scattered among the Avoyelles Post records in the Catholic Church of Mansura. Only the Catholic church was permitted under both French and Spanish law to operate within the colony; neither Protestants or Jews were allowed, although laws written in official documents miles away did not always have the desired effect in the midst of wilderness conditions.
A small village of Apalache Indians is established there, composed in all of twenty-one houses of little stability, twenty-six men and about eighteen women of all ages. They live by hunting and on a scant amount of corn, which they roast."
Most of them are Catholics, and many of them speak our language."
Commandants at the Rapides post during the Spanish regime included Etienne and Valentine Layssard, Joseph Chevalier, Poiret, Caesar Archinard, Jean Archinard, and Ennemond Muellion.
Duties of the commandant were similar to a later day Justice of the Peace. His was the duty of preserving order, keeping poachers off the land and attempting to retain the wilderness for settlement only by those authorized by the Spanish government. He was the civil judge, resolving conflicts involving small sums of money (up to $20). He was a notary public and the source of government license to marry. In short, he was the representative of the distant government in relatively small matters with more involved disputes referred to the New Orleans-based colonial governor and other officials.
The area around the rapids in Red River where a post was established during the colonial period formed a logical sub-division within the colony and later within the State of Louisiana. Not only was there the river running northwest-southeast to connect the vast northern part of Louisiana with New Orleans, but the area was a natural crossroads between east and west as well. In other words, its east-west land routes were an advantage added to its north-south water routes.
According to the first records regarding this area, a small number of Indians lived in a cluster of crude shelters at a point below the rapids in the late 1600s. Like the Europeans who came later, the Indians found "the portage" a natural one for the development of a village. Boats could go up Red river to a point below the rapids. then they had to be unloaded, and the boats themselves lifted out of the water and carried to a point on the river above the rapids where the boat could be placed back into the river, re-loaded, and the travel could be resumed.
The name "les rapides" of the French attached naturally to the area, for the rapids on Red River did, indeed, constitute the site's claim to distinction.
Regarding the settlement which formed at the site, the WPA state guide, Louisiana , includes a note on another factor bearing on this development:
"After the founding of Natchitoches (1714) Red River became an important trade route. With increasing traffic, a modest military post was established to protect the portage at Les Rapides. About the stockade a trading settlement gradually developed.
In the 1760s a group of Appalache Indians, unwilling to live under the British to whom their land near Mobile was ceded in 1763, moved to Les Rapides, where a chapel, know as St. Louis des Appalages, was established for them by the Capuchins. French soldiers from Canada had taken up land grants and become small-scale planters and traders and the first Acadian exiles had arrived. Spanish officials and traders established themselves at the post after the transfer of Louisiana from France to Spain. All except the poverty-stricken Acadians had Negro slaves. . ."
Residents of the area around the rapids probably knew little of the political developments going on in Washington, France, Spain, and New Orleans. If they were aware of the increased interest in the valuable Port of New Orleans for those who would control the great North American continent, they may have been prepared for the rapid succession of events that changed their own lives. Jefferson was elected President of the United States in 1800, and Napoleon Bonaparte was a figure to be reckoned with across the sea. That the ambitious Napoleon managed to have Spain return the Louisiana Colony to the Motherland which had founded the colony could have been little of a surprise. When Napoleon turned around and sold the colony to the fledgling United States, fighting for its life on the eastern seacoast, this may well have shocked Pierre Baillio, the Layssards, the Wells leaders, Miller and Fulton, and others accustomed to doing business at El Rapido, the Spanish fort across the river from Alexandria.
With the purchase of the land by the United States speculation in land prices became a highly lucrative business. If the trickle of migrants coming west from the English-speaking United States was small at first, it rapidly increased until the selling of land to the newcomers was a way to become wealthy indeed. For Indian Traders William Miller and Alexander Fulton the prospects must have been exciting, and business had to have been brisk at the store established on the river bank to take care of Indian trade, Indian trade secured by acres and acres of land.
Next - Section II - The Ante Bellum Period, 1804-1861
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