The morning of our departure from "Execution Camp" was mild and without a wind. Helena was reached at noon, and leaving the canoes in charge of a fishmonger, we walked across the low neck of land between town and river, and entered the filthy, muddy streets. Entering the post office, the polite clerk handed us each a package of letters, saying, "I have been looking for you for some days, so had your mail ready." We return to the fishmonger's stand, where we are shown a sample of the catfish peculiar to the Mississippi River. This one weighed 80 pounds, and I was told that they are frequently caught weighing as high as 125 and 150 pounds. The head of the specimen shown would fill a half bushel measure. Below Helena we came to the site of Napoleon, Arkansas, which not more than twenty years ago contained a population of more than twelve thousand souls, and had flourishing stores and warehouses and all the indications of prosperity. The United States Government here maintained a marine hospital in a large brick building. Mr. Bishop, in his "Four Months in a Sneakbox," says:

"Below the mouth of the Arkansas was the town of Napoleon, with its deserted houses, the most forlorn aspect that had yet met my eye. The banks were caving into the river day by day. Houses had fallen into the current, which was undermining the town. Here and there chimneys were standing in solitude, the buildings having been torn down and removed to other localities to save them from the insatiable maw of the river."


Again, Mr. Tyson, four years later, says, referring to the above:

"All this was gone when I passed. I saw nothing of the once busy Napoleon but six or seven houses, mostly shabby and dilapidated."


I saw not even a chimney, not a trace of anything to indicate that a town had ever been within miles of the city; and I was told by the pilot of the steamer Port Eads that the site of the large brick hospital was now passed over by the steamers as they followed the main channel.

On a bright, mild day we passed the mouth of the Yazoo River, which was sending a flood of yellow water into the Mississippi, laden with debris of all descriptions, among which I noticed a hen coop, but as it had probably passed many a negro cabin in its course, I refrained from searching for the hen. A short distance beyond we came in sight of Vicksburg, and as we slowly approached it over the long reach of broad water, I thought of the stirring scenes in 1863, when the Union forces laid siege to the city, and of its long and determined resistance; then the river ran immediately in front of the city.


Grant's Cutoff.

To pass some gunboats to a point lower down, Gen. Grant caused a canal to be cut across a low peninsula from one bend of the river to another, in the hope that the waters of the Mississippi might be diverted through it, and thus open a channel through which his boats might pass, out of the range of the frowning batteries on the heights above the city. But the Mississippi is its own engineer, and refused to be led by the device of man; and to this day "Grant's cutoff" has never been utilized, save as a grave for many of the negroes who were engaged in its construction. Since those days of grim war, the whimsical river has chosen to cut for itself a new channel, by which Vicksburg Landing is left at least a mile inland. But with the philosophical character of dwellers on this stream, they removed their wharfboats a mile down the river to where the channel again cut across and gave them depth of water sufficient to land steamers.

The aspect of the country is more pleasing. There is not that monotony of interminable cottonwood thickets and low sand bars; the shores are more uniform and the timber is of much larger growth. Spanish moss is now quite frequently seen, giving to the trees a fantastic effect, as it hangs in festoons from branch to branch. Live oak trees of great proportions are almost everywhere in view, the deep green of their leaves in strong contrast to the light gray of the moss.

About the middle of the afternoon we came upon the wreck of the once splendid steamer Robert E Lee, which a few weeks before had been burned; when forty of its passengers and crew perished in the flames.

The sight of broad cotton fields is now of almost hourly occurrence, and the humble cabin of the negro has given place to the more pretentious habitation of the planter of broad acres. This is the season for shipping the cotton to market, and the sight of a steamer with her nose pushed against the bank, while negroes roll the cotton bales on board, is not an unusual one, neither by day nor night. Odd-looking indeed are these steamer landings to one who has been accustomed to the well-built stone or timber piers of the Northern rivers. Here, wherever there is a sufficient depth of water, a steamer can make a landing, and it is no unusual thing to see great tiers of cotton bales on the high bank, waiting for the coming of the craft that is to freight it to the more southern market.

The weather has now become delightfully warm, and every day we make a fair run, the light rain having few terrors for us who can so effectually shut it out. The river has broadened, and the banks are so much lower that we are enabled to see much further back from the shore over the long expanse of cotton fields. Natchez is passed in the early morning. We do not run close to the city, but keep out in the strength of the current. Natchez has a more imposing aspect than any city we have yet seen on the trip.

We are enjoying our snug little camp after the fatigues of the day.


Dusky Surroundings.

I am busy having a general "clearin' up" of the canoe and its duffle, when I am surprised by a female voice saying, "Good evenin', sah." On looking up I behold four negro women; the eldest, apparently, stepped forward and said:
"Boss, has yer got any dry goods? I wants to buy a caliker dress."

I assure her that I am not in that line of business.

"Oh! I done thought you was peddlin'."

Then followed a multitude of questions from the quartet, ending in my telling them of the nature of the expedition. Oh, fatal mistake. I wish that I could recall my words. Ere the sun had set, our camp was besieged by an army of blacks, from the gray-headed old Uncle and Aunty down to the pickaninny carried in the arms of a child. They gathered about, plying us with all manner of questions, and examining the canoes and belongings. I had answered the same set of questions many times, and finally grew tired of them. I wanted to eat my supper in peace, but they persisted in remaining about us, notwithstanding I had repeatedly asked what time they eat their supper. They all seemed to be of the opinion that it was after supper time, but this was a sort of picnic for them, and it mattered not when they got supper, if at all. We were in for it and must do the best we could.

Barnacle prepared the evening meal, and we sat down to it surrounded by our dusky admirers. They were well behaved, and gave us not the slightest excuse for driving them off. Having finished my supper, I proceeded to arrange the Aurora for sleeping in. I thought they would take the hint and betake themselves off. No such good luck. My skill as a chambermaid amused and interested them exceedingly, and as I spread my blankets on the cushions, one old darky suggested that "he done get his coffin ready, saatin sho," but when I finally had the tent buttoned down, I quietly stepped inside and drew the flaps together, when a general yah-yah-yah followed from the whole gang. Some one remarked, "he done make his little boat into a house, sho nuf." I had, stowed away in my medicine chest, a box of brilliant red fire, such as is used to illuminate a theatrical stage. Emerging from the canoe with box in hand I told them that I was going to make my night cakes and then go to bed.

"Doan know what yo' mean boss, what fo' kind ob cake am dat?"

"Well, I will show you;" and as the crowd gathered round me, packing closer and closer, I poured a large quantity of the powder into a pannikin and touched it with a match, at the same time setting up the most fiendish yells of which I was capable, and danced about like a maniac. In an instant the whole crowd were yelling, running and tumbling over one another through the bushes and fallen timber, and nothing was seen of them again that night. My ruse had been successful and I enjoyed a night of thorough comfort.

The next morning an old bent darky put in an appearance, and after the usual salutations had been exchanged, he said:

"Foah de Lord, Massa, what was dat ar las' night? done most skaad de life out ob dis chile, fo' saatin shoa."




WE are now approaching New Orleans, and as we run along the "Sugar Coast," as this section is called, we see the interminable fields of cane stretching away in the distance. The stately homes of the planters are surrounded by the neat cabins of the negroes, and here and there the sugar-houses. One day we met a character whose floating house was moored in a secluded nook. He was introduced as Capt. Pete Hall, or "the old man in the shantyboat." He was apparently about seventy years of age, tall and angular, with a sallow complexion, a good head of almost white hair falling low on his shoulders, and a gray beard covering his breast. His habitation was neat and clean, its walls covered with illustrations cut from many of the pictorial papers and magazines of the country.

"Gentlemen, I am a geologist traveling in the interests of the Davenport Academy of Sciences; there is not a more finely educated man in the State of Mississippi today than he who stands before you."

Poor fellow; "much learning had made him mad."

It is Christmas Eve, and from my comfortable quarters can be seen bright bonfires along the shores, while rockets and Roman candles are constantly shooting heavenward. The people of these States combine the Fourth of July and Christmas festivities, for the intense heat of July holds out very slight inducements for a jollification on the anniversary of Independence Day. The levee that extends along the river has a broad summit, on which horsemen and footmen are constantly passing to and fro, and from whom salutations in English, French and Spanish are received. Here and there on the broad surface of the river we see the rakish luggers, with their Chinese-looking sails. At each of the landings there are from one to a half dozen of these moored to the bank, their dark-visaged "Dago" captains busily engaged in selling the cargo of fruits and vegetables brought from the Gulf ports. As we approached the Crescent City very little life was seen except on the river, the shore presenting a long stretch of treeless fields. Along the upper front of the city all the indications of prosperity were apparent; long lines of coal flats lined the shores, while on the banks were mills and factories. Along the lower front of the city were the masts and spars of ocean sailing craft, while the black smoke from the steamers was ascending high into the clouds, which are now threatening to pour out their aqueous contents.

On arrival at the foot of Julia street at an early hour on Christmas morning there were very few people about. Leaving the canoes in charge of the wharfmaster, we proceeded to the post office, where my eyes were gladdened by the sight of letters.


New Orleans.

I had written to a brother canoeist resident in the city that I expected to reach the end of the river trip on Christmas Day, but for him not to look for me until I reported at his office. On my way thither I met his bright and smiling face and received a most hearty welcome. Under his guidance the services of a truckman were secured, not, however, until I had promised the owner of the sorry-looking team of mules that he should receive an extra amount of compensation for his services. Even with this assurance, it was a difficult matter to induce him to transport our little craft the short distance to the head of the West End Canal. A holiday is looked on by the average Southerner as robbed of half its pleasures if one performs the slightest amount of labor from the rising to the setting of the sun. Launching the canoes on the black, foul-smelling waters of the canal, through which the drainage of the city is conducted, we dipped our paddles, and the canoes shot forward as the floodgates of heaven opened and the east wind blew strongly in our faces. My friend had engaged to meet us at the outlet of the canal, saying at parting:
"While you are paddling the six miles against this wind I will attend to some business, and then take the cars out to the boathouse, and probably arrive there ahead of you at that."

Sure enough, as we came in sight of the handsome boathouse of the St. Johns Rowing Club he stood on its broad veranda, surrounded by several members of the club, who had kindly placed the freedom of the house at our disposal. Our little craft were in a few moments beneath shelter, surrounded by the many beautiful boats of the club. A few minutes by rail carried us into the city, where the ear was greeted by the blare of trumpets and the crash of brass bands heading processions. The populace lined the sidewalks and cheered them as they passed, while cannon bombs, crackers and firearms were exploding in all directions.

During the afternoon we paid a visit to the water front, where were lying a fleet of vessels representing nearly all the nationalities of the world. Some were discharging their cargoes of foreign products, while others were being laden with the products of the soil of the Southern States, cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco; and still others into whose hulls was being poured thousands of bushels of wheat from the great Northwest. Leaving the forest of masts and spars, we strolled higher up, where are moored the steamers that ply the different watercourses of the Mississippi system. Two had just come in from St. Louis, Mo., one having in tow nine grain barges containing seven thousand tons of wheat, while another was piled high with hundreds of bales of cotton, which was already being transferred to an English bark for transportation to the mills of England. Probably the most interesting sight, to a Northern man, in this great Southern city is the old French market, in which I spent several hours among the quaint market people, now stopping at the stall of the French woman for a cup of the delicious black coffee which none but the French know how to make, now pausing at the stand of the Sicilian long enough to eat of delicious fruits, and then on to the bench of the fish dealer, where I tickle the palate with a "dozen raw" from the oyster beds of Mississippi Sound.


Lake Pontchartrain.

Friday, the 29th of December, the heavily laden canoes are launched from the float of the St. Johns Rowing Club, and with a "bon voyage" from my friend, who has spared no effort to make my visit to the Crescent City a pleasant one, we paddled out on to the choppy surface of Lake Pontchartrain, and face our old enemy, the head wind. We make camp at the mouth of Bayou De John, under the shelter of some tall reeds. While gathering wood for our fire, I came upon a pile of bituminous coal lying at the water's edge, evidently washed ashore from a wreck that lay about two hundred feet off. I suggest to Barnacle that we have a coal fire, but he doubts my ability to make it burn, saying, "You have no way of making a grate for it, and without one it will not burn." Nevertheless I determine to try the experiment, and converting my sou'wester into a hod, I soon have a good stock of the coal at the tent. Building a fire of wood, I pile the coal on it, and as the black smoke rolls up I call to Barnacle that here is a fire over which he can cook our supper, but he disdains the use of coal for his galley, and insists on using his wood fire. I add fuel to my fire until I have a mass of glowing coals fully three feet in diameter and two high. Making a soft couch of the tall grass of which there is an abundance about us, I enjoy the hours of the evening as I lie toasting my feet. As the Aurora is heavily laden, and innumerable small articles stowed in the cockpit, I do not follow my custom of sleeping in her, but share the tent with Barnacle, and fall asleep with the waters of the lake rippling on the sands not ten feet away. On awaking at an early hour, I first direct my attention to my fire, and am much pleased to find that it is still alive. With the addition of fuel and a little bellows work from my lungs, I soon have it again under way.




By half past nine o'clock we were afloat, and following the western shore for about five miles, made sail and soon after were abreast of the lighthouse at Point aux Herbes. Here the attentive keeper gave us the course east by north half north to the lighthouse, at the entrance to the Rigolet, eight miles distant. Setting the mariner's compass on deck before him, Barnacle led the way, and we sped merrily on out over the swelling blue waters of the lake, every stitch of our sails drawing, while the graceful craft rose and fell on the heaving brackish waters that parted from their bows. Far to the northeast we could make out the long line of shore, with its glittering sands backed by the dark green of the grove of live oaks, while to the southwest could be seen the dark cloud of smoke that hung over the Crescent City. To the south, as far as the eye could reach, was a continuation of marshes and lakelets, until it rested on the broad surface of Lake Borgne.

With the favoring breeze we made the run across to the Rigolet's Lighthouse in one hour and a half, and received a hearty welcome from the polite keeper. While looking over the light tower and the keeper's quarters, I was very much surprised to find a beautiful Christmas tree standing in one corner the room, laden with confections, fruits and gifts. Notwithstanding that the keeper gave us a very urgent invitation to stop over night with him, saying he could both "eat and sleep us," I could not see that he had more than room enough for his family and as I understood that the sergeant in charge of Fort Pike had an abundance of room, I concluded to ask shelter of him that we might not be under the necessity of camping on the low, sedgy shore. On our approach to the fort, not more than a mile distant from the lighthouse, we were greeted by the barking of several vicious-looking dogs and the squealing of numerous pigs, which seemed to have possession of the premises. My past experience with dogs on this cruise caused me to be very cautious as to how near I allowed these canines to approach before menacing them with the mast which held in my hand as I stepped out of the canoe. Their continued barking, however, attracted the attention of the son of the Emerald Isle in charge who ordered me to re-embark, saying that he "Could not allow any one on the premises." Night was falling, and this petty officer had plenty of room to spare, if not in his own quarters, in the great barns of barracks, and I determined to make a fight of what I thought I had a perfect right to.


A Warm Welcome.

I knew very well that he had no orders that our sleeping in the barracks would conflict with.
"Why didn't you stay at the lighthouse?" he asked. "Just like that dirty Dutchman, to send all the fellows that come down from the city for me to take care of."

I explained who we were and why I asked the privilege I did but he seemed bent on either forcing us to retrace our course to the lighthouse or take the only other alternative and sleep on the low marshes. However, after some little further palaver, I gained his consent to occupy the kitchen of the barrack in which the men of the Health Department are quartered during the prevalence of yellow fever in New Orleans and the surrounding country. Although we had logged but a few miles, we were rather fatigued with the day's exertions, and the drowsy god took possession of us at an early hour. The sun was just peeping above the live oak hamaks and low sand dunes beyond the marsh lands as I turned out the following morning, and I was much surprised to find a heavy coat of frost. The air was not cold, but had that crispiness about it that one experiences on a cool but clear April morning in the Northern States. There was no wind, and the waters were as smooth as possible. As I stood watching a saucy-looking lugger as her dark-skinned Dago crew worked her against the current with long sweeps, a flock of ducks pitched down between the rows of barracks with a velocity and whistling that startled me.

When we were about to eat our breakfast we received a hearty "Good morning, gentlemen," and in walked the representative of "Uncle Sam," bearing in his hands a server covered with a snow-white napkin.

"Gentlemen, it was so dark when you arrived last night that I couldn't see your faces, and took you to be some fishermen. Had I known who you were I might have given you quarters a trifle more comfortable. My wife has sent you some breakfast, which she hopes will be to your liking. When you get ready, I will be pleased to see you at my quarters in the fort."

Passing over a short stretch of marsh that divided the fort from the barracks, we crossed the drawbridge spanning the moat, and entering through the sallyport, found ourselves in the center of the fortification on the neatly-kept gravel parade. Here we were joined by the sergeant, who conducted us through the neatly whitewashed underground works, where he exhibited some very ancient gun carriages and artillery equipments which form part of the first armament of this rather ancient work. On reaching the highest point of the wall we had a fine view of our course for several miles the south and eastward, and were able to locate several points of value to us while traversing the devious thoroughfares between us and the open Gulf. Looking down from the parapet to the broad moat beneath my attention was attracted to a peculiar log lying partly submerged in the slimy water. My surprise may be fancied when the sergeant, tossing a piece of brick on it, the log moved slowly off to a more secluded spot, where he might lie in saurian ease and bask in the sun unmolested. Having made the tour of the works, we were introduced into the quarters of the commandant, where before a blazing fire on the hearth we smoked the "pipe of peace" and drank to the health of our entertainer in a bumper of native wine.



On looking about these comfortable quarters my eye rested on a small telegraphic instrument on a stand beneath one of the windows. The sergeant has a son of about the same age as the eldest boy at the lighthouse, and for amusement and mutual improvement they have constructed a line connecting the two localities. On this instrument stand I made a discovery -- there lay a copy of the New Orleans Times-Democrat, which I knew contained an account of our departure from that city. The contribution to our breakfast was undoubtedly the result of the sergeant's search after news, subsequent to his ungracious reception of us the evening before. As the sun advanced toward the zenith it sent down its rays with more power than I had felt from it for many weeks, and it was in recognition of the rare treat that I stepped into my canoe with arms bared to the elbows, and said goodbye to Sergeant Thomas Cooney, U.S.A. We were off just in time to catch the last of the flood tide, and the day was so fine that I had little inclination to work hard, add to which, it was Sunday and should be a day of rest.

About five miles below the fort, at the mouth of Pearl River, we found a small schooner fast on the bar that lies close to the mouth of the bayou. On "laying alongside," the only person on board informs me that he is the skipper, and has been aground since early morning, having got fast in the darkness.

"I done sent de boy wid de yal up to de village to git de boys to come down an' help me off. He done promised tat come right straight back, but I reckon he done got long wid some oh dem wenches up dar an' de Lord only knows when he come back now."

Barnacle, the ever-ready in an emergency, now speaks up and asks him why he doesn't do so and so, but the darky seems to have very little idea of the meaning of the nautical phrases that are made use of, and says, "I dunno what de gemman means."

"Well, I'll show you," says Barnacle. "What do you say, Doctor, shall we get him off?"

Of course, I am ready to lend a helping hand, and springing on board, Barnacle overhauls the lines that lie tangled on the deck, reeves them through blocks, and directing the skipper to bring his small boat around to the stern, we lower the anchor into it, and he pulls out to the end of the line and casts anchor. Now, we all take hold and haul away with all our might. She doesn't move, but instead, the anchor drags. Again it is taken out an cast in another place, and again we haul away, but all we get to move is the anchor. Barnacle now sends the negro down into the forward hold, and following him, they shift some of the freight a trifle further aft, and again we go through the operation of warping and away she goes and is afloat before the messenger for help arrives. We assist the skipper in making sail, and soon have the gratification of seeing his craft go speeding up the river before a gentle breeze. His gratitude was so deep, that before we left him he insisted on our accepting a couple of bottles of strained honey.


Dark Gratitude.

The last I heard of him was:
"Yab, yah, golly, I'll sprize dem fellas up dar, wen da see me comin' dey'll spect de debbil help me fo' sho."

Passing through a short bayou we made sail, and as the sun sank like a ball of gold behind the low sand dunes, we had reached the little settlement of English Lookout. The evening was delightfully passed in company with the custom house officer of the port.

© 2000 Craig O'Donnell
May not be reproduced without my permission.