Jefferson's Red River Expedition

Bonham Daily Favorite, July 17, 1994

As interest grew in the unexplored areas of the North American continent one area in the southwest seemed to attract a number of interested parties. One of the better planned excursions was a scientific expedition ordered by President Thomas Jefferson. After the approval of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson had at his command the resources of the Federal government. He wasted little time in getting the expedition underway.

Thomas Freeman, well respected astronomer and surveyor, shared the leadership of the venture with naturalist Peter Custis. The plans for the expedition called for a river voyage up Red River to its sources which were then believed to originate in the mountains near Santa Fe. From the beginning the Spaniards were suspicious of and strongly opposed to the expedition.

Both men were familiar with Dr. John Sibley's earlier report to Jefferson and it is probable that they used his information for the onset of the earlier portion of the journey. Actually the Freeman - Custis expedition made little reference to the area which we today call Fannin County. Most of their observations only reflect earlier notations on the area, such as names of watercourses Bois d'Arc Creek and Sulphur River.

Custis' charts placed Bois d'Arc to the east of Boggy Creek in present day Choctaw County, Oklahoma. In actuality Bois d'Arcempties into Red River about ten to fifteen miles west of Boggy. Custis also mentions the ruins of an old fort or village near the mouth of Bois d'Arc. There is no other evidence for such a site and it is assumed that Custis was possibly referring to Bernard La Harpe's post but he was off by many miles from that location .

One other reference to the future Fannin County is found in an October 1, 1806 report prepared by Peter Custis. Item #44 in his "A List of Trees & Shrubs Growing on R River" is as follows:

"Bois d'Arc, of this tree you have already had a description - It is probably a new Genus; but not having seen it while in blossom I am unable to say whether it be new or not - It is said first to make its appearance about the 2nd little River and is very abundant on a creek called Bois d'Arc."

The Freeman - Custis Expedition failed to complete its mission. About half way up he river they were turned back by a Spanish force. Despite the failure to complete their assigned tasks, Freeman and Custis, along with Sibley's earlier reports firmly established the importance of the region as being ripe for settlement.

Over the next ten years reports filtered out of the region of fairly large numbers of white squatters in the area. One focal point of this activity was centered around an old site on Red River called Pecan Point. Northeast of present day Clarksville, it was a major river crossing.

The U. S. officials from time to time made half hearted attempts to oust these illegal immigrants, but the Spanish authorities tended to look the other way even when the squatters crossed the river into Texas. As Mexico marched inevitably toward freedom from Spanish rule, the Red River valley became more and more attractive to Anglo settlers.

Probably as early as 1814 to 1816 there was an attempt to settle the area by six individuals or families. Prominent among this group was a man whose name was to be indelibly linked with Fannin County on the day that the Texas Congress created the new county. Carter Clift was a hunter and trapper and many believe that he was the first Anglo to settle in the valley.

Before Dr. Daniel Rowlett brought the first group of ten families to the area, Clift had been here for twenty or more years and as the immigration to the area began to surge, he had already established a homesite on Red River near where Bois d'Arc Creek empties into the river. When Fannin County was created on December 14, 1837, Clift's cabin on Bois d'Arc was established as the beginning point by which the boundaries of the county would be laid out in the official survey. Many old maps of the region refer to the rocky crossing over Bois d'Arc as "Clift's Crossing."

But Clift's foray into the valley further downstream was to be followed by many others as frontiersmen were pushing westward into Arkansas Territory and what would become Indian Territory. These immigrants wended their way along both banks of Red River.

In addition to the older settlement at Pecan Point, two other settlements sprang to life in the same general area. Clear Creek Settlement near the mouth of the Kiamichi River on the north side of Red River and almost directly across from it the settlement at Jonesborough. Jonesborough was destined, for a short time, to be one of the most important ports of entry into Texas from the northeast.

Keep in mind that all this Anglo activity was taking place in present day Texas some six to ten years before Stephen F. Austin confirmed his contract with the Mexican government and introduced his settlers into the region.

Three other families of record joined Carter Clift in northeast Texas and/or Indian Territory about 1818. These families were to later have an impact on the settlement of Fannin County. The early families were headed by patriarchs William Ragsdale, Amos Gates, and Joseph Inglish .

By 1820 Governor James Miller of the Arkansas Territory approved an act creating Miller County, Arkansas which embraced most of the territory on both sides of Red River from present day Bowie County to about the mouth of Bois d’Arc Creek. However, by 1825 , the U. S. government had signed an agreement that erased that portion of Miller County along the northern bank of Red River.

The purpose of the move was to settle members of the Chowtaw tribe who were being removed from their homes in the southeastern United States and resettled in that portion of present day southeast Oklahoma which had been home to many Anglo settlers for ten years or more. When these settlers were forced off their land, many simply moved across the river to the southern territory around Jonesborough. Other families retreated into Arkansas Territory.

Although many hunters and trappers plied their trade around Bois d'Arc in the 1820'and '30s, the strongest Anglo presence was felt with the introduction by Dr. Daniel Rowlett in January, 1836. Ten families made up Rowlett's party; eight families traveled by river steamer to Jonesborough and then by raft up Red River to a point near present day Tulip. They were later joined by two families who chosean overland route. The Anglicization of Fannin County had begun.

Fannin County Museum of History


One Main Street, Bonham, Texas