The Big Creek-Boeuf River Country Before 1843 (By Bennie McLain Hixon, ca.,1959)

It’s difficult to find a better source than the works of Bennie McLain Hixon (1923-2014), when it comes to research on Richland Parish and particularly, the first settlements along Boeuf River. Thanks to him, present day research is far easier. This column he penned for The Richland Beacon back in 1959, gives a great snapshot of who those first settlers of the Big Creek-Boeuf River country were.

– Luke
The Richland Beacon-News. Rayville, LA.
11 Apr 1959, Sat • Page 2
By Benny McLain Hixon

This article is the first of a series, designed to form the basis for a more complete history of South Richland Parish. It attempts to describe, to some extent, the country in the days of the earliest settlers.

The Big Creek-Boeuf River Country Before 1843 (By Bennie McLain Hixon)

The Big Creek-Boeuf River Country is just a small dot on the map of the United States, but to those of us who are natives of the area, it is an important section of the state and of the nation. Many of us have often wondered how it came to be settled, when it was settled, and who the early pioneers were.

The term “Big Creek – Boeuf River Country” refers to that part of Richland Parish below the township line – dividing Townships 16 North and 17 North.

When the state of Louisiana was admitted to the Union in 1812, it was a part of the vast Ouachita country. After 1843 it formed the northwestern section of Franklin Parish. Then in 1868, Richland Parish was created, and included in its area was all of the Big Creek-Boeuf River Country.

The Boeuf River Settlements, 1825-1838

At present, the region takes in all of Wards Four, Five, Seven, and a part of Ward Six. The information for this article has been taken from old court house records, old newspaper accounts, personal records and correspondence, church histories, and the works of acknowledged Louisiana historians.

There is still a wealth of material, untouched as yet, hidden in state and parish offices, libraries, and attics, the new information from which will be used in writing the complete history. Before the advent of the white man, the Big Creek-Boeuf River Country was a dense wilderness, as was the entire region between the Ouachita and the Mississippi Rivers.

The terrain was broken by a network of narrow, snake-like bayous and creeks, their generally southerly direction roughly paral-led by a series of alternating sloughs and ridges. Dotting the area were numerous canebreaks and impassable swamps.

Surprisingly, there were also a few small prairies scattered throughout. Because of its density and the problems created by its poor drainage, this wilderness was settled more slowly than many other parts of Louisiana. Its advantages, however, were easily apparent to those hardy people of an industrious, optimistic, and adventuresome nature.

Its soil was rich, climate suitable, fish and game abundant, timber plentiful, and land available. Its navigable streams were accessible to the inhabitants, providing an outlet for their cotton by means of flatboats, keelboats, and later, steamboats.

In the Big Creek Section and Upper Settlements, the First Settlers Were Primarily Anglo-Saxon or Scotch-Irish

The essentials for a substantial livelihood were here for those willing to face the toil and hardships of frontier life. Most of the pioneers, especially those in the Big Creek Settlement and along the upper part of Boeuf River, were of Anglo-Saxon or Scotch-Irish extraction.

In the Boeuf River area, was the French settlement. There is also some evidence that at least a few of the early settlers were Jewish.

According to early records and survey maps, families of the following names were already located in this region by the middle 1830s: (in the Big Creek area), Adams, Griffin, Fowke, Gwin, Jones, Nelson, Hewitt, and Ragan; (along present-day Snake Ridge and on Boeuf River) Thomason, Nelson, Hall, Hoden, Reynolds, and Carey – possibly Cary B. Hewitt.

The Lower Boeuf River Settlements Were Primarily of French Origin

The French settlement, with names such as Landerneau, Girod, Eppinette, Duchesne, Oliveaux, Pailette, and Etier, began about this time or shortly afterward, as Caldwell Parish inhabitants and other settlers moved across the Lafourche Bayou and swamp to Boeuf River.

Many more people moved into the Big Creek-Boeuf River Country during the late thirties and early forties, as is shown by the large number of new names appearing in Franklin Parish records beginning in 1843. (see note below).

Mccerren, Landry & Powell. Map of the Parish of Caldwell, Louisiana: from United States surveys. [New Orleans, La.: McCerren, Landry & Powell, 1860] Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2012592314/.

“When the first settlers moved into the Big Creek-Boeuf River Country, sometime after the War of 1812, Northeast Louisiana was divided into three parishes Catahoula, Concordia, and Ouachita. The fact that increased migration into the entire area took place in the 1830s is indicated by a further division of parishes.

Carroll Parish was created in 1832, Caldwell and Madison in 1838, Tensas and Franklin in 1843, and Morehouse in 1844. Obviously , before 1930 there were few towns and communities of any size in the area surrounding the Big Creek-Boeuf River Country.

Mccerren, Landry & Powell. Map of the Parish of Franklin, Louisiana: from the United States surveys. [New Orleans, La.: McCerren, Landry & Powell, 1860] Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2012592307/

The only large towns nearby were Ft. Miro (changed to “Monroe” in 1819 when the first steamboat came up the Ouachita), Mer Rouge, and Harrisonburg. Smaller communities, somewhat closer, were Prairie Jefferson (Oak Ridge), Prairie Boeuf, or Boeuf Prairie (Ft. Necessity), Stephen Girard’s settlement (Girard, founded by Henry Bry in 1821), and Prairie de Lait (a French settlement across the Ouachita River from present-day Columbia).

Map of the Washita river in Louisiana from the Hot Springs to the confluence of the Red River with the Mississippi. Click for high-resolution London: R. Phillips, 1804. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004633176/.

There were also numerous scattered settlements along Bayou Macon. Transportation, of course, was primitive. River travel, always important on the Ouachita, was still quite limited on the smaller streams. Although steamboats are said to have navigated Boeuf River as early as 1839, packets did not ply the Boeuf regularly until a few years before the Civil War (1861-1865).

Keelboats and flat-boats were used on such small rivers, but to what extend, it is not known. The only roads were hardly more than trails. The most important in the Big Creek-Boeuf River region was the old Boeuf Prairie-Monroe road, which ran generally north and south through what we know now as Goldmine, Sligo, Snake Ridge, and Gilleyville to Boeuf River, then northwesterly to Bayou Lafourche and Monroe.

There was another vaguely defined road leading from Big Creek, just below the mouth of Little Creek, northwest about three miles to a point near Muddy Bayou. At that point this trail forked, one road going toward Thomason’s Field on the Boeuf Prairie-Monroe road, the other going north toward Boeuf River.

The only roads were hardly more than trails. The most important in the Big Creek-Boeuf River region was the old Boeuf Prairie-Monroe road, which ran generally north and south through what we know now as Goldmine, Sligo, Snake Ridge, and Gilleyville to Boeuf River, then northwesterly to Bayou Lafourche and Monroe.

Very Few Slaveholders Existed In These Sections

Some of the settlers before 1843 did own slaves. As yet, however, no record has been found of any owning large numbers of slaves. It is quite likely that most of the early settlers who owned slaves, perhaps all of them, had only a few and worked in the fields with them, or at least served as their own overseers. Unless this area was an exception in the rural south of those days, most of the people had no slaves.

The pattern of progress in the civilizing of the Big Creek-Boeuf River Country brings to focus several points probably not too well understood. First, the role of the steamboat in the settling of the area has been over-emphasized.

The Real Pioneers Likely Preceded Heavy Usage Of Steamboats By Thirty Years

The real pioneers of this region actually came some thirty years or more before Boeuf River became an important steamboat route. Second, the oldest section of the country, that is, one populated heavily enough to be considered a general settlement, was that community located within a radius of two or three miles from the present-day M. L. Bell store.

Also, some of the families listed by Goodspced, Williamson, and other Northeast Louisiana historians as being among the first settlers of Richland Parish, actually migrated to this parish many years after the Hewitts, Thomasons, and other pioneers who braved this mosquito and alligator-infested wilderness.

Most important, there is a history of the Big Creek-Boeuf River Country.

“Despite the absence of significant battlefields of the past, ruins of white columned mansions, and nationally famous statesmen or military leaders, there is a rich history of courageous, hard-working, and ambitious people, and their ultimate conquest over one of nature’s extremely difficult regions.”

-Benny McLain Hixon

(Note: Included among those settlers known to have been in the Big Creek-Boeuf River Country at or before the state legislature created Franklin Parish in 1843 were James Burnet, James R. Hewitt, Elisha Thomason, James Gwin, James P. Sexton, Carey B. Hewitt, Soloman W. Greenwell, Levi Barfield, Thomas Nesom, Alexander Scott Iter, Wesley T. Griffin, Israel Spruell, Fayette C. C. Boies, William Hampton, John Ragan, Isaac W. Choat, William H. Gwin, Pascal Austin, William Thomason, James Jones, Addison C. Hewitt, Matthew Thomason, and James Vickers. Most assuredly there were many others).