The European exploration and settlement of the lower Red River Valley was successful because of the native Caddo Indians in the area, and the names of these explorers and Indian tribes surround us today. The first European explorers were Spanish Conquistadors looking for gold and silver similar to their findings in Mexico and South America with the Aztec Culture.
Fifty years after Columbus sailed, Desoto arrived in Florida in 1539 and laid claim to the area for Spain. He then explored southeast United States including the Red River Valley, He died on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1542. We commemorate Desoto by naming a parish for him. Desoto’s claim to fame was dubious. Although he did contact the natives of the New World, he did not leave a very positive image with them – his legacy was smallpox.
In 1682, LaSalle traveled down the Mississippi River and laid claim to the Mississippi watershed for King Louis XIV – calling it “Louisiana”. LaSalle laid the foundations for the future fur trade with the Indians. He too died in the New World in East Texas. By 1700 other French explorers – the brothers Iberville & Bienville – returned for further exploration of the Mississippi and Red River Valley. As the French governor of Louisiana, Bienville expanded the fur trade with the Caddo Indians. He commissioned the fort at Natchitoches – Fort St. Jean Baptiste – in 1714 which was the first permanent settlement in Louisiana. He also founded New Orleans in 1718. Bienville was a very good administrator and encouraged trade in the area, even trade between the French Fort at Natchitoches and the nearby Spanish Presidio at Robeline. This trade and the presence of a friendly native population were responsible for the success of European settlement of this area.
At this point, we should examine the history of the native Indian population in the Red River Valley area. At the time of European exploration, Native Americans had populated the Red River Valley for approximately 12,000 years with the Caddo becoming the dominant tribe around 800 A.D. A shortened version of Kadohadacho, the name Caddo was given to them by European explorers and meant “real chief’. This was reflected in everyday life; the Caddoes were looked up to as the head of a loose confederation of over 20 tribes. Their leaders were consulted whenever major decisions were made or treaties were signed. If you wanted something done, you went to see the Caddoes and they acted as intermediaries. Their trading partners were the Natchez, Natchitoches, Hisonai, Wichita, Nokoni, Quahadi. The Caddoes were well respected for their pottery making skills and traded as far away as the Great Lakes and the East Coast to Florida. They were considered one of the Civilized Tribes and signed peace treaties with European settlers developing a lucrative fur trade. In fact, Caddo chiefs boasted they had “never shed a white man’s blood”. Their society was very well developed, with a maize (corn) agriculture component. Their enemies were historically the same enemies we remember: the Apache, the Osage, and the Comanche. Unfortunately, their loyalty to their word and friendship with settlers did little to keep them from being pushed off their lands by a flood of European settlers. In 1835, they sold their lands to the United States Government and began to move out of the lower Red River Valley. By 1872, the Tribes had been resettled in Oklahoma.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson with the help of James Monroe & Robert Livingston negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from France. Jefferson had originally sent Monroe to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and the Floridas from Napoleon Bonaparte. America felt this necessary following the recent Spanish occupation of New Orleans and their suspension of American trade rights. The West and the South clamored for freedom of trade, even at the cost of war. Talleyrand, French minister of foreign affairs, was instructed by Napoleon to sell all of Louisiana to the United States for the sum of 15 million dollars or 3 cents an acre. This effectively doubled the size of the United States and provided the impetus for the push West. From 1803 on, we see many names familiar to us from exploration of this country. From 1804 to 1806, President Jefferson and Congress commissioned several scientific expeditions. The best known was Lewis & Clark up the Missouri River. Another expedition, Hunter & Dunbar, went up the Red River to the Ouachita River, then to Hot Springs, Arkansas. The Choctaw Tribe was the most populous along the Ouachita River at that time. The first scientific expedition up the Red River - the Freeman and Custis Expedition – mapped the River from Natchitoches past Texarkana, but was turned back by the Spanish at Spanish Bluff. Custis, as the expedition’s naturalist, managed to catalog many plants and animals. Later in 1806, Lt. Zebulon Pike (Pike’s Peak) left Louisiana and headed up through Kansas and Colorado, eventually ending up at the Rio Grande, which he mistakenly thought was the Red River. There he was captured by the Spanish and eventually returned to Natchitoches. It has been speculated that Lt. Pike was in reality spying on Spanish troop locations. In 1819, the Long Expedition, headed by Major Stephen Long, attempted to find the headwaters of the Red River but found the Canadian and Arkansas Rivers instead. Finally in 1852, two Army Captains named Marcy and McClelland found the springs that form the headwaters of the Red River in northeast New Mexico. The Prairie Town Fork was fed by other smaller streams to form the Red River which became the boundary between Oklahoma and Texas. The river is approximately 1360 miles long
Navigation of the Red River was important to the settlement of this area. After the Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent purchase of Caddo Indian lands, the United States Government gave Captain Henry Miller Shreve the job of clearing the Red River Raft to allow navigation. Captain Shreve was an employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Superintendent of Navigation for the tributaries of the Mississippi River. He had designed the famous Snag Boats, the “Heliopolis and Acropolis”, but could not patent them in his name. Therefore, he wrote Congress asking them to give him land in return for his dedicated service. The land he was given was in the northwest corner of Louisiana. Captain Shreve formed the Shreve Land Company and established a town on the Red River which became known as Shreveport.