10.09.2008,9:44 PM
Butterfield Trail: Roads to nowhere

Two treats rolled into one as we followed three vehicles down a sandy roadway towards the Red River. For the first time since last February and since my ankle injury, I was riding on sand. A few moments of anxiety arose in my Lizard Brain followed by a short dialogue in my head:

“Oh no! Sand everywhere!”
“Stop it! Scoot back on the seat, sink weight down into the pegs, move center of gravity to mid-core and, for our sake, ROLL THE THROTTLE OPEN!"
“Uh, okay. Um…. How am I doing?”
“Is the front tire ‘floating’ over the sand?”
“Uh huh.”
“Good. Now don’t let off on the throttle.”
“I’m sweating…..”

Leaving the sandy road, we followed the lead vehicle onto a trail of mowed grass growing on the sand. I could scoot forward a bit and relax the rest of the way.

The other treat was finally visiting the location where hundreds of stage coaches, wagons, horses, mules, cattle and people traveled from one domain to another. Although the land that the river meandered through like a lazy fat snake was the same, politics, culture and economies were not. This human-ordained boundary divided more than just two shores on a river.

The Texas shore and south were experiencing growing pains during the mid and late 1800’s. Even after Oklahoma was ratified as a state of the union, the north shore was referred to as Indian Territory: a giant tract of land providing refuge to native Indian nations forced from their home lands in the east, west, south and north. For many years it was a tinder box of Indian nations, tribes and bands that historically competed with each other for resources and cultures. Mixing in military and naïve settlers added a volatile component because of clashing interests. Yet common more than opposing goals finally prevailed, although at a great and terrible cost.

When five nations from the eastern and Mississippi states were forcibly marched into territory set ‘forever’ aside for them by the US congress, the Chickasaw and Choctaw settled in the southeastern region north of the Red River. These and the other three nations -Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole- realized that, like the coyote in the wild, they must adapt or perish. Despite the massive loss and disruption to their populations, social and economic structure, they adopted culture and policies of the dominant EuroAmericans while retaining a degree of their traditional values and heritage.

Many roads and trails transporting military, settlers, livestock, mail, and other Indians traversed through Indian Territory in all directions. Most gateways south into Texas –Texas Road, Shawnee Trail, and military roads- crossed the Red River in the Chickasaw Nation. Quick to foresee opportunities, entrepreneurial Chickasaws obtained charters from the Nation to develop and maintain toll ferries and bridges generating income for their families and revenue for their tribe.

Benjamin Franklin Colbert, a descendant of Scottish and Chickasaw lineage, began farming and running cattle on Chickasaw Nation land after moving from the Mississippi area in the late 1840’s. In 1849 he purchased property on the north river bank where Joseph Mitchell had built the first ferry in 1842 but died five years later. Colbert hired J.B. Earhart, a Pensylvannia native, to make improvements on the pre-existing ferry operations. Later, Earhart became involved with the Butterfield Company and would appear again on the southern stage route in Texas. Oddly, I would ‘meet’ Mr. Earhart again weeks later.

The Nation granted Colbert a charter in 1853 to establish and maintain the ferry on the Texas Road to accommodate the increased traffic flow between Texas and northern territories. Colbert and citizens of Grayson County in Texas together influenced the Butterfield Company to relocate their river crossing from the Preston Road and ferry to north of Sherman, Texas, at the improved ferry.

Colbert built a house north of the ferry landing and cultivated several hundred adjoining acres. The ferry business flourished as traffic moved from the Preston crossing to his ferry service. Problems arose on the Texas bank of the ferry service when M.A. McBride, the landowner, wanted a part of the ferry business. The resolution of the dispute forced Colbert to purchase McBride’s property on the Texas side of the river.

John Malcolm, a Scottish immigrant, worked as Colbert’s ferryman for many years. His recorded recollections of those years present a living description of the ferry and life around it.

“It was a pretty place. The main road was about one-fourth of a mile north of the house and led down to the ferry. Several hundred acres were in cultivation and there were houses for the negroes in different parts of the fields. It was a stage-stand where the coaches changed horses and drivers. One coach went south at night and the other went north usually about noon.

The boat carried four two-horse wagons. The toll was $1 for a two-horse wagon, $1.25 for four-horse wagons and $1.50 for six horse wagons; 25 cents for man and horse, and 10 cents a head for loose cattle or horses.

There was very heavy immigration all through '71 and '72 and we would put across from 25 to 200 wagons per day besides loose stock; it was also the main road for freight between Fort Gibson and Sherman, Texas.

The freight wagons were from four to six mule teams with trail wagons and ox wagons from four to five yoke of steers to each wagon besides trail wagons. Their load would weigh 30 or 35 hundred weight on front wagons and 20 to 25 hundred weight on the trail wagon. There would be from 20 to 30 teams to an outfit under a wagon master. The boat ran on a cable across the river and made a round trip in 25 to 40 minutes if we had no trouble and a good current. “
Since Colbert now owned the property across the river, he and an associate built and operated a store, called the “First and Last Chance.” Because the sale of alcohol was banned in the Indian Nations’ territories, it was a lucrative business.

“There was a store on the Texas side about 200 yards from the ferry landing. In it were sold groceries, some dry goods and whiskey…… Coming from the north it was the first chance to get whiskey and was the last chance, if going north.”
As traffic across the river increased, Colbert and Malcolm added another boat; “Each boat could carry six to seven two-horse wagons. The upper boat ran on a steel cable moved down just far enough apart so that the two boats would not collide.”

The agreement with the Butterfield Company was that Colbert maintains the road and transports the stage and passengers across the river free of charge. His house served as the station where food was provided for passengers and fresh horses replaced those that brought in the coaches.

On September 20th of 1858, the first stagecoach, passenger and mailbags of the Butterfield Overland Company reached Colbert’s ferry 34 hours ahead of schedule. I reached it 150 years late.

Next: Ghosts of ferries and bridges

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posted by Macrobe
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