SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – The Red River in northern Louisiana was once the river of freedom, the river one crossed to be emancipated from slavery; but because the Red was a braided river system it was difficult to tell where the United States ended, and New Spain/Mexico began. And along that braided river system, on lands that would one day be called Shreveport, a tiny settlement sprang up that is now proving Shreveport should not be named Shreveport at all.

It should have been called Coates Bluff.

From Coates Bluff to Shreveport

When a man named James Coates built the first European settlement and trading post in northwest Louisiana high upon a bluff along Bayou Pierre, he capitalized on his understanding of an extremely rare occurrence in nature–a braided river system that divided New Spain (prior to 1821) or Mexico (after the Mexican/Spanish Revolution ended in 1821) from the United States.

Painting of Captain Henry Miller Shreve on the Red River Log jam, 1836, courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives

That braided river system was, and is, known as the Red River.

But after years of dealing with the linguistic challenges of trading between the French, the Spanish, Native Americans, Mexicans, and people from the multi-lingual, ever-expanding borders of the United States, on one random morning, Coates Bluff residents awoke to find the water of the Red River had simply stopped flowing through their trading post.

Coates Bluff had been left high and dry by none other than Captain Henry Miller Shreve, who purposefully rerouted the Red by cutting out a sharp, u-shaped bend in the river. Shreve had, in the process, begun to decimate the Red’s braided river system–a system that deposited large amounts of sediment and spread water across a large portion of eastern Tehkos (Tejas) in New Spain (Mexico) and northwest Louisiana in the United States.

Eccentric Biography; or, sketches of remarkable characters, ancient and modern, was published in London in 1801. In the book, a man called “Mr. Spillard” found the southern source of the Red River during the late 1700s, which he followed to a white salt mountain. He crossed the Red River on a raft “from the New Spain side to that of Louisiana! the river dividing the two provinces a little above Natchitoches, at the creek Rosseau.”

Drawing of the cut-throughs Captain Shreve made while clearing the river of the great log jam. Shreve’s cutoff left the Coates Bluff settlement high and dry. Image from the Friends of the Coates Bluff Nature Trail’s Facebook page.

Spillard had traveled the area called Shreveport today before any American settlements had formed in NWLA. He literally walked the line between New France and New Spain in the late 1700s.

About a decade after Spillard’s voyage on foot, New France sold the land to the United States; that’s the Louisiana Purchase in a very tiny nutshell.

But because the history of that particular time period is as complex as the Red’s former braided river system, even historians often overlook the significance of the Red River in the original border of the Louisiana Purchase.

This map of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) shows the Red River as the dividing line between New Spain and the United States. Image is public domain.

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the dividing line between New Spain and the United States was the Red River. But because the Red was a braided river system, it was difficult to approximate the precise location of the Red River within the enormity of The Great Swamp–thus disagreements about the location of the border between the U.S. and New Spain began immediately after the Louisiana Purchase and weren’t ended for decades.

Only seven years after the Louisiana Purchase, the people of Mexico decided they wanted to break away from Spain, much as “Americans” broke away from England during the American Revolution. The Mexican Revolution lasted for more than a decade, ending with Mexico becoming her own country in 1821.

“American history textbooks still largely narrate the 19th century as a series of pivotal wars, from the Texas Revolution (1836), to the U.S.-Mexico War (1846), to the Spanish-American War (1898). When American history is told and taught this way Latinos all but disappear,” we learn in a paper published by the National Park Service.

But it’s not uncommon for cultures and events to disappear from tales of the past.

History hasn’t changed since the moment events happened–but history books are constantly being written and the way humans perceive history is ever-changing. And understanding the history of the Red in NWLA is so complex that it’s difficult to comprehend. The Red was the river that connected the West to the Mississippi River and thereby the entire South.

New Orleans was the territorial capital of New France, after all.

After the Louisiana Purchase, knowing the exact border between New Spain and the United States was important for many reasons, one being laws in the two territories not treating the issue of slavery, abolition, and emancipation the same.

This map, published by National Geographic, shows the routes to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Notice that the changing national borders of the U.S., New France, New Spain, and Mexico are not detailed. Tejas was a free state in New Spain, and later a free state in Mexico, before becoming a slave state (Texas) in the United States.

The Red River was the dividing line between New Spain, where slavery was illegal, and France (until 1803) and the United States (after 1803) where slavery was legal. In those days, one could follow the little-understood beginnings of the underground railroad across the Red River to a Spanish Fort where slavery was illegal and emancipation was advertised.

The Red River was once the river of freedom, and for decades the difference between living in Natchitoches, Louisiana, or Nacogdoches, Tejas meant the difference between being enslaved or being free.

But after the Mexican Revolution, everything changed. The history is so complex that many modern sources simply do not refer to the changing of the national boundary lines, the changing of laws as national allegiances formed and reformed, and the shifting national borders that meant freedom to those who were seeking emancipation.

The Bayou Pierre of Today

Fast forward through generations of incredibly complex history to the modern era, where approximately a decade ago an elementary school teacher named Jon Soul stood on the Ockley Bridge in Shreveport and stared down at a skinny little bayou encased in a fat, concrete ditch. The ditch, and therefore the bayou, was filled with litter. And the skinny little bayou had a name: Bayou Pierre.

Jon Soul was about to become obsessed with Bayou Pierre.

“Sometime around 1100 AD, perhaps during a spring flood, the river ate away at its bank and dropped one or more large trees into itself,” wrote Soul almost a decade after he first noticed Bayou Pierre. “These became lodged on a downstream sandbar. Subsequent floods and trees were added until one of the longest logjams on the North American continent began reshaping the landscape and influencing regional culture beginning with the Caddo Indians. At its zenith, the Great Raft (a name it received in the 1830s) extended approximately 160 miles and was said to be up to 25 feet thick. This in turn forced all navigation by boat onto the parallel channels and lakes that it also helped create.”

Soul had come to realize that by the 1700s, Bayou Pierre was the Red River. Bayou Pierre was actually a braided distributary of the Red that split the river’s channel on the northern end of the great log jam and emptied back into the main, yet log-jammed, channel of the Red on the southern end of the great log jam.

Image of braided river system, taken by Gobeirne

Bayou Pierre wasn’t the only distributary of the Red’s channel–so much water was distributed along the Red in what is now NWLA that a massive swamp formed. It was eventually named The Great Swamp, and early explorers called the region the prettiest in the world.

Bayou Pierre, being a distributary, allowed the waters of the Red to bypass the great log jam entirely. And because Bayou Pierre was the Red River by another name, being able to understand that Bayou Pierre was a distributary meant that you could easily get around the log jam without getting lost in The Great Swamp.

Not understanding the braided river system meant that you could get lost in the Great Swamp for weeks or months.

James Coates’ settlement, called Coates Bluff, was located inside of the braided river system on Bayou Pierre in The Great Swamp near the mouth of the distributary.

Coates Bluff was in the perfect location for a trading post. James Coates and others were situated amongst and between citizens of New Spain, settlers of formerly French colonies, Americans from the United States (after 1803), people of African descent either working on plantations or seeking their freedom on the other side of the river, and Native American nations.

At first, Soul didn’t know he had stumbled upon an actual melting pot of history. He just saw a bayou that had become a dumping site for trash and decided he wanted to do something about it. He couldn’t stand to see litter surrounding the elementary school where his children attended, and he taught.

Bayou Pierre and the Coates Bluff Nature Trail

“I had seen all of the trash and tried to ignore it,” Soul said. “It took years for the dumping to stop on Bayou Pierre. But I’ve learned acceptance. There’s a difference between acceptance and patience–and litter is perpetual. You pick up litter, others throw it out. I accept that we need to pick it up.”

Soul doesn’t simply pick up litter along the bayou these days. He and others have carved a nature trail along what was once the Red Riverbed.

Jon Soul enjoying the dappled light on the Coates Bluff Nature Trail in Shreveport. Image: KTAL’s Jaclyn Tripp.

“Soul said being steady, and continuing to pick up litter week after week, is a part of what’s required to keep The Coates Bluff Nature Trail welcoming to all creatures—from squirrels to fish, otters to humans.

“I love that there’s someplace I can go every day if I choose, and I am fully enveloped by greenery and animals. It feels like a sanctuary,” he said.

And the history of the place, according to Soul, is further reason to protect the bayou.

Soul said there’s a threat on the horizon, and this time it’s not litter. The last of the undeveloped land that cushions Coates Bluff Nature Trail from city life is now for sale, and if that land is sold and developed the trail will be lost. The history, too, could be forgotten, Soul said.

There’s good news, though.

Here’s how you can become a Friend of Coates Bluff

Friends of Coates Bluff, a non-profit organization created by those who love and appreciate the beauty and history of the trail, are working hard to raise money to buy the land. A recent fundraiser at Shreveport Aquarium has given many Shreveporters their first looks at the mile-long trail that students and faculty at three schools have been using for years.

Coates Bluff merchandise is now available online, and the sales are beginning to add up. Funds will go toward the purchase of the land. Soul said he’s becoming more inspired as attention to the trail increases.

“This week I saw two people walking the trail from their neighborhood. That’s what I want to see–neighbors walking the trail.”

Image provided by Friends of the Coates Bluff Nature Trail.

Slowly, word is getting out about Shreveport’s original name and about how the little trading post was dealt a dirty blow.

Henry Miller Shreve was one of the first men to begin successfully draining The Great Swamp. And with the destruction of Coates Bluff, the original port, Shreve was able to create and name a port on the newly cleared Red River after himself.  

But a new generation is focused on remembering Coates Bluff history. Three schools are located along the trail, and Soul is a teacher at one of them. With each passing school year, more people become Friends of the Coates Bluff Nature Trail and spend their time walking, fishing, jogging, researching, taking photos of, and loving the little path that tells the almost-forgotten history.

If you would like to make a donation to help purchase lands that adjoin the existing trail, click here. And if you would like to visit the trail, here’s where to go.

All are welcome to enjoy the Coates Bluff Nature Trail. But Soul just asks one thing from those who visit: please don’t litter.

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