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Thomas Jefferson knew that to make the most of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the United States needed to understand what it had bought. Even before the purchase was made, he had planned to send Meriwether Lewis and William Clark up the Missouri River. He also wanted to send explorers up the Red and Arkansas rivers. The Red River Expedition, also called the Freeman-Custis or Sparks Expedition, was part of Jefferson's master plan.

The Red River offered not only a path to acquire scientific knowledge but also perhaps an approach for American traders to Santa Fe. Moreover, the United States wanted to establish its authority with the numerous American Indian tribes that lived along the river. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn was charged with organizing the exploration in 1804. Dearborn selected Thomas Freeman, a surveyor, and Peter Custis, a medical student, to lead the scientific team on the mission up the Red River. It was the first trans-Mississippi exploration to be led by trained scientists.

In early 1805 the U.S. Congress appropriated five thousand dollars for the expedition, which Jefferson called the "Grand Excursion." Capt. Richard Sparks of the U.S. Army was selected for overall command of the group. He brought infantrymen to provide security, and several local guides were hired to assist. The long delay in starting the expedition and the extensive preparations sharply increased costs; moreover, the slow start helped doom the mission to failure.

Spain and the United States had created a commission to determine the boundary between Louisiana and New Spain. The former Spanish governor of Louisiana, the Marquis de Casa Calvo, had remained in New Orleans to serve on the boundary commission. Jefferson ordered local authorities to secure Casa Calvo's permission for the expedition. The marquis issued a passport but noted that he could not override the Spanish authorities in Texas. He also informed Texas officials that the expedition would soon ascend the Red River. Spanish administrators in Texas were already agitated about the boundary dispute. They adamantly opposed the American exploration of Spanish territory. Capt. Francisco Viana, newly appointed as commander of the garrison at Nacogdoches, was dispatched to stop the mission.

Meanwhile, the expedition entered the Red River in May 1806. Progress was slow, and it was a month before the explorers passed into uncharted areas beyond Natchitoches. Snags and logjams on the river continually delayed the boats; the company encountered the Red River Raft, a huge obstruction that clogged the stream. It took almost two months to negotiate the Great Bend of the Red River in present Louisiana and Arkansas. The party did establish friendly relations with the Caddo and Alabama-Quassarte (Coushatta) villages on the river, and Freeman and Custis recorded valuable information about the peoples and ecology of the watercourse.

However, before the party could reach present McCurtain County, Oklahoma, southeast of Idabel, on July 28, 1806, they were met by Spanish troops under the command of Francisco Viana. While the explorers had followed the river, the Spanish force had marched overland. Viana ordered them to leave. On August 1, unwilling to instigate an international incident, the Americans headed down river. The spot of the confrontation, known as Spanish Bluff, is located northeast of New Boston in Bowie County, Texas.

The Freeman-Custis, or Sparks, Expedition was destined to fail by slow organization and unsettled conditions on the frontier. No new geographic information about the upper reaches of the Red River was obtained. The mission was a political setback for President Jefferson. The materials that Freeman and Custis did collect were vastly overshadowed by the achievements of Lewis and Clark, who had returned in 1806. The U.S. Army would not explore the headwaters of the Red River until the expedition of Randolph B. Marcy in the 1850s.

Carl N. Tyson


Dan L. Flores, "The Ecology of the Red River in 1806: Peter Custis and Early Southwestern Natural History," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 88 (July 1984).

Dan L. Flores, ed., Southern Counterpart to Lewis and Clark: The Freeman and Custis Expedition of 1806 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002).

Carl N. Tyson, The Red River in Southwestern History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Carl N. Tyson, “Freeman-Custis Expedition,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=FR019.

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