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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Before there were Indian settlers, or European explorers, or the United States, there existed the great Red River Raft. Origin of the raft remains conjecture. The most widely accepted theory holds that floodwaters from the Mississippi River engulfed the mouth of the smaller Red, forcing large amounts of driftwood upstream. Repeated floods over thousands of years shoved together dislodged trees, scrubs, and earth into a logjam serpentining northward, creating natural debris during high tide, collecting huge quantities of it when the waters receded.

Reports read as if witnesses struggled to describe what they saw. Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis, commissioned by Pres. Thomas Jefferson in 1806 to explore the southern part of the Louisiana Territory, found the great raft north of present Natchitoches, Louisiana, just below the mouth of Twelve-Mile Bayou. The men described an amalgamation of red cedar, cottonwood, and cypress trees covered with bushes, grass, and weeds so tightly bound that "[a] man could walk over it in any direction." The raft covered the entire width of the river and extended to the bottom of the channel. "An almost impenetrable mass," Freeman wrote in his journal, dammed the river. Later eyewitnesses estimated the great raft's length anywhere from eighty to 150 miles. Whatever the truth, and one can easily conclude the size varied over time, the immensity of the raft convinced Freeman that no amount of human effort could dislodge it from the river.

Impossible or not, voices for westward expansion demanded the impossible be done. The U.S. Army estimated the cost of adequately supplying Forts Towson, Washita, and Arbuckle over land exceeded the costs of removing the raft. Other interests argued that the dammed river stifled commerce from northwestern Texas and Indian Territory down to the Gulf of Mexico, helped Indians dominate trade along the northern part of the Red River and, as a result, discouraged white settlement. Removal would promote white migration by uncovering thousands of fertile acres, now rendered useless, for agriculture.

The federal government's first serious attempt at clearing the Red River began in 1833 when Capt. Henry M. Shreve, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and 159 men using Shreve's invention, the "snag steamboat," tore logs from the tail of the raft, causing them to float downstream. By 1836 Shreve triumphantly declared a cleared path of seventy-one miles. The captain included in his report a request for an additional thirty thousand dollars for boats to patrol against the raft's reforming. Experience taught that work was possible for only three, and possibly four, months out of the year. Heavy spring rains brought floodwaters crashing down stream, merging uprooted trees with old logs, reforming the raft. Conversely, by midsummer water levels were so low that the men found the going impossible. Congress chose to ignore Shreve's request, and by August 1839 the great raft had fought back, barring the Red River to travel.

After that, the ability to resume the attack seemed to wane at the federal level. During the next thirty-two years the government spent more than $633,000 to fund schemes of dubious value. Several contractors attempted to either recreate what Captain Shreve had done, or dig a new main stream around the raft, or excavate reservoirs, all with little success. Workers died of disease and fever; many simply deserted. At times the river attacked the machinery with such viciousness that boats and cranes washed downstream. Perhaps Thomas Freeman had been right.

Lt. E. A. Woodruff, also an army engineer, thought not. With congressional approval, he began a major attack on the raft in the spring of 1872. Woodruff utilized Shreve's snag boats and combined them with saw boats and crane boats to assault the tail of the great raft as Shreve had done in 1833. When boat crews could not smash into entanglements or saw them apart, men blew them into smaller pieces with nitroglycerine. Every day found the raft relinquishing itself, and success dismantling it came within a year. Woodruff was determined not to repeat the past mistake of allowing it to reform. Once they cleared the channel, engineers began digging reservoirs, dredging the main channel, and constructing dams to hold future floodwaters. Inspired by Woodruff's success, Congress appropriated funds to patrol the river with boats that could prevent the raft from reforming. By 1900 the Red River was permanently open for trade from Indian Territory to the Gulf. The great Red River Raft was gone.

Glen Roberson


Norman Caldwell, "The Red River Raft," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 19 (September 1941).

Dan Flores, Jefferson and Southwestern Exploration: The Freeman and Custis Accounts of the Red River (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984).

Carl Newton 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:
Glen Roberson, “Red River Raft,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=RE009.

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