Shortly after New Year’s Day in 1913, the steamboat Gopher pulled hard to port side and entered the mouth of Bayou D’Arbonne from the Ouachita River above Monroe, Louisiana. She was on a special chartered trip, and the passengers had no interest in the bustling packet trade that usually paid the captain’s bills. One of them was a world traveler and a man of letters from the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science. His companions knew little of letters of any kind and wore hard-labor calluses with their overalls.
The bayou was half a century away from knowing the biodiversity choking effects of locks and dams. Dusky and creole darters still lived in the gravel shoals that wagons could cross in late summer. It was winter now, and behaving as it should, the bayou left its banks and covered the floodplain two miles wide between the red clay hills. Only the leafless crowns of overcup and willow oaks broke the surface of the adjacent flats. Understory water elms and mayhaws slept the season away completely submerged. The captain used the russet-feathered cypresses that lined the banks as channel markers.
One mile upstream, the paddle‑wheeler passed White’s Ferry, closed for the season, and soon after, churned over the drowned wreck of the Rosa B. In succession, local landmarks were washed in the boat’s wake—Catfish Slough, Long Reach, WolfBrake, Cross Bayou, Bayou Choudrant, Holland’s Bluff, Eagle Lake, Old Mills, and finally the destination of the day—a spring-fed creek entering from the east side known as Rocky Branch.
The leader of the expedition, C.B. Moore, was looking for a man who owned land nearby and whose last name was spelled in part like the ancient word Ouachita. Moore had been informed by his scouts that evidence of aboriginal sites was located on the man’s property. The man himself was reportedly an Indian.
Moore was an archaeologist—of sorts. He roamed the Southeast plundering Native American mounds and burial grounds searching for artifacts, especially ornate pottery and bones dug by his crew of laborers. Although modern scientists would condemn his destructive techniques, some value would come of his published works.
Moore found his man, whose first name was Rufus. He was the patriarch of a local clan subsisting on the fruits of marginal soils and a fickle swamp. His background was clouded by time and suspicion of strangers. Of his ancestors little was known, other than that his father, a private in the 31st Louisiana Infantry, was paroled at the fall of Vicksburg and walked back to this swamp.
Rufus led Moore to areas the family called the big and little Indian camps. Moore described them as humps and rises in a field near the bayou. The laborers dug into them with results that disappointed Moore. They found no intact pots or burials, only broken potshards, shells, fire-cracked rocks, and small, barbed dart points—worthless in the science of the day.
When questioned, Rufus had no knowledge of the former inhabitants of the Indian camps. He could not have. Later analysis of the site would reveal the occupants to be members of the Coles Creek and Plaquemine cultures which flourished between 1,200 and 600 years ago.
The drama of the scene on this day was an enigma unappreciated by the players. A Harvard scholar of European origin impatiently scurried about, giving orders to men of African descent in the name of science and glory. Ghosts of an American race long-vanished drifted among the adjacent trees. Rufus stood barefoot in his fallow cornfield somewhere in the middle of a cultural stew. He could no more imagine the lives of the other actors than he could have a future great-grandson with the same surname who would write about the event for a journal called Big Muddy.
© Kelby Ouchley