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Review: Shreveport: The Beginnings, by Holice H. Henrici

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Henrici, Holice H. Shreveport: The Beginnings. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1985, 89. Reviewed by Steven Harkness.

When one speaks of “the founders,” one often speaks with reverence and idealized gratitude, as if speaking of noble and worthy men whose steadfast examples of virtue and ethics are the very stuff upon which the roads were laid and the schools were built. It is as though their lives transcend the individual human experience and become models for the conduct and development of the community as a whole. Their words and deeds become mythologized into symbols and philosophies of cohesion and cultural identity. Shreveport was not founded by such men, however. Shreveport was greedy, vicious, and corrupt from day one. To get a taste the ruthless depravity with which a handful of men set about staking out their own claims on the American Dream, it is necessary to look no further than Shreveport: The Beginnings, by Holice H. Henrici,

In broad form, the book tells the related stories of about a half-dozen or so major personalities involved in the city’s early history, men like Dr. Joseph Paxton who studied the matter of clearing the Great Raft and colonizing the town, Captain Henry Miller Shreve, who designed the system of doing so and commanded the effort, Jehiel Brooks, who negotiated the removal of the Caddo Indians, and Larkin Edwards, Angus Mcneil, John Sewall, Sturgis Sprague, Bushrod Jenkins, Samuel and William Beckett, and James Cane, who were among the city’s principal investors. The book makes use of over 100 scholarly sources, including letters, articles, and the historical works of other scholars, including those found in the Louisiana State University Archives. There are a few illustrations, and an index. The chapters are basically organized in a linear fashion, beginning with the Raft, proceeding to the Indian Treaty, and then to the settlers and their initial experiences.

Chapter One deals with the issue of clearing the Great Raft. The perceptions of those involved at the outset are critical to considering the motivations of the early settlers. By motivations, of course, we mean money, as a quote from Dr. Patterson regarding the profitability of the venture succinctly illustrates: “...opening the raft, then would reclaim at least three fourths of the land at present occupied, and rendered useless by it...which would then be worth the enormous sum of seven hundred thousand dollars (Henrici, 3).” Naturally, there was much work to be done, at significant investment, but ultimately, the expectation of profit exceeded the difficulty of the venture. But as the story continues, the reader observes that where money flows freely, ethics dry up.

In the second chapter, the industrious Captain Shreve, from whom the town draws its name, sets about clearing 100 miles of accumulated logs which are collectively known as The Great Raft. It is interesting to note the projected cost of the project, “Shreve thought the project would cost $30,000 per year for five years, or $100,000 for a single year to clear the raft (Henrici, 12).” The actual costs were much higher. “By July, 1836, the raft clearing had cost $157,338.62, and more money was needed (Ibid).” They were four fifths of the way through, laborers died by the dozens of exposure, and the project would not be completed until the decade following the Civil War, but the chapter gives a fair rendering of the awful ordeal, the expense, and the grit and determination of those who undertook the task,

The third chapter deals with the relationship between the feds and the local indians, who were neither primitive, nor naive in their understanding of the dilemma which confronted them, as the following remarks from a Caddo Indian Chief will reveal:

“My Children, For what do you mourn? Are you not starving in the midst of this land? And do you not travel far from it in quest of food? The game we live on is going farther off, and the white man is coming near to us; and is not our condition getting worse daily? Then why lament for the loss of that which yields us nothing but misery? Let us be wise then, and get all we can for it, and not wait till the white man steals it away, little by little, and offers us nothing. (Henrici, 23).”

In the end, the Caddo were offered $15,000, which the white men handily converted into goods to make themselves a quick profit, and of which the tribe clearly received only a fraction. Insult was heaped upon indignity, as the Caddo, Comanche, and the Natchez tribes endured abuses and prejudice before, during, and after their historic departure to Oklahoma, towing their paltry spoils of guns, blankets, and other implements which they had exchanged their land and livelihood.

Chapter four recounts the ensuing landrush and the problems which follow. WIth the Indians out of the way and the logjam mostly removed, speculators crawled out of the woodwork looking to bite off a piece of the new pie. Recall that the land purchased from the Caddo Indians occupied between 600,000 to 1,000,000 acres (Henrici, 24); Larkin Edwards soon sold his 640 acre concession for $5000 (Henrici, 35). This formed the basis of the town of Shreveport. Henry McNeill purchased the land and subdivided it among a handful of investors, who bought shares in the Shreveport Company. By 1839, they were all in court arguing that McNeill had sold too much of the land to John Sewall. As grievances go, this one must have been serious, because Mcneill was eventually charged with murder, arrested for debt, and fled the state into Texas to avoid incarceration (Henrici, 45-46). Later in the chapter, Bushrod Jenkins is murdered, and Charles Sewall murdered a man, and Rufus Sewall, his brother, is also murdered. All of these stories seem to share money as a common denominator.

The following chapter details the controversy over establishing a courthouse, appointing a sheriff, and imposing taxes, fines, fees, and other regulatory penalties. Shreveport is presented as a dangerous and often lawless place: “Unfortunately, tempers were short and whiskey was plentiful in the town. A combination of the two produced some wild fights and even murders (Henrici, 65).” It is only two pages long, and does not bear further consideration, because apart from inflation, literally nothing has changed in nearly two centuries.

The final chapter describes the swift evolution of the town from log structures and lean-to’s to brick buildings with paved roads and sidewalks. This last effort concludes the book, and is a useful place to stop the story, because it demonstrates what is essentially a working municipality. Streets are named; the city establishes the ability to lay taxes and make improvements; and the community begins to perceive itself as such, and desires and executes such accoutrements as make the city what it becomes. Growth is swift and impressive, as a letter from one resident shows:

“In the year 1836 Shreveport had but very few resident inhabitants; not more than seven or eight to the best of my recollection. It kept on improving and increasing in population from 1836 until the year 1840 when I left and it then had in that year about seven or eight hundred nhabitants, perhaps more as it has been so long that I cannot remember the exact number (Henrici, 71).”

The chapter features a few letters which are helpful in giving the reader a view of the local economy and the attitudes of the new citizens setting down roots and trying to build their farms, businesses, schools, churches, and families.

The town went on to become the capital of the state during the Civil War, and would have been the capital of the Confederacy had not the infamous General Robert E. Lee chosen to surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant. It now boasts nearly 200,000 residents, sprawling neighborhoods, retail centers, hospitals, universities, and many different kinds of businesses. Shreveport rejected Reconstruction, and only begrudgingly accepted integration a hundred years later. Graft, prejudice, violence, and oppressive heat are all still visible components of the local culture. But also, so is hard work, optimism, resilience, and a deep-seeded drive for success. Shreveport: The Beginnings does a wonderful job of capturing all of these elements en-utero, as if the author was present at the creation. It is well written, concise and focused, and as enjoyable as it is easy-to-read. The reader is encouraged to consume the book at least twice, preferably three times, to get a clear view of the often confusing progressions between the various parties, however. It is absolutely worth it! A great read, highly recommended for students of history as well as general readers who want to learn more about their great city.

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