A Frontier in Flux

Pioneer family

Pioneer family

Perhaps Middle Tennessee was just too civilized for Newit Drew by the time he, his wife Sally, and their seven children set out down the river in 1816.  Ordinary farmers were wearing knee breeches and red vests, and their wives might own calico petticoats, lace, ribbons,  embroidered aprons and silk parasols.  In Nashville there were grand balls, attended by ladies with ostrich feathers in their hair.  Inequality of wealth was exceptionally high, with some large landholders owning thousands of acres and over 100 slaves.  It was time to move on.

Family legend says that they sent their two oldest sons, age 14 and 16, down the Mississippi in a canoe to scout out a place for settlement.  Their oldest son, James, left the family to settle in Louisiana, with one mule and a 15-year-old French-speaking wife.  Three years later Newit appears as a grand juror in Pecan Township, a remote area between the Red and Little Rivers, in the far southwest corner of Arkansas.

The travelers who described the inhabitants of this wilderness concurred that  they were of “…the worst moral character imaginable, being many of them renegadoes from justice, and as such have forfeited the esteem of civilized society.”  They were hunters and Indian traders, skilled in the arts of wilderness survival, and at that time still exposed to raids by the warlike Osage.  Nevertheless, by 1819 the rich prairies around Clear Creek were almost completely occupied, and the crops of corn and cotton aroused the admiration of the same travelers who scorned the  inhabitants.

Very soon, however, the Drews had to move again.  In 1820, General Andrew Jackson negotiated a treaty with the Choctaw Indians, who were being forced out of Mississippi, granting them land between the Arkansas and Red Rivers.  All of the land previously identified as Pecan Township was reclassified as Choctaw territory.  Of course the treaty did not last: five years later the boundary was moved west to the current Arkansas state line, and the Choctaws were coerced into giving up the land they had recently gained.  In the meantime hundreds of white settlers, including the Drews, had been forced to move east to establish new settlements.  In 1821, Newit appears in Missouri Township, 40 miles east of his former land.

One year later the family, now with three sons-in-law, moved yet again.  Two or three years after Newit left Tennessee, at least a dozen members of his Big Cedar Lick Baptist Church, including two of the church’s founders, had also moved south, to settle in Claiborne Parish in northern Louisiana.  Newit and Sally had to join them.  There were no roads in the new settlement, only trails, and until 1825 no store-bought goods.  As on the Appalachian frontier where Sally was born, clothing consisted of buckskin pants and moccasins, and home-spun and home-woven cloth.

By 1829, steamboats had made it as far as Minden Lower Landing, the head of navigation on the Dorcheat Bayou in northwest Louisiana.  Prosperity finally beckoned.  The Drew family moved to Minden Lower Landing, where Newit established a town, built a grist mill and saw mill, and acquired 13 slaves.  Twenty years after leaving Tennessee, the family had moved from civilization to wilderness, to another wilderness, and back to a frontier town that they themselves had founded.  Within the same period Newit’s son James had hacked a farm out of the Louisiana forest, trained as a surveyor, and become one of the richest citizens of northern Louisiana.  Nothing was ever stable on the southern frontier.

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