The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 sparked a new wave of exploration in the United States as a number of expeditions were commissioned at the direction of President Thomas Jefferson to explore the new American frontier. The most famous of these expeditions was the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, which explored the Upper Missouri River Valley. Of the four major expeditions, one looked to explore the Red River Valley but became the most disastrous of all.
The idea of a trek along the Red River to find out more about the reach of the river, its wildlife, and the Native American tribes that lived along it had been conceived not long after Louisiana had been purchased from France. William Dunbar, the Scottish scientist and Mississippi planter who had immigrated to the United States before the American Revolution, was chosen by Jefferson to plan this venture. In 1805, Dunbar, fresh from his successful expedition along the Ouachita River, accepted, and began sketching out plans for the voyage and the needs for the explorers.
The Ouachita River runs to the North and to the East of the Red River, snaking its way from western Arkansas into eastern Louisiana. An expedition along the Red River was not expected to be dissimilar to the Hunter-Dunbar Expedition as most of it would be in a climate similar to those in the Ouachita River Valley.
Though the French claimed the entire Red River Valley, the Spanish continued to claim the area for themselves. An expedition along the Red River would take American explorers closer to Spanish territory than any other expedition to this time. However, the Spanish had a difficult time maintaining control over the area of the upper Red River, and a number of Spanish expeditions were defeated by local Native American tribes. Rarely did the Spanish army even attempt to journey into the area.
By late 1805, the expedition leadership consisted of Captain Richard Sparks, Thomas Freeman, a surveyor who had helped survey the southern border for the United States following the 1795 border treaty with Spain, and botanist and medical student Peter Custis of Virginia. As a result, the Red River Expedition was also called the Freeman-Custis Expedition. The explorers, numbering 24 at this point, left from the Mississippi River port at Natchez, Mississippi Territory, in April 1806 and pushed to the Red River.
The group stopped briefly at Natchitoches in what is now western Louisiana. Here, they picked up about 20 more troops as rumors spread that the Spanish had been tipped off about the expedition and intended to confront it. Though under strict orders not to engage in any military action, they were willing to defend themselves. Three Caddo guides were also included as the expedition was about to move into the area of what is now Northeast Texas, Northwest Louisiana, and Southwest Arkansas – the heart of Caddo tribal territory at the time.
The expedition moved northward through what is now the Shreveport area and entered what is now Arkansas by June. The trip had been hampered by the relatively shallow waters of the river at the time but the expedition was pleased with their efforts.
They soon began moving westward as the Red River takes a sharp turn in Arkansas. The journey had been without incident up to this point. Their encounters with the Caddos had been welcoming. However, the Caddos warned that they had learned that Spanish troops were on their way to capture the expedition. The explorers realized the entire journey was now in danger but decided to press forward regardless.
Their actions over the next few days would determine the fate of the expedition and perhaps even the fate of relations between the United States and Spain. However, as they moved westward into Texas, they never imagined what had led to the expedition’s doom.