Exploration on the Ouachita

"Up the Ouachita"

As Dunbar and Hunter traveled the Ouachita River, both men kept journals with descriptions of soil types, water levels, flora, fauna, and daily astronomical and thermometer readings. To construct the most accurate map possible, William Dunbar used a pocket chronometer and an instrument called a circle of reflection, which was an instrument on a tripod used to calculate latitude using the horizon and a star or planet. Dunbar also successfully used a surveying compass and an artificial horizon. In addition to scientific recordings, their journals documented the daily human interactions of their journey and the laborious efforts of the soldiers as they hauled, polled, and rowed the boat against the currents of the river.

On November 6, with difficulty in ascending the river in Hunter’s vessel, the group reached Fort Miro, also called Ouachita Post in modern-day Monroe, Louisiana. The fort, which was first established by the French in 1784, had been turned over to American control. At the fort, Dunbar secured a large flatboat with a cabin on deck and hired an experienced guide named Samuel Blazier. The guide’s familiarity of the area may be why the men were able to name many of the sites above Fort Miro. As they crossed into modern-day Arkansas on November 15, 1804, the landscape began to change dramatically from mainly pine forests to bottom lands mixed with various hardwoods.

When the team reached Ecore a Fabri-modern-day Camden-at the former site of a French settlement, two dramatic events occurred. First, the explorers found a tree with Indian hieroglyphs carved onto its trunk. The carvings portrayed two men holding hands and could have been a site of trade between Europeans and Native Americans. Second, on November 22, as Hunter cleaned his pistol on the flatboat, the gun discharged causing him severe injuries. The bullet shot through his thumb and lacerated two fingers. It continued through the brim of his hat and missed his head by only fractions of an inch. Hunter remained in severe pain and danger of infection for the next two weeks. With his eyes burned, he could not see to record entries in his journals and would be of little help.

Near the current site of Arkadelphia, they met a Dutch man named Paltz. The Dutch hunter knew the area well, and he informed the explorers of a salt spring located nearby. Paltz told the men that he had “resided forty years on the Ouachita and before that on the Arkansas.” Hunter, Paltz, and a small team investigated a “salt pit” and reported it to be of a sizeable amount. The chemist conducted gravity experiments on the saline water and discovered it to be a high concentration of what he called “marine salt.”