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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 16, No. 3
September, 1938
COLBERT FERRY ON RED RIVER, CHICKASAW NATION, INDIAN TERRITORY
Recollections of John Malcolm, pioneer ferryman.1

Recorded by
W. B. Morrison.

Page 302

I left Scotland in the summer of 1867; landing at Quebec, going to Montreal, and from there to Toronto, where I stopped about a year. I then went to Quincy, Illinois, where I worked on a railroad bridge being constructed across the Mississippi river. Later traveled through parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa, finally reaching Clark county, Missouri, where I became acquainted with a Dr. Mason who was going overland to old Mexico. I left Gregory's Landing on the River in Clark county, Mo., the 2nd day of March, 1870, starting with him for Mexico, but Dr. Mason got grouchy on the road, and I left him when we got to Red River.

He begged me to let him have my part of the horses which we were taking to Mexico to trade for ponies, and that was the last time I ever saw him or my horses. I went to work for a man by the name of Smith, who had the Rock Bluff Ferry rented from the owners, who were Jim Shannon then living on the old road between Colbert Ferry and Sherman, a point now on the western boundary of Denison, Texas, and Bud Randolph, who had married an Indian girl and was living on the Indian Territory side of the river about two and one-half miles to the north, close to the cattle trail.

Rock Bluff Ferry was the main cattle crossing, a good many immigrant wagons crossing there. Smith offered me $30 per month with board, such as it was. He had another fellow with him and a Mexican who helped to run the boat by oars. They



John Malcolm

Page 303

were poor hands and I did not know much, but had some knowledge, for I had made a few voyages with two of my uncles who were ship captains.

After a few days Smith left the whole thing with me and would go off on his pony, sometimes not coming back again until night.

There was a large lot fenced with logs and trees cut down making a good place in which to hold the cattle should they not take to the water, and at the lower end a large rock jutted into the river making practically a chute for the cattle to go into swimming water at the first jump.

I would take the skiff and keep the cattle straightened out across the river while the other men kept them crowded up. Often they would go to "milling," that is, going around in a circle; then we had to break the mill, sometimes with me in the skiff, and sometimes by swimming to punch out a leader, which was dangerous work, but the wilder the cattle were, the easier it was to put them across.

We put across from one to four herds a day, though there were days when we had none to cross. We got along well, until one day the river took a quick rise while we were eating dinner. The boat being only tied to a stob, floated off, and the skiff being fast to the boat it went too, and so we had nothing to follow it with.

When Smith came back that night we told him about our bad luck. He said that he would head the boat off. He took all the money with him that night—forgetting to pay any of us—and I suppose he is still trying to head off the boat. However, I sent word to the owners, and found that Smith had forgotten to pay them the last month's rent.

The owners in a few days went up on the Washita river to hew out gunwales from cottonwood trees, but before they went I proposed to cut lumber and build a skiff so that I could put cattle across. By sending the chuck wagon around by Colbert's

Page 304

Ferry, and swimming the horses, I could take the saddles and men across in the skiff.

The owners agreed, telling me to keep what I made, and so I kept on putting the cattle across. Well, I had $10 when I came here, and after buying the lumber and paying for the hauling, I had 25 cents left. I put across cattle, horses and men until I had made $60.

About this time the owners came back from the Washita. They had heard that the boat had hung up on a drift at Sowell's Bluff and they wanted me to go with them to get the boat back. While we were away a man by the name of Dave Toomey took charge of the ferry. We were gone about a week. Jim Shannon borrowed my $60 to help pay expenses, and told me when we got back to keep all the money until we got even, but when we got back I found that I had lost all of my clothes except what were on my back. My introduction to Texas was surely tough.

It was nearing the end of cattle driving, but the largest herd was yet to come. One morning two men rode down, looked the place over and told me they had a herd of 7900 or more to put across. They asked me to take everything out of the way as they were going to stampede the cattle and run them across. Soon we heard them shooting and whooping then followed the roar of the cattle coming down the road, horns and hoofs a-pounding. Into the water they went nearly damming the river, but they did not lose one, and it surely was a sight to see that many cattle on such a wild run.

Everything went along smoothly but the owners never forgot to come every day or two, and ask for what money I had, which kept me broke. We had many comical and serious troubles with which to contend. One night the boys all went up to Preston, then a small village, and yet a small village, to get some tobacco and I was left by myself. We had no beds, only shake-downs on the floor, and had no guns, so I kept the old axe by my side at night.

Page 305

B.F. Colbert

That night I heard some one come to the door and give it a push, then walk around the house and stop at the chimney. The chinking was pretty well knocked out, so one could see into the shack. I lay there just as long as I could stand it, thinking that some one was looking through at me. Then I got up with the axe in my hand, opened the door, slipped around the way the footsteps went and when I got to the chimney corner up jumped a big black object. My hat went one way, and the axe the other. It was a big hog. I was looking for a man, not an animal.

The owners wanted me to run the outfit another year but would not pay enough wages so they got two brothers by name of Nichols to manage it. Just about that time Charles Gooding and another man told me one day to bring over the skiff as they wished to speak with me. Gooding then introduced me to B. F. Colbert2 who wanted me to run his ferry. We made a trade for a year. I then saw Randolph and Shanon to get what was coming to me for wages. Shannon said he did not have anything but Randolph gave me a spotted pony and a bridle. I had an old saddle, so the pony and I arrived at Colbert's house on Sunday evening, with a small bundle of clothes tied to my saddle, and with no money. I think it was Jan. 8, 1871.


2Benjamin Franklin Colbert was born in the Chickasaw country near Horn Lake, Mississippi, December 18, 1828. He died March 11, 1893. He was the son of Martin and Sallie Allen Colbert, who were both Chickasaws. O'Beirne, Leaders & Leading Men of the Indian Territory, Vol. 1, Choctaws & Chickasaws; Vol. 14, Chr. of Okla., pp. 180, 181; ll Id., pp. 793, 804, 810, 812, 818; Vol. 9, Id., p. 312. His first wife was Martha McKinney, a Cherokee, by whom he had two children, Mary, who married a white man by the name of Thornton Downing. His second wife was Malinda Factor, a Chickasaw, who died November 9, 1853. His third wife was George Anne McCarthy, a white woman, by whom he had three children, Holmes (who was a member of the Chickasaw Commission that negotiated the Atoka Agreement), Texana, who married a white man, (railroad agent at Colbert) named Winter Bradley, for whom the town of Bradley, Oklahoma, was named, and Eugenia, who was educated at Miss Mary Baldwin's Seminary at Staunton, Virginia, married Lucien Perry.

His fourth wife was Lou Goldsby, a Cherokee, by whom he had nine children, only five of whom reached maturity, namely, James Colbert, now deceased, May, now of Columbia, Missouri, who married Wyatt S. Hawkins, of Hannibal, Missouri, Frances, now of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who married W. M. Baker, of Staunton, Virginia, Harley and Richard, both of whom reaching mature manhood, are now dead. The two daughters, May and Frances, were also educated at the Baldwin Seminary at Staunton, Virginia.

Page 306

Will describe the place: it was a large two room house with a hall-way, two shed rooms behind making a four-room house, painted white. There was also a two room log house about ten feet from the east end; one room was used for kitchen and the other a sleeping room for the negro cooks.

There was no stove, only skillet and lids for baking. I don't know how they did so much cooking for there were never less than from ten to twenty eating there. However, they put up good food and plenty of it. On the northwest, about thirty yards from the main house there was a cottage, twenty by twenty feet, with double beds and fireplace. They called it the office.

The main house had a large veranda in front, also a Bermuda grass yard with three or four large oak trees, and there was a good orchard on the southwest side. On the east side was the garden, with some two or three graves. East of the garden was the barn and north of the barn the cow and hog lots with a large lot of near five acres in Bermuda grass.

It was a pretty place. The main road was about one-fourth of a mile north of the house and led down to the ferry. Several hundred acres were in cultivation and there were houses for the negroes in different parts of the fields. It was a stage-stand where the coaches changed horses and drivers. One coach went south at night and the other went north usually about noon.

They always had two drivers, one for each way. Colbert kept around 100 head of hogs and milked eight to ten cows. He owned a ranch about twelve or fifteen miles northeast, where he kept several hundred head of cattle. After a few years he moved all his cattle up near Erin Springs where he broke out a large farm and fed his stock of beef cattle. His oldest son, Martin Colbert, had charge of this farm.

Well, that Sunday night I put my feet under a table and slept on sheets for the first time since leaving Clark county, Missouri. I got down to the boat next morning and found two negroes running it when I took charge. The boat carried four two-horse

Colbert home

Page 307

wagons. The toll was $1 for a two-horse wagon, $1.25 for four-horse wagons and $1.50 for six horse wagons; 25 cents for man and horse, and 10 cents a head for loose cattle or horses.

There was very heavy immigration all through '71 and '72 and we would put across from 25 to 200 wagons per day besides loose stock; it was also the main road for freight between Fort Gibson and Sherman, Texas.

The freight wagons were from four to six mule teams with trail wagons and ox wagons from four to five yoke of steers to each wagon besides trail wagons. Their load would weigh 30 or 35 hundred weight on front wagons and 20 to 25 hundred weight on the trail wagon. There would be from 20 to 30 teams to an outfit under a wagon master. The boat ran on a cable across the river and made a round trip in 25 to 40 minutes if we had no trouble and a good current. But many times we had trouble with the teams coming on the boat and sometimes with the drivers.

We had to deal with all kinds of people, good and bad, and sometimes they would walk up to me, talk a while and say, "You're an Irishman," or German or a Frenchman. I told them "Yes" generally and they would ask from what part of the country—or what town if they were foreigners. Being fairly well posted in European geography, I would name some town, and they went away pleased, thinking they had found a fellow countryman.

There was a store on the Texas side about 200 yards from the ferry landing. In it were sold groceries, some dry goods and whiskey—it was called the "First and Last Chance." Coming from the north it was the first chance to get whiskey and was the last chance, if going north. It did a good business. There were only two houses between the river and Carriage Point, a distance of 12 miles. The first house was Dan Collins' on this (south) side of Colbert Station. At Carriage Point, Calvin Colbert, a half brother to B. F. Colbert, had a farm and ranch.

There was no Durant then, or Calera, or Caddo. Up the river (west) there were only two or three farms; first was J. A. Smith's, then Jim Colbert's, then old Sam Love's. For ten miles

Page 308

down (east) the river road to Bloomfield there were two places, Charles Eastman's and Holmes Colbert's, the latter a cousin of Frank Colbert. Northeast about six or seven miles there were a few Indians by name of Hillhouse, and old Abijah Colbert, an uncle of B. F. Colbert, and some others around Bloomfield. There were a good many also towards Tishomingo and Rock Creek.

If you found a trail through the woods, you would come to an Indian's cabin. They all lived away from any road. You could get on your horse and take a course with no fences to bother you. Grayson County, Texas, was very thinly settled then. Sherman, Texas, was our nearest town and it was just a very small place. There wasn't even a dwelling house and garden on the west side of the square.

The Indians used to bring down ponies to sell or trade for whiskey and tobacco. The store would not buy them, so I bought a good many. There was another store a little over a mile south of the river on the road owned by John Maupin and Jim Maupin, his brother.3 John was one of Quantrell4 and Anderson's men, and when I did not buy they did.

Nearly every week or two, Indians would come four or more in a bunch, go across to the store and stay a few hours, come back loaded down with whiskey and feeling good. Then I had to keep my eyes open for they would shoot and we would have trouble. One day six of them came, stayed a few hours, then came back. Jim Hillhouse was Indian sheriff and he used to watch for them. That day he had been on the lookout, and when he met them at the turn of the hill not over 75 yards from the boat landing they went to shooting. Jim had the Indian constable with him.





John R. Maupin

Page 309

When the shooting began my two negroes ran down the river and crawled up the bank to see it. I sat on the boat until they came back to tell about it. Five of the Indians and two horses lay dead. Where I was I could not see any of it, but heard bullets whistle. There were several other killings before and after that. In those days there were two laws, the Indian law if they killed one another; but if a white man killed an Indian or the Indian killed a white man the U. S. law took hold of it.

There were several deputy Marshals scouring the country all of the time, but it might be several months later before any arrests were made and many times none were made. It was a lawless country. People had to go to Ft. Smith to court and possibly stay there months before their case came up, so they kept their mouths shut.

It was in 1872 that Colbert rented out a half interest in the ferry to John Maupin. Maupin moved his stock, put them both together. C. Gooding and Jim Colbert moved back home. I was sorry to see them go; both were fine men and Jim Colbert was just as fearless as they make them. Jim Colbert had charge of the store and I had the boat; we got along just fine, tho Jim was rather reckless sometimes.

As travel was getting heavier one boat could not do the work, so about the first of March they put in another boat. Each boat could carry six to seven two-horse wagons. The upper boat ran on a steel cable moved down just far enough apart so that the two boats would not collide. I had now to look after both of them. Times were surely getting hot. The railroad bridge was building. Railroad outfits moving back and forth, and the further down the M. K. & T. got the more freight wagons crossed the river.

Denison started to be a town, and it surely was a tough one. Towns north started as the railroad came along. The Texas Central was building at the time, and Warner was its (north) terminus. Several houses were built down in the bottom and a depot and town-site laid off with a man by name of Captain Faulkner selling town lots. There were two saloons, a dance hall, a hotel, and a

Page 310

few dwellings, a turn table for cars, two or three big wells. Both tracks (M. K. & T. and H. & T. C.) ran side by side up to Denison.

Finally they compromised but for a good while we thought the town would be in the bottom. Frank Colbert, John Maupin, Thornton Downing, and I bought 20 acres of land in an addition to Denison from Joe Lain, a farmer. Their one-half of it was on Main St. north—now worth millions. We got afraid that the town was going to be in the bottom and Colbert received a tip that it would be, so he and Maupin sold out to Munson. Colbert kept after me to sell night and day but I still held; he said that the town would be in the bottom, said he got it from the chief engineer, so I sold, like a fool, only doubling my money. Downing sold soon after that, but Denison kept growing.

John Maupin, as I stated previously to this, was in Quantrell's and Anderson's command in time of the Civil War, and the James boys, also Cole Younger and some others were comers and goers with us; got well acquainted with them. Frank James went by name of Frank Rapp, Jesse by name of Williams. If I had time and space I could relate many funny incidents, that occurred between them and the Denison and Sherman officers.

There was at one time a company of soldiers camped at Colbert Station two or three weeks. Every few days some of the officers would cross and go to Sherman and back. One morning the Major came down to the boat with two or three soldiers and a four horse wagon. He had with him another man in civilian's clothes and when they walked up to me the Major said: "Mr. Malcolm, let me introduce you to Mr. Fred Grant, President Grant's son." I replied jokingly, "Major, you are giving me taffy." "No," he said, so I shook hands with Mr. Grant. He was a gawky, fleshy looking fellow, as I remember.

Along towards Fall travel became very heavy and the railroad bridge was nearing completion. Christmas came and the first passenger train went across on Christmas afternoon, 1872. Soon after that all freight wagons stopped and our travel was cut half.

Helen Maupin

Page 311

The year 1873 came and they discontinued one boat, and Colbert and Maupin audited up the books, then settled up with all hands. When my turn came, Maupin and I had some hard words over our settlement. I told Mr. Colbert to look out for another man to take my place. "Oh, no," he said, "Maupin will have nothing to do with the ferry this year; only one-half interest in the store, so you just keep going; I will raise your wages." So I stayed. B. F. Colbert was one of the best men I ever worked for. He was strictly honest and a perfect gentleman in every sense of the word, and expected every one else to be the same.

The year 1873 wore along with just about the same routine. Mr. Colbert got to studying about a bridge. He and I had several conversations in regard to it that spring and he went to Washington to see about getting a charter. Gov. Throckmorton of Texas and others assisted him in getting it. When he came back he told me that he got an introduction and shook hands with the President, and he was surely proud of it. I asked him if he would not have to get some authority from Texas. "No," he said, "the Chickasaws claim to the high water mark on the south side of Red river and when I sold my land over in the bottom I reserved the right for a boat or bridge landing and a way out." Finally he got his charter that Fall. He let the contract for building the bridge to a man by the name of Baker, I forget his initials.

They started work—I think it was in 1874, but the old ferry boat kept making its regular trips across the river, with its various troubles though with a greatly decreased travel, although the country commonly called "the Nation" was certainly increasing in population both in town and country. Work on the bridge began in the Spring but progressed very slowly. Travelers in wagons still kept coming, but we had no more freight wagons except a few from Sherman up to Pauls Valley.

The Fort Sill people hauled their supplies from Colbert Station and Caddo. Durant did not increase very fast; Caddo was far ahead of it at that time. Durant was a very small depot and Charley Case was both night and day agent, and telegraph operator. Col-

Page 312

bert, Maupin, and Gooding put a store at Colbert Station. Charley Kingsberry was postmaster. Then Frank Colbert put up a custom corn and flour mill, a small cotton gin and saw-mill, all combined in one three-story house.

The bridge was finished either in 1874 or '75, I forget which. However, it only stood about eleven months and a few days, for I tended the bridge all the time. In August '75 or '76 there came the biggest overflow that was known on Red River. The railroad bridge went out first. One span of it floated down and lodged against the north pillar of the wagon bridge, but did not even shake it. There was a heavy drift of logs and trees coming down and much of this lodged around the middle pier. Sometimes it would break loose then big cotton-wood trees would strike it endwise and bounce back like rubber balls. Frank Colbert and I measured how far the bridge stood above the water. It measured fourteen feet from the bridge to the water. It was guaranteed by the contractor to stand up to twelve feet, but the center pier was battered off the piling by the heavy drift. I was out on the north span and a boy by the name of Liddell was about twenty steps behind me, when the pier and the two middle spans went out and the boy went down with the wreck.

It did not take me but a few seconds to get off the span. We shouted to the boy to stay on the wreck, that we would send the skiff after him. A man by name of George Hall ran down to where the skiff was tied and put out after the boy finding him about 20 miles below, where the wreck had lodged on the Texas side of the river. He got back home next day.

Thirty thousand dollars were gone in a few minutes, the cost of the bridge. The south pier and abutment went out that evening, leaving one pier on the north side with the span still standing, which stayed there for several years. That night Colbert told me to be ready to go to Atoka to make out a bill of lumber for another boat. Next morning he got off a little before I did and when I got up to Colbert, Maupin met me a short distance from the depot, and told me that there were a lot of men at the depot marooned.

W.B. Maupin

Page 313

Frank Colbert met me at the end of the platform and said that about thirty men wanted to get across the river if I could put them over and that Harding, the Superintendent, (of the M. K. & T. R. R.) was among them. Colbert introduced me to them telling them they could trust in what I said. Harding then asked if I could get them across, I told them I could if I had a small boat, but had none as the small skiff we owned got away last night. Maupin spoke up and said that a pile of lumber near at hand was his and to help myself. I got a carpenter to help me. Harding asked him how long it would take; I told him until about two o'clock. We went to work and had a skiff finished by two o'clock.

Harding had an engine and a flat car to take us all to the river; when we got there I asked who wanted to go first. I think Harding said he would. I asked him if he could swim and he said yes. I took him alone the first trip to see how things went, for there were large shirls in the river and if the skiff got into one of them we might have to swim. We prepared for it by taking off part of our clothes, but got along fine. There was a train standing on the Texas side track partly in the water, but I got all the men across that evening.

Harding asked me if I would transfer the mail and passengers for the next few days. We arranged a trade that night. I made another pair of oars so that two of us could row the boat as it was too hard a job for one man. We transferred passengers and mail for over a week. At about ten A. M. came one train and at eight to nine P. M. came the other. Finally the railroad company got a boat built after about seven or eight days.

When the lumber arrived for Colbert's boat, Harding wanted to keep me, but I had promised to help Mr. Colbert, so with the aid of a carpenter and some other help we had the ferry running again in about ten or twelve days. The boat was 80 ft. long by 16 ft. wide. We had to run it by oars until we got a cable again and I had charge of it for over a year.

I then rented for two years, married the second year, in 1879 and moved to Texas on a farm that I had bought a few years be-

Page 314

fore. I lived there two years and sold out everything but six horses and a mule. I was getting ready to go to southern Texas. I went to Denison one afternoon and met Frank Colbert who wanted me to take the ferry, farm, and mill at Colbert Station, and the prairie farm.

We arranged a trade, and I took possession Jan. 1, 1883. Colbert was at his cattle ranch on the Washita for four years more. Then I had to quit the river on account of my health. About two years previously Colbert built on the hill5 above the ferry a large two-story house of eight rooms. There were around 800 acres in cultivation in the Ferry farm with a pasture of 300 or 400 acres. The prairie farm had 240 acres at that time and he had more broke out until there were over 600 acres.

I have related a few incidents which happened, but many I have not told, though some were funny and some rather serious. Many an evening Mr. Colbert would relate stories of the time when the government moved the Choctaws and Chickasaws to this country, and how he got the river farm and the ferry. He was about one-eighth Indian, a Royal Arch Mason, a splendid business man, and the best friend I ever had.



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