From the “Red Sea” to the Red Mountain – Part II

In Part I, I described a trip that my wife, Lida, and I took to St. Francisville, LA, Natchez, MS, and Mer Rouge, LA, in July. Mer Rouge is the hometown of Lida’s great-grandmother, Eliza Davenport, but we had never been there. We knew little about Eliza and even less about the town.

We arrived in Mer Rouge on a blistering hot afternoon. Our first stop was the small Episcopal church, where we hoped to find some of Lida’s family names—Davenport, Cotten, Douglass—on the handful of nearby cemetery monuments. No luck there. But then I noticed that the main street was Davenport Avenue, on which stood Davenport Insurance and, on the brick wall of another building, a mural depicting figures under a sign for the Davenport cotton gin. We were in the right place.

The helpful clerk in the main street pharmacy directed us to the local library, where she thought we could obtain a copy of a book about the early history of Mer Rouge and Morehouse Parish. She then phoned Tommy Davenport Rankin, whom she thought would have a copy too. Remarkably, we were there the one day of the week the library was open, and she reached Tommy on the first try. The town patriarch, Bill Davenport, was in a bank board meeting, but we met up with him in the two-seat barber shop later. Tommy and Bill turned out to be Lida’s second cousins.

Christopher Columbus (C.C.) Davenport, Eliza’s brother, originally published Looking Backward: Memoirs of the Early Settlement of Morehouse Parish in 1911, as a compilation of weekly columns he’d had written while serving as editor of the Mer Rouge Democrat. Tommy eagerly gave us copies, which the local Lions Club had recently reprinted in pamphlet form.

The Davenport family journey begins with Eliza and C.C.’s grandfather, Josiah Davenport, who charted his own remarkable course by ocean, river and land in 1806. Born in 1771 in Providence, Rhode Island, Josiah took to the sea at the age of 21. He owned two ships, the Brunswick and the Cleopatra, which plied the cotton trade between Savannah and Liverpool for 14 years. But in 1806 he sold the Cleopatra in Savannah to a man who paid him partially in cash and partially in African slaves. Journeying to New Orleans with his slaves, he struck a bargain with Abram Morehouse, a Kentucky entrepreneur who had contracted with Baron de Bastrop to settle a large tract of land in the territory’s northeastern region. Morehouse borrowed a sizable sum of Davenport’s money, then persuaded him to use his slaves to pull a pirogue full of supplies up the Mississippi and Ouachita River to what is now the region around Monroe and Bastrop. Josiah desired to return to the sea, but when Morehouse defaulted on the loan, the Rhode Islander found himself not only a reluctant slaveholder, but now also a cotton farmer and landlocked Louisianan. The area they settled became known as Prairie Mer Rouge, or Mer Rouge for short. C.C.’s memoirs don’t explain the reason for the name. But Tommy claims that either the local Choctaws or the white settlers, looking back east from “the first hill in Louisiana west of the Mississippi,” saw vast fields of red clover waving in the breeze, looking much like a sea of red.

The remainder of C.C.’s memoirs describes the local families and life on the frontier. Josiah himself was known for wearing buckskin until his death in 1835. In about 1858 his granddaughter Eliza (who also went by the nickname Lida) enrolled in college in Cincinnati. Her father James Davenport passed away that year, leaving the family farm to her, C.C. and their two brothers. But the outbreak of the Civil War forced her to return to Mer Rouge. (C.C.’s memoirs also end in 1860.) She later married Robert Cotten, a local physician. It is believed that in the 1870s Robert and Eliza migrated to the new city of Birmingham, Alabama, where Robert treated victims of the city’s early cholera epidemic. His name first appears in the 1889 Birmingham City Directory. They also played a role in the founding of the Church of the Advent, the city’s first Episcopal church.

Before Lida and I left Mer Rouge, Tommy drove us past the farmhouse that Lida’s family had photographed in 1951. He said the original Davenport house stood somewhere behind it, which got Lida to thinking about doing some amateur archaeology in the fields there. Tommy then took us to the top of the “first hill in Louisiana.” There in the town cemetery he showed us the final resting place of several Davenports and other founding families of Mer Rouge. You can’t see red clover any longer from this hill, only fields of corn, cotton and soybeans. It’s an even longer view—about 300 miles, I’d guess—to see the Red Mountain that overlooks what became Eliza’s new home, the Magic City. Over time their children, including Lida’s grandmother, Clara, settled on the side of the mountain in what are now the Forest Park and Highland Park neighborhoods. Lida herself, I think, feels more akin to the forests and hills. She even attended the University of the South, up on a mountain in Tennessee. But driving across the Louisiana flatlands that day, in a heavy rain towards the Mississippi Delta, she said she wants to return to Mer Rouge someday. Maybe get some Davenport soil under her finger nails and keep digging up her roots.

Coming Soon: From the “Red Sea” to the Red Mountain: An Afterward