Location: At the intersection of the Natchez Trace Parkway and the Tennessee River, about 20 miles west of Florence, Alabama
A wise hiring manager once told me that he tried to watch out for people who make you pay an emotional toll to work with them. He might have had George Colbert in mind. Travel on the Natchez Trace, where Meriwether Lewis lost his life on October 11, 1809, was rough and dangerous enough, but crossing the Tennessee River on George Colbert’s ferry added another dimension of aggravation and humiliation — not to mention high prices.
For decades, Colbert’s Ferry was one of the most famous landmarks on the Natchez Trace. Ornithologist Alexander Wilson, a close friend of Lewis’s who went to the Trace to try to investigate Lewis’s death and see to his decent burial, explodes in his journal about the ferry the way we might vent on TripAdvisor about an airline mishap: “I was so enraged that had I not been encumbered with baggage I believe I should have ventured to swim it.”
Just what made Colbert’s Ferry so maddening? No mystery there. George Colbert, also known as Tootemastubbe, was perhaps the most well-known of a set of famous half-Scotch, half-Chickasaw brothers. An “artful and designing” river pirate according to his many detractors, Colbert was equally comfortable in the role of influential tribal chief. He spoke good if unschooled English and dressed in western clothes, but wore his hair long around his shoulders, and rejected cultural destruction in the form of the white man’s education, missions, and whiskey. As he reportedly told a traveler, “Kentuckian bad people, and white man worse than Indian everywhere, though they have much more preach and learn much. Indians never know how to steal until white man learn them. We don’t want any preaching in this country. We are free and we intend to keep so.”
Obviously, Colbert didn’t consider his practices at the river to be stealing. Judge for yourself. We didn’t have to exaggerate a bit in To the Ends of the Earth to imagine the encounter Meriwether Lewis might have had with Colbert during his last tortured journey on the Trace:
Another endless day. The sun reached its zenith and began to descend. And so here he was, at another river. It was wide, deep, dark, and swift. He had finally reached the Tennessee. The river was too big and fast-flowing to swim their horses across, so they had come to this crossing, a place where a man named George Colbert operated a ferry. Neelly said they had to cross here; it was the only ferry within fifty miles.
While Neelly haggled with Colbert, Lewis dismounted and leaned against his horse in the cold twilight. He found his medicine bottle and took a gulp of laudanum. Next to him, Pernia stamped his feet and slapped himself, trying to stay warm. His incessant bitching sounded like the whine of some nettlesome insect.
Lewis half-expected Wilkinson’s man, the one who had escaped, to try to trap him here and finish the job. But the woods were quiet and still. Lewis felt almost disappointed. What the hell could he be waiting for?
Neelly talked to the ferry operator for a very long time. Lewis ground his teeth. This man Colbert was an odd-looking fellow, with white skin, but long plaited hair and Indian features. He had his arms folded across his chest, and he wasn’t saying much. Colbert’s ferryman stood on the flatboat, leaning on his pole and grinning.
Neelly didn’t look like he thought it was too funny. He threw his hands in the air and walked a few steps away from Colbert, then turned back and said some angry words. Colbert’s expression didn’t change. Neelly looked back at Lewis and Pernia and let his hands fall to his sides, helplessly. The boatman laughed and let out a loud fart.
“This is intolerable,” Lewis said. His poisoned arm throbbed. He left Pernia at the edge of the woods and strode down to the river.
“Neelly, what’s the problem?”
“This fella wants eight dollars to take us all across the river,” Neelly said. “A dollar each for us, a dollar each for the horses, and two dollars for the baggage. Gov’ner, that’s highway robbery! I just flat out won’t pay it.”
Lewis looked at Colbert, then back at Neelly. “Did you tell him you’re the federal agent?”
“That don’t cut no ice with him. He’s got the exclusive gov’ment contract in these parts.”
Lewis looked at Colbert’s expressionless face. “And he cannot be bargained with?”
Neelly shook his head no. Just then, Colbert’s eye fell upon Seaman, who had followed Lewis down to the edge of the river. “Ah, you have a dog, too? A dollar extra for the dog. Nine dollars.”
As recorded in both of our novels, the Chickasaws were exceptionally skilled at dealing with Americans on their own terms. But George Colbert’s business acumen left even the sharpest Yankee traders with their heads spinning. Colbert entered the ferry business in 1801, following negotiations with our old friend General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson had been tasked by President Jefferson to have the Army improve the Natchez Trace between Nashville and Muscle Shoals. The plan was to enter Chickasaw territory to cut trees, widen and straighten the old foot path, and erect “stands” to serve mail carriers and other white travelers making the dangerous trip overland from New Orleans to Kentucky.
Among other concessions exacted by the Colbert brothers, George secured exclusive rights to operate a ferry across the Tennessee River, and even made Wilkinson promise to pay all expenses for constructing the ferry boat and cabins, stables, and a kitchen to serve the travelers. The bills Colbert eventually sent to Washington stunned the government, and with no apologies Colbert admitted his prices were high. After all, he was providing a service in a howling wilderness — what did they expect?
That time, Colbert settled his claim for $550 (about $7700 in today’s money). As for the rest, he extracted it from his customers. Chickasaw Indians could cross for free, but white travelers recounted that Colbert regularly charged 50 cents for a man to cross and a dollar for a horse and rider (about $14 in today’s money). If a traveler didn’t have the money — a common occurence — Colbert was happy to bargain. One traveling evangelist recorded that Colbert settled for a pen knife and a few coins. Colbert wasn’t just being a nice guy; the transaction left the preacher penniless in the true sense of the word.
But Colbert was no bully, just picking on the poor and helpless. In late 1812, a fiery, eccentric Nashville attorney and militia leader by the name of Andrew Jackson raised a corps of Tennessee volunteers to help defend New Orleans against British invasion. Unfortunately, Jackson ran afoul of the vindictive General Wilkinson, and after marching 2000 troops some 500 miles on a difficult winter journey, he was abruptly dismissed from service. But in a long and controversial career, this may have been Jackson’s finest hour. Many of the men had gotten sick, and Jackson put up his own money to buy provisions and wagons for the march back to Nashville. He turned over his own horses to carry sick men, and marched beside his troops with encouraging, fatherly words.
In another sense, it was George Colbert’s finest hour too. At the ferry landing, Colbert toted up his charges to transport Jackson’s men across the river and presented the general with a bill that beggars belief at $75,000 (over $900,000 in today’s dollars, though some historians believe it was considerably less). However, war and politics make strange bedfellows. Later in the war, Colbert would lead 350 Chickasaws into battle at Jackson’s side to fight the Creeks, who had attacked Colbert’s Ferry.
Colbert grew very wealthy by frontier standards. Besides the ferry, he owned a home described as a “country palace” by one awe-struck traveler, a fine plantation, and over 100 slaves to work it. Colbert’s home was the site of at least one treaty negotiation between the Chickasaws and the U.S. government. Legend has it that Andrew Jackson threatened Colbert with his sword at this 1816 meeting.
Jackson wrote soon after, “The Colberts say, they will part with their lands for the price the u.States gets for theirs. These are high-toned sentiments for an Indian and they must be taught that they do not possess sovereignty.” After this meeting, the government began to send the mail on a military road Jackson had established through Florence. The loss of revenue was so great that Colbert had to close the ferry. He moved to the main Chickasaw town (today’s Tupelo, Mississippi).
But Colbert knew how to look out for Colbert. In exchange for concessions to Jackson and other federal negotiators, he received bribes of up to $3000 (about $33,000 in today’s money) and a tract of land worth $40,000 (a cool half-million today). Historians of this period of Chickasaw history criticize the Colbert brothers for caring more about “crass but piddling” payoffs (as Arrell Morgan Gibson writes in The Chickasaws) than about the welfare of their people.
As most people know, when Andrew Jackson became president years later, he saw to the removal of Native Americans from their homelands in the east. This included the Chickasaws, who held out against Jackson’s orders until 1832. By then even Colbert could see that the good times were over along the Natchez Trace. White settlers pressed in from all around, and the Chickasaws were not numerous enough to resist any longer. The young people were being corrupted by drink, and many Indians had already been swindled out of their land.
The Colbert brothers and other Chickasaw leaders made several trips out to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), eventually purchasing land for their people near Doaksville, in the vicinity of Fort Towson. The Chickasaws went west, mounted on horses and in their native dress, with a dignity that impressed everyone who witnessed it. They hired a steamboat and many wagons, and brought most of their wealth with them, including their slaves. At least by moving under their own terms, they avoided the worst of the Trail of Tears atrocities. Still, they didn’t have a choice about the matter, a point underscored by the heavily armed military guard that escorted them on their journey and the bad food and unsanitary living conditions that claimed many lives among this defiant and independent people.
George Colbert died in Indian Territory at age 86, a few years after being forced to move, but Colbert’s Ferry lived on. Another member of the family, Benjamin, received the contract to operate a ferry on the Red River between Oklahoma and Texas and eventually became rich serving the Butterfield Stagecoach line, ferrying military troops back and forth, and serving the cattle drives. His prices were even higher than the original ferry across the Tennessee. In several forms, the ferry operated until 1931. Old George would have been proud.