Captain John Hart, Part I: The First Recorded White Man to Set Foot on the Red River in Texomaland

The Expedition into Uncharted Territory

We find fur trapper, John Hart, satisfying his debts in the Buckeye State* and heading south to three-year-old Arkansas Territory in 1822. * There, John acquired a horse, or maybe two, a couple hundred dollars, gathered up a party of hunters, and set out for more fur trapping adventures. His party consisted of 9 white men, a Creek Indian guide, and his dog. The men left Ft. Smith and found a bounty of game. This hunting expedition would prove disastrous.

The hunters killed at least one deer a day, and some days, they bagged 20 deer. When they had exhausted the game in that region, they moved on to the Washita River basin. ** Again, they found the area full of game, but winter was settling in. A month later, Indians attacked the party and killed two of Hart’s men, and Hart’s men killed 15 to 20 Indians. The Indians regrouped, recruited members from various tribes, and came back to Hart’s camp full force. However, this only led to continuous battles with Hart ending up the victor and the Indians suffering numerous losses of lives.

The Separation

Hart’s men had become fed up with the constant skirmishes, and the Indians had seized all of their horses. Hart tried to discourage his men from leaving. He tried to convince them that all the hides were so valuable that they needed to stay. Hart’s dog was not a mouthy dog, for it did not bark, and they could camp all winter without the dog warning the Indians where they were. But, Hart’s reasoning fell on deaf ears. The men felt that since the horses were gone, they were not on an even playing ground with the Indians, and they would surely die.

The men promised to store all the hides, ammunition, and goods in a cave, and return with assistance as soon as they could reach the nearest settlement. Hart never heard from them again. John Hart, his guide, and his dog carried on with their fight until the Indians killed his guide all the while moving away from their camp. Not to be conquered even when the Indians managed to separate Hart from his dog, who Hart believed was also killed, he counted his stores, killed a buffalo, and dried enough meat for 20-30 days that he could carry on his back.

Hart set out to return to his old camp remaining vigilant. A few miles away from the camp, suddenly, something jumped on him. It began whining; it was his dog! The dog, all excited, was jumping and hugging him, and Hart fed it. In between bites, the dog stopped eating to hug and kiss Hart more. They slept and found safe the next day what Hart and his men had left behind: 68 packs of deer skins, 50 bear skins, the beaver and otter skins, ten cases of honey, and 14 cases of bear's oil, plus Hart’s broad axe, foot-adz, augers, chisels, drawing knives, and a chopping axe.

The Canoe

Unphased by his aloneness in an uncharted wilderness, Hart chopped down the biggest cottonwood tree in the Washita River bottom. This tree was five feet in diameter and over 60 feet long. He chiseled a foot off of the tree’s diameter and used that wood to begin burning the middle of the log for a length of 60 feet. Hart burned and chiseled and burned and chiseled until the inside of his canoe was 3 ½ feet wide. Water could rise up to ten feet above the bottom of the this canoe while it floated. Hart fashioned a bear skin covering and attached fastenings to the canoe so he could drag it to or land on deposits in the river bottom. The spring rains would come to make the Washita waters rise, but Hart was prepared.

At some point during the four months it took Hart to build his canoe, he had collected some Indian friends. The dog and Hart said goodbye and floated off for the nearest settlement, Jonesboro, in Arkansas Territory. He navigated the Washita, then the Red for about 500 miles, rested in Jonesboro for 11 days, and moved on down to Pecan Point on the Mississippi River. He hoped he would find a ship to New Orleans there, but no. He rested and floated further downriver until found a ship to which he could sell his hides. Three years after starting out on a potentially lucrative fur trapping expedition, Hart was financially stable once more. During these years, Texas belonged to Mexico. The Mexican government imprisoned men for fur trapping in this region while Indian attacks were common.

Texas Independence

Hart built a house in Jonesboro in the fall of 1825, built a 60-ton boat, and successfully traded furs until 1836. The Texas Revolution was boiling hot. Hart had two sons, Hardin, 19 or 20 at this time, and Martin D., 14. (1) Hart enlisted in a volunteer unit in the Texas army to fight for the Texas Independence War and took his sons with him. The unit elected him captain.

Captain John Hart, discharged on October 26,1836, returned from the war with his sons in tow to make his home Warren, Texas (today’s Fannin County). He became sheriff in 1837 and served in volunteer campaigns fighting Indians. Texas awarded Hart 320 acres for his service plus a headright and a league of land. In 1836, Texas awarded all citizens a headright for a league and a labor of land. *** Hart patented 120 acres of this land in Fannin County in 1839. Two hundred acres laid in Hunt Count unpatented.

In all, Hart paid $55.00 in taxes on 8,201 acres of land and six work horses in 1840. He formed a partnership with brothers John and William Baker in 1838. They cleared 17 acres of land in Preston Bend (aka Washita Bend) for this enterprise. They built three houses, fenced the property, dissolved the partnership, and Hart become the sole owner. He leased the land to a tenant, the Indians killed that man, and then Holland Coffee (famous of Preston Bend) squatted on this land. Hart sued Coffee for the land and lost. Hart’s situation becomes nothing but dangerously sticky from this point on. (2)

Stay Tuned for Part II: Murder, Hardin Hart, and Martin Hart.

*The Buckeye State of Ohio gets its moniker from the nut of the buckeye tree whose markings look like the eye of a deer. The Native American’s word for the nut was hetnuck which meant buck’s eye. The 1840 presidential campaign concreted Ohio as the Buckeye State because William Henry Harrison’s opponent’s tried to discredit Harrison by portraying him as hard cider-drinking man in a log cabin. Harrison’s campaign managers spinned this intended black mark into showing Harrison as the “Log Cabin Candidate”, and Ohio became nationally known as the Buckeye State.

** We don’t know if this was in TX or OK

*** Under the Constitution of 1836, all heads of families living in Texas on March 4, 1836, except Africans and Indians, were granted "first class" headrights of one league and one labor (4,605.5 acres), and single men aged seventeen years or older, one-third of a league (1,476.1 acres).


1. 1853 Map of Preston and Washita Bend, Courtesy Red River Historian:

2. Preston Bend Today





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