Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lessons In Leadership from the Red River Raft

Captain Henry Shreve of Louisiana
One of the most remarkable and little-known stories of American history is the source of many fascinating lessons on leadership. Captain Henry Shreve, pictured above, is standing on top of what historians call "The Red River Raft."

When Napoleon sold 828,00 square miles of French land to the United States in 1803, a transaction we call The Louisiana Purchase, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson determined that the United States had better explore this vast new land. Everyone knows that the President appointed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to investigate the Missouri River, but very few realize that President Jefferson also organized two additional expeditions to explore the two other major rivers that dump into the Mississippi from the west - the Arkansas River and the Red River.

The Red River Basin
The team assigned to explore the Red River was called The Freeman-Custis Expedition, named after Thomas Freeman, a surveyor, and Peter Custis, a medical student, appointed by President Jefferson to lead the scientific team. The expedition was delayed for a variety of reasons but finally set off in May of 1806 from the spot where the Red River flows into the Mississippi River, on the eastern boundary of what we now know as the state of Louisiana. One month into the upriver journey, not yet even halfway across modern Louisiana, the team reached a settlement called Natchitoches. At the time, the Red River north of Natchitoches was unexplored by anyone but the Caddo Indians - and with good reason as the Freeman-Custis Expedition would soon discover.

The Logjam on the Red River
The expedition left Natchitoches and shortly came across an obstacle in the Red River, a hindrance that eventually become known as "The Red River Raft." In essence, the team had found the largest and oldest logjam in the history of North America. The Oklahoma Historical Chronicle describes the obstruction as being over one hundred miles in length. In some places the logjam completely closed the Red River, creating lake lagoons where the water backed up into tributaries. It was not a solid jam the entire way, for a few places along the Red River Raft being comparatively free of driftwood. But in some places men could travel across the Raft on horseback, the logjam being so dense and so aged that a considerable vegetable growth arose, including full grown trees. It was said that in a couple of places along the Raft, extending for several miles, one could even pass over the river itself and be unaware of its presence. In 1941, Dr. Norman Caldwell wrote a fine description of how the great Raft was formed centuries earlier:

Drift formations began at the mouth of the river as a result of a higher stage of water in the Mississippi, the waters of the lower Red River being at such times quiet or "backed up". Below Alexandria the Red River is naturally meandering and of slow current. Drift wood floating in such quiet water would accumulate into obstructions, such formations tending to "tighten" as the waters receded. Once established the raft continued to grow, the average yearly accumulations amounting to about one and a half miles of drift . . . As the obstruction grew and progressed up the river, it rotted away at its lower end and disintegrated, the river thus becoming clear again. The raft was thus like a great serpent, always crawling upstream and forcing the river into new lateral channels.

By the time of the 1806 expedition, the Red River Raft had grown to well over 100 miles in length and was continuing to snake north as the southern end decayed and the northern end grew. It made passage to the northwest via the Red River a journey filled with incessant fatigue, toil, and danger, doubt and uncertainty. In other words, it was unnavigable. This is the reason why the Freeman-Custis Expedition, what Thomas Jefferson himself had called at the beginning "The Grand Excursion," became a grand failure. No new geographic information about the upper reaches of the Red River was obtained.

The Red River mission was a political setback for President Jefferson. The materials that Freeman and Custis did collect were vastly overshadowed by the achievements of Lewis and Clark, who had returned in 1806. The Red River was one vast logjam, and there would be little exploration of northern Louisiana, southern Arkansas, southern Oklahoma and northern Texas because of the inability to navigate the Red River.

Enter Captain Henry Shreve

Henry Miller Shreve
Henry Miller Shreve ((October 21, 1785 – March 6, 1851) has often been called the "Master of the Mississippi," while others refer to him as the "Father of the Mississippi Steamboat." From an early age, he loved the river. Henry began his career on the river by river working on keelboats in the Ohio and Mississippi valley. In 1807, at the age of 22, Shreve made his first trip to St. Louis from the Ohio River valley. Within a few years, he was captaining his own vessel, transporting goods between New Orleans and St. Louis. Shreve is said to be the first captain of a steamship on the Mississippi, a ship he called "Washington." Though many had predicted the new steamship would fail, its shallow hull and deck-mounted engine allowed for easier navigation. Within a few years, Shreve had a fleet of steamships and revolutionized transportation along the Mississippi and rivers westward. But it was another invention of Shreve's that led to the breaking up of the Red River Raft.

The Snagboat patented by Shreve
In 1827, Shreve patented the snagboat, a boat he used to clear fallen trees and other debris that often clogged the rivers. Just a year earlier, President John Quincy Adams had appointed Shreve as Superintendent of Western River Improvements, a position he held for fourteen years through both the Jackson and Van Buren administrations.

Shreve was ordered in 1832 by Secretary of War Lewis Cass to clear the Great Red River Raft, now over 150 miles of dead wood on the Red River. The task, particularly in 1832, bordered on impossible. But through seven years of incredibly difficult work, extraordinary leadership, and dogged determination, Shreve and the United States Army Corp of Engineers successfully removed the Red River Raft. Shreve constantly battled inadequate funding from Washington, D.C. and the elements, but despite all obstacles, both political and natural, the massive Red River logjam was cleared.

Shreveport, Louisiana, named after Captain Shreve
The area of the Red River where the Raft was most concentrated is now named in his honor - "Shreveport." The people who live in modern Shreveport, much less those who live elsewhere, know very little about Shreve but were it not for his leadership, the areas affected by the flow of the Red River would not be nearly as thriving and progressive as they are today.

It was on April 11, 1833, that Captain Henry M. Shreve and the U.S. Army Engineers arrived at the lower end of the raft and began their work. Shreve brought four "snag boats" and one hundred fifty men to do the impossible. To understand the enormous effort required to clear the Red River Raft, one merely needs to read the contemporary descriptions of the work. Shreve and his men fought the heat, snakes, wild animals, quicksand on the river's shores, all the while fighting a constant battle for supplies from Washington, terrible shortness of funds, mechanical problems, Indian attacks, and a host of other impediments. But Shreve never quit. He never gave up. Eventually, the largest and oldest logjam in North America was cleared.
How Henry Shreve broke removed the logjam of the Red River is a fascinating story, one that teaches us several lessons on true leadership:

(1). What some consider impossible is only seen as a challenge to leaders.
(2). The people getting muddy doing the detail work often never see the end result.
(3). It is the ability to see the big picture that gives perseverance through problems.
(4). Logjams that prevent progress must be confronted, tackled, and intentionally removed.
(5). Those who criticize the removal of impediments to progress are the ones history forgets.


Pastor Clark said...

Great ideas on leadership from this window on the past!

I see a definite correlation to Nehemiah's leadership in rebuilding Jerusalem's walls.

No one remembers Sanballat.

It makes me ponder how much my own rhetoric is merely sound and fury, signifying nothing in the annals of history.

Rex Ray said...

I’ve never heard of one man given such a difficult task—an amazing story.

Once, I was given a command that put me into shock: “HELP ME!”

Our family had gone to Red River about ten miles from here as the crow flies.
At fifteen, I’d swam across where it was narrow in swift water by going downstream. My dad decided to join me on a sandbar, but he was a short way below and the current was too swift.
My admiration of his strong flashing arms turned to shock when his command hit me.
His second call was a plea that shattered my disbelief. He was only fifty feet away and took only a few seconds to get to him.

He put one hand on my shoulder but became alarmed when I continued downstream: “Go to the bank!”

I yelled back, “I am”, and we got to it 200 yards downstream.

I’d been telling him there was a trot-line below him, but decided we had to take our chances and cross it.

He laid on the bank a long time and finally said, “I wouldn’t have made it without you.”

Wade, I could add to your five lessons that our advice may change when we’re on the bank than when we’re in the water.

ml said...

Wade are you sure the development of the raft is accurate? Sounds more like global warming to me. The minute evil people enter something it is destroyed. If a tree falls in the woods and no one else is around is it still the fault of industrialist, capitalist, anti-green developers?

John Daly said...

In our hallway we have a big historical photo of a snag boat and a short story about how the Corps teemed up with Shreve. Between 1824 and 1845, snag boats removed more than 75,000 snags, roots, and trees from the Mississippi River shoreline alone.

History is replete of examples of how men and WOMEN did extraordinary feats that they themselves considered ordinary. Often times I read these tales with discouragement as my life pales in comparison with the realization that thus far in this earthly sojourn, this vessel of clay has done little to advance the cause of aiding his fellow man or advancing His Savior's Kingdom.

Wow! Word verification: usene (or as I see it...use me

Anonymous said...

I read the article from the link you posted and found it quite fascinating. It's amazing to see the kind of effort and work our forefathers put forth in order to make life better.

One thing I noticed in the article is that after it had been cleared, the raft reappeared several times and had to be cleared again. This must mean that (since the area had become populated) people were there and simply watched as the raft reappeared and waited until it was a large hindrance again before acting. Perhaps this can apply to some of the problems we currently face as well.

I pray that I the become the kind of man that doesn't simply shrug off a few logs because of laziness or apathy and wait until I'm burried underneath something huge before I decide to act.

Bob Cleveland said...


I've heard it said (referring to people who are properly motivated, ethical, etc) that the test of a man's character is what it takes to stop him.

I agree with that, on more than one front.

ps: I doubt that any one log thought it was responsible for the jam.... said...


You're funny.


Great observation.

Christiane said...

This word comes to mind: RESOLVE

This is a real story of American
"RESOLVE" defined twice over:
1. unswerving determination
2. unclogging a barrier to

from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (2003):

resolve I. verb (resolved; resolving) Etymology: Middle English, from Latin resolvere to unloose, dissolve, from re- + solvere to loosen, release — more at solve Date: 14th century transitive verb 1. obsolete dissolve, melt 2. a. break up; also to change by disintegration b. to reduce by analysis (resolve the problem into simple elements) c. to distinguish between or make independently visible adjacent parts of d. to separate into the components 3. to cause resolution of (a pathological state) 4. a. to deal with successfully ; clear up (resolve doubts) (resolve a dispute) b. to find an answer to c. to make clear or understandable e. to split up (as a vector) into two or more components especially in assigned directions 5. to reach a firm decision about (resolve to get more sleep) (resolve disputed points in a text) 6. a. to declare or decide by a formal resolution and vote b. to change by resolution or formal vote (the house resolved itself into a committee) 7. to make (as voice parts) progress from dissonance to consonance 8. to work out the resolution of (as a play) intransitive verb 1. to become separated into component parts; also to become reduced by dissolving or analysis 2. to form a resolution ; determine 3. consult, deliberate 4. to progress from dissonance to consonance Synonyms: see decide • resolvable adjective • resolver noun II. noun Date: 1591 1. fixity of purpose ; resoluteness 2. something that is resolved 3. a legal or official determination; especially a formal resolution

Unknown said...


I am greatly troubled whenever I read comments from any young minister like the one you have wrote. It is a good thing for one to desire to accomplish much for the Lord with his life. However, the Lord has only one standard by which he measures “Success”… and it is not found in doing “great things” for him (as man defines greatness).

21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matt. 7:21-23)

He does not account success with the size of your church, the popularity of your books, or your fame among your fellow man. No, he equates success with only one thing; and that is “Faithfulness”.

“Well done, thou good and faithful servant:” are the only words any minister of Christ should desire to hear. Many are the faithful men of God who have labored their lives away in serving their Lord in obscurity and poverty, ever faithful to his calling, of whom the world knows nothing of, who will hear these words.

And sadly many are the unfaithful men who have labored their lives away in serving their own ego and pride, ever reaching for the brass ring of success, who will here those shocking words “I never knew you…”

Grace Always,

John Daly said...

Tis true Greg; those are the only words that I ever need to hear. Not the "depart from me" part mind you :) Thanks for the encouragement.

Bob Cleveland said...


I've been told that before, but like Peg says, looks aren't everything.

And I bet there's a pretty good analogy in there somewhere, too/

Ramesh said...

Great post, Pastor Wade. Caldwell article, points to resurgence of the red river raft many times, albeit in smaller length. Even in 1909, river was not fully navigable.

Thus ends our survey of the Red River raft. As we have pointed out above, the Red River route could not compete with the railroads; far better water routes failed in the same struggle. But, had competition with the railroads been absent, the Red River route would never have been satisfactory. There was always the nemesis of the raft and the countless other difficulties to be met in its course, not the least of which was the rapid fluctuation in the waters themselves. The raft was nominally dead, but likely to reappear if given the least opportunity. As late as 1909 an authority could write: "General Banks found the Red River navigation very bad during the war—and it is not much better now. Boats hardly ever go above Fulton, Arkansas—though the river goes on for hundreds of miles."82

Ramesh said...

Ethics Daily: Burleson Details Ethical Shortcomings at IMB

Rex Ray said...

Even though this post is low on comments; I want to thank you for it has helped to reverse a big mistake I was going to make.

I thought if that guy can remove a 150 mile log jam, surely I can deal with my frustration.

I’d already told my wife what I was going to do even though I knew it was going to hurt her. Another thing happened that day when a friend called and asked what I was doing.

I replied, “Nothing”—not telling him I was composing an ‘adios-letter’ in my mind…I’d show them…I’d had enough.

He asked if I’d go with him to buy some church remolding supplies. (We had combined my uncle and aunt’s SS rooms.)

I started to tell him he didn’t need me, but realized he was just being friendly.

Thanks again Wade—your post is what I needed.

WatchingHISstory said...


You reade Gill, what would he say about Saul's regeneration at birth? Gal 1:15

I have never read Gill but suspect that he would say that he was regenerated at birth, sub-consciously called by His grace, and converted on the road to Damascus, repented and was baptized and consciously obtained a clear conscience toward God.

What is your opinion?

Ramesh said...

Dr. Danny Akin, speaks about GCR and Mark Driscoll:

Download the sermon at SouthEastern Chapel, and pdf manuscript.

The subject of Mark Driscoll occurs at 22:30 to 33:45 of the sermon.

My thanks to Peter Lumpkins post, for the links.

Anonymous said...

"Ethics Daily: Burleson Details Ethical Shortcomings at IMB[hyperlink]"

How can Brian Kaylor sit and comment on a book of ethical improprieties at the IMB while at the same time cheerlead the theft of 5 agencies from the Missouri Baptist Convention????????? I am at a much different place than I was a few years ago. I am less confident in the abilities of my state convention and my study of the BFM2K has lead me to the conclusion that it is in fact NOT an accurate representation of my theological position on a range of primary issues. But theft is theft. Dr. Kaylor’s hero, Dr. Hill, purposed in a premeditated manor to rewrite the charters of 2 agencies and unethically slip it past the messengers of the 2000 Annual Meeting. I was at that meeting. We trusted you Dr. Hill. You lied to us. You stole from us. Shame on you and your lap dog Brian Kaylor. I think I can read for myself and will judge Wade’s book on my own and will encourage this blog readership to ignore the lack of ethics from those at “(un) Ethics Daily” .com

For God's Sake, Shut Up!

© 2009 RevKev

Christiane said...

Good Morning Everyone,

It's me, L's and I was trying to think of a story about removing giant 'log-jams' that would fit this post.

I thought and thought.

Then, came into my mind, the story of dear friends in New Jersey.
Frank was retired and stayed home, while Joan worked. Joan had ordered a brand-new side-by-side refrigerator-freezer to be delivered and installed while she was at work: expecting Frank to supervise the installation.

He did.

The workmen arrived with the appliance on the appointed day and quickly discovered a PROBLEM :

Joan had heavily invested in newly installed kitchen counters.
One of the counters had a breakfast bar on it that jutted out from the main counter into the kitchen proper.

The workmen could not get the new refrigerator to fit past the edge of the breakfast bar. They tried different appoaches, but to no avail.

Suddenly, Frank said, 'wait here'.
He went out to his garage, got a chain saw, came in, and proceeded to CUT THE END OF THE BREAKFAST BAR OFF AND CLEAR THE WAY !
The workmen completed their installation with no more trouble.

So Joan comes home later.
For some reason, Joan says she wasn't surprised at what Frank did.
They had been married for over forty years, and by this time, she was ready for anything and Frank had never let her down, either.

So the next time my own husband aggravated me, all I had to do was think of Frank, the chain-saw, and the kitchen counter,
and I realized that men don't always solve problems the same way we women do. Love, L's

Chris Ryan said...


As a MO Baptist, I share your concern. I wasn't at those meetings, but I don't think that theft occurred. Theft is just what some people want to call it because it gets the troops more riled up. In my study, a very different picture has emerged.

What happened was that the nominations committee had stopped listening to the institutions. They no longer cared about what the institutions thought was needed in what their trustees brought to the table in terms of experience and expertise. The nominating committee had decided that the only thing that mattered was that the trustees would fall in line with the orders coming out of convention headquarters. In the past the committee had opted to listen and generally nominate the recommendations of the institutions. There were accusations that this had become a "good-ol-boys" network, but very few had served as a trustee to more than one institution, even fewer had served three. Something like 3% of trustees in the past 35 years had served both as an institutional trustee and a member of the executive board.

It was not a matter of conservative or liberal or theft. It was a matter of being able to bring to the table the people needed to keep the institutions working effectively. The institutions never had any intention of leaving the convention or not-cooperating. It was the MBC that forced them to stay away and wouldn't cooperate with them once they realized that they couldn't control them.

Also, nothing was snuck through. The information was available for review. If you and others didn't avail yourself of that opportunity, don't blame the boards. said...


Great story!