The History of Caddo Lake

A History of Caddo Lake

Caddo Lake is the only natural lake in the entire state of Texas. The lake is known world-wide for it’s beauty.

The following article is taken from The Uncertain News (Volume 1, #2) dating back to the Summer/Fall of 1996.
Since this publication is simply a small-town newspaper, and apparently is now longer printed and hasn’t been for some time,I did not get permission to reproduce this article, so please keep in mind that I didn’t write this or claim it to be of my own creation. That said…

The Awesome Birth of Caddo
by Jacques Bagur

For ages into the past, Caddo Lake was not a lake at all. It was the bottom land valley of the Big Cypress River, a bayou wilderness, aboriginal homeland of the Caddo Indians (link). The actual beginning of the lake was an awesome, catastrophic event, a great flood, according to legend told by the Indians. Early white settlers elaborated on the Indian legend and gave it a new twist. These pioneers about the great earthquake of 1811 centered near New Madrid, Missouri (link). This quake shook the Mississippi River Valley and created a new lake, Reelfoot Lake (link) in western Tennessee. This lake looks very much like Caddo.

A famous 19th century geologist, Sir Charles Lyell (link), added support to the myth of Caddo when he suggested in his book, ‘Principles of Geology’, that the northwest Louisiana lakes partially owed their origin to the New Madrid earthquakes because of the massive force of these quakes. So white man’s knowledge of the big quake was added to Indian legends of the flood and the awesome birth of Caddo Lake was related by early settlers as the story developed into legend.

Here it is – the mythical legend of Caddo: “The dark waters that formed Caddo Lake roared through the valley in a great torrent on that terrible night of December 15, 1811, when the great New Madrid earthquake gave this continent its most terrific shake of recorded history. That night, with it fearful rumblings, hissing, fissures in the earth, tidal waves upon the bayous, and shocks felt thousands of miles away, was the birth night of Caddo. Flood waters poured over the swamps and lowlands and inundated the home of the Caddoes to form thousands of acres of open water. Indians told how ‘the earth trembled, and had chills and fever in the night’ and floods rushed over the lands. A wise chief of the tribe had premonitions of disaster. Gathering all the people of the villages, he led them to the safety of high ground, and they lived to tell the story.”

This earthquake theory of origin for Caddo Lake is still repeated by many people today. It was not until recently that historians demonstrated that Caddo Lake was actually in existence a few years before 1811, so the lake could not have been formed by the New Madrid quakes. Natural geologists and research historians have left little doubt that the lake was formed about the year 1800 by log jams on the nearby Red River. These were nature-made log dams caused by dead trees and other river flotsam, piling up for miles, aided by the slow current, sand bars and shallow water of the Red. Beaver added their dams, and the mass obstructing the river was called the great Red River Log Raft (link #1 – link #2, and pictured below). Waters backed up by the log jam finally caved in the natural river banks at a river bend just east of present-day Caddo Lake. These waters spread out over the level plain and into the valley of Big Cypress Bayou, creating a large body of water. If this break in the banks coincided with Spring-time rains and high-water in the Red, the result would have been sudden and dramatic flood.

A century later, about 1900, geologist Arthur Veatch (link) stood on the shores of Caddo during a low water period and looked at the thousands of uniform, partially decayed tree stumps standing upright in the lake bottom. He said these were silent testimony to a great catastrophe. So the Indian legend was correct, after all. It must be remembered that the Indian version did not speak of an earthquake. That was the white man’s addition. Indians said they felt the earth rumble, but this can be caused by the surge of water. The pent-up waters of the Red, rushing out over the level plain, would have been experienced by the Indians in precisely the way their story recounts: The earth trembled and floods poured over the land where the tribe had lived. The chief, probably aware of minor flooding from previous years, wisely moved his tribe just in time.

From the birth date of Caddo until the 1870’s, the lake was actually fed by the meanders of the Red River as it flowed around the log jam. This was in addition to waters flowing into the valley from the Big Cypress and smaller tributaries. Dynamite was invented in 1860, and by 1872 members of the US Engineers (now Army Corps of Engineers) were mixing nitroglycerin to create underwater explosions to shatter the Great Red River Raft. The work, authorized by congress, was to open navigation on the Red River north of Shreveport. Navigation was never successful but without the log jam and the overflow of the Red, the waters of Caddo began to recede, slowed only by a natural sediment dam which had formed during the log jam days at the east end of the lake. By 1900, the lake was almost gone except for water flowing in the channel of Big Cypress Bayou as it meandered through the valley, creating a river delta where the lake had once been.

Politicians upriver in Jefferson, Texas were not happy. The once thriving port city had lost all its importance and power. Political interests wanted to bring back the days of navigation. During the high-water log jam days, steamboats had brought trade and transportation from New Orleans by the Red River route through Louisiana and Caddo Lake to Jefferson. The town had boomed as the river port to North Texas. Thus in 1914, at the urging of Jefferson politicians, the US government built a dam near Mooring’s Port, Louisiana, to recreate Caddo Lake at near the same level of the log jam days. For some reason, lost in the past, a lock in the dam was not built, so navigation from the Red River was not accomplished. It was a mute point anyway. Railroads had come, spanning the West, and the steamboat days of old Jefferson were gone forever. But Caddo Lake was back, this time to stay. The original 1914 earthen dam was rebuilt in 1970, thus ensuring a permanent lake for most of the 20th century.

Why is Caddo Lake so Important?

This is a very personal question for me. I spent many of my growing up years on the lake, and was taught to appreciate the lake, and I have taught my 3 sons the same way.

Here is a link to an intersting historical find:

Sha’chahdínnih, or Timber Hill

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