Tragedy on the Atchafalaya: The Wreck of the Buckeye and DeSoto

In February of 1844, Ouachita Parish residents were excited to learn the great Whig orator, Henry Clay was coming to speak in New Orleans.  The fastest and easiest way to get to New Orleans was on board a steamboat.  The steamboat Buckeye was selected by Ouachita citizens and it was a happy and jovial group that boarded the boat.  Among the known passengers that day from Ouachita were Alexander Breard, his young nephew William MacConchy, Isaiah Garrett, his wife Narcissa and their three and a half year old son Frank.  Alexander had left behind in Monroe his two year old daughter Charlotte and his wife Elizabeth, due any time with their second child. 

            Unfortunately, the group didn’t make it to New Orleans until the day after the speech.  Many blamed the captain of the Buckeye for being late.  He was a Democrat, carrying a boatload of Whig passengers to a grand Whig gathering!  Nevertheless, Henry Clay graciously spoke to the group and there was a grand procession in New Orleans.

             The passengers spent several days in the city taking in the sights.  The time came to go back home to Monroe.  Many of the passengers who had come down on the Buckeye were reluctant to get back on board.  The Buckeye though, was one of the fastest ships on the river and many of the original passengers came back aboard.  By this time, the boat was crowded to capacity and was carrying a full cargo of freight for the Ouachita trade.  As the boat left New Orleans late on February 28th, Isaiah felt uneasy.  He sent his wife and son to bed and returned to the upper deck.  The next morning, March 1, 1844, between three and four o’clock in the morning, Narcissa was awakened by a hard jolt.  She had been sleeping in the top berth of their cabin and, disoriented, fell to the floor trying to get out of bed.  Isaiah returned to their cabin and told his wife to “Bring Frank”.  She would later find out that the Buckeye had run into another steamboat, the DeSoto.  Within five minutes, the Buckeye sank to her hurricane deck in twenty-five feet of water.

            There was mass panic below and above decks.  The Buckeye was sinking bow first.  Luckily, the DeSoto remained afloat and passengers and crew were helping pull people out of the water.  Survivors reported that they saw Alexander Breard swimming towards shore with his nephew on his back.  The two were never seen again. 

            Isaiah and Narcissa were trying to reach safety through the panicked crowd.  They were separated when a wall of water came rushing in, sweeping them out into the river and separating them.  Narcissa was pulled to safety on the DeSoto.  Isaiah was found later half drowned.  Little Frank was found by a family friend who was looking for his own children. Frank was floating on a mattress after being torn from his father’s arms in the rush of water.  He was passed out of a skylight to safety.  Meanwhile, the scene on board the DeSoto was heart-rending.  Narcissa would later report:

“By [this] time it was daylight, but oh the heart-rending scenes!  Everyone seemed almost crazed with grief, mothers screaming for their children, children being brought in stark and stiff out of the water, whilst others could not be found.”

            Close to eighty people drowned that night.  Isaiah, Narcissa, Frank and the other disaster survivors were taken to New Orleans for recovery.  After their recovery, the Monroe survivors slowly made their way back home.  Life would never be the same again for those who had lost loved ones or who had survived that horrible night.  Eighteen days after the disaster, Alexander Breard’s widow Elizabeth would give birth to their son.  She named him Daniel Alexander Breard, Jr.  Narcissa Garrett had split her wrist bone falling out of bed that night and a year later, due to complications of the break, would have to have her left hand amputated.  As horrible as that night was, the wreck of the Buckeye and DeSoto would later become just a footnote in history.

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