By Brad Dison
Maria Theresa Fouts was born on November 20, 1821. She was the oldest child of John and Martha Fouts. In 1840, Maria married Criswell Whitlow. Together they had seven children. On May 19, 1854, Maria became a widow when her husband died. Sometime between 1850 and 1856, Sampson “Sam” Raborn moved to Louisiana from Mississippi. Two years after the death of her husband, on October 9, 1856, Maria married Sam. It is not known when Maria’s family ramped up salt production, but the salt works became forever linked with Sam Raborn soon after he and Maria married.
As it was with the Fouts name, prior researchers have misspelled Raborn’s last name as Rayburn, Reyburn, etc. Legal documents, genealogical research, and the headstones marking his family’s graves show his last name to be Raborn. Descendants of the Raborn family still reside in the area.
In 1861, the Union and Confederate forces entered into the bitter and deadly dispute known as the Civil War. On April 18, 1861, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a blockade which was designed to prevent the exportation of cotton out of the South and to prevent the importation of war materials and other goods, including salt, into the South. By July of 1861, the Union Navy had extended the blockade to all major southern ports. In 1862, Union General William T. Sherman wrote, “Salt is eminently contraband because of its use in curing meats, without which armies cannot be subsisted.”
As the Civil War continued, many coastal salt works were destroyed or captured. Inland salt works such as the one near Friendship, which just a few years prior had produced only enough salt for the family’s own use with enough left over to share with neighbors and friends, became more important as salt shortages became common. In December of 1861, the Sparta Louisiana Baptist boasted, “We are of the opinion that with proper management, Bienville parish might supply the whole demand for salt in the Confederate States.” Civilians and soldiers needed the salt to preserve food, to make leather goods such as shoes and belts, and for medicinal purposes. Word quickly spread throughout the locality of the abundance and quality of salt at Raborn’s Salt Works.
Core samples taken from the site in the late 1970s and early 1980s showed that the salinity of the brine at Raborn’s Salt Works was 65 ppt (parts per thousand), which meant that every 1,000 grams of brine water contained 65 grams of dissolved salt. In comparison, seawater ranges from about 33 to 38 ppt. This calculation explains the popularity of Raborn’s Salt Works. At Raborn’s, people could produce almost twice as much salt for the same amount of labor as they could if they had used seawater.
As a comparison, I used a Coralife Energy Savers ACLAF877 Deep Six Hydrometer to test several different local water sources and the known salinity of seawater to compare with those provided for Raborn’s Salt Works. Hydrometers, such as the one pictured above, measure the amount of salt in water in parts per thousand (ppt). As this hydrometer can only measure the level of salt accurately up to 40 ppt, a water sample taken from depth at Raborn’s Salt Works would have beyond the range of this gauge.
|Source of Water Tested||Parts Per Thousand|
|Raborn’s Salt Works||65|
|Fouse’s Creek (which drains from Raborn’s Salt Works)||7|
|Mill Creek Reservoir||7|
|My Home’s Water Faucet (Friendship Water System)||7|
In contrast to the way it looks today, Raborn’s Salt Works was a hive of activity during the Civil War. People came from many parts of Louisiana, as well as Arkansas and Mississippi, to make salt at Raborn’s. At its peak, Raborn’s Salt Works consisted of as many as 100 wells, each of which varied in depth from 10 to 20 feet. The wells provided the brackish water called brine from which the salt was derived. Each well was “cased in with notched poles to prevent caving, and a crude pump [was] installed to carry the water to the furnace.” Natural mounds, which surrounded the central part of the valley, were utilized for furnace sites. In the absence of the natural mounds, workers built artificial mounds upon which they placed the furnaces. The furnaces were created from old steamboat boilers, some of which were split in half with wooden bulkheads inserted in the ends. Each well had its own furnace, and each furnace was used to heat from 2 to 4 sugar kettles, some of which held up to 1,000 gallons of brine water. In addition to sugar kettles which were brought up from South Louisiana, Raborn’s Salt Works used “peculiar sugar-loaf kettles,” which were made in Alexandria during the Civil War.
The process of making salt is based on natural or artificial evaporation. Natural evaporation is a slow process in which brine water is placed or pumped into large shallow pans or in shallow pools. Heat from the Sun eventually evaporates the water and leaves only the raw salt. This process usually takes two to three weeks to complete depending on temperature, humidity, and a host of other factors.
Raborn’s Salt Works, like most inland salt works of the era, used artificial evaporation, which was a much quicker process. Workers used a crude pump to pump brine water into wooden troughs which delivered it the kettles. They built fires in the furnaces which heated the water to a temperature where it would produce steam, but not boiling. Boiling the water required more firewood for more heat, and the process was more dangerous. After a while, the time varies depending on the amount of brine water in the kettle and the temperature of the fire, the water evaporated completely and left behind the raw salt crystals. Workers scooped out the salt and repeated the process.
Raborn’s Salt Works did not provide the labor for the salt making process. Customers paid Raborn 2½ bits, or 37½ cents, (1 bit = 12 ½ cents) per bushel of raw crystalized salt for the use of the salt making equipment and wood for the furnace. People found that salt from Raborn’s Salt Works was far superior to what they could purchase elsewhere. Geologist A.C. Veatch contended, “Particularly was this the case in curing of meat, which kept far better when native salt was used. For this reason, they endeavored to obtain salt from Rayburn’s as long as the wells were operated.” At its peak, Raborn’s Salt Works took in $375 per day, which accounted for 1,000 bushels of salt per day. (Adjusted for inflation, $375 in 1865 would have the buying power of about $6,650.00 in today’s money. ) When someone needed salt but had little or no money, Raborn used the barter system to trade salt for produce, meat, leather goods, or whatever else the customer had to offer. The number of bushels produced per day does not include bartered salt.
Raw salt such as that which was produced at Raborn’s Salt Works differed from modern salt because it was not chemically refined. The raw salt could be a variety of colors from pink to dark gray depending on its mineral content, and contained other minerals which were sought for their medicinal qualities. Modern refined salt is treated with chemicals to remove unwanted minerals. Sodium iodide or potassium iodide is added for numerous health benefits. The Salt is also dyed white to make it more desirable to consumers.
While drilling a salt well during the Civil War, workers unearthed the remains of a Mastodon. Similar in appearance to a modern elephant, Mastodons inhabited North and Central America until their extinction some 10,000 to 11,000 years ago. On December 2, 1865, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that they had part of the remains found at the salt works. They described it as being “a piece of the tooth of a mastodon, which has a grinding surface, four by six inches.”
On April 9, 1865, after the bloody Civil War which lasted four years, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. After the blockade was lifted following the Civil War, salt became readily available and production at Raborn’s Salt Works quickly declined.
The investigation continues next week in “Raborn’s Salt Works: Part 3, The Paper Mill Connection.”
If you have any information about Raborn’s Salt Works, please email the Journal at BPJNewsLA@gmail.com.
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- The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), December 8, 1861, p.1.
- CPI Inflation Calculator, https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1865?amount=375, accessed May 15, 2022.
- The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), December 2, 1865, p.8.
- U.S., General Land Office Records, 1776-2015 for John M. Fouts, Ancestry.com, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/1246/images/RHUSA2007B_LA0860-00382?pId=811646
- Harris, Gilbert D. and A.C. Veatch, Geology and Agriculture: A Preliminary Report on the Geology of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, 1900.
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