Map of Red River

THE BLACK HAWK sunk at the mouth of Red River along the Mississippi in 1837. This U.S. Army Corps of Engineers map shows how the juncture of the Red and Atchafalaya rivers with the Mississippi has changed over time. 

During the 19th century, multiple steamboat disasters were recorded along the Mighty Mississippi. Steamboat travel was hazardous due to boiler explosions, sawyers, caving banks and many other factors, including when the captains of competing boats decided to have a race.  

When a fire broke out, the outcome was almost always disastrous unless the vessel was close enough to shore to make a landing.  

Two days after Christmas in 1837, the steamerBlack Hawk went down at the Mississippi’s juncture with Red River in lower Concordia Parish.  

Many on the vessel were poor immigrants. Their names are unknown today. Several women, as in other steamboat disasters, were remembered for their heroism during the horrific event.  

At least half of the vessel’s 100 passengers and crew died when theBlack Hawk was destroyed following a horrendous boiler explosion.  

Such explosions drew much ink in newspapers in the U.S. at a time when young nation’s western rivers were primarily considered as the Mississippi and her tributaries. As historian Louis Hunter (Steamboats on the Western Rivers) has written:  

“The unexpected suddenness and devastating force of steamboat explosions held a morbid fascination for the public, attracting greater attention and arousing more concern than other disasters on an equal and often larger scale. Although not confined to any section of the country, steamboat explosions were a peculiarly western phenomenon.  

“Next to racing they became the most prominent feature of the steamboat legend, and the racing tradition, of course, drew much strength from its association with stories of overloaded safety valves and bursting boilers. Passengers with fares not yet paid, it was said, were sent by the clerk to the aft part of the vessel, where as assets of the boat they would be least in danger from explosions.  

“Irishmen were preferred to slaves as firemen on old and worn-out boats with boilers in dangerous condition since their deaths would bring no financial loss to the management.”  

 “This awful calamity,” wroteLloyd’s Steamboat Directory in 1856 in an account of the 1837 sinking, “which hurried more than fifty human beings into eternity, occurred on a cold wintry night, while the Black Hawk was about to ascend the Red river, on her passage from Natchez to Natchitoches. The boat had a full load of passengers and freight, including ninety thousand dollars in specie belonging to the United States government.  

“She had just reached the mouth of Red river, when the boiler exploded, blowing off all the upper works forward of the wheels. The pilot and engineer were instantly killed.  

“The number of passengers on board is stated to have been about one hundred, nearly half of whom were women and children. No estimate of the number killed was ever published, but it appears from the best accounts we have that a majorityof the passengers and crew perished.  

“A large proportion of the passengers on western steamboats are persons from distant parts of the country, or emigrants, perhaps, from the old world, whose journeyings are unknown to their friends, and whose fate often excites no inquiry. When such persons are the victims of a steamboat calamity, their names, and frequently their numbers, are beyond all powers of research. So it appears to have been in the case now under consideration.  

“Instead of a list of the slain, we are furnished only with its catalogue of thesurvivors, and these, alas, appear to have been merely a forlorn remnant. The only cabin passenger whose name is mentioned in the list of killed furnished by the clerk, was Mr. Delude, of Natchez. Among the deck passengers, fifteen were known to be lost, three others died soon after the explosion, one was observed to sink while attempting to swim ashore, and twelve more were scalded severely, and fifteen slightly.  

“A subsequent account added to the above list of killed Mrs. Delancey and her three children, of Boston; Dr. Van Bantz, drowned, and Wm. Tolling, who was mortally wounded and died within a few hours. The latest and most authentic account stated that not less than fifty persons must have perished by the explosion of the Black Hawk.  

“The crew of the boat suffered toconsiderable extent. The pilot was blown overboard and lost. Henry Sligh, colored engineer, was killed. George Johnson, another engineer, was dangerously wounded. Felix Ray, barkeeper, was very badly scalded. Four firemen were killed, and one was wounded. Two deck hands were killed. The cook, steward, and cabin boy were all dangerously wounded. Two slaves belonging to Mr. Duffield were drowned.  

“After the explosion, the wreck, being all in flames, floated fifteen miles down the stream, and then sunk. Some of the passengers were taken off the burning wreck by the flatboat. It is mentioned that the females on board of the Black Hawk rendered essential service by baling and assisting to extinguish the flames. A part of the cargo and seventy-five thousand dollars of the species were saved. Several valuable horses, which had been shipped at Natchez, were drowned.”  

 

THE NAVIGATOR  

 

First published in 1801, the bookThe Navigator, written by Zadok Cramer, became the guidebook for anyone traveling the westerns waters of the young United States. Price at $1 per copy, the book went through 25 editions with updated information provided in subsequent editions following the original.  

Cramer published condensed maps of the length of the Mississippi and three other rivers with key information on how to navigate each section of each stream.  

Cramer’s narrative leads the traveler downriver with the left bank generally representing the east side of the river and the right bank the west.  

To follow are Cramer’s descriptions of the local portion of the river where sinking of the Black Hawk occurred is as follows:  

Homochitto River. Enters in on the left side, though a willow shore in a bend; it is a small river.  

Buffalo Creek, 6 miles below Homochitto: This is a small creek, entering in on the left side.  

Loftus’ Heights and Fort Adams, 2 miles below Buffalo River, are on the left bank. Here is a large eddy on the left side, immediately above the fort; in order to land near the fort, you must run near the lower end of the eddy before you touch it; then pull in, and it will carry you up to the landing place. Pinckeyville, a small village, lies 7 miles eastward of Fort Adams.  

Line of Demarcation, below the fort: This line was agreed up between Spain and the United States several years prior to the latter government taking possession of Louisiana as ceded to it by France. It crosses the river at 31 degrees N. latitude.  

About one mile below the line is what is call the Great Cutoff, which is only five miles across, and it is reckoned that the river runs fifty-four miles round.  

Red River, 9 miles below the line: This is a very considerable river, entering in at a large bend on the right shore.  

Bayou Chaffalio {Atchafalaya River}: Be careful {when going down river} that you keep pretty close to the left shore from Red River below this place, to avoid being drawn into the current, which runs out on the right shore with great rapidity. This is the first large body of water which leaves the Mississippi, and falls by a regular and separate channel into the Gulf of Mexico. Notwithstanding the magnitude of the river, it is not navigable to the Gulf of Mexico, owing to an immense floating bridge, or raft across it, of many leagues in length, and is firm and compact in some places that cattle and horses are driven over it. This astonishing bridge is constantly augmented by the trees and rubbish which the Chaffalio draws out of the Mississippi, which it leaves in the westernmost part of that remarkable bend just below the boundary, and has every appearance of having been formerly a continuation of the Red River, when the Mississippi washed the high lands from Clarksville to the Bayou Tunica, (or Willings Creek), the traces of which are yet visible by the lakes through which a large current passes when the river is high. The distance on a straight line form Clarksville to the Bayou Tunica is not more than 8 miles, but by the present course of the river, it is about 50.  

Three Sisters, Islands Nos. 119, 120 and 121: No. 119 is nearest to the left shore, 120 lies to the right of it, and 121 still further to the right, close in a bend on the right shore; channel past these is always on the left in low water, may go between 119 and 120 in high floods; the river here is straight for several miles. No. 119 is about three miles long.  

Bayou Tunica, below the Three Sisters: Is a small creek emptying in on the left side, on which are considerable settlements, cotton farms, etc.  

Island No. 122, 6 miles below Bayou Tunica: is in the middle of the river – may pass on either side.  

Tunica Village, 4 miles below No. 122: Is situated on the left bank of the river, which for about 30 miles above, has been forming nearly a complete circle, and now comes within one mile and a half of nearly a complete circle, where it runs nearly in an opposite direction. This is called the Tunica Bend.  

Point Coupee Church stands on right bank, and opposite on the left side Bayou Sara empties in. About nine miles up this creek is a beautiful settlement. Cotton grows here in great perfection.  

Sand bar opposite Bayou Sara: Pass on either side; it is not seen in high water.  

Fausse River, or Point Coupee: This is an old bed of the river, and something like the Tunica bend, but not so large; it was cut through a few years ago by some Canadian Traders, by which a distance of about 20 miles is saved; it is on the right side of the present channel. Here is a beautiful settlement called:  

Point Coupee Settlement: Here commences the embankment or Levee on the right side of the river, and continues to New Orleans, and it is here where the beauty of the Mississippi and the delightful prospect of the country open to view. The banks of the river from Point Coupee on the right, and from Baton Rouge on the left side down to the city of New Orleans, have the appearance of one continued village of handsome and neatly built houses. They are frame buildings, of one story high, and stand considerably elevated on piles or pickets form the grounds, are well painted and nicely surrounded by Orange trees, whose fragrance add much delight to the scenery.  

Thompson’s Creek, left shore: Up this creek also are some fine cotton plantations, and the soil is remarkably rich and produces great crops.  

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