Stanley Nelson

Few journeys were more dangerous during the frontier era than traversing the nation’s rivers on a flatboat. But the challenge was taken because river travel was the fastest way to move the family, livestock and possessions to a new home and life.  

Because of this, many frontiersmen had harrowing stories to tell the grandchildren about the life and death journey aboard a flatboat. In Natchez, Anthony and Anne Hutchins were among the storytellers, relating their travels from South Carolina to British-held Natchez in the spring of 1773.  

The Hutchins made this monumental exodus because the place they called home was being ripped apart by a brewing revolution pitting neighbor against neighbor.  

Five years earlier in the spring of 1768, Hutchins had faced an angry mob of 100 men at the Anson County courthouse that was furious with the British government over taxes, fraud and the officials who governed them. Hutchins had served the British in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), rising to the rank of captain.  

After the conflict ended, he received a half-pay pension and was appointed sheriff by North Carolina governor William Tryon, who based his political choices on the recommendations made by elected justices of the peace, all loyal to the Crown.  

In 1768, some of the anti-British forces in Anson County took over the courthouse, held judges as hostages in the courtroom and later complained to Gov. Tryon about Hutchins and other county officials. They said Hutchins oppressed the people, failed to properly perform his duties and complained that as sheriff he imprisoned men and then functioned as judge with the prisoner never having a trial.  

They also complained about taxes, telling the governor what was becoming a widely-held stance: "We conceive that no people have a right to be taxed but by consent of themselves."  

Mississippi historian Dunbar Rowland said the people in the Carolinas “were involved in serious difficulties, with promise of actual warfare between the revolutionists and the settlers of the back country, who in considerable measure adhered to the king."  

Neighboring Georgia's condition was said to be that of a civil war, dividing colonists who favored revolution and those who opposed it.  

At this time, wrote Martin W. Sandler in his 2008 book on the Atlantic (Atlantic Ocean: The Illustrated History of the Ocean That Changed the World), American colonists though torn apart by the brewing revolution enjoyed a thriving economy, the fastest-growing in the world:  

"Colonial industry was expanding and a distinct culture had arisen. It was not an American culture, but a British American culture. On all levels, colonial politics, and government were based on English models. Throughout the colonies, the prevailing social values were also English. On the eve of the events that were to profoundly change both the New World and the Old, the proudest boast of most of Great Britain's American subjects, was that they were Englishmen."  

TONEY’S ARRIVAL ON SLAVE SHIP  

Caught in a crossfire between rebels and loyalists, Hutchins and some of his neighbors made the difficult decision to leave the turmoil of the colonies and head west to the vast wilderness of Natchez country, hoping to escape the hostilities and to carve out a new life in the wilderness far from the civilized world.  

At a time when the average life expectancy of a colonist was about 43 years, Hutchins defied the odds. He was already in his 50s in 1772 and would live another three decades in Natchez. His slave Toney, who came from Africa on a slave ship, was around the same age as Hutchins and may have lived to age 100.  

Hutchins' wife, Anne, was much younger than Hutchins but shared Anthony and Toney's rugged frontier moxie. Anthony and Anne had four children by 1773. The first two were twins born in February 1768.  

Hutchins traveled alone to Natchez in 1772. Upon his return home, he staked a claim with the British West Florida government in Pensacola for 1,000 acres on Second Creek. Hutchins selected a home spot beside two large Indian mounds that parallel Hwy. 61, about nine miles from the present city limits south of Natchez.  

CONSTRUCTING A FLATBOAT  

According to Richard Sparks (Memories of Fifty Years), Toney recalled that during the early spring of 1773 the party of neighbors packed furniture, belongings and farm implements on wagons and began the journey west. They herded livestock along the way.  

The party crossed the Blue Ridge and Smokey mountains to the Holston River in eastern Tennessee. There, they encamped and built flatboats for the journey by water to Natchez.  

A frontiersman had many skills and one crucial to survival was the ability to build a raft to cross a stream or a flatboat to travel by water with cargo. The men began cutting timber, carving plank from green oak and using wooden pins to fasten the planks together to form the bottom, applying pitch, tar or other material as caulking.  

Flatboats varied in size, but were usually rectangular with boarded sides two to three feet high. The crafts were eight to 10 feet wide, about 35 feet long, had a light draft, a cabin in front for the family and maybe a shed in the back for livestock.  

In the Hutchins' case, a number of flatboats were built, some just for livestock, and as the flotilla moved downstream it looked very similar to a western wagon train but on water instead of land. It was also noisy -- the sounds included men shouting, some cursing, as they steered the flatboats, children laughing and crying, cows mooing, chickens cackling and horses neighing.  

ATTACK ON THE TENNESSEE  

They journeyed from the Holston to the Tennessee River for 650 miles to its confluence with the Ohio, and a short distance from there to the Mississippi River. At Muscles Shoals on the Tennessee, Chickasaws attacked the flotilla. Some of the flatboats grounded and one loaded with hogs abandoned.  

Toney said the firing from the edge of the forest along the bank was so hot at one point that he and others had to swim from one boat to another to get out of the line of fire. One of the men in the party was shot and survived. As an old man, Toney would recall that those Indians were "the worst" he encountered in his life. The party moved downriver all night without stopping and eventually escaped their attackers.  

Once they entered the Ohio River, they stopped and rested for a week. Resuming their journey, they arrived at New Madrid on the Mississippi three days later. The population there consisted of Spanish, Africans and Native Americans.  

Toney said it was a rowdy place. Some in the party walked the countryside, found the soil to be "level and rich" and were considering settling there. But that idea was dashed when one night a black man warned them that some of the Spanish planned to rob and murder the whites and confiscate their belongings, livestock and slaves. Alarmed, the party moved out in the darkness and traveled the 600 miles down the Mississippi without stopping and without any more trouble.  

ARRIVAL AT NATCHEZ  

The flotilla eventually docked at the mouth of Cole's Creek in present-day Jefferson County, where some of the travelers remained. Toney said the Hutchins pushed on to Natchez and landed at the mouth of St. Catherine's Creek, which then flowed into the Mississippi at the northern end of Ellis Cliffs. The flatboats were unloaded and the belongings and livestock taken three miles inland to their new home on Second Creek where they camped and rested.  

When the 1,500-mile, two-month journey ended in May 1774, no one welcomed the dry land under her feet more than Anne Hutchins. Despite Indian attacks and the dangers of river travel she had kept her four children safe. They included six-year-old twins, Mary and Samuel, and the two younger siblings, Elizabeth and Thomas. All four would soon have a new sibling.  

Anne was seven months pregnant.  

(This 2017 column has been revised

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