Stanley Nelson

River journeys during the 17th and 18th centuries were picturesque and hazardous.

A variety of vessels, each designed for a specific purpose, were commonly used.

Out of necessity, frontiersmen possessed some knowledge of boat construction. But ultimately, the safety and reliability of the vessel depended on the craftsmanship of the maker.

The riverman – or flatboatman – who made his living hauling goods along the nation’s streams was temperamental, crude and hard charging. His life was filled with risks and dangers.

In 1837, the Natchez Courier printed an article on the flatboatmen and the old modes of river craft still seen then in great numbers along the Mighty Mississippi despite the advent of the steamboat.

A portion of that story follows:




The majority of deck passengers on upward-bound boats are often flatboatmen, returning home after disposing of their freight and boats. Jingling their dollars in the faces of those who are going to market, they brag of bargains and amuse them with extravagant tales of the state of the market, which they call "bamboozling."

The appearance of flatboatmen, with their loose, coarse, brown trowsers, red or blue shirts, the sleeves drawn up to the shoulders, their rough, determined looking faces and athletic limbs, is exceedingly picturesque.

The life of a flatboatman is an exceedingly laborious one; the boat committed to the current, does not float idly down to its destined port, but the constant exertions of its "hands" are requisite to keep it from almost hourly shipwreck; the current of the Mississippi is always sweeping against one or the other of its shores, and the flatboat, if left to itself, would be dashed against the convex side of every bend—and the whole course of the Mississippi is only a series of bends; therefore, on turning points the utmost vigilance is necessary to work the boat and keep it out from the bank against which the natural direction of the current would carry it.

When the wind blows hard against the shore, the utmost exertions of the half dozen muscular men, who form the complement of flatboatmen, cannot always enable them to counteract the force of both wind and current, and many boats are dashed to pieces. From the wrecks which at intervals strew the shores of the river, the proportion of boats wrecked in their descent must be very large. Sometimes, and indeed most usually two boats' crews unite, and with their boats secured side by side, by their united strength are better able to resist the current.

The old race of professional flatboatmen, the chief of whom, Mike Fink, the elegant pen of Morgan Neville, Esq., has immortalized, is passed away. Flatboatmen now are Western farmers, with their sons and hired laborers, whose lands lie on the river and whose markets are the lower towns of the Mississippi. The Yankee farmer loads his wagon or sleigh and hauls his produce to the nearest market town, the Western farmer loads his boat and floats his produce a thousand miles to Vicksburg, Natchez and New Orleans; the Yankee farmer returns home in his empty sleigh or wagon, the Western farmer sells his substitute for a wagon, his boat, with his produce, and goes back to his farm as deck passenger on a steamer.

I have met with representatives from every farming district of the Ohio and upper Mississippi on the Levee at New Orleans, a hardy, sober, industrious class, little understood and often grossly misrepresented, under the abused term of "Flatboatmen."

The traveler seldom sees steamboats on the Mississippi unless under way. At every landing, however insignificant, flatboats are always to be seen loading and unloading, giving employment to one or two stores and keeping business, at least, alive. Near Princeton {Washington County, Miss., just above Louisiana} a steamboat passed us, and although it was not two-thirds across the river, we were unable to read its name, painted in large letters on the wheel-house, without a spy-glass. This fact will give a Northerner some idea of the breadth of this great river.




Shortly afterwards an "ark'' floated by. This vessel differs from the flatboat, keelboat and broadhorn, in its construction. A solid, oblong raft of timber, twelve feet wide and fifty or sixty long, is the groundwork. On one end of it is erected of rough boards, a sort of covered pen, for cattle and fowls. On the other side is a rude inclosure roofed like a house, often containing a chimney, and in which the family live.

If a farmer from the neighborhood of Pittsburgh or Cincinnati sees a piece of land on the lower Mississippi, in one of his boating expeditions, which pleases him, he returns home, sells out, builds an ark, embarks with his family, and committing himself to the waves, after a voyage of five or six weeks, arrives at his new home, ties his ark to a tree, removes his house, stock and family to dry land, commences chopping down the forest, opens a wood-yard, becomes thrifty, buys negroes, grows rich, and is at last a planter. Many of the first families in the Southwestern country, after traveling to Pittsburg from the Atlantic cities, have committed themselves to an ark and so come to this country.

We have passed two of these floating houses today. On the last one, was an old grey-headed man and an equally ancient female, comfortably clothed in coarse materials, sunning themselves and smoking their pipes, in the low space left on the bottom of the ark between the dwelling and the stock-pen. A middle-aged stout yeoman in a long-tailed blue jean coat and snuff-colored trowsers, was standing bareheaded at the long paddle which served as a helm, shading his eyes with his hair as he stared at our passing boat. Two women in caps and coarse but tidy gowns were seated near him on the top of the dwelling (which was the upper deck of the ark) knitting.

Half a dozen white-headed urchins were crowded in a low door, straining their eyes at the grand steamboat, and three or four large dogs equally curious, were gazing at us from the top of the cow-pen.

A fire burned on the bottom of the ark, between the two habitable divisions; the hearth was a rude pile of brick, with an old stove-pipe for chimney. The pot was boiling and a third female was preparing the evening meal.

Two strapping fellows in their shirt-sleeves, working mechanically but idly at an oar, two or three chickens and a proud cock strutting about, a lamb, which appeared licensed to stray from the pen as a pet, the head of a good-natured looking cow protruding from a window, completed the whole. It was altogether so pretty a picture of domestic happiness, that I could not help looking upon it without feelings of envy.




The flatboat is somewhat similar in its construction to the ark which is the most primitive mode of navigation. The flatboat is made to convey freight. It is a covered shed, five or six feet high, with a bottom sufficiently strong to sustain it, and impervious to water. This shed is covered by a double layer of boards, laid so as to be water-tight, and bent over a ridge-pole running through the centre from stem to stern, so as to form a curve sufficient to shed rain. A portion of the boat at the bows, which are square, is set off for a caboose and sleeping-place for the hands, of which there are usually from four to six. The remainder is filled with freight.

Some of these boats will carry from eight to twelve hundred barrels of flour; when light, they draw but six or eight inches, but when loaded, two feet and a half. Some of them are laden altogether with flour, others with horses, others with sheep, or pork alive and in barrels, fowls, cattle and produce of all kinds; some are even freighted with negroes, purchased in Virginia, and embarked at Guyandotte on the Ohio. When flatboats are unladen of their freight, they are sold for what they will bring, which is from twenty to sixty dollars, and the owners return home for ten dollars on a steamboat.




Keelboats are not so commonly seen now as formerly. They are in number about as one to ten compared with flatboats. They are of similar construction to the freighting canal-boat, and used for the same purposes. They are sometimes assisted in descending the river by a square sail, and altogether cut a better figure than the ark or flatboat

Before the introduction of steamboats, the keelboat was the sole medium of river commerce. Leaving its freight in New Orleans, and re-loading with purchased articles (both comforts and luxuries) it was propelled up the Mississippi, with great labor, by poling along the banks of the river, and laying to every night. A voyage from Pittsburg to New Orleans, at that period, often consumed five months. It can now be made in thirty days.

The keelboats are now disposed of with their cargoes at New Orleans, being in great demand as oyster barges, for which, with some change, they are admirably fitted.

The broadhorn is only a larger and squarer species of flatboat.

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