Stanley Nelson

In 1838 in Vicksburg during a national economic depression, a

war loomed between the struggling business community and the

hundreds of flatboatmen whose vessels lined the town landing along the

Mississippi River.

The town merchants - influential in city government - had the

upper hand. In fact, the town tried to tax the flatboatmen out of


In the 1998 issue of “Water Log,” published by the Mississippi-Alabama

Sea Grant Legal Program, Richard McLaughlin wrote that "of

perhaps greater concern to the local population was the economic and

moral consequences presented by the large influx of strangers from the

north. Through the eyes of local merchants, the flatboats were seen as

serious and unscrupulous business competitors. Although the

merchants depended on the boats for their wholesale supplies, they

deeply resented the fact that local citizens were going down to the

waterfront and buying their goods directly from the boatmen."

Wrote H. S. Fulkerson in his 19th century book (Random

Recollections of the Early Days in Mississippi): "At that day, the

flatboatman was an important factor in the business of the place as well

as its social status." It "was no uncommon thing to see in the Winter

months as many as four or five hundred 'broad horns' as the flatboats

were called, tied up at our landing. They averaged about four men to the

boat, giving a transient population of some fifteen hundred to two

thousand souls, of this class alone. These flatboats were in active

competition with the regular dealers in the city, and no good feeling at

the time existed between them."


Fulkerson recalled that during the winter of 1838 the "hostility

came near culminating in a bloody war between the flatboatmen and

citizens. The City Council had levied a tax of $1 per month on all

flatboats, which was promptly paid.

"Subsequently the tax, or wharfage, was raised to $2 per day,

which was also promptly paid. But this heavy tax failed to run the

flatboats off, and at a later meeting of the Council an ordinance was

adopted raising the tax to $50 per day. At this the flatboatmen rebelled

and determined upon resistance by force, if necessary, if enforcement of

collection were attempted before adjudication in court could be had.

"To this end they armed themselves with the one or more rifles or

shotguns on each boat, and with heavy bludgeons cut from a boat load of

hickory hoop-poles lying at the landing. There were four hundred boats

at the landing, and in two hours time the sum of $2,000 was raised to

test the matter in court. But before the proceedings could be instituted

the day for enforcement of the new ordinance arrived, when two

companies of military, in full uniform, with muskets and fIxed bayonets,

and a piece of ordnance in front ... the whole preceded by the Mayor and

Chief of Police, took up the line of march for the levee.

"A breastwork of cotton bales had been made opposite the

wharfboat owned by Hall and Eddie, who were in the rebellion and who

had a cannon loaded for the expected conflict. The flatboatmen

assembled at the landing with their clubs, the guns being near at

hand-mingled freely and fearlessly with the soldiers, and it is said,

spiked their cannon. After much quarreling and threatening, and some

feeble attempts at casting off the lines of some boats, disgust at the

situation suddenly seized the citizens and soldiers, and they 'marched up

the hill again,' concluding it was best to let the courts decide- the


"Finally, the Circuit Court decided against the city, and my

informant, an intelligent gentleman who was an active party on the side

of the resisters, says, taxed Guion and {Seargent S.} Prentiss, the owners

of the landing, and for whose benefIt the suits were instituted, with the

costs. The distinguished lawyer, Joseph Holt, who in later years acquired

a national reputation, was attorney for the flatboatmen. And thus ended

what at one time threatened to be a bloody conflict."


In a look at the court process testing the legally of the flatboat

taxes and fees, McLaughlin wrote in ”Water Log”: "Historical writing shows

that the original Circuit Court decision went against the city. In the

absence of a written opinion, we can only speculate about the court's

reasoning, but it is likely that the decision was based on the fact that the

Court did not believe that Vicksburg had legal jurisdiction over

submerged lands of the Mississippi River. This conjecture is grounded

upon the actions that the city took in February 1839 when it went to the

State Legislature to amend its city charter to expand the limits and

boundaries of Vicksburg to the point of the state boundary in the

Mississippi River.

"In addition, the new charter created a Mayor's Court, which had

the legal authority to usurp all of the duties that had formerly been

entrusted to the Warren County Circuit Court and authorized sizeable

fInes and imprisonment for any violation of a city ordinance. These

actions indicate that the city was attempting to correct the legal

defIciencies that caused the unfavorable Circuit Court ruling preventing it from carrying out its aim of forcing the flatboats out of Vicksburg.

"The following year, Vicksburg again amended its charter. The

newest charter authorized the city to require all flatboats to obtain a city

license and pay ad valorem taxes on all merchandise sold within the city

limits. The city thus laid the legal groundwork necessary to aggressively

enforce its policy against flatboats."


McLaughlin also explained: "The rampant land speculation, bank

failures, cotton fortunes, and flatboat trading that dominated

the Mississippi frontier period of the 1830s and 1840s created a unique

economic, political, and legal environment that will not be duplicated.

Under our common law system, decisions made more than 150 years ago

continue to govern today's world.

"We are still living with the consequences of Justice

Sharkey's decision" in the legal cases involving the flatboat case "For

example, it is possible that hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue has

been lost to the state as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in 1844

that turned over all submerged lands to private owners. We may only

speculate at how many millions of dollars in oil and gas or other

mineral royalties have been foregone, the amount of eminent domain

damages paid to private individuals for public improvements to

submerged lands, or how many acres of fragile aquatic areas have gone

without necessary state management or protection."

" ... Today's courts are dealing with many of the same

submerged lands issues that confronted their judicial brethren during

the Sharkey era. The same types of economic and political pressures that

led to the 1838 Flatboat War and the" court "decision are still with us. It

is up to today's judiciary to foresee how its decisions will be perceived by

future generations and to rule accordingly."

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