The men and women traveling the rivers of America in the late 18th century depended on the flatboat to get them to their destinations.
Some of the travelers kept journals, describing the people, places and things they saw along the way.
Among those travelers was an Englishman, 23-year-old Francis Baily, who came to America for a few months just to see the country and to experience travel on the frontier. In addition to few items of clothing, Baily carried with him "biscuit, flour, brandy, beef, bacon &c...and having packed up a trunk or two of articles for trading with the Indians (as money with them is of no service)."
Baily's journey from Cincinnati down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers took 43 days. Along the way, he met a frontier legend and wrote about it in his diary that was later printed in a book called "Journal of a Tour of Unsettled Parts of North America in 1796 & 1797."
Baily's plan was to journey to New Orleans and return by ship to England. Arriving in Norfolk, Virginia, months earlier, he did what most travelers heading west did -- he journeyed to the dropping off point on the frontier -- Pittsburgh at the head of the Ohio. A thousand miles west of the settlement, the Ohio enters the Mississippi River at present day Cairo, Illinois, below St. Louis.
Journeying alone from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, Ohio, located on the bank of the Ohio opposite the mouth of the Licking River in northeastern Kentucky, Baily observed Fort Washington, the military outpost built in 1789 to protect frontier settlements on the western fringes of the nation.
He said Cincinnati "is the grand depot for the stores which come down for the forts established on the frontiers; and here is also the seat of government for the (Northwest) territory, being the residence of the attorney-general, judges, &c., appointed by the president of the United States."
Baily met two men who were loading provisions on a flatboat heading to New Orleans. The men granted Bailey and others a place on the vessel in exchange for their labor and departed on Saturday, April 8, 1797. Baily reported that the flatboat moved down river, which was at high stage, at about five to six miles an hour.
DANIEL BOONE & ‘TICK LICKER’
Soon the travelers came upon an American legend when Baily spotted a voyager on the river. The voyager was an "old man, accompanied by his dog and his gun, and a few things lying at the bottom of the boat. We called to him to come into our boat, which he accordingly did.” Only after a brief conversation during Baily learn that their guest was frontiersman Daniel Boone.
Then 61, Boone had gained fame for both his fights and friendship with Indians, who had tortured and killed his son James in 1773. A marksman with his .29 caliber long rifle that he called "Tick Licker" (because he could shoot a tick off a deer without hurting the animal), Boone had led the exploration and white settlement of Kentucky, west of the borders of the original 13 colonies.
"I could observe the old man's face brighten up" when asked about his past exploits in Kentucky, Baily wrote. Boone told the listeners "he was taken prisoner by the Indians" and "interspersed his tale with many a pleasing anecdote and interesting observation."
Baily asked Boone if he felt pride in leading the first white families across the Cumberland into Kentucky for a new life in the wilderness. Boone frowned, shook his head and said he wasn't proud at all, remarking that he "had a great deal of land given him on the first settlement of the country (Kentucky), but that when societies began to form around him, he moved off, and divided his lands among his relations, unwilling ... to live among men who were shackled in their habits, and would not enjoy uncontrolled the free blessings which nature had bestowed upon them. Since that time, he told me he had spent his time a great deal on the frontiers; and at this present moment ... was going to hunt for beavers in some unfrequented corner of the woods ... and enjoy the pleasures arising from a secluded and solitary life."
For 30 minutes Boone talked before bidding farewell to Baily and the others who had crowded around a man who in his day was considered a national treasure. With a wave good-bye, Boone climbed into his canoe with "Tick Licker," his dog and a blanket and went on his way.
‘THE MOST VIOLENT PREJUDICES’
At Port William, where the Kentucky River flows into the Ohio, Baily observed the growth of Kentucky's white population since Boone brought the settlers: "There are a number of boats at this season of the year that come down the river Kentucky from the interior parts of that state laden with flour, tobacco, hemp, &c., which they take down to New Orleans."
"There was another boat at Port William," Baily wrote, "which was going down to New Orleans, and we agreed to keep together all the way as well as we could. It is always most pleasant in going down the Mississippi, where you pass through such an immense tract of uncultivated country, to have as many boats as you can in company, not only for the sake of society, but also in case you should stand in need of assistance during the course of such a dangerous navigation."
On April 11, Baily's party landed at Louisville, Kentucky, which he said contained 200 houses, most "frame-built," and was the last "place of any consequence" on the river. The Ohio was a mile-wide at that point, and a short distance below were the falls where experienced pilots were required to maneuver vessels over "an immense cataract of water, formed by the Ohio hurrying itself with the greatest rapidity over a ledge of limestone rocks, which extend from one side of the river to the other."
Because the river stage was high, the turbulence was lessened and the vessel made it over without difficulty. Later on the Mississippi, Baily and crew would do their best to avoid "sawyers," which were "large trunks of trees" that had been "brought down by the force of the current, and in shallow places stick in the mud" like concrete. Sawyers "appear to saw the water," bouncing below and above the surface in the current, and often hard to see. They could rip a vessel into pieces.
On April 19, Baily's group arrived at Fort Massac, the most western U.S. military post, which housed a garrison of 83 men, commanded by Captain Zebulon Pike, while 30 families of settlers lived nearby. Baily noted: "It (fort) was first planted by the French when they had possession of this country ... It takes its name from a cruel massacre of the garrison by the Indians." Baily explained that the Indians, often at war with the French, were determined to remove them from the fort.
One day an Indian dressed in a bear's skin on the opposite shore of the Ohio lured a number of the French soldiers out of the fort in hopes of having bear for supper: "They followed and fell into the ambush which was prepared for them; and at the same time a party of the same tribe attacked the fort, and cruelly massacred all the garrison."
Baily despised slavery and commented on it throughout his journal, but he also witnessed the uneasiness and distrust between whites and Native Americans. He found that "the most violent prejudices exist on both sides, between the Indians and the white people who live on the frontiers of the United States ... I have heard them (whites) talk with the same unconcern of killing an Indian, as of killing a deer or a turkey; and with a savage exultation they would mimic him in his dying agonies; and I would venture to pronounce that it would be impossible to find a jury in the back parts of America, who would bring any one in guilty of murder, for causing the death of an Indian."
On Tuesday, April 25, a beautiful spring day, Baily's party exited the Ohio, 35 miles from Fort Massac, and entered the Mississippi. The next day, they arrived at New Madrid, a settlement on the western shore of the river that was then about 60 miles below the mouth of the Ohio. (The great river is not as long as it was two centuries ago because many of the great bends have been cut off, both by nature and by man.)
The west side of the Mississippi was claimed by the Spanish and there the commander checked the passports of the primarily American crew and asked about the boat's cargo. On the door of the Spanish courthouse, Baily saw a proclamation that England had declared war on Spain.
On Tuesday, May 2, the flotilla arrived at Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis), home to five or six white men who had married into Indian families. Situated at the mouth of the Wolfe River on the eastern shore of the Mississippi, the Spanish had just destroyed their fort there. The country had long been home to the Chickasaws.
Observing several Chickasaws on shore, Baily soon learned that they were upset with the Americans because the annual presentation of goods and provisions necessitated by treaty had failed to arrive. The Chickasaws also reported that they were on the verge of going to war with the Creeks, who had recently attacked one of their villages.
Baily described the Chickasaws as "a well-made, handsome race of men ... dressed in printed calico shirts" and breech-cloth and wearing moccasins "made of deer skins, which are smoked instead of tanned, and thereby rendered very soft and pleasant to the feet."
On Tuesday, May 9, Baily's party arrived at the Walnut Hills (Vicksburg) on the Yazoo. He described the location as "picturesque and romantic" and the last Spanish stronghold on the river before reaching Natchez.
The next day, the flotilla arrived at Grand Gulf, a point on the river at present day Claiborne County famous for a dangerous whirlpool -- or gulf -- formed where the Mississippi's current ran against a rock formation.
"The way to escape this place, and pass in safely through its terrors,” Bailey wrote, “is to keep the boat exactly in the middle between the current which runs towards the rock, and the eddy or counter-current which runs near the point." Thanks to the guidance to two experienced crewmen that had passed the point before, "we shot through it" safely "like an arrow from a bow."
At 1 p.m., the boats docked at Bayou Pierre in present day Claiborne County. The men went to shore in a canoe, bought some eggs and milk, and visited a few local citizens of Natchez country.
At noon the next day, Baily arrived in Natchez. He visited with settlers and took in the scenery before heading downriver for New Orleans.