Stanley Nelson

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

Many on the vessel were undocumented immigrants – all poor -- whose names were unknown.

At least half of the vessel’s 100 passengers and crew died when the Black 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 after part of the vessel, where as assets of the boat they would be least in danger from explosions.

“This awful calamity,” wrote “Lloyd’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 majority of 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 the survivors, 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 was almost wiped out. The pilot went overboard, an African American engineer was killed while another engineer was seriously injured. A barkeeper was scalded, four firemen perished and one injured, two deck hands died, 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.”

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