Mississippi River

The First Exploration of the Mississippi River.

Father Marquette and M. Joliet had astronomical instruments with which they ascertained, with much accuracy, the latitude of all their important stopping places. As they state that the two villages, which they visited, were on the western side of the Mississippi, at the latitude of forty degrees north, and upon the banks of a stream flowing into the Great River, it is supposed that these villages were upon the stream now called Des Moines, which forms a part of the boundary between Iowa and Missouri. The Indians called the villages Pe-ou-a-sea and Moing-wena. They were probably situated about six miles above the present city of Keokuk.

It was three o'clock in the afternoon, of a day near the end of sunny, blooming June, when our voyagers resumed their adventurous tour. Nearly the whole tribe they had visited stood upon the bank to bid them adieu. They floated along through a very dreary country of precipitous rocks and jagged cliffs, which quite shut out from their view the magnificent prairie region which was spread out beyond this barrier.

Upon the smooth surface of one of these rocks, apparently inaccessible, they saw, with surprise, two figures painted in very brilliant colors and with truly artistic outline. They thought that the painting would have done honor to any European artist. The figures were of two rather frightful looking monsters, about the size of a calf, in red, green, and black. Stoddard, in his history of Louisiana, says that these painted monsters, between the Missouri and the Illinois Rivers, still remain in a good degree of preservation.

"As we were discoursing of them," writes Father Marquette, "sailing gently down a beautiful, still, clear water, we heard the noise of a rapid, into which we were about to fall. I have seen nothing more frightful. A mass of large trees, entire, with branches, real floating islands, came rushing from the mouth of the river Pekitunoüì, so impetuously that we could not, without great danger, expose ourselves to pass across. The agitation was so great that the water was all muddy, and could not get clear."

This was the rush and the roar of the incoming billows of the terrible Missouri, the most tremendous river upon this globe. It enters the Mississippi through a channel half a mile in breadth, rushing down with a sort of maniacal fury, from its sources among the Rocky Mountains at the distance of three thousand and ninety-six miles. Its whole course, from its rise to its entrance into the Gulf of Mexico, is four thousand three hundred and forty-nine miles. More than two hundred and fifty years after this, Mr. George Catlin ascended this river in the first steamer which ever ventured to breast its torrent.

It took the steamer three months to ascend to the mouth of the Yellowstone, two thousand miles from the city of St. Louis. At this point the American Fur Company had erected a very substantial fort, three hundred feet square, for the protection of their property against the savages. The banks of the stream were lined with the villages of the Indians. Their wigwams were of a great variety of structure. The scenes presented were astonishing in their wild and picturesque aspect. Crowds of weird-like savages would often be collected on the bluffs, watching the appalling phenomenon of the passing steamer.

The Missouri is different, perhaps, from any other river in the world. Its boiling, turbid waters rush impetuously on, in an unceasing current, for hundreds of leagues, with scarcely a cove, an eddy, or any resting place where a canoe can be tranquilly moored. The Indian name of the river signifies Muddy Water. It is so opaque, like a cup of chocolate, that a newly coined shilling, placed in a tumbler, cannot be seen through the eighth part of an inch of the water.

For nearly a thousand miles the whole bed of the stream was impeded with gigantic trees, torn from the rich alluvial banks, forming snags and sawyers and rafts, through which, often with difficulty, the steamer cut her way. Every island and sandbar was covered with dreary looking masses of driftwood of every conceivable variety.

This desolate and savage aspect of the rushing flood is much relieved by the aspect of marvellous beauty often presented on the banks. It was almost a fairy scene. Hills and vales, bluffs and ravines, were continually presented in successions of sublimity and beauty which charmed the eye. Prairies were often spread out before them of boundless expanse, upon which vast herds, often numbering thousands, of buffaloes, elks, and antelopes, were seen grazing. In the gloomy forests, wolves were roaming. Mountain goats bounded over the cliffs. And at times, the air seemed darkened with the myriad birds which rose from the tall grass.

There was one twelve-pound, and three or four eight-pound cannon on board the steamer. At every village which was passed, the banks would be crowded with the astounded natives. Mischievously, the captain would order all the cannon to be simultaneously discharged. The effect upon the terrified savages was ludicrous in the extreme. They were all thrown into utter consternation. The more devout threw themselves upon the ground, and, hiding their faces, cried to the Great Spirit for protection. The cowards, with the women and the children, ran screaming back into the prairie, or behind the hills. Occasionally, a little band of veteran warriors, the bravest of the brave, would stand their ground, ready to meet the terrors of even a supernatural foe.

"Sometimes," writes Catlin, "they were thrown neck and heels over each other's heads and shoulders—men, women, children and dogs; sage, sachem, old and young, all in a mass—at the frightful discharge of the steam from the escape-pipe, which the captain of the boat let loose among them, for his own fun and amusement."

As our voyagers, in their birch bark canoes, passed the mouth of this wonderful stream, they had no conception of the scenes which were transpiring in thousands of Indian villages on its far-distant waters. They began now to think, from the course of the Mississippi, that it must flow into the Gulf of Mexico. They had however learned, from the Indians, that if they were to ascend the Missouri, or, as they called it, Pekitanoüì, five or six days' sail, they would come to a very beautiful prairie, ninety-five miles long. This splendid country, which was represented as an Eden of loveliness, the Indians said could be easily crossed, carrying their canoes. They could then take another river which ran southwest into a small lake. This was the source of another large and deep river, which emptied into the western sea.

In subsequent years, this description of the Indians was found to be unexpectedly correct. By ascending the Missouri to the Platte River, and following that stream to its source among the Rocky Mountains, the traveller is brought within a few leagues of the Colorado, which flows into the Gulf of California. Having passed the dangerous rush of the Missouri, as it entered into the Mississippi, and floating upon the surface of their combined waters, they came, after the sail, as they judged, of about sixty miles, to the mouth of another large river, of gentle current, and whose waters were of crystal purity, flowing in from the east. The Indians very appropriately called it Wabash, which signified Beautiful River. The French subsequently called it La Belle Rivière. We have given it the name of Ohio, appropriating the name Wabash to one of its most important tributaries.

The voyagers learned that this stream was fringed with a succession of Indian villages. The various tribes were peaceful, averse to war. In one district there was a cluster of twenty-three villages; in another, of eighteen. But alas for man! It would seem that the fallen children of Adam were determined that there should be no happiness in this world. The ferocious Iroquois would send their war parties, hundreds of miles through the wilderness, to make unprovoked attacks upon these unwarlike people. They would rob them of their harvests, wantonly burn their wigwams, kill and scalp men, women, and children, and carry off captives to torture and burn at the stake, in barbarian festivities.

Near the mouth of this river they found deposits of unctuous earth, having quite brilliantly the colors of red, purple, and violet. Father Hennepin rubbed some of the red upon his paddle. The constant use of that paddle in the water, for fifteen days, did not efface the color. This was a favorite resort of the Indians to obtain materials for painting their persons.

They now entered the region of that terrible pest, the mosquito. Elephants, lions, tigers, can be exterminated. The mosquito bids defiance to all mortal powers. The Indians would build a scaffolding of poles, a mere grate-work, which would give free passage to smoke. A few pieces of bark, overhead, sheltered them from the rain, and the excessive heat of the sun. Upon these poles they slept, kindling smouldering fires beneath. They could better endure the suffocating fumes which thus enveloped them and drove away their despicable tormenters, than bear the poison of their stings. The voyagers were greatly annoyed by these insects.

As they were thus swept down the infinite windings of the stream, day after day, mostly at the will of the current, they perceived one morning, much to their surprise, a small band of Indians on the shore, armed with guns. The savages seemed very much at their ease, and waited the approach of the canoes. Father Hennepin stood up and waved toward them his peace calumet, with its imposing decoration of feathers. His companions held their muskets in readiness to repel any assault. Drawing near the shore, the father addressed them in the Huron language. They did not understand him, but made friendly signs for the party to land. The Indians led the Frenchmen into their wigwams and feasted them upon buffalo steaks, with bear's fat, and some very delicious wild plums.

It appeared that these Indians were a band of warriors, probably from the Tuscarora nation. They had seen the Spaniards, on the Florida coast, and had purchased of them guns, axes, and knives. They kept their powder in strong glass bottles. From them they learned that a ten days' voyage down the rapid current of the Mississippi would bring them to the ocean. The indefatigable missionary endeavored to give them some idea of God, and of salvation through Jesus Christ, who came to seek and save the lost.

And now, with renewed courage, our adventurers entered their canoes and resumed their paddles. The prairies, which had so long delighted their eyes, gradually disappeared, and the dense forest lined both sides of the stream. It was very evident, however, that upon the other side of the forest-crowned eminences, the prairies continued to extend in all their sublimity and beauty; for they often heard the bellowing, as the roar of distant thunders, from thousands of wild cattle roving the plains.

They had now descended to nearly the thirty-third degree of north latitude, when they came to a large Indian village, situated upon a plain raised but a few feet above the level of the water. These Indians had undoubtedly received some great outrage from the Spaniards; for no sooner did they catch a sight of the Europeans than they were thrown into great commotion, and all their warriors rallied for battle. They were evidently aware that a few men, armed with the dreadful musket, might overpower a large number who wielded only the Indian weapons of warfare.

These warriors were armed with bows and arrows, javelins, and war clubs. They seemed to know that the invisible bullet could strike with death far beyond the reach of any of their missiles. They moved therefore with great caution. In those southern latitudes the birch tree, from whose bark the canoes of the northern Indians were made, did not thrive. Their boats were made of large logs, hollowed out and neatly shaped. They were often ornamented with infinite labor. Some of the warriors prepared to overwhelm the strangers with a shower of arrows from the land. Others embarked in their larger boats to ascend the river, and others to descend, so as to cut off all possibility of retreat.

As the voyagers drew near the shore, Father Marquette stood up in his canoe, though exposed to imminent danger of being pierced by their arrows, and earnestly waved the calumet of peace, at the same time, as he writes, imploring the aid of "our patroness and guide, the Blessed Virgin Immaculate. And indeed," he continues, "we needed her aid, for we heard, from afar, the Indians exciting one another to the combat by continual yells."

In the terror and tumult of the moment the calumet had not been seen. But as soon as some of the chiefs caught sight of it, they rushed into the water, threw their bows and arrows into the canoes, which they seized and brought to the shore. Father Marquette and M. Joliet were so familiar with the customs of the Indians that they understood this to be a friendly movement, and they no longer felt any great anxiety; though they were aware that, through some sudden outbreak of the savage sense of revenge, they might lose their lives. The good father addressed them in six Indian languages, none of which they understood. At last an old man came forward, who spoke a little Illinois.

Very friendly relations were soon established. They made the Indians several valuable presents, and informed them of their desire to find the way to the ocean. "They perfectly understood our meaning," writes Father Marquette, "but I know not whether they understood what I told them of God, and the things which concerned their salvation. It is a seed cast in the earth, which will bear its fruit in season."

The Indians, in return, presented them with corn pounded into meal, and some fishes. They said that, at some distance farther down the river, there was a large village called Akamsea; that there they could learn all they wished to know respecting the course and the out-flow of the Father of Waters. The voyagers slept in the wigwams of the Indians during the night, though the father confesses that it was not without some uneasiness. The Akamsea, to which the Indians referred, was what we now call Arkansas.

It is supposed that this village was near the Indian village of Guachoya, where the unhappy De Soto, whose romantic history we have given in a previous volume of this series, breathed his last, one hundred and fifty years before. In the narrative which has descended to us of that ill-fated and cruel expedition the historian writes:

"The same day, July 2, 1543, that we left Aminoya, we passed by Guachoya, where the Indians tarried for us in their canoes."

It was at Aminoya that De Moscoso, who succeeded De Soto, built his little fleet of seven strong barges, with which the Spaniards descended, in a voyage of sixteen days, to the mouth of the river. The Spaniards were as ignorant of the sources of the mighty river upon which they were sailing, as were the French of the termination of the majestic flood, which they had discovered nearly two thousand miles, far away amidst the lakes and prairies of the north.

The next morning, at an early hour, the Frenchmen resumed their voyage. A party of ten Indians accompanied them, leading the way in one of their large boats. The old man, who understood a little of the Illinois language, also went with them as an interpreter. When they had descended the river nearly thirty miles, and were within about a mile and a half of the Arkansas village, they saw two boats, crowded with warriors, push out from the shore, and advancing to meet them. The keen eyes of the savages had probably discerned the Indian boat which led the frail canoes of the Frenchmen. They knew that persons thus approaching could come with no hostile attempt.

The chief of this party, distinguished by his gorgeous dress, stood up in his boat, and, waving the plumed calumet, sung, in a very plaintive but agreeable tone, some Indian ode of welcome. He came with smiles and friendly signs alongside of the two birch canoes which kept close together. First, having taken a few whiffs from the pipe, he presented it to them to smoke. Then, having given them some bread, made of Indian meal, he made signs for them to follow him to the shore.

The chief had a large scaffolding, such as we have before described, as a protection from the mosquitoes. It also afforded a cool shelter from the rays of an almost tropical sun. The ground floor was carpeted with very fine rush mats. In the centre of this spacious awning, the Frenchmen were seated, as in the post of honor. The head chief, with his subordinates, surrounded them. Then the encircling warriors, several hundred in number, took their seats. A motley but perfectly orderly crowd of men, women, and children gathered around as witnesses of the scene.

Fortunately there was a young warrior there who had travelled, and who was much more familiar with the Illinois language than the old man who had accompanied the voyagers as interpreter.

"Through him," says the faithful missionary, "I first spoke to the assembly by the ordinary presents. They admired what I told them of God, and the mysteries of our holy faith, and showed a great desire to keep me with them to instruct them."

In answer to inquiries in reference to the sea, they said that it could be easily reached, in their canoes, in ten days. They, however, stated that they knew but little about the nations who inhabited the lower part of the river, because they were their enemies. These Indians had hatchets, knives, and beads. This proved that, in some way, they had held intercourse with Europeans. Upon being consulted on this question, it appeared that they had obtained them through the Spaniards in Florida and Mexico. They warned the voyagers not to go any farther down the river, as they would certainly be attacked and destroyed by the war parties of these hostile bands.

While this conference was going on, which continued for several hours, the Indians were continually presenting their guests with plates of food, which consisted principally of meal-pudding, roast corn, and dogs' flesh. The Indians were very courteous. But it was not a powerful or war-like tribe. They often had but a meagre supply of food, as the ferocity of their surrounding enemies prevented them from wandering far in pursuit of game.

Their main reliance was upon corn. They sowed it at all seasons, raising three crops a year. While some fields were just sprouting, others were in the soft and milky state suitable for roasting, and other fields were waving with the ripe and golden harvest. These southern tribes were generally much more advanced in the arts than those farther north. They manufactured many quite admirable articles of pottery for household use. It is said that some of them were hardly inferior in form and finish to the exquisite vases found in Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Still they were in many respects degraded savages, of loathsome habits, but little elevated above the brutes. Many of the men wandered about without any clothing. The women were not regarded with any honor. They were beasts of burden, dressed in wretched skins, without any ornaments. Their wigwams were long and wide, made of bark, with a single central entrance. Almost like the cattle, they slept together at the two extremities, upon mat-covered elevations, raised about two feet from the ground. From the description of Father Marquette, we should infer that, in this melancholy village, the chiefs alone enjoyed the luxury of sleeping upon poles enveloped with suffocating smoke to drive away the mosquitoes.

"We ate no fruit there," writes Marquette, "but watermelons. If they knew how to cultivate their grounds they might have plenty of all kinds."

In the evening M. Joliet and Father Marquette held a conference in reference to their future course. They had ascertained that they were at 33° 40' north latitude. The basin of the Gulf of Mexico was at 31° 40'. Though the Indians had said that they could reach the sea in ten days, it was manifest that they could easily accomplish the distance in four or five. The question was consequently settled that the Mississippi ran into the Gulf of Mexico. To decide this point was the great object of their voyage. Spanish outrages had exasperated all the Indians along the southern coast. The voyagers could not prosecute their enterprise any farther, but at the imminent peril of their lives. Should they thus perish, the result of their discoveries would, for a long time, be lost to the world.

They feared the Spaniards even more than they did the savages. The Spaniards, jealous of the power of France, would certainly hold them as prisoners, if they could take them, and would not improbably put them to death to prevent the fact of their having descended the whole course of the Mississippi from being known. They therefore wisely determined to retrace their steps with all energy. On the 17th of July they left the village of Akamsea, near the mouth of the Arkansas River, to stem the strong current of the Mississippi on their return. At high-water the vast flood, a mile in width, rushed along at the rate of five or six miles an hour. They found it very difficult to force their way against this current. We have no particular account of the incidents of their long and laborious return voyage. When they had reached the latitude of thirty-eighth degree north, they came to the mouth of the Illinois River. The Indians informed them that this would be a shorter route to Lake Michigan than to go up the Mississippi still farther to the Wisconsin River. They therefore entered this stream, which takes its rise within six miles of the lake. In the glowing account which Father Marquette gives of this river, he writes:

"We had seen nothing like this river for the fertility of the land, its prairies, woods, wild cattle, stags, deer, wild-cats, bustards, swans, ducks, parrots, and even beavers. It has many little lakes and tributary rivers. The stream on which we sailed is broad, deep, and gentle, for sixty-five leagues. During the spring, and part of the summer, when the rivers are full, the portage is only a mile and a half in length."

They ascended the Illinois until, by a short portage, they could transport their canoes across the prairie to the Chicago River. Descending this stream to its mouth, where the thronged city of Chicago now stands, but which was then only a dreary expanse of marshy prairie, they paddled up the western coast of Lake Michigan until they reached the mission at Green Bay, about the middle of September. About two months were spent in the toilsome voyage from Arkansas.

General Wool, Inspector-General of the army of the United States, has made, from a personal acquaintance with the route, the following estimate of the distances of the several stages of this eventful journey:

From Green Bay up Fox River to the portage 175 miles
From the portage down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi 175 "
From the mouth of the Wisconsin to the mouth of the Arkansas 1087 "
From the Arkansas to the Illinois River 547 "
From the mouth of the Illinois to Chicago 305 "
From Chicago to Green Bay, by the lake shore    260 "
Total 2,549  

The accompanying fac-simile of a map attached to Marquette's Journal, reduced from the original, and which we take from Mr. Sparks's brief but admirable sketch of Marquette's Life, will give the reader a very clear idea of the route he pursued. The dotted line from the Mississippi to the Illinois, marked "Chemin du retour," is evidently a mistake, added by some other hand. It is clear, from the narrative, that the voyagers returned up the Illinois River.

Father Marquette, who was never known to utter a murmuring word, and who was serene and cheerful amidst the sorest trials, was so utterly exhausted by the toils of the expedition that he could proceed no farther than Green Bay. Here M. Joliet separated from him and continued his route, in a birch canoe, along the vast expanse of Huron, Erie, and Ontario, and down the St. Lawrence to Montreal. In descending the rapids of the river his canoe was over-set and all his papers lost, he narrowly escaping with his life. He subsequently dictated, from memory, a few pages of the incidents of the voyage; but the manuscript of Father Marquette alone remained to tell the wondrous story. This was sent to France, and there published.

Even Marquette had no conception of the true grandeur of that valley he had entered, extending from the Alleghany ridges to the Rocky Mountains. Still, when the tidings of his wonderful discoveries reached Quebec, the exciting intelligence was received with the ringing of bells, with salvos of artillery, and, most prominent and important of all, by nearly the whole population, led by the clergy and other dignitaries of the place, going in procession to the cathedral where the Te Deum was sung in thanksgiving to God.

The Mississippi and Tributary Rivers—The Changing Phases of Their Shipping—River Navigation as a Nation-Building Force—The Value of Small Streams—Work of the Ohio Company—An Early Propeller—The French First on the Mississippi—The Spaniards at New Orleans—Early Methods of Navigation—The Flatboat, the Broadhorn, and the Keelboat—Life of the Rivermen—Pirates and Buccaneers—Lafitte and the Baratarians—The Genesis of the Steamboats—Capricious River—Flush Times in New Orleans—Rapid Multiplication of Steamboats—Recent Figures on River Shipping—Commodore Whipple's Exploit—The Men Who Steered the Steamboats—Their Technical Education—The Ships They Steered—Fires and Explosions—Heroism of the Pilots—The Racers.

It is the ordinary opinion, and one expressed too often in publications which might be expected to speak with some degree of accuracy, that river transportation in the United States is a dying industry. We read every now and then of the disappearance of the magnificent Mississippi River steamers, and the magazines not infrequently treat their readers to glowing stories of what is called the "flush" times on the Mississippi, when the gorgeousness of the passenger accommodations, the lavishness of the table, the prodigality of the gambling, and the mingled magnificence and outlawry of life on the great packets made up a picturesque and romantic phase of American life. It is true that much of the picturesqueness and the romance has departed long since. The great river no longer bears on its turbid bosom many of the towering castellated boats built to run, as the saying was, on a heavy dew, but still carrying their tiers upon tiers of ivory-white cabins high in air. The time is past when the river was the great passenger thoroughfare from St. Louis to New Orleans. Some few packets still ply upon its surface, but in the main the passenger traffic has been diverted to the railroads which closely parallel its channel on either side. The American travels much, but he likes to travel fast, and for passenger traffic, except on a few routes where special conditions obtain, the steamboat has long since been outclassed by the railroads.

Yet despite the disappearance of its spectacular conditions the water traffic on the rivers of the Mississippi Valley is greater now than at any time in its history. Its methods only have changed. Instead of gorgeous packets crowded with a gay and prodigal throng of travelers for pleasure, we now find most often one dingy, puffing steamboat, probably with no passenger accommodations at all, but which pushes before her from Pittsburg to New Orleans more than a score of flatbottomed, square-nosed scows, aggregating perhaps more than an acre of surface, and heavy laden with coal. Such a tow—for "tow" it is in the river vernacular, although it is pushed—will transport more in one trip than would suffice to load six heavy freight trains. Not infrequently the barges or scows will number more than thirty, carrying more than 1000 tons each, or a cargo exceeding in value $100,000. During the season when navigation is open on the Ohio and its tributaries, this traffic is pursued without interruption. Through it and through the local business on the lower Mississippi, and the streams which flow into it, there is built up a tonnage which shows the freight movement, at least, on the great rivers, to exceed, even in these days of railroads, anything recorded in their history.

No physical characteristic of the United States has contributed so greatly to the nationalization of the country and its people, as the topography of its rivers. From the very earliest days they have been the pathways along which proceeded exploration and settlement. Our forefathers, when they found the narrow strip of land along the Atlantic coast which they had at first occupied, becoming crowded, according to their ideas at the time, began working westward, following the river gaps. Up the Hudson and westward by the Mohawk, up the Susquehanna and the Potomac, carrying around the falls that impeded the course of those streams, trudging over the mountains, and building flatboats at the headwaters of the Ohio, they made their way west. Some of the most puny streams were utilized for water-carriers, and the traveler of to-day on certain of the railroads through western New York and Pennsylvania, will be amazed to see the remnants of canals, painfully built in the beds of brawling streams, that now would hardly float an Indian birch-bark canoe. In their time these canals served useful purposes. The stream was dammed and locked every few hundred yards, and so converted into a placid waterway with a flight of mechanical steps, by which the boats were let down to, or raised up from tidewater. To-day nothing remains of most of these works of engineering, except masses of shattered masonry. For the railroads, using the river's bank, and sometimes even part of the retaining walls of the canals for their roadbeds, have shrewdly obtained and swiftly employed authority to destroy all the fittings of these waterways which might, perhaps, at some time, offer to their business a certain rivalry.

The corporation known as the Ohio Company, with a great purchase of land from Congress in 1787, by keen advertising, and the methods of the modern real-estate boomer, started the tide of emigration and the fleet of boats down the Ohio. The first craft sent out by this corporation was named, appropriately enough, the "Mayflower." She drifted from Pittsburg to a spot near the mouth of the Muskingum river. Soon the immigrants began to follow by scores, and then by thousands. Mr. McMaster has collected some contemporary evidence of their numbers. One man at Fort Pitt saw fifty flatboats set forth between the first of March and the middle of April, 1787. Between October, 1786, and May, 1787—the frozen season when boats were necessarily infrequent—the adjutant at Fort Harmer counted one hundred and seventy-seven flat-boats, and estimated they carried twenty-seven hundred settlers. A shabby and clumsy fleet it was, indeed, with only enough seamanship involved to push off a sand-bar, but it was a great factor in the upbuilding of the nation. And a curious fact is that the voyagers on one of these river craft hit upon the principle of the screw-propeller, and put it to effective use. The story is told in the diary of Manasseh Cutler, a member of the Ohio Company, who writes: "Assisted by a number of people, we went to work and constructed a machine in the form of a screw, with short blades, and placed it in the stern of the boat, which we turned with a crank. It succeeded to perfection, and I think it a very useful discovery." But the discovery was forgotten for nearly three-quarters of a century, until John Ericsson rediscovered and utilized it.

Once across the divide, the early stream of immigration took its way down the Ohio River to the Mississippi. There it met the outposts of French power, for the French burst open that great river, following their missionaries, Marquette and Joliet, down from its headwaters in Wisconsin, or pressing up from their early settlements at New Orleans. Doubtless, if it had not been that the Mississippi afforded the most practicable, and the most useful highway from north to south, the young American people would have had a French State to the westward of them until they had gone much further on the path toward national manhood. But the navigation of the Mississippi and its tributaries was so rich a prize, that it stimulated alike considerations of individual self-interest and national ambition. From the day when the first flatboat made its way from the falls of the Ohio to New Orleans, it was the fixed determination of all people living by the great river, or using it as a highway for commerce, that from its headwaters to its mouth it should be a purely American stream. It was in this way that the Mississippi and its tributaries proved to be, as I have said, a great influence in developing the spirit of coherent nationality among the people of the young nation.

Indeed, no national Government could be of much value to the farmers and trappers of Kentucky and Tennessee that did not assure them the right to navigate the Mississippi to its mouth, and find there a place to trans-ship their goods into ocean-going vessels. From the Atlantic seaboard they were shut off by a wall, that for all purpose of export trade was impenetrable. The swift current of the rivers beat back their vessels, the towering ranges of the Alleghanies mocked at their efforts at road building. From their hills flowed the water that filled the Father of Waters and his tributaries. Nature had clearly designed this for their outlet. As James Madison wrote: "The Mississippi is to them everything. It is the Hudson, the Delaware, the Potomac, and all the navigable waters of the Atlantic coast formed into one stream." Yet, when the first trader, in 1786, drifted with his flatboat from Ohio down to New Orleans, thus entering the confines of Spanish territory, he was seized and imprisoned, his goods were taken from him, and at last he was turned loose, penniless, to plod on foot the long way back to his home, telling the story of his hardships as he went along. The name of that man was Thomas Amis, and after his case became known in the great valley, it ceased to be a matter of doubt that the Americans would control the Mississippi. He was in a sense the forerunner of Jefferson and Jackson, for after his time no intelligent statesman could doubt that New Orleans must be ours, nor any soldier question the need for defending it desperately against any foreign power. The story of the way in which Gen. James Wilkinson, by intrigue and trickery, some years later secured a partial relaxation of Spanish vigilance, can not be told here, though his plot had much to do with opening the great river.


The story of navigation on the Mississippi River, is not without its elements of romance, though it does not approach in world interest the story of the achievements of the New England mariners on all the oceans of the globe. Little danger from tempest was encountered here. The natural perils to navigation were but an ignoble and unromantic kind—the shifting sand-bar and the treacherous snag. Yet, in the early days, when the flatboats were built at Cincinnati or Pittsburg, with high parapets of logs or heavy timber about their sides, and manned not only with men to work the sweeps and hold the steering oar, but with riflemen, alert of eye, and unerring of aim, to watch for the lurking savage on the banks, there was peril in the voyage that might even affect the stout nerves of the hardy navigator from New Bedford or Nantucket. For many long years in the early days of our country'shistory, the savages of the Mississippi Valley were always hostile, continually enraged. The French and the English, bent upon stirring up antagonism to the growing young nation, had their agents persistently at work awakening Indian hostility, and, indeed, it is probable that had this not been the case, the rough and lawless character of the American pioneers, and their entire indifference to the rights of the Indians, whom they were bent on displacing, would have furnished sufficient cause for conflict.

First of the craft to follow the Indian canoes and the bateaux of the French missionaries down the great rivers, was the flatboat—a homely and ungraceful vessel, but yet one to which the people of the United States owe, perhaps, more of real service in the direction of building up a great nation than they do to Dewey's "Olympia," or Schley's "Brooklyn." A typical flatboat of the early days of river navigation was about fifty-five feet long by sixteen broad. It was without a keel, as its name would indicate, and drew about three feet of water. Amidships was built a rough deck-house or cabin, from the roof of which extended on either side, two long oars, used for directing the course of the craft rather than for propulsion, since her way was ever downward with the current, and dependent upon it. These great oars seemed to the fancy of the early flatboat men, to resemble horns, hence the name "broadhorns," sometimes applied to the boats. Such a boat the settler would fill with household goods and farm stock, and commit himself to the current at Pittsburg. From the roof of the cabin that housed his family, cocks crew and hens cackled, while the stolid eyes of cattle peered over the high parapet of logs built about the edge for protection against the arrow or bullet of the wandering redskin. Sometimes several families would combine to build one ark. Drifting slowly down the river—the voyage from Pittsburg to the falls of the Ohio, where Louisville now stands, requiring with the best luck, a week or ten days—the shore on either hand would be closely scanned for signs of unusual fertility, or for the opening of some small stream suggesting a good place to "settle." When a spot was picked out the boat would be run aground, the boards of the cabin erected skilfully into a hut, and a new outpost of civilization would be established. As these settlements multiplied, and the course of emigration to the west and southwest increased, river life became full of variety and gaiety. In some years more than a thousand boats were counted passing Marietta. Several boats would lash together and make the voyage to New Orleans, which sometimes occupied months, in company. There would be frolics and dances, the notes of the violin—an almost universal instrument among the flatboat men—sounded across the waters by night to the lonely cabins on the shores, and the settlers not infrequently  would put off in their skiffs to meet the unknown voyagers, ask for the news from the east, and share in their revels. Floating shops were established on the Ohio and its tributaries—flatboats, with great cabins fitted with shelves and stocked with cloth, ammunition, tools, agricultural implements, and the ever-present whisky, which formed a principal staple of trade along the rivers. Approaching a clump of houses on the bank, the amphibious shopkeeper would blow lustily upon a horn, and thereupon all the inhabitants would flock down to the banks to bargain for the goods that attracted them. As the population increased the floating saloon and the floating gambling house were added to the civilized advantages the river bore on its bosom. Trade was long a mere matter of barter, for currency was seldom seen in these outlying settlements. Skins and agricultural products were all the purchasers had to give, and the merchant starting from Pittsburg with a cargo of manufactured goods, would arrive at New Orleans, perhaps three months later, with a cabin filled with furs and a deck piled high with the products of the farm. Here he would dispose of his cargo, perhaps for shipment to Europe, sell his flatboat for the lumber in it, and begin his painful way back again to the head of navigation.

The flatboat never attempted to return against the stream. For this purpose keel-boats or barges were used, great hulks about the size of a small schooner, and requiring twenty-five men at the poles to push one painfully up stream. Three methods of propulsion were employed. The "shoulder pole," which rested on the bottom, and which the boatman pushed, walking from bow to stern as he did so; tow-lines, called cordelles, and finally the boat was drawn along by pulling on overhanging branches. The last method was called "bushwhacking." These became in time the regular packets of the rivers, since they were not broken up at the end of the voyage and required trained crews for their navigation. The bargemen were at once the envy and terror of the simple folk along the shores. A wild, turbulent class, ready to fight and to dance, equally enraptured with the rough scraping of a fiddle by one of their number, or the sound of the war-whoop, which promised the only less joyous diversion of a fight, they aroused all the inborn vagrant tendencies of the riverside boys, and to run away with a flatboat became, for the Ohio or Indiana lad, as much of an ambition as to run away to sea was for the boy of New England. It will be remembered that Abraham Lincoln for a time followed the calling of a flatboatman, and made a voyage to New Orleans, on which he first saw slaves, and later invented a device for lifting flatboats over sand-bars, the model for which is still preserved at Washington, though the industry it was designed to aid is dead. Pigs, flour, and bacon, planks and shingles, ploughs, hoes, and spades, cider and whisky, were among the simple articles dealt in by the owners of the barges. Their biggest market was New Orleans, and thither most of their food staples were carried, but for agricultural implements and whisky there was a ready sale all along the route. Tying up to trade, or to avoid the danger of night navigation, the boatmen became the heroes of the neighborhood. Often they invited all hands down to their boat for a dance, and by flaring torches to the notes of accordion and fiddle, the evening would pass in rude and harmless jollity, unless too many tin cups or gourds of fiery liquor excited the always ready pugnacity of the men. They were ready to brag of their valor, and to put their boasts to the test. They were "half horse, half alligator," according to their own favorite expression, equally prepared with knife or pistol, fist, or the trained thumb that gouged out an antagonist's eye, unless he speedily called for mercy. "I'm a Salt River roarer!" bawled one in the presence of a foreign diarist. "I can outrun, outjump, throw down, drag out and lick any man on the river! I love wimmen, and I'm chock full of fight!" In every crew the "best" man was entitled to wear a feather or other badge, and the word "best" had no reference to moral worth, but merely expressed his demonstrated ability to whip any of his shipmates. They had their songs, too, usually sentimental, as the songs of rough men are, that they bawled out as they toiled at the sweeps or the pushpoles. Some have been preserved in history:

"It's oh! As I was walking out,
One morning in July,
I met a maid who axed my trade.
'A flatboatman,' says I.

"And it's oh! She was so neat a maid
That her stockings and her shoes
She toted in her lily-white hands,
For to keep them from the dews."


Just below the mouth of the Wabash on the Ohio was the site of Shawneetown, which marked the line of division between the Ohio and the Mississippi trade. Here goods and passengers were debarked for Illinois, and here the Ohio boatmen stopped before beginning their return trip. Because of the revels of the boatmen, who were paid off there, the place acquired a reputation akin to that which Port Said, at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, now holds. It held a high place in river song and story.

"Some row up, but we row down,
All the way to Shawneetown.
Pull away, pull away,"

was a favorite chorus.

Natchez, Tennessee, held a like unsavory reputation among the Mississippi River boatmen, for there was the great market in which were exchanged northern products for the cotton, yams, and sugar of the rich lands of the South.

For food on the long voyage, the boatmen relied mostly on their rifles, but somewhat on the fish that might be brought up from the depths of the turbid stream, and the poultry and mutton which they could secure from the settlers by barter, or not infrequently, by theft. Wild geese were occasionally shot from the decks, while a few hours' hunt on shore would almost certainly bring reward in the shape of wild turkey or deer. A somewhat archaic story among river boatmen tells of the way in which "Mike Fink," a famous character among them, secured a supply of mutton. Seeing a flock of sheep grazing near the shore, he ran his boat near them, and rubbed the noses of several with Scotch snuff. When the poor brutes began to caper and sneeze in dire discomfort, the owner arrived on the scene, and asked anxiously what could ail them. The bargeman, as a traveled person, was guide, philosopher, and friend to all along the river, and so, when informed that his sheep were suffering from black murrain, and that all would be infected unless those already afflicted were killed, the farmer unquestioningly shot those that showed the strange symptoms, and threw the bodies into the river, whence they were presently collected by the astute "Mike," and turned into fair mutton for himself and passengers. Such exploits as these added mightily to the repute of the rivermen for shrewdness, and the farmer who suffered received scant sympathy from his neighbors.

But the boatmen themselves had dangers to meet, and robbers to evade or to outwit. At any time the lurking Indian on the banks might send a death-dealing arrow or bullet from some thicket, for pure love of slaughter. For a time it was a favorite ruse of hostiles, who had secured a white captive, to send him alone to the river's edge, under threat of torture, there to plead with outstretched hands for aid from the passing raft. But woe to the mariner who was moved by the appeal, for back of the unfortunate, hidden in the bushes, lay ambushed savages, ready to leap upon any who came ashore on the errand of mercy, and in the end neither victim nor decoy escaped the fullest infliction of redskin barbarity. There were white outlaws along the rivers, too; land pirates ready to rob and murder when opportunity offered, and as the Spanish territory about New Orleans was entered, the dangers multiplied. The advertisement of a line of packets sets forth:

"No danger need be apprehended from the enemy, as every person whatever will be under cover, made proof against rifle or musket balls, and convenient portholes for firing out of. Each of the boats are armed with six pieces, carrying a pound ball, also a number of muskets, and amply supplied with ammunition, strongly manned with choice hands, and masters of approved knowledge."

The English of the advertisement is not of the most luminous character, yet it suffices to tell clearly enough to any one of imagination, the story of some of the dangers that beset those who drifted from Ohio to New Orleans.

The lower reaches of the Mississippi River bore among rivermen, during the early days of the century, very much such a reputation as the Spanish Main bore among the peaceful mariners of the Atlantic trade. They were the haunts of pirates and buccaneers, mostly ordinary cheap freebooters, operating from the shore with a few skiffs, or a lugger, perhaps, who would dash out upon a passing vessel, loot it, and turn it adrift. But one gang of these river pirates so grew in power and audacity, and its leaders so ramified their associations and their business relations, as for a time to become a really influential factor in the government of New Orleans, while for a term of years they even put the authority of the United States at nought. The story of the brothers Lafitte and their nest of criminals at Barataria, is one of the most picturesque in American annals. On a group of those small islands crowned with live-oaks and with fronded palms, in that strange waterlogged country to the southwest of the Crescent City, where the sea, the bayou, and the marsh fade one into the other until the line of demarkation can scarcely be traced, the Lafittes established their colony. There they built cabins and storehouses, threw up-earthworks, and armed them with stolen cannon. In time the plunder of scores of vessels filled the warehouses with the goods of all nations, and as the wealth of the colony grew its numbers increased. To it were attracted the adventurous spirits of the creole city. Men of Spanish and of French descent, negroes, and quadroons, West Indians from all the islands scattered between North and South America, birds of prey, and fugitives from justice of all sorts and kinds, made that a place of refuge. They brought their women and children, and their slaves, and the place became a small principality, knowing no law save Lafitte's will. With a fleet of small schooners the pirates would sally out into the Gulf and plunder vessels of whatever sort they might encounter. The road to their hiding-place was difficult to follow, either in boats or afoot, for the tortuous bayous that led to it were intertwined in an almost inextricable maze, through which, indeed, the trained pilots of the colony picked their way with ease, but along which no untrained helmsman could follow them. If attack were made by land, the marching force was confronted by impassable rivers and swamps; if by boats, the invaders pressing up a channel which seemed to promise success, would find themselves suddenly in a blind alley, with nothing to do save to retrace their course. Meanwhile, for the greater convenience of the pirates, a system of lagoons, well known to them, and easily navigated in luggers, led to the very back door of New Orleans, the market for their plunder. Of the brothers Lafitte, one held state in the city as a successful merchant, a man not without influence with the city government, of high standing in the business community, and in thoroughly good repute. Yet he was, in fact, the agent for the pirate colony, and the goods he dealt in were those which the picturesque ruffians of Barataria had stolen from the vessels about the mouth of the Mississippi River. The situation persisted for nearly half a score of years. If there were merchants, importers and shipowners in New Orleans who suffered by it, there were others who profited by it, and it has usually been the case that a crime or an injustice by which any considerable number of people profit, becomes a sort of vested right, hard to disturb. And, indeed, the Baratarians were not without a certain rude sense of patriotism and loyalty to the United States, whose laws they persistently violated. For when the second war with Great Britain was declared and Packenham was dispatched to take New Orleans, the commander of the British fleet made overtures to Lafitte and his men, promising them a liberal subsidy and full pardon for all past offenses, if they would but act as his allies and guide the British invaders to the most vulnerable point in the defenses of the Crescent City. The offer was refused, and instead, the chief men of the pirate colony went straightway to New Orleans to put Jackson on his guard, and when the opposing forces met on the plains of Chalmette, the very center of the American line was held by Dominique Yon, with a band of his swarthy Baratarians, with howitzers which they themselves had dragged from their pirate stronghold to train upon the British. Many of us, however law-abiding, will feel a certain sense that the romance of history would have been better served, if after this act of patriotism, the pirates had been at least peacefully dispersed. But they were wedded to their predatory life, returned with renewed zeal to their piracies, and were finally destroyed by the State forces and a United States naval expedition, which burned their settlement, freed their slaves, razed their fortifications, confiscated their cannon, killed many of their people, and dispersed the rest among the swamps and forests of southern Louisiana.

In 1809 a New York man, by name Nicholas J. Roosevelt, set out from Pittsburg in a flatboat of the usual type, to make the voyage to New Orleans. He carried no cargo of goods for sale, nor did he convey any band of intended settlers, yet his journey was only second in importance to the ill-fated one, in which the luckless Amis proved that New Orleans must be United States territory, or the wealth of the great interior plateau would be effectively bottled up. For Roosevelt was the partner of Fulton and Livingston in their new steamboat enterprise, having himself suggested the vertical paddle-wheel, which for more than a half a century was the favorite means of utilizing steam power for the propulsion of boats. He was firm in the belief that the greatest future for the steamboat was on the great rivers that tied together the rapidly growing commonwealths of the middle west, and he undertook this voyage for the purpose of studying the channel and the current of the rivers, with the view to putting a steamer on them. Wise men assured him that on the upper river his scheme was destined to failure. Could a boat laden with a heavy engine be made of so light a draught as to pass over the shallows of the Ohio? Could it run the falls at Louisville, or be dragged around them as the flatboats often were? Clearly not. The only really serviceable type of river craft was the flatboat, for it would go where there was water enough for a muskrat to swim in, would glide unscathed over the concealed snag or, thrusting its corner into the soft mud of some protruding bank, swing around and go on as well stern first as before. The flatboat was the sum of human ingenuity applied to river navigation. Even barges were proving failures and passing into disuse, as the cost of poling them upstream was greater than any profit to be reaped from the voyage. Could a boat laden with thousands of pounds of machinery make her way northward against that swift current? And if not, could steamboat men be continually taking expensive engines down to New Orleans and abandoning them there, as the old-time river men did their rafts and scows? Clearly not. So Roosevelt's appearance on the river did not in any way disquiet the flatboatmen, though it portended their disappearance as a class. Roosevelt, however, was in no wise discouraged. Week after week he drifted along the Ohio and Mississippi, taking detailed soundings, studying the course of the current, noting the supply of fuel along the banks, observing the course of the rafts and flatboats as they drifted along at the mercy of the tide. Nothing escaped his attention, and yet it may well be doubted whether the mass of data he collected was in fact of any practical value, for the great river is the least understandable of streams. Its channel is as shifting as the mists above Niagara. Where yesterday the biggest boat on the river, deep laden with cotton, might pass with safety, there may be to-day a sand-bar scarcely hidden beneath the tide. Its banks change over night in form and in appearance. In time of flood it cuts new channels for itself, leaving in a few days river towns far in the interior, and suddenly giving a water frontage to some plantation whose owner had for years mourned over his distance from the river bank. Capricious and irresistible, working insidiously night and day, seldom showing the progress of its endeavors until some huge slice of land, acres in extent, crumbles into the flood, or some gully or cut-off all at once appears as the main channel, the Mississippi, even now when the Government is at all times on the alert to hold it in bounds, is not to be lightly learned nor long trusted. In Roosevelt's time, before the days of the river commission, it must have been still more difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless, the information he collected, satisfied him that the stream was navigable for steamers, and his report determined his partners to build the pioneer craft at Pittsburg. She was completed, "built after the fashion of a ship with portholes in her side," says a writer of the time, dubbed the "Orleans," and in 1812 reached the city on the sodden prairies near the mouth of the Mississippi, whose name we now take as a synonym for quaintness, but which at that time had seemingly the best chance to become a rival of London and Liverpool, of any American town. For just then the great possibilities of the river highway were becoming apparent. The valley was filling up with farmers, and their produce sought the shortest way to tide-water. The streets of the city were crowded with flatboatmen, from Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky, and with sailors speaking strange tongues, and gathered from all the ports of the world. At the broad levee floated the ships of all nations. All manual work was done by the negro slaves, and already the planters were beginning to show signs of that prodigal prosperity, which, in the flush times, made New Orleans the gayest city in the United States. In 1813 Jackson put the final seal on the title-deeds to New Orleans, and made the Mississippi forever an American river by defeating the British just outside the city's walls, and then river commerce grew apace. In 1817 fifteen hundred flatboats and five hundred barges tied up to the levee. By that time the steamboat had proved her case, for the "New Orleans" had run for years between Natchez and the Louisiana city, charging a fare of eighteen dollars for the down, and twenty-five dollars for the up trip, and earning for her owners twenty thousand dollars profits in one year. She was snagged and lost in 1814, but by that time others were in the field, first of all the "Comet," a stern-wheeler of twenty-five tons, built at Pittsburg, and entering the New Orleans-Natchez trade in 1814. The "Vesuvius," and the "Ætna."—volcanic names which suggested the explosive end of too many of the early boats—were next in the field, and the latter won fame by being the first boat to make the up trip from New Orleans to Louisville. Another steamboat, the "Enterprise," carried a cargo of, powder and ball from Pittsburg to General Jackson at New Orleans, and after some service on southern waters, made the return trip to Louisville in twenty-five days. This was a great achievement, and hailed by the people of the Kentucky town as the certain forerunner of commercial greatness, for at one time there were tied to the bank the "Enterprise" from New Orleans, the "Despatch" from Pittsburg, and the "Kentucky Elizabeth" from the upper Kentucky River. Never had the settlement seemed to be so thoroughly in the heart of the continent. Thereafter river steamboating grew so fast that by 1819 sixty-three steamers, of varying tonnage from twenty to three hundred tons, were plying on the western rivers. Four had been built at New Orleans, one each at Philadelphia, New York, and Providence, and fifty-six on the Ohio. The upper reaches of the Mississippi still lagged in the race, for most of the boats turned off up the Ohio River, into the more populous territory toward the east. It was not until August, 1817, that the "General Pike," the first steamer ever to ascend the Mississippi River above the mouth of the Ohio, reached St. Louis. No pictures, and but scant descriptions of this pioneer craft, are obtainable at the present time. From old letters it is learned that she was built on the model of a barge, with her cabin situated on the lower deck, so that its top scarcely showed above the bulwarks. She had a low-pressure engine, which at times proved inadequate to stem the current, and in such a crisis the crew got out their shoulder poles and pushed her painfully up stream, as had been the practice so many years with the barges. At night she tied up to the bank. Only one other steamer reached St. Louis in the same twelve months. By way of contrast to this picture of the early beginnings of river navigation on the upper Mississippi, we may set over some facts drawn from recent official publications concerning the volume of river traffic, of which St. Louis is now the admitted center. In 1890 11,000,000 passengers were carried in steamboats on rivers of the Mississippi system. The Ohio and its tributaries, according to the census of that year, carried over 15,000,000 tons of freight annually, mainly coal, grain, lumber, iron, and steel. The Mississippi carries about the same amount of freight, though on its turbid tide, cotton and sugar, in no small degree, take the place of grain and the products of the furnaces and mills.

But it was a long time before steam navigation approached anything like these figures, and indeed, many years passed before the flatboat and the barge saw their doom, and disappeared. In 1821, ten years after the first steamboat arrived at New Orleans, there was still recorded in the annals of the town, the arrival of four hundred and forty-one flatboats, and one hundred and seventy-four barges. But two hundred and eighty-seven steamboats also tied up to the levee that year, and the end of the flatboat days was in sight. Ninety-five of the new type of vessels were in service on the Mississippi and its tributaries, and five were at Mobile making short voyages on the Mississippi Sound and out into the Gulf. They were but poor types of vessels at best. At first the shortest voyage up the river from New Orleans to Shippingport—then a famous landing, now vanished from the map—was twenty-two days, and it took ten days to come down. Within six years the models of the boats and the power of the engines had been so greatly improved that the up trip was made in twelve days, and the down in six. Even the towns on the smaller streams tributary to the great river, had their own fleets. Sixteen vessels plied between Nashville and New Orleans. The Red River, and even the Missouri, began to echo to the puffing of the exhaust and the shriek of the steam-whistle. Indeed, it was not very long before the Missouri River became as important a pathway for the troops of emigrants making for the great western plains and in time for the gold fields of California, as the Ohio had been in the opening days of the century for the pioneers bent upon opening up the Mississippi Valley. The story of the Missouri River voyage, the landing place at Westport, now transformed into the great bustling city of Kansas City, and all the attendant incidents which led up to the contest in Kansas and Nebraska, forms one of the most interesting, and not the least important chapters in the history of our national development.

The decade during which the steamboats and the flatboats still struggled for the mastery, was the most picturesque period of Mississippi River life. Then the river towns throve most, and waxed turbulent, noisy, and big, according to the standards of the times. Places which now are mere names on the map, or have even disappeared from the map altogether, were great trans-shipping points for goods on the way to the sea. New Madrid, for example, which nowadays we remember chiefly as being one of the stubborn obstacles in the way of the Union opening of the river in the dark days of the Civil War, was in 1826 like a seaport. Flatboats in groups and fleets came drifting to its levees heavy laden with the products of the west and south, the output of the northern farms and mills, and the southern plantations. On the crowded river bank would be disembarked goods drawn from far-off New England, which had been dragged over the mountains and sent down the Ohio to the Mississippi; furs from northern Minnesota or Wisconsin; lumber in the rough, or shaped into planks, from the mills along the Ohio; whisky from Kentucky, pork and flour from Illinois, cattle, horses, hemp, fabrics, tobacco, everything that men at home or abroad, could need or crave, was gathered up by enterprising traders along three thousand miles of waterway, and brought hither by clumsy rafts and flatboats, and scarcely less clumsy steamboats, for distribution up and down other rivers, and shipment to foreign lands.

At New Orleans there was a like deposit of all the products of that rich valley, an empire in itself. There grain, cotton, lumber, live stock, furs, the output of the farms and the spoils of the chase, were transferred to ocean-going ships and sent to foreign markets. Speculative spirits planned for the day, when this rehandling of cargoes at the Crescent City would be no longer necessary, but ships would clear from Louisville or St. Louis to Liverpool or Hamburg direct. A fine type of the American sailor, Commodore Whipple, who had won his title by good sea-fighting in the Revolutionary War, gave great encouragement to this hope, in 1800, by taking the full-rigged ship "St. Clair," with a cargo of pork and flour, from Marietta, Ohio, down the Ohio, over the falls at Louisville, thence down the Mississippi, and round by sea to Havana, and so on to Philadelphia. This really notable exploit—to the success of which good luck contributed almost as much as good seamanship—aroused the greatest enthusiasm. The Commodore returned home overland, from Philadelphia. His progress, slow enough, at best, was checked by ovations, complimentary addresses, and extemporized banquets. He was the  man of the moment. The poetasters, who were quite as numerous in the early days of the republic, as the true poets were scarce, signalized his exploit in verse.

"The Triton crieth,
'Who cometh now from shore?'
Neptune replieth,
''Tis the old Commodore.
Long has it been since I saw him before.
In the year '75 from Columbia he came,
The pride of the Briton, on ocean to tame.

"'But now he comes from western woods,
Descending slow, with gentle floods,
The pioneer of a mighty train,
Which commerce brings to my domain.'"

But Neptune and the Triton had no further occasion to exchange notes of astonishment upon the appearance of river-built ships on the ocean. The "St. Clair" was the first and last experiment of the sort. Late in the nineties, the United States Government tried building a torpedo-boat at Dubuque for ocean service, but the result was not encouraging.

Year after year the steamboats multiplied, not only on the rivers of the West, but on those leading from the Atlantic seaboard into the interior. It may be said justly that the application of steam to purposes of navigation made the American people face fairly about. Long they had stood, looking outward, gazing across the sea to Europe, their sole market, both for buying and for selling. But now the rich lands beyond the mountains, inviting settlers, and cut up by streams which offered paths for the most rapid and comfortable method of transportation then known, commanded their attention. Immigrants no longer stopped in stony New England, or in Virginia, already dominated by an aristocratic land-owning class, but pressed on to Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and Illinois. As the lands filled up, the little steamers pushed their noses up new streams, seeking new markets. The Cumberland, and the Tennessee, the Missouri, the Arkansas, the Red, the Tombigbee, and the Chattahoochee were stirred by the churning wheels, and over-their forests floated the mournful sough of the high-pressure exhaust.

In 1840, a count kept at Cairo, showed 4566 vessels had passed that point during the year. By 1848, a "banner" year, in the history of navigation on the Mississippi, traffic was recorded thus:

25 vessels plying between Louisville, New Orleans and Cincinnati 8,484 tons
7 between Nashville and New Orleans 2,585 tons
4 between Florence and New Orleans 1,617 tons
4 in St. Louis local trade 1,001 tons
7 in local cotton trade 2,016 tons
River "tramps" and unclassified 23,206 tons

It may be noted that in all the years of the development of the Mississippi shipping, there was comparatively little increase in the size of the individual boats. The "Vesuvius," built in 1814, was 480 tons burthen, 160 feet long, 28.6 feet beam, and drew from five to six feet. The biggest boats of later years were but little larger.


The aristocrat of the Mississippi River steamboat was the pilot. To him all men deferred. So far as the river service furnished a parallel to the autocratic authority of the sea-going captain or master, he was it. All matters pertaining to the navigation of the boat were in his domain, and right zealously he guarded his authority and his dignity. The captain might determine such trivial matters as hiring or discharging men, buying fuel, or contracting for freight; the clerk might lord it over the passengers, and the mate domineer over the black roustabouts; but the pilot moved along in a sort of isolatedgrandeur, the true monarch of all he surveyed. If, in his judgment the course of wisdom was to tie up to an old sycamore tree on the bank and remain motionless all night, the boat tied up. The grumblings of passengers and the disapproval of the captain availed naught, nor did the captain often venture upon either criticism or suggestion to the lordly pilot, who was prone to resent such invasion of his dignity in ways that made trouble. Indeed, during the flush times on the Mississippi, the pilots were a body of men possessing painfully acquired knowledge and skill, and so organized as to protect all the privileges which their attainments should win for them. The ability to "run" the great river from St. Louis to New Orleans was not lightly won, nor, for that matter, easily retained, for the Mississippi is ever a fickle flood, with changing landmarks and shifting channel. In all the great volume of literature bearing on the story of the river, the difficulties of its conquest are nowhere so truly recounted as in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, the humorous quality of which does not obscure, but rather enhances its value as a picturesque and truthful story of the old-time pilot's life. The pilot began his work in boyhood as a "cub" to a licensed pilot. His duties ranged from bringing refreshments up to the pilot-house, to holding the wheel when some straight stretch or clear, deep channel offered his master a chance to leave his post for a few minutes. For strain on the memory, his education is comparable only to the Chinese system of liberal culture, which comprehends learning by rote some tens of thousands of verses from the works of Confucius and other philosophers of the far East. Beginning at New Orleans, he had to commit to memory the name and appearance of every point of land, inlet, river or bayou mouth, "cut-off," light, plantation and hamlet on either bank of the river all the way to St. Louis. Then, he had to learn them all in their opposite order, quite an independent task, as all of us who learned the multiplication table backward in the days of our youth, will readily understand. These landmarks it was needful for him to recognize by day and by night, through fog or driving rain, when the river was swollen by spring floods, or shrunk in summer to a yellow ribbon meandering through a Sahara of sand. He had need to recognize at a glance the ripple on the water that told of a lurking sand-bar and distinguish it from the almost identical ripple that a brisk breeze would raise. Most perplexing of the perils that beset river navigation are the "snags," or sunken logs that often obstruct the channel. Some towering oak or pine, growing in lusty strength for its half-century or more by the brink of the upper reaches of one of the Mississippi system would, in time, be undermined by the flood and fall into the rushing tide. For weeks it would be rolled along the shallows; its leaves and twigs rotting off, its smaller branches breaking short, until at last, hundreds of miles, perhaps, below the scene of its fall, it would lodge fair in the channel. The gnarled and matted mass of boughs would ordinarily cling like an anchor to the sandy bottom, while the buoyant trunk, as though struggling to break away, would strain upward obliquely to within a few inches of the surface of the muddy water, which—too thick to drink and too thin to plough, as the old saying went—gave no hint of this concealed peril; but the boat running fairly upon it, would have her bows stove in and go quickly to the bottom. After the United States took control of the river and began spending its millions annually in improving it for navigation and protecting the surrounding country against its overflows, "snag-boats" were put on the river, equipped with special machinery for dragging these fallen forest giants from the channel, so that of late years accidents from this cause have been rare. But for many years the riverman's chief reliance was that curious instinct or second sight which enabled the trained pilot to pick his way along the most tortuous channel in the densest fog, or to find the landing of some obscure plantation on a night blacker than the blackest of the roustabouts, who moved lively to the incessant cursing of the mate.

The Mississippi River steamboat of the golden age on the river—the type, indeed, which still persists—was a triumph of adaptability to the service for which she was designed. More than this—she was an egregious architectural sham. She was a success in her light draught, six to eight feet, at most, and in her prodigious carrying capacity. It was said of one of these boats, when skilfully loaded by a gang of practical roustabouts, under the direction of an experienced mate, that the freight she carried, if unloaded on the bank, would make a pile bigger than the boat herself. The hull of the vessel was invariably of wood, broad of beam, light of draught, built "to run on a heavy dew," and with only the rudiments of a keel. Some freight was stowed in the hold, but the engines were not placed there, but on the main deck, built almost flush with the water, and extending unbroken from stem to stern. Often the engines were in pairs, so that the great paddle-wheels could be worked independently of each other. The finest and fastest boats were side-wheelers, but a large wheel at the stern, or two stern wheels, side by side, capable of independent action, were common modes of propulsion. The escape-pipes of the engine were carried high aloft, above the topmost of the tiers of decks, and from each one alternately, when the boat was under way, would burst a gush of steam, with a sound like a dull puff, followed by a prolonged sigh, which could be heard far away beyond the dense forests that bordered the river. A row of posts, always in appearance, too slender for the load they bore, supported the saloon deck some fifteen feet above the main deck. When business was good on the river, the space within was packed tight with freight, leaving barely room enough for passenger gangways, and for the men feeding the roaring furnaces with pine slabs. A great steamer coming down to New Orleans from the cotton country about the Red River, loaded to the water's edge with cotton bales, so that, from the shore, she looked herself like a monster cotton bale, surmounted by tiers of snowy cabins and pouring forth steam and smoke from towering pipes, was a sight long to be remembered. It is a sight, too, that is still common on the lower river, where the business of gathering up the planter's crop and getting it to market has not yet passed wholly into the hands of the railroads.


Above the cargo and the roaring furnaces rose the cabins, two or three tiers, one atop the other, the topmost one extending only about one-third of the length of the boat, and called the "Texas." The main saloon extending the whole length of the boat, save for a bit of open deck at bow and stern, was in comparison with the average house of the time, palatial. On either side it was lined by rows of doors, each opening into a two-berthed stateroom. The decoration was usually ivory white, and on the main panel of each door was an oil painting of some romantic landscape. There Chillon brooded over the placid azure of the lake, there storms broke with jagged lightning in the Andes, there buxom girls trod out the purple grapes of some Italian vineyard. The builders of each new steamer strove to eclipse all earlier ones in the brilliancy of these works of art, and discussion of the relative merits of the paintings on the "Natchez" and those on the "Baton Rouge" came to be the chief theme of art criticism along the river. Bright crimson carpet usually covered the floor of the long, tunnel-like cabin. Down the center were ranged the tables, about which, thrice a day, the hungry passengers gathered to be fed, while from the ceiling depended chandeliers, from which hung prismatic pendants, tinkling pleasantly as the boat vibrated with the throb of her engines. At one end of the main saloon was the ladies' cabin, discreetly cut off by crimson curtains; at the other, the bar, which, in a period when copious libations of alcoholic drinks were at least as customary for men as the cigar to-day, was usually a rallying point for the male passengers.

Far up above the yellow river, perched on top of the "Texas," or topmost tier of cabins, was the pilot-house, that honorable eminence of glass and painted wood which it was the ambition of every boy along the river some day to occupy. This was a great square box, walled in mainly with glass. Square across the front of it rose the huge wheel, eight feet in diameter, sometimes half-sunken beneath the floor, so that the pilot, in moments of stress, might not only grip it with his hands, but stand on its spokes, as well. Easy chairs and a long bench made up the furniture of this sacred apartment. In front of it rose the two towering iron chimneys, joined, near the top by an iron grating that usually carried some gaudily colored or gilded device indicative of the line to which the boat belonged. Amidships, and aft of the pilot-house, rose the two escape pipes, from which the hoarse, prolonged s-o-o-ugh of the high pressure exhaust burst at half-minute intervals, carrying to listeners miles away, the news that a boat was coming.

All this edifice above the hull of the boat, was of the flimsiest construction, built of pine scantling, liberally decorated with scroll-saw work, and lavishly covered with paint mixed with linseed oil. Beneath it were two, four, or six roaring furnaces fed with rich pitch-pine, and open on every side to drafts and gusts. From the top of the great chimneys poured volcanic showers of sparks, deluging the inflammable pile with a fiery rain. The marvel is not that every year saw its quotum of steamers burned to the water's edge, but, rather, that the quota were proportionately so small.

At midnight this apparent inflammability was even more striking. Lights shone from the windows of the long row of cabins, and wherever there was a chink, or a bit of glass, or a latticed blind, the radiance streamed forth as though within were a great mass of fire, struggling, in every way, to escape. Below, the boiler deck was dully illumined by smoky lanterns; but when one of the great doors of the roaring furnace was thrown open, that the half-naked black firemen might throw in more pitch-pine slabs, there shone forth such a fiery glare, that the boat and the machinery—working in the open, and plain to view—seemed wrapped in a Vesuvius of flame, and the sturdy stokers and lounging roustabouts looked like the fiends in a fiery inferno. The danger was not merely apparent, but very real. During the early days of steamboating, fires and boiler explosions were of frequent occurrence. A river boat, once ablaze, could never be saved, and the one hope for the passengers was that it might be beached before the flames drove them overboard. The endeavor to do this brought out some examples of magnificent heroism among captains, pilots, and engineers, who, time and again, stood manfully at their posts, though scorched by flames, and cut off from any hope of escape, until the boat's prow was thrust well into the bank, and the passengers were all saved. The pilots, in the presence of such disaster, were in the sorest straits, and were, moreover, the ones of the boat's company upon whom most depended the fate of those on board. Perched at the very top of a large tinder-box, all avenues of escape except a direct plunge overboard were quickly closed to them. If they left the wheel the current would inevitably swing the boat's head downstream, and she would drift, aimlessly, a flaming funeral pyre for all on board. Many a pilot stood, with clenched teeth, and eyes firm set upon the distant shore, while the fire roared below and behind him, and the terrified passengers edged further and further forward as the flames pressed their way toward the bow, until at last came the grinding sound under the hull, and the sudden shock that told of shoal water and safety. Then, those on the lower deck might drop over the side, or swarm along the windward gangplank to safety, but the pilot too often was hemmed in by the flames, and perished with his vessel.


In the year 1840 alone there were 109 steamboat disasters chronicled, with a loss of fifty-nine vessels and 205 lives. The high-pressure boilers used on the river, cheaply built, and for many years not subjected to any official inspection, contributed more than their share to the list of accidents. Boiler explosions were so common as to be reckoned upon every time a voyage was begun. Passengers were advised to secure staterooms aft when possible, as the forward part of the boat was the more apt to be shattered if the boiler "went up." Every river town had its citizens who had survived an explosion, and the stock form into which to put the humorous quip or story of the time was to have it told by the clerk going up as he met the captain in the air coming down, with the débris of the boat flying all about them. As the river boats improved in character, disasters of this sort became less frequent, and the United States, by establishing a rigid system of boiler inspection, and compelling engineers to undergo a searching examination into their fitness before receiving a license, has done much to guard against them. Yet to-day, we hear all too frequently of river steamers blown to bits, and all on board lost, though it is a form of disaster almost unknown on Eastern waters where crowded steamboats ply the Sound, the Hudson, the Connecticut, and the Potomac, year after year, with never a disaster. The cheaper material of Western boats has something to do with this difference, but a certain happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care spirit, which has characterized the Western riverman since the days of the broadhorns, is chiefly responsible. Most often an explosion is the result of gross carelessness—a sleepy engineer, and a safety-valve "out of kilter," as too many of them often are, have killed their hundreds on the Western rivers. Sometimes, however, the almost criminal rashness, of which captains were guilty, in a mad rush for a little cheap glory, ended in a deafening crash, the annihilation of a good boat, and the death of scores of her people by drowning, or the awful torture of inhaling scalding steam. Rivalry between the different boats was fierce, and now and then at the sight of a competitor making for a landing where freight and passengers awaited the first boat to land her gangplank, the alert captain would not unnaturallytake some risks to get there first. Those were the moments that resulted in methods in the engine room picturesquely described as "feeding the fires with fat bacon and resin, and having a nigger sit on the safety valve." To such impromptu races might be charged the most terrifying accidents in the history of the river.

But the great races, extending sometimes for more than a thousand miles up the river, and carefully planned for months in advance, were seldom, if ever, marred by an accident. For then every man on both boats was on the alert, from pilot down to fuel passer. The boat was trimmed by guidance of a spirit level until she rode the water at precisely the draft that assured the best speed. Her hull was scraped and oiled, her machinery overhauled, and her fuel carefully selected. Picked men made up her crew, and all the upper works that could be disposed of were landed before the race, in order to decrease air resistance. It was the current pleasantry to describe the captain as shaving off his whiskers lest they catch the breeze, and parting his hair in the middle, that the boat might be the better trimmed. Few passengers were taken, for they could not be relied upon to "trim ship," but would be sure to crowd to one side or the other at a critical moment. Only through freight was shipped—and little of that—for there would be no stops made from starting-point to goal. Of course, neither boat could carry all the fuel—pine-wood slabs—needed for a long voyage, but by careful prearrangement, great "flats" loaded with wood, awaited them at specified points in midstream. The steamers slowed to half-speed, the flats were made fast alongside by cables, and nimble negroes transferred the wood, while the race went on. At every riverside town the wharves and roofs would be black with people, awaiting the two rivals, whose appearance could be foretold almost as exactly as that of a railway train running on schedule time. The firing of rifles and cannon, the blowing of horns, the waving of flags, greeted the racers from the shores by day, and great bonfires saluted them by night. At some of the larger towns they would touch for a moment to throw off mail, or to let a passenger leap ashore. Then every nerve of captain, pilot, and crew was on edge with the effort to tie up and get away first. Up in the pilot-house the great man of the wheel took shrewd advantage of every eddy and back current; out on the guards the humblest roustabout stood ready for a life-risking leap to get the hawser to the dock at the earliest instant. All the operations of the boat had been reduced to an exact science, so that when the crack packets were pitted against each other in a long race, their maneuvers would be as exactly matched in point of time consumed as those of two yachts sailing for the "America's" cup. Side by side, they would steam for hundreds of miles, jockeying all the way for the most favorable course. It was a fact that often such boats were so evenly matched that victory would hang almost entirely on the skill of the pilot, and where of two pilots on one boat one was markedly inferior, his watch at the wheel could be detected by the way the rival boat forged ahead. During the golden days on the river, there were many of these races, but the most famous of them all was that between the "Robert E. Lee" and the "Natchez," in 1870. These boats, the pride of all who lived along the river at that time, raced from New Orleans to St. Louis. At Natchez, 268 miles, they were six minutes apart; at Cairo, 1024 miles, the "Lee" was three hours and thirty-four minutes ahead. She came in winner by six hours and thirty-six minutes, but the officers of the "Natchez" claimed that this was not a fair test of the relative speed of the boats, as they had been delayed by fog and for repairs to machinery for about seven hours.

Spectacular and picturesque was the riverside life of the great Mississippi towns in the steamboat days. Mark Twain has described the scenes along the levee at New Orleans at "steamboat time" in a bit of word-painting, which brings all the rush and bustle, the confusion, turmoil and din, clearly to the eye:

"It was always the custom for boats to leave New Orleans between four and five o'clock in the afternoon. From three o'clock onward, they would be burning resin and pitch-pine (the sign of preparation) and so one had the spectacle of a rank, some two or three miles long, of tall, ascending columns of coal-black smoke, a colonnade which supported a roof of the same smoke, blending together and spreading abroad over the city. Every outward-bound boat had its flag flying at the jack-staff, and sometimes a duplicate on the verge-staff astern. Two or three miles of mates were commanding and swearing with more than usual emphasis. Countless processions of freight, barrels, and boxes, were spinning athwart the levee, and flying aboard the stage-planks. Belated passengers were dodging and skipping among these frantic things, hoping to reach the forecastle companion-way alive, but having their doubts about it. Women with reticules and bandboxes were trying to keep up with husbands freighted with carpet sacks and crying babies, and making a failure of it by losing their heads in the whirl and roar and general distraction. Drays and baggage-vans were clattering hither and thither in a wild hurry, every now and then getting blocked and jammed together, and then, during ten seconds, one could not see them for the profanity, except vaguely and dimly. Every windlass connected with every forehatch from one end of that long array of steamboats to the other, was keeping up a deafening whiz and whir, lowering freight into the hold, and the half-naked crews of perspiring negroes that worked them were roaring such songs as 'De las' sack! De las' sack!!' inspired to unimaginable exaltation by the chaos of turmoil and racket that was driving everybody else mad. By this time the hurricane and boiler decks of the packets would be packed and black with passengers, the last bells would begin to clang all down the line, and then the pow-wows seemed to double. In a moment or two the final warning came, a simultaneous din of Chinese gongs with the cry, 'All dat aint going, please to get ashore,' and, behold, the pow-wow quadrupled. People came swarming ashore, overturning excited stragglers that were trying to swarm aboard. One moment later, a long array of stage-planks was being hauled in, each with its customary latest passenger clinging to the end of it, with teeth, nails, and everything else, and the customary latest procrastinator making a wild spring ashore over his head.

"Now a number of the boats slide backward into the stream, leaving wide gaps in the serried rank of steamers. Citizens crowd on the decks of boats that were not to go, in order to see the sight. Steamer after steamer straightens herself up, gathers all her strength, and presently comes swinging by, under a tremendous head of steam, with flags flying, smoke rolling, and her entire crew of firemen and deck hands (usually swarthy negroes) massed together on the forecastle, the best voice in the lot towering in their midst (being mounted on the capstan) waving his hat or a flag, all roaring in a mighty chorus, while the parting cannons boom, and the multitudinous spectators swing their hats and huzza. Steamer after steamer pulls into the line, and the stately procession goes winging its flight up the river."

Until 1865 the steamboats controlled the transportation business of all the territory drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries. But two causes for their undoing had already begun to work. The long and fiercely-fought war had put a serious check to the navigation of the rivers. For long months the Mississippi was barricaded by the Confederate works at Island Number 10, at New Madrid and at Vicksburg. Even after Grant and Farragut had burst these shackles navigation was attended with danger from guerrillas on the banks and trade was dead. When peace brought the promise of better things, the railroads were there to take advantage of it. From every side they were pushing their way into New Orleans, building roadways across the "trembling prairies," and crossing the water-logged country about the Rigolets on long trestles. They penetrated the cotton country and the mineral country. They paralleled the Ohio, the Tennessee, and the Cumberland, as well as the Father of Waters, and the steamboat lines began to feel the heavy hand of competition. Captains and clerks found it prudent to abate something of their dignity. Instead of shippers pleading for deck-room on the boats, the boats' agents had to do the pleading. Instead of levees crowded with freight awaiting carriage there were broad, empty spaces by the river's bank, while the railroad freight-houses up town held the bales of cotton, the bundles of staves, the hogsheads of sugar, the shingles and lumber. On long hauls the railroads quickly secured all the North and South business, though indeed, the hauling of freight down the river for shipment to Europe was ended for both railroads and steamboats, so far as the products raised north of the Tennessee line was concerned. For a new water route to the sea had been opened and wondrously developed. The Great Lakes were the shortest waterway to the Atlantic, and New York dug its Erie Canal which afforded an outlet—pinched and straitened, it is true, but still an outlet—for the cargoes of the lake schooners and the early steamers of the unsalted seas. Even the commonwealths forming the north bank of the Ohio River turned their faces away from the stream that had started them on the pathway to wealth and greatness, and dug canals to Lake Erie, that their wheat, corn, and other products might reach tidewater by the shortest route. The great cargoes from Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Louisville, began to be legends of the past, and the larger boats were put on routes in Louisiana, or on the Mississippi, from Natchez south, while others were reduced to mere local voyages, gathering up freight from points tributary to St. Louis. The glory of the river faded fast, and the final stroke was dealt it when some man of inventive mind discovered that a little, puffing tug, costing one-tenth as much as a fine steamboat, could push broad acres of flatboats, loaded with coal, lumber, or cotton, down the tortuous stream, and return alone at one-tenth the expense of a heavy steamer. That was the final stroke to the picturesqueness and the romance of river life. The volume of freight carried still grows apace, but the glory of Mississippi steamboat life is gone forever.