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BARGEMEN was a term used interchangeably with "keelboatmen," "bargers," and "keelers." It applied to men who operated riverboats that traveled upstream (as distinct from flatboats). Often wearing the traditional red shirt of their profession, most full-time bargemen worked on the lower Mississippi and on the Ohio River and its tributaries. After 1820 this occupation gradually disappeared as the steamboat, turnpike, and railroad took over transportation.

The bargemen were traditionally thought of as the roughest element in the West, celebrated as prodigious drinkers, fighters, gamblers, pranksters, and workers. A number of them were famous in their day, notably Mike Fink, who became a popular character in several folktales.


Baldwin, Leland D. The Keelboat Age on Western Waters. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1941.

Blair, Walter, and Franklin J. Meine, eds. Half Horse, Half Alligator: The Growth of the Mike Fink Legend. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Mahoney, Tomothy R. River Towns in the Great West: The Structure of Provincial Urbanization in the American Midwest, 1820–1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Leland D.Baldwin/t. d.

See alsoFlatboatmen ; Natchez Trace ; River Navigation .