Flatboats and Keelboats

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Flatboats and Keelboats


Carrying Western Trade. Before 1840 most of the produce grown in the old Northwest Territory was carried to market by flatboats on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Between 1815 and 1840 an average of 2, 500 flatboats every year, laden with the surplus grain, flour, pork, whiskey, and lumber of the Ohio Valley, sailed down the smaller rivers of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Ohio and on into the Mississippi, bound for the markets of the cotton South or for the bustling wharves of New Orleans for export back east or abroad. Even after 1830, when steamboats began to dominate the Mississippi, the clumsy wooden flatboat still carried farm produce to the steamboat landings or to the nearest canal


Midwestern farmers flatboating their cargoes down to New Orleans often spent their spare time drinking, gambling, and fighting, but their rakish reputations never matched those of the Mississippis permanent residents, the infamous Mississippi rivermen. These professional boatmen in their bright red and blue outfits were as lawless and dangerous as the river they worked on, and they disdained the landsman flatboaters. Most famous of the rivermen was the legendary Mike Fink, a real boatman but draped in myth even while alive. Drunken and violent, Fink embodied the rough-and-tumble character of river life. As good with a boast as with a knife, he reportedly said of himself, Im the very infant that refused his milk before its eyes were open, and called out for a bottle of Rye. Im half wild horse and half cockeyed alligator and the rest o me is crooked snags. I can out-run, out-jump, outshoot, out-brag, out-drink, an out fight, roughan-tumble, no holts barred, any man on both sides the river from Pittsburg to New Orleans an back agin to St. Louiee. Come on, you flatters, you bargers, you milk-white mechanics, an see how tough I am to chaw! I aint had a fight for two days an Im spllein for exercise.

Source: R. Carlyle Buley, The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 18151840 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1950).

port. In fact, 18461847 was the peak year for flatboat arrivals in New Orleans. their most common destination), when 2, 792 of the vessels tied up at the levees of the Crescent City. The steamboat actually made it easier for the farmer or merchant to use the flatboat to carry his farm surplus down river. Before the advent of regular upriver steamboat service, farmers either had to walk back from New Orleans over the Natchez Trace or pole upstream against the Mississippi on a keelboatbackbreaking labor even on the best of days.

Types of Boats. Flatboats, keelboats, barges, and arks were the main types of river craft before the era of steam power. The term flatboat generally referred to a heavy framed rectangular craft 8 or 10 feet wide and 3040 feet long, usually of light draft to clear river snags and rapids and with some sort of cabin or shelter built on top of the hull. A long sweep at the back of the craft kept the flat- boat in the downstream current. They were not meant to go upstream. The flatboat, however, shared freight duties with another wooden craft that was intended to go upstream, the keelboat. As its name suggests, the keelboat was constructed around a rigid timber in the center that could withstand collisions. Generally longer than the flatboat, the keelboat carried a sail on top of its cabinlike superstructure. When the wind was low, which was most of the time in the heavily forested Mississippi valley, the keelboat relied on the muscle power of its eight- to twenty-man crew to pole, row, or drag (using ropes flung over tree limbs) the boat upstream. At a maximum of six miles per hour, the return keelboat trip from New Orleans frequently took several months. Barges were another type of river craft that looked much like keelboats, but arks were another matter altogether. Shallow of hull and squared or V -shaped at the ends, arks usually lacked decking or housing but could reach lengths of one hundred feet. Built for only one trip downstream with a large cargo, arks carried families to new homes as well as freight to port. Running the rapids at Keokuk or bypassing the falls at Louisville, arks loaded with pigs, horses, and cattle as well as men, women, and children became a frequent sight on Western rivers. The farmers who used these various kinds of boats generally built them as well. In 1831, for example, when Abraham Lincoln and some companions were hired to take a load of live hogs, corn, and barreled pork down the Mississippi to New Orleans, they first had to build the boat using timber cut down along the Sangamon River in central Illinois.

Heavy Traffic. Flatboats were the most-common kind of river craft, and they carried much of the Mississippi Rivers downstream freight until at least 1850. At the height of the shipping season, in April and May, hundreds of flatboats tied up at New Orleans or Vicksburg. Each of these stout craft could carry about 100 tons of produce. The record shipment at New Orleans was a flatboat of 180 tons with a cargo that included 320, 000 pounds of bulk lard. Much of the lard, pork, and beans ended up feeding the slave populations of Southern cotton plantations. But much of it also went to the industrial cities of the Northeast since before the opening of the Erie Canal and the arrival of the railroad, it was cheaper to send goods on a roundabout 3, 000-mile water journey south to New Orleans, east across the Gulf of Mexico, and finally north along the Atlantic coast than it was to carry them by wagon 300 or so miles across the mountains from Ohio to Philadelphia or Baltimore.

Romantic Image. Flatboat journeys may have been common, but navigating the Mississippi was no easy task. In the 1820s the Father of Waters had yet to see a dam or concrete channel and had encountered only a few levees. Giant fallen trees, or snags, choked the water, and hundreds of river craft of all dimensions sought constantly for an ever-shifting main channel. It was a rare voyage indeed where no crew member or passenger was drowned, injured, victimized by thieves on the Natchez Trace, or disfigured in a brawl in one of the various port cities. On Abraham Lincolns first trip south in 1828 he and his traveling companion had to fight off seven attackers at a wharf in the Louisiana low country. As might be expected from bands of young men away from home, the flatboat crews had a reputation for rowdiness. Frances Trollope, a visitor from England who booked passage on the steamboat Belvidere bound north from New Orleans in 1828, described the two hundred flatboat men aboard, who slept on the deck and were kept separate from the regular passengers. We never saw them, she commented, except when we stopped to take in wood; and then they ran, or rather sprung and vaulted over each others heads to the shore, whence they all assisted in carrying wood to supply the steam engine, a service they performed as a stipulated part of their passage. Trollope had heard that the Kentucky flatboat men were a most disorderly set of persons, constantly gambling and wrangling, very seldom sober, and never suffering a night to pass without giving practical proof of the respect in which they hold the doctrines of equality, and community of property but had to admit that these Kentuckians are a very noble-looking race of men whose countenances [are], excepting when disfigured by red hair, which is not infrequent, extremely handsome.


Erik F. Haites, James Mak, and Gary M. Walton, Western River Transportation: The Era of Early Internal Development, 18101860 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975);

George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution: 18151860 Economic History of the United States, volume 4 (New York: Holt, 1951).