Flatboats – Their Use in the Past

A flatboat is unlike any boat that you see these days. This kind of boat was very popular back in the day when people used it to transport freight and passengers. It has a unique shape as the button is rectangular and flat. These flatboats existed in various different sizes. However, their shape made it so that they essentially looked like a tub that had a hull attached to it. 

Flat Boats were mostly used on inland waterways and were the primary mode of transport through such waters in the US. It was mostly a one-way vessel that could only travel downstream. When it reached its destination, it was often disassembled. The wood that the ship was made of was used as lumber. The shape of these boats makes them perfect for use in shallow water, where a normal boat would stutter and not work. Therefore, such boats with flat bottoms work perfectly.

Let us take a deeper look at flatboats and their use in the past.

What are Flatboats?

Flatboats have a very unique hull design and bottom. Normal boats usually have a v-shaped hull that is able to carve out the water as it sails. A V-shaped hull offers the boat stability in oceans where the current is strong, and the waters are rough. Some boats have a semi-v hull as well, which allows boats to move through shallow waters. However, flatboats have a flat bottom.

These kinds of boats sit quite high in the water and are said to have a shallow draft, meaning that the lowest part is not very deep in the water and sits very near the waterline. Due to this unique shape, flatboats can be used in very shallow waters. Their ability to navigate shallow water is incredibly useful since normal v-shaped boats cannot navigate these waters without getting stuck. These boats are relatively easy to build and have a very simple and affordable design.

Flatboat design

As there are many different kinds of flat-bottom boats, the design of the flat-bottom boat varies. It depends completely on the style of boat that you are going for. However, the basic hull design of all flat-bottom boats is quite similar. They all have a flat bottom that sits underwater but is still very close to the waterline. In calm waters, this kind of boat has a lot of stability. 

Furthermore, the flat bottom allows the flatboat access to shallow bodies of water. Even if the water is a few inches deep, you can use a flatboat in it. Additionally, the design of the flatboat prevents it from catching onto different pieces of debris that may cause damage to it.

The different kinds of flat bottom boats

Although flat-bottom boats are mainly used in shallow waters, there are many different kinds of them that each have their own different uses and shapes. Here are a few of them.


A barge is the most common type of flat bottom boat as it is a working boat that is mostly used on canals and rivers. It helps transport goods and people from one part of the river to another. In contrast to olden times, these flatboats are fitted with an internal combustion engine that helps give them propulsion. Some barges, however, still work as old flatboats and do not have any system of propulsion. Therefore, they need to be pulled using towboats. In modern times, barges are mostly used for tourism. Such boats are pulled along by horses on the bank of the river.


A bateau is one of the very old flatboats used across America during colonial times. Its main purpose was to transport fur, which was traded heavily in that area. These boats have different styled hulls. Therefore, they have moved past the original hull they had, which pointed at both ends. 

Canal Boat

A canal boat is any kind of shallow draft vessel that can sail easily in shallow water. Because of its description, many different kinds of canal boats exist. However, not all canal boats are flat bottomed because some canals are wide and deep. Flat-bottomed boast cannot navigate through such waters.

Dory Boat

A dory boat, unlike other flat bottom boats, is used in the ocean. However, it mostly stays in the bay and on the ocean shoreline. It is mainly used to bring back the day’s catch back to the main ship and then head out again. However, these boats were very unstable as they were flat bottomed, and the ocean’s rough waves were not ideal.


A gondola is very popular in Venice, so much so that it is associated with the city. This kind of boat has a flat bottom, and it is propelled using a long paddle. The main purpose of this vessel is to travel through the canals of Venice. 

How were they used in the past?

Old flatboats were originally used for a lot of different purposes. Back in 19th century America, flatboats and keelboats were the main methods of transporting goods along the river to different parts of the country. 

People used these flatboats to carry goods and passengers to the market and beyond. However, flatboats were often a one-time use boat. Because these boats could only be used downstream due to the lack of motors and propellers. They were oftentimes disassembled, and the parts were sold. 

Flatboats were also used as traveling stores, and they carried contents to every port and sold items such as sashes, doors, furniture, etc. 

Miners also made great use of flatboats as they traveled on them, and upon arrival, they would sell the boat for lumber. Thus they got both a way to travel and money.

Mostly, flatboats were used by farmers who would build them to sell their harvest. Once they had enough fruits and vegetables to sell, they would build a flatboat and travel downstream. These boats were super easy to build, so anyone. Even unskilled farmers could make one and use it. Furthermore, when they had gotten their use out of it, the owners of the boats would disassemble it and sell the wood as lumber. The flatboats carry a variety of goods such as corn, wheat, potatoes, hay, tobacco, cotton, etc. Other raw materials were also carried down the river, such as lumber and iron.

Original construction technique

Originally, back when flatboats were the only method of travel downstream, they were constructed using wood. The wood used was roughly-hewn wood that was readily available. The overall design of the boat was simple. They were rectangles that were required to float in less water. Therefore, they were fairly simple to construct and did not require the builders to have a lot of skill. They could also be made quickly, which made them extremely convenient.

Flatboats can be made using a variety of different woods. Native Americans used birch bark and bison skin to make their canoes. The frontiersman adapted the designs used by Native Americans to suit their own needs. Therefore, they hollowed out the longs and made use of planks. This formed skiffs which could be used to carry light cargo. Therefore, flatboats had many different designs as the basic design was very adaptable. The merchants, farmers, and others could adapt it for their own needs. 

Advantages and disadvantages of a flatboat

Flatboats are incredibly useful boats that can transverse calm water with extreme ease. However, with this stability comes some disadvantages too. Let us look at some advantages and disadvantages of flatboats.


Although one might think that having a flat bottom boat that can only go downstream has limited advantages, that is not true. In calm waters, there are few boats that are more stable than a flat bottom boat. Other hull designs, such as the v-hull or the deep v-hull, cannot navigate calm waters with as much stability as a flat bottom boat. Additionally, they are perfect for fishing and hunting in shallow waters. Because they sit near the waterline, they do not disturb the natural ecosystem of the waters below. 


Flat bottom boats work wonderfully in calm waters. However, they do not work for oceans and choppy waters. In such cases, flatboats can become severely unstable. They may even topple over. Additionally, the rough winds of the sea can also disbalance flat bottom boats and cause them to topple over. 

Another disadvantage of using a flat bottomed boat is that they require a lot more power to move. Boats with other kinds of hulls are fairly easy to navigate through water because their shape essentially makes way for them. With flat-bottomed boats, you have to apply a lot more force for the boat to move forward.


Flatboats are unlike any boat you may have seen in the ocean. These boats have a remarkably different hull style, which allows them great stability in certain waters. Flatboats were so popular in the past that many farmers and common people used them to transfer freight and people as well. Therefore, they were to rivers what trucks are to highways these days.