Broadhorn or Kentucky Boat on Ohio ~ circa 1788

In May, 1782, Pennsylvania farmer, Jacob Yoder, became the first person to successfully navigate a flatboat from Brownsville to New Orleans, delivering flour, and effectively demonstrating how the waterways could be used to reach distant markets and to settle the West.

Flatboats or Flats were rectangular, flat-bottomed boats without keels. This meant that they were relatively easy to build, but this simple and affordable design also destined them to be awkward one-way craft. They were built in various sizes and layouts depending on the load they would carry and the distance to be traveled.

Small flatboats were used on short trips and might only be 16ft long by 4ft wide. They either had no covering or a simple shelter with a cooking area. Long and narrow, they could navigate creeks and small rivers on the way to market.

Typical mid-range flatboats were about 55ft long by 16ft wide and were called Broadhorns, Kentucky Boats, or Natchez Boats. Built for an extended river journey, they were used by farmers and traders seeking profitable markets for produce and goods, and also by families moving West. They had a shed or a pen in the rear for horses and cattle, and a cabin forward for the owners.

The largest, long-range flatboats were called Mississippi Broadhorns, New Orleans Boats, Barges, Scows, or Arks (a humorous reference to the many animals often carried by farming families). These transported larger cargos, could be 100ft long by 20ft wide or more, and were normally covered throughout their entire length. Built for navigating big rivers, particularly the Ohio and the Mississippi, they were used by freighters, traders, and sometimes by two or more families traveling West with their farm animals. A large flatboat required four crew and a pilot, who were contracted for a four-to-six week period; some professional flatboatmen made three or four trips yearly.

Flatboats could serve almost any purpose, and were used as storeboats by storekeepers, showboats by entertainers, chapel-boats by ministers, as galleries by photographers, as printshops by printers, as floating brothels called gunboats, as wanigans (cook shanty, bunkhouse, supply boat), and also as shantyboats on which families would live permanently.

Early flatboat travellers were subject to Indian attack, so the boats were built like floating forts, with only one door, heavily barred. Windows, if any, were small and had sliding shutters. The walls were pierced with loopholes through which guns could be fired. Gradually, flatboats became more comfortable. The cabins were divided into chambers, and many had brick fireplaces and chimneys for heating and cooking, though a basic flatboat only had a sandbox fireplace.

When steamboats became prevalent, some flatboats were built with raked bows to be used on return trips alongside steamboats, serving as Wood Flats, Coal Flats, or Lighters. After the Civil War it became common for purpose-built Barges to be ‘towed’ by steamboats upriver and downriver.

For navigation, flatboats were rigged with 30-55ft sweeps on the sides, a rudder or steering-oar, and a short front sweep called a “gouger”. The great side sweeps, resembling horns from a distance, gave rise to the name Broadhorn. The side sweeps were used for directing the flatboat into the current, or for pulling into slack water when landing, rather than for propulsion. Some flatboats also had hawsers mounted to reels; the hawser (rope) would be attached to a tree or stump and wound in to “warp” the boat off a sandbar, or to assist landing.

An average of 3,000 flatboats descended the Ohio River each year between 1810 and 1820. Abraham Lincoln twice piloted a flatboat carrying produce from Illinois to New Orleans (1828, 1831).

Although the flatboat preceded the steamboat, it was in regular use for many years after steamboats had become prevalent. Flatboat numbers actually increased until about the mid-1850s, carrying ever more goods and settlers West, while the steamboats provided a quick and easy passage upriver for those involved in downriver trading. Huck Finn refers to a flatboat as a ‘trading scow’ in Chapter 3 of Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain.

‘Flatboat at Bayou Sara’ ~ circa 1846-7-8

Typical flatboats were constructed of green oak plank, with no nails or iron. A method common to Ohio and Mississippi flatboats was Chine-girder construction where a log was split in half to create two equal “gunwales”. Positioned on either side, they formed a ledge that held the ends of the floor planks. Wooden uprights were set into the gunwales. The heavy oak planks were fastened using wooden pins to the heavier timber frame. The stern and sides were vertical planks of 4 to 6 feet. The bow was angled like that of a modern barge. The seams were originally caulked with pitch or tar, but as this was expensive, tow or some other pliant substance was later used. Even fully loaded, they drew only about three feet of water.

The width and length depended on the needs of the builder. Most pre-Civil War flatboats were built on a ratio of 1:2.5 or 1:3, so a 12-foot wide boat would be 30-36 feet long. As the century progressed, the boats got longer. As early as 1788, Zadok Cramer’s Ohio River guide advised readers that large boatyards at Pittsburgh, Wheeling and Brownsville had boats for sale.

Farmers would collectively build flatboats to carry their produce to market, including pork, bacon, beef, flour, wheat, corn, cornmeal, oats, apples, tobacco, lard, whiskey, hides, fur, lumber, livestock, flax, honey, beeswax, lime and poultry. Prior to 1850, flatboats cost $40 to $140 to construct, and transported twenty-five to a hundred tons of cargo. A trip down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans required from eight to twelve weeks, depending on the river level and weather.

Settlers’ Flatboat on the Tennessee

The settlers’ boat, navigated ever further down the eastern tributaries of the Mississippi in search of new land, was filled with household goods and farm stock. Such boats were a menagerie of cattle, horses, sheep, dogs, and poultry, while on the roof of the cabin that housed the family could be seen looms, ploughs, spinning-wheels, and other domestic implements. Sometimes several families would combine to build one ark. Methodist Circuit Rider Timothy Flint recalled that it was “no uncommon spectacle to see a large family, old and young, servants, cattle, hogs [on flatboats] … bringing to recollection the cargo of the ancient ark.”

Often, when they chose a place to stop, they would re-use the flatboat’s lumber when building a cabin. As these settlements multiplied, with increasing emigration to the West and southwest, river life became full of variety. In some years more than a thousand boats passed Marietta. Several boats would lash together and make the voyage to New Orleans, sometimes navigating months in company. There would be songs and dances; the notes of the violin ~ an almost universal instrument among the flatboatmen ~ sounded across the waters by night to the lonely cabins on the shores, and the settlers would sometimes put off in their skiffs to meet the unknown voyagers, ask for the news from the east, and share in their revels.

‘The Ohio Boat Horn’

Flatboats built by traders often carried thirty or forty tons of cargo per trip. Down the Ohio came cloth, ammunition, tools, agricultural implements, and of course whiskey, which formed a principal staple of trade along the rivers. The proprietor would trade en route, blowing a horn to attract willing custom at any signs of settlement. Trade was mostly a matter of barter since currency was seldom seen in remote areas. Skins and agricultural products were all the purchasers had to trade, 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 sell his cargo, perhaps for shipment to Europe. The flatboat, unsuitable for upriver travel, would be sold for lumber, and the trader would begin his perilous journey back to the head of navigation, wary of anyone who might seize his profit or his life.

Flatboat Going Down The Mississippi

Quote: ~
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. …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 (keeled) 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.
Credit: ~ American Merchant Ships and Sailors, by Willis J. Abbot, published in 1902. Copyright free e-book credit: Project Gutenberg.

Mississippi Broadhorn or New Orleans Boat

Quote: ~
Early cargoes were simple: furs, salt, lead, lime, flour, pork, and whiskey were the most common loads from 1700 through the Revolution. But the great post- 1783 migration west of the Appalachians fostered a demand for a variety of products. Pioneers bought household goods and hardware from “store boats” flying calico flags. Boatmen continued to haul flour, salted pork, and tobacco, but by the turn of the century loads might as easily include hemp, cotton, potatoes, brandy, ale, logs, lumber, furniture, manufactured goods, or livestock – although white horses and cows were believed to bring bad luck, rivermen would haul animals of any other hue.

Thus, by the mid-1820s, the traveler Charles Scalsfield could describe the flatboat landing at Natchez by noting that “one of these flatboats is from the Upper Ohio, laden with pineboards, planks, rye, whiskey, flour; close to it another from the falls of the Ohio, with corn in the ear and bulk apples, peaches; a third, with hemp, tobacco and cotton. In the fourth you may find horses, regularly stabled together; in the next, cattle from the mouth of the Missouri; a sixth will have hogs, poultry, turkeys. . . . They have come thousands of miles and still have to proceed a thousand more before they arrive at their place of destination.” Scalsfield also observed a cargo of “slaves transported from Virginia to Kentucky, to the human flesh mart at New Olreans.”
Credit: ~ Western Rivermen, 1763-1861: Ohio and Mississippi Boatmen and the Myth of the Alligator Horse, by Michael Allen.

‘Flatboat on the Mississippi’

Quote: ~
Throughout the Ohio Valley in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, frontier farmers found themselves with agricultural surpluses, forests full of boatbuilding materials, and navigable creeks and rivers within a stone’s throw. During the idle winter months and the early spring, these farmers built flatboats, loaded them with their own produce and that of their neighbors, and headed for New Orleans on their own speculative ventures. Many met disaster in the form of snags or glutted markets, but some returned home with cash in their pockets and a notion to try again the next year.

The English tourist Francis Vailey took passage with two such flatboatmen near Louisville in 1797. They were “farmers in the upper country, and had joined their produce together and were going upon their second adventure.” John Halley of Kentucky made two such trips, in 1789 and 1791, accompanied by neighboring farmers and relatives. This contingent was typical: the crews of these produce flatboats were often composed of a farmer and a son or two, or a brother or brother-in-law, and some neighboring farm boys.
Credit: ~ Western Rivermen, 1763-1861: Ohio and Mississippi Boatmen and the Myth of the Alligator Horse, by Michael Allen.

‘Mississippi Broadhorns at New Orleans’

Quote: ~
It is ironic that the Steamboat Age nurtured so primitive and preindustrial a craft as the flatboat, but the fact is indisputable. Although the years 1815-1861 are known for the “transportation revolution,” it is important to remember that this revolution occurred in stages, and that steamboats, canal boats, and railroads did not instantly replace cruder, preindustrial modes of transport. The impact of the railroads was not really felt in the Ohio Valley until the 1850s. In the meantime, flatboatmen provided an essential service. Because the all-important pork -packing season in the Ohio Valley occurred during the winter months, when ice and low water brought steamboat and canal traffic to a standstill, flatboatmen dominated the pork trade. They competed successfully in other markets as well.

In 1816, before the steamers held sway, 1,287 flats arrived in New Orleans; the number had more than doubled, to 2,792, in the November-to-June shipping season of 1846-1847. Since a great many flatboats stopped short of New Orleans or in other ways remained uncounted, one can estimate that there were at least 4,000 flats operating annually during the 1840s, carrying some 160,000 tons of produce, and manned by more than 20,000 boatmen. The trade began to decline in the 1850s, but quantitative studies of antebellum river commerce show that throughout the 1823-1847 period, flatboating was profitable, competitive, and provided a viable alternative to downstream steamboat shipment.
Credit: ~ Western Rivermen, 1763-1861: Ohio and Mississippi Boatmen and the Myth of the Alligator Horse, by Michael Allen.

‘Flatboatmen on a Broadhorn’


Quote: ~
Besides competing successfully for trade on the main Ohio-Mississippi route well into the 1840s, flatboatmen achieved even greater success on the Upper Ohio, Upper Mississippi, and tributary streams. The heavy emphasis on the role of New Orleans, Natchez, and the South in general in the folklore of the western boatmen obscures the fact that flatboating was very much an Ohio Valley phenomenon. Most flatboatmen during the steamboat era hailed from the Ohio Valley states, especially the Old Northwest – Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois – and 95 percent of the flatboats landing in New Orleans from 1845 to 1857 originated on the Ohio or a tributary thereof. By the same token, a great many Ohio Valley flatboats never even entered the Mississippi. In the commercial year 1852-1853 in Cincinnati, for example, an estimated 5,000 flatboats landed at the city wharf, and many of them traveled no farther. About half that number arrived in Pittsburgh from the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. When one factors in the continuous local traffic on the Muskingum, Scioto, Kentucky, Green, Tennessee, Cumberland, and Wabash rivers, the great magnitude of the non-Mississippi trade becomes apparent.

With the settlement of the Mississippi Valley and admission of new states into the Union, flatboating also increased on the Lower Missouri River, the Arkansas and Yazoo, the Illinois River, and on the Upper Mississippi. Flatboats were not so crucial to the growth of the upper Midwest as to that of the Ohio Valley, yet much of the lead from mining regions of northwest Illinois (near Galena) and Wisconsin was first transported by flats and keels. Because of the treacherous Upper and Lower Rapids and continual low water on the Upper Mississippi River, Minnesota and Wisconsin farmers preferred flatboats to steamers when they started exporting their first agricultural surpluses in the late 1850s.
Credit: ~ Western Rivermen, 1763-1861: Ohio and Mississippi Boatmen and the Myth of the Alligator Horse, by Michael Allen.

‘Mouth of the Arkansas’ ~ circa 1846-7-8

Quote: ~
‘I took passage on a flatboat or as they were known in river parlance, a “Mississippi broadhorn,” the poor man’s transfer. Out on the broad bosom of the Father of Waters these boats floated from the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee and numerous smaller tributaries, laden with the products of the vast region contiguous, to be floated down to New Orleans and thence distributed around the seaboard by sailing vessels. The flatboat having served its purpose, it was broken up and sold for lumber and fuel, while the owner pocketed his cash and wended his way home, generally on foot up through Mississippi, where he was liable to he interviewed by footpads and relieved of his money if not his life. Many were the gruesome stories of robbery and murder thus committed by old John A. Merrill and his band of freebooters. My transport was loaded with ice, artificial ice being a thing unheard of. The crew consisted of three men, whose principal duty was to look out for “sawyers,” sunken trees, and to keep clear of eddies, for a boat once drawn into the swirl would go floating around indefinitely, in danger of colliding with the ever-accumulating drift and being sunk.’
Credit: ~ The memoirs of Noah Smithwick, published in Evolution of a State.

‘Jolly Flatboatmen In Port’ ~ 1857

Quote: ~
In 1819 artist George Caleb Bingham’s family, like many others, moved west of the Mississippi. They settled in the wilderness town of Franklin in the Missouri Territory, which would become a state two years later. Farmers in the area shipped crops and animals in flatboats down the nearby Missouri River to the Mississippi, and on to the port of New Orleans. From there goods were shipped to markets on the east coast of the United States.

Bingham was a self-trained painter who lived most of his life in Missouri. Working before America’s vastness was made accessible by roads and railways, Bingham found his subjects in the boatmen and trappers who populated his state’s great rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi. Through these subjects he captured a taste of life in the West.
Credit: ~ National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Original painting owned by the Saint Louis Art Museum.

‘Barges On The Tennessee At Chattanooga’

Flatboats, including barges, were built on the riverbanks of East Tennessee and loaded with produce such as corn, wheat, potatoes, preserved meat in barrels, whiskey and sometimes coal.

Navigating the Tennessee River was challenging for heavily loaded flatboats. Some ten miles below Chattanooga there was a narrow gorge called The Suck, also known as the Valley of the Whirlpool Rapids, and there were the Muscle Shoals in Northern Alabama. But during high water, flatboats could navigate over river hazards all the way to New Orleans.

Chattanooga began as the settlement of Ross’s Landing, which was established about 1816 by John Ross, a Chief of the Cherokee Indians, and consisted of a ferry, warehouse, and landing. With the organization of Hamilton County in 1819 north of the river, it served not only the Cherokee trade but also as a convenient business center for the county. Cherokee parties left from the landing for the West in 1838 on what would become known as the “Trail of Tears.” That year, the growing community took the name Chattanooga, a Creek Indian word for “rock coming to a point,” which refers to Lookout Mountain beginning in Chattanooga and stretching 88 miles through Alabama and Georgia.

In this detailed scene, Harry Fenn captures the activity as barges are unloaded at Ross’s Landing. In the river, an island is used as an anchor point for a swing ferry, which could swing to either riverbank, pivoting on a cable that was kept clear of the water by small boat floats.

‘Barge Descending the Mississippi’

Quote: ~
As early as the 1840s, a few flatboat owners were paying to have their craft towed back upriver by steamboats, enabling the flats to carry goods in both directions. A flatboat used in this way was called a barge. A natural next step was to have the flat towed downstream as well as up. After the Civil War, numerous flatboats became two-way barges as their owners attempted to compete with the railroads. In the end, both the flatboats and the steamboats lost out.
Credit: ~ Louisiana, Yesterday and Today: A Historical Guide to the State, by John Wilds, Charles L. Dufour, Walter G. Cowan.

Quote: ~
The Western waters floated all sorts of craft, from the lumber raft to the flatboat, laden with pork, cheese, butter, flour, corn, and whiskey. The greater part of these boats were makeshifts, and made no return voyage. It was not until 1809 that a barge was warped upstream from New Orleans to Nashville. The entire traffic on the Mississippi and the Ohio was carried on until 1817 in less than a score of keel boats, which made the voyage downstream from Louisville to New Orleans in about forty days, and upstream in ninety. When, then, a steamboat succeeded in making a return voyage in twenty-five days, it was hailed as an epoch-making performance. In the next year twenty steamboats were competing for the river traffic; and three years later (1820) seventy-two were in actual service. Yet the steamboat did not drive the flatboat from the Western rivers. So late as 1840, one-fifth of the freight handled on the lower Mississippi was carried on flatboats and barges.
Credit: ~ Union and Democracy (Illustrated Edition), by Allen Johnson

‘Bound Down The River’ ~ circa 1870


Published in 1870, this hand-colored lithograph is one of Currier’s most famous Mississippi River scenes, illustrating a flatboat laden with kegs and other cargo, bound down the lower river. A sternwheeler is nearby, a sidewheeler appears to be landing at a settlement, while still more steamboats ply the busy waterway in the distance.

A fiddle player and a dancing crew member complete this scene, which was already part of river folklore when published.

Riverfront at New Albany, Indiana

Quote: ~
Improvements in navigation skills and in maintaining the river channels enabled the rivermen to use larger boats, and boat size and capacity increased dramatically during the Steamboat Age. Early flatboats averaged 6o feet in length, carried 30 tons of produce, and cost about $75. By the 1850s, boatmen worked 100-foot-long flats carrying an average of 150 tons and costing $150. These were fine boats, too – excellently caulked and equipped with leather pumps, solid capstans, and factory-made check lines. Cabins were built for comfort: as one boatmen remembered, they included “a stove … to heat and cook. Canning Recipes. A hinged table hung from the wall, and at either end was usually upper and lower bunks.” Such accommodations were a far cry from the early boats with their sandbox cooking pits and a bedroom under the stars. No wonder some merchant navigators during the post-1823 decades discontinued the practice of dismantling and selling flats in New Orleans. Having invested in such solid, comfortable craft, rivermen engaged steamers to tow their flats north, sometimes loaded with new cargo. As the Civil War approached, this practice of using flatboats and keelboats as auxillary storage craft or “lighters” attached to steamers increased, and in it we see the very beginnings of modern-day barge commerce.

Because of river improvements begun in the 1823-1861 period, flatboating ceased to be a perilous adventure. Not only did flatboatmen complete their trips much more quickly than before, but flatboats often could be seen “running day and night” during the Steamboat Age. “There were instances,” an Indiana pioneer remembered, “where the cables were never tied between the mouth of the Wabash and the landing at the City (of New Orleans).” During the early days of boating, most rivermen would have considered this practice of running all night sheer madness.
Credit: ~ Western Rivermen, 1763-1861: Ohio and Mississippi Boatmen and the Myth of the Alligator Horse, by Michael Allen.

‘Flatboats in Fog on the Mississippi’

Quote: ~
Superior Court of Cincinnati, July Term, 1843.
Josiah Lawrence v. Henry A. Jones and Others.

This was an action on the case brought by the plaintiff as owner of cargo on a flatboat, against the defendants as owners of the steamboat Henry Clay, to recover damages for sinking the flatboat. The case made by the plaintiffs was substantially this: On the night of the 28th December, 1842, about the hour of ten, the flatboat, descending the Mississippi river, at a point about fifty miles above New Orleans, was sunk by collision with the steamboat Henry Clay, then ascending the river. The fog was so dense that persons on the flatboat had not been able to see the shore for some hours. But it was a low fog, and did not prevent the pilot of the steamboat from seeing the shores, though he could see no object floating in the river. The steamboat was running at her full speed of about twelve miles per hour; and it was proved to be common so to run when either shore could be seen. It was also proved to be common for flatboats to run, in that part of the river, though they could see neither shore. The ordinary signal given by a flatboat at night is a light; but if there be a fog, a noise is made, either by shouting, beating upon the boat with a board, or firing a gun. The steamboat had been heard approaching for some time, but she could not be seen by those on the flatboat, until within from fifty to a hundred yards. A light had been shown from three to five minutes, but it could not be seen from the steamboat until collision had become inevitable. There was also proof that the master of the flatboat hallooed shortly after showing the light, but the testimony on this point was conflicting; and the noise was not heard on the steamboat. When the pilot of the steamboat saw the light, he stopped the engines and tried to back, but his velocity was so great that this was unavailing. He also put the wheel hard down for the east shore, but this too was unavailing. In fact he could not see the flatboat when her light became visible. There was much conflict of testimony, as to whether the flatboat was in the middle of the river or nearer the east shore; and as to whether she was lying crosswise or straight up and down the stream. The steamboat struck with the larboard side of her bow, on the bow of the flatboat a few feet to the left of her starboard corner, and carried away the whole of her larboard corner, so that she sunk immediately. The parties agreed to adjust the damages, and the jury were to pass upon the single question of guilty or not guilty.
Credit: ~ The Western Law Journal, Volume I. From October 1843 To October 1844. Edited by T. Walker. Published by Desilver & Burr, Cincinnati.

‘Small Flatboat on the Mississippi’

Quote: ~
Flatboats usually tied up at shore overnight and in bad weather, but some travelers risked the danger from snags and other water hazards in order to make better time. A good day’s journey was reckoned at fifty to a hundred miles. A forty-foot boat needed at least three hands for navigation; it was better to have more. Even small boats could carry eight or ten tons, and some of the large ones could handle seventy of eighty tons. This freight capacity meant that downstream  freight rates were relatively cheap. …

The heavy flatboats drew considerable water, steering was a slow process with the clumsy crafts, and passengers and crew often found themselves trying to get the boat off a sandbar or replacing a stove-in plank. Low water might immobilize a boat for weeks or months at a time; wise travelers planned a trip during the seasons when the waters were high and currents swift. Winter ice could also cause exasperating delays. The river was littered with snags, free floating trees, and other hazards that could endanger even a carefully handled boat.
Credit: ~ A New History of Kentucky, by Lowell Hayes Harrison, James C. Klotter.

‘Mississippi River Flatboatmen, Tower Rock’

One of the most famous landmarks on the Mississippi, Tower Rock is a massive limestone outcrop rising some 90 feet above the riverbed, located between Chester, Illinois and Cape Girardeau, Missouri. In high flow, turbulent water passes around the rock, forming a powerful whirlpool as it re-enters the main channel. In 1673, Indians warned explorers Marquette & Joliet of “a demon that devours travelers”. Later, in 1803, Lewis & Clark also recorded this notable river feature in their exploration journals, even climbing it to measure its height. Artist Karl Bodmer paused to sketch it in 1832.

During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant passed Tower Rock several times as he directed troops along the river. Later as President, he refused to approve a river channel improvement that would have blasted the rock into oblivion.

Here, Gary R. Lucy depicts a group of flatboatmen passing Tower Rock late at night. Two flatboats are tied together; a common practice on easier reaches which afforded greater protection and reduced the number of men needed to navigate. Of course, such a meeting was also conducive to a drop of recreation. The card players in this scene are observed by onlookers who appear lubricated to various degrees, ably supervised by the dog.

The full title of this work is: “Mississippi River Flatboatmen – Navigating Past Tower Rock ~ 1831”

Storeboats at Louisville, Kentucky’ ~ 1880

“Storeboats” were flatboats that were literally mobile stores, traveling from one one town to the next selling manufactured goods and produce. They were usually built for a one-way journey that would take their proprietor’s and crew away from home for a number of months. The name of the proprietor would be painted on the side, and at the end of the venture the crew would be paid off, to return upriver by steamboat or train. However, a successful owner might also hire a steamer to tow his storeboat back upriver, especially if his storeboat was well-built and he planned to repeat the exercise.

This photograph depicts two storeboats lashed together at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1880. Lashing two boats was a common practice, and probably reduced labor costs, maximized piloting skills, and encouraged the townsfolk to visit the stores.

‘Flatboat Passing Baton Rouge’ ~ 1890

Quote: ~
Flatboating died slowly. Even before the Civil War ended, flatboatmen resumed shipments south and hoped to pick up where they had left off during the heyday of the 1840s and early 1850s. This was not to be. The forces inimical to flatboat commerce continued to the boating trade: the towing of logs and lumber rafts and flatboats or, as they soon began to be called, “barges.” There are instances of raft and flatboat tows prior to the Civil War, but it was during the postwar years that towing became the prominent mode of transport on the western rivers.

As their trade declined, ambitious flatboatmen became involved in towing schemes. The most common system was to float south, sell out, then reload a new cargo, hire a steamer to tow the flatboat north, sell out again, and repeat the process over and over. … The natural next step for the flatboatmen was to hire his flat towed in both directions. This was safer, easier, and ultimately less expensive. When steamboat entrepreneurs began to build their own flatboats for this purpose, the middleman (flatboatmen) was eliminated. During the post-Civil War years, Ohio and Mississippi valley shipyards began to construct thousands of flatboats without living quarters, calling these craft, in the new terminology, “barges.” …

A few flatboatmen continued to ply their trade until the turn of the century. Along shallow, isolated tributary streams such as the Upper Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, where steamers could not always navigate, flatboats, keels, and lumber and log rafts continued to prove useful. … These rivermen must have appeared rather odd as they floated down the western rivers, weaving in and out of the paths of steamboats, in view of railroads, factories, and cities springing up along the banks. Surely these boatmen appeared anachronistic: preindustrial men in an industrial age. …
Credit: ~ Western Rivermen, 1763-1861: Ohio and Mississippi Boatmen and the Myth of the Alligator Horse, by Michael Allen.

‘Storeboat with Owner’ ~ circa 1880-90

Quote: ~
There are a number of firsthand accounts of these flatboatmen of the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, but a brief look at the extensive correspondence of Ohioan William E. Devol provides a composite picture. Devol, a descendant of a long line of Marietta, Ohio, flatboatmen, worked as a merchant navigator from 1867 to 1873, coasting apples, potatoes, and hardy produce from Marietta to the Lower Mississippi. Many of Devol’s activities were typical of the boatmen of the 1823-1861 era. He hired mostly teenage farm boys as deckhands, while his pilots were middle-aged, professional rivermen. He complained constantly of money matters and fretted over commodity prices, insurance coverage, and wharf taxes.

Devol and his flatboat crews enjoyed an improved and comfortable lifestyle. They received mail on a regular basis and were able to send telegraph messages home to loved ones. They had their laundry done and ate elaborate, nutritious meals, including a Christmas dinner of roast goose and oyster pie. Flatboatmen before the war returned home on the deck of a steamboat; Devol and his crew took the train. Revealingly, William Devol’s last flatboating trip, in 1873, was not really a flatboat trip at all: he lashed several of his boats together and hired a steamboat to tow them south.

Even this improved, modern lifestyle could not induce William Devol to continue flatboating. As competition from steamers and railroads stiffened, he found it increasingly difficult to turn a profit. During the particularly bad winter season of 1872-1873, he wrote his wife, Bitha, complaining “I am taking the bitterest pill in the way of flatboating…”. The economic depression that soon followed ended Devol’s boating career. …

Like Devol, thousands of diehard flatboatmen gave up the profession during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Captain Miles Stacy, who had returned briefly to the river after serving in the Civil War, soon gave up boating because, as he wrote later, it was not as profitable “as it had been before the War.” … The remaining flatboatmen followed suit. As Lucie Rieman recalled, Aurora, Indiana, saw its last flat depart in 1893, and by 1900 flatboating was, for all practical purposes gone forever.
Credit: ~ Western Rivermen, 1763-1861: Ohio and Mississippi Boatmen and the Myth of the Alligator Horse, by Michael Allen.

‘Flatboat on the Mississippi’ ~ 1898

This rare photograph of one of the last flatboats was taken on the lower Mississippi in 1898. It appears to be carrying coal.

Although flatboats ultimately lost out to the steamboat and the railroads, they were the foremost river vessel of the western rivers. They did not disappear after the introduction of the steamboat. To the contrary, flatboating boomed throughout much of the steamboating era, peaking during the November-to-June shipping season of 1846-1847 when 2,792 flatboats tied up at New Orleans – more than double the total of 1,287 that had arrived in 1816, when Shreve was building his steamboat Washington. The early days of boating were in fact a “flatboat age” on western waters, and nine-tenths of America’s early boatmen were flatboatmen. Simple in design, flatboats were relatively easy to build, inexpensive, and could carry heavy loads economically. Any enterprising Ohio Valley farmer with a load of grain or salt pork ready for market could construct a flatboat, enlist his sons and hired hands as crew, and float his produce to New Orleans himself. After the Civil War, some flatboat trade resumed despite stiffening competition. In the following decades, it still remained economic for large flatboats to transport heavy and less expensive products, such as sand, stone, coal, salt, bricks, lumber, whiskey and smoked meats. But by 1900 flatboats were a rare anachronism destined to be replaced by “towed” barges.

‘Narrow Flatboat in Kentucky’ ~ circa 1900

Although steamboats pushed ever further up the headwaters of the Appalachian rivers during the nineteenth century, and road and rail access continued to improve, many communities remained isolated, and continued to depend on flatboats as the easiest and least expensive means of transporting farm produce to downriver markets.

So shallow were the headwaters of many flatboating rivers that they could only be navigated at the “Maytide” when the run-off from spring rains and melting snow increased the water depth. Appalachian flatboats were of necessity small, and sometimes narrow, with a capacity of no more than fifty or sixty tons, transporting flour, cornmeal, hemp, tobacco, whiskey, pork, beef and other agricultural products.

In earlier times, such flatboats would have continued downriver even as far as New Orleans, and may have combined with, or traveled with, others on a similar journey. Inevitably, by 1900, flatboats had almost disappeared from all but the most shallow and remote headwaters of some Appalachian rivers. Now, it was only necessary to transport a load of produce downriver to the nearest town or city. Within a decade or so, even this practice would disappear.


‘Flatboat on the Mississippi ~ Abraham Lincoln’

Abraham Lincoln twice piloted a flatboat carrying produce from Illinois to New Orleans (1828, 1831).

Quote: ~
LINCOLN’S 1828 VOYAGE – Allen Gentry and Abraham Lincoln poled out of Rockport, Indiana into the Ohio River on Friday or Saturday, April 18 or 19 of 1828 for the purpose of delivering a cargo to the New Orleans market. The flatboat, made of course cut timbers, measured about 15′ by 40′, had a flat bottom and canopy or roof over whole or part for protection of the crew and cargo. Gentry’s father hired Abe Lincoln to assist his son in getting the flatboat to New Orleans. Their cargo is believed to have been “barrel pork” a product widely used to feed slaves. At the spring flow rate they drifted at about 5.5 miles an hour, very likely tying up at night for rest and to avoid night time hazards. Their trip took them down the Ohio River to its confluence with the Mississippi, then down river past numerous historic river towns. The sugar plantations above New Orleans would have provided sights and stops. Abe was in the heart of the southern slave society based on cotton and sugar cane. Often boatmen marketed their wares to the plantations as they passed. Many other flatboats were working their way down the river. Some provided special services to the river men such as banking, food, entertainers, innkeepers, and prostitutes. Tying up a night, often with groups of other boats for security, afforded them occasions for interaction with other flatboat river men. On shore were a veritable industry of vice on the riverside of sandbars with taverns, dance halls, grog shops, boarding houses and brothels, catering to flatboat men. Continually, steamboats going up and down the river dodged the flatboats drifting with the current while both struggled to avoid sandbars and snags.

One memorable experience was a raid on their vessel while tied up at night. Seven Blacks, probably runaways seeking provisions, jumped aboard and attacked the two boatmen. Evidence suggests the area of Convent LA in St. James Parish as the location of the battle. Gentry and Lincoln fought with the stick bearing men, Gentry calling to Lincoln to get the guns and shoot. With that the men fled, indicating they understood English, being American slaves imported from the east coast, rather than Creole French speaking slaves of south Louisiana. There were no guns aboard. Both men were injured in the struggle. They weighed anchor and floated downriver for safety.

After a 1276 mile journey from Rockport, Indiana, Gentry and Lincoln arrived in the bustling port of New Orleans. The date was likely May 14th or 17th for their arrival. When the produce was sold and the boat disassembled it was time for vituals, drink, entertainment and shelter. The scene was chaos in the streets with boatmen, steamboat crews, sailors, immigrants, slaves, free-people-of-color, French, Spanish, German, and the Irish, plus Americans. Slavery was everywhere in this city, the largest slave market in America. Brought there by steamboats, flatboats and coffles, walking overland from the east coast. The slaves were sold by advertisements, direct sales and auction house. The grim scenes of slavery were everywhere. Auctions placed families up to be sold individually to distant parts of the South as the victims wept. Northern observers could not believe the hardness of those handling the auctions. Slaves were lined up to be examined by prospective buyers for condition of teeth, feet, hands, limbs and joints. A slave with whelps from beatings or scars from branding was a warning of a trouble maker. Later, in 1841 Lincoln commented on his past observations of slavery, “The site was a continual torment to me.”

The return trip to Rockport by steamboat must have intrigued Lincoln. If they left June 8th, they would have reached Natchez by June 11 and Vicksburg the next day. They would have made the 1276 mile return trip to Rockport by June 21, a thirteen day to two week trip, compared to their four week trip downstream.

LINCOLN’S 1831 VOYAGE – On March 1, 1831 Lincoln and John Hanks set off to meet Denton Offutt in Springfield to take Denton’s flatboat with loaded cargo down river to New Orleans. No preparations had been made, neither boat construction nor cargo. They met John D. Johnston, the third crew member. Offutt offered to pay them fair wages to build a flatboat. Measuring 18′ by 50′, it was considerably larger than the 1828 vessel. On April 19 the crew with Offutt poled out into the Sangamon River loaded with Offutt’s sacks of corn, sides of bacon, barrels of pork and some live hogs. The boat became stuck while passing by a mill dam threatening the venture. Abe came up with the solution, using another boat to unload the cargo which lightened the vessel, allowing the men to push it loose. Then it was reloaded. The voyage was saved from disaster.

The boat cruised at about 4.75 mph or 66.5 miles per day. At St. Louis, John Hanks returned to his home. On this trip there is no indication that they stopped for sales to plantations, rather they delivered the cargo directly to New Orleans. They arrived May 12, 1831 after 1627 miles from New Salem. They completed the sales, unloading and disassembling in three weeks. Then they were free to see the city. They were immersed in a sea of slavery seen from the pier to the streets to the auction houses. Hewett’s Exchange on the downriver lakeside of the intersection of Chartres and St. Louis streets sold seven per day, six days a week. Slave pens and brokers sold others. The abhorrence he felt regarding slavery never left him. Lincoln, Offutt and Johnston returned to New Salem by late June. Lincoln continued captaining flatboats to St. Louis in 1834-1835.
Credit: ~ Edited from: LINCOLN IN NEW ORLEANS: The 1828-1831 Flatboat Voyages and Their Place in History, Richard Campanella, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.

‘Flatboatmen of the Frontier’ (film 1941)

This is an educational film made in 1941, depicting the construction of a flatboat by pioneer Ohio Valley farmers. Crops are harvested and processed, timber is felled and prepared, the flatboat is built and loaded, and when ready they depart on their journey downriver to market.