The Northwest Territory
River Travel and Industry

©Illinois Trails History and Genealogy
http://www.iltrails.org



The title "alligator-horse," of which Western rivermen were very proud, carried with it a suggestion of amphibious strength that made it both apt and figuratively accurate. On all the American rivers, east and west, a lusty crew, collected from the waning Indian trade and the disbanded pioneer armies, found work to its taste in poling the long keel boats, "corralling" the bulky barges--that is, towing them by pulling on a line attached to the shore--or steering the "broadhorns" or flatboats that transported the first heavy inland river cargoes. Like longshoremen of all ages, the American riverman was as rough as the work which calloused his hands and transformed his muscles into bands of tempered steel. Like all men given to hard but intermittent labor, he employed his intervals of leisure in coarse and brutal recreation. Their roistering exploits, indeed, have made these rivermen almost better known at play than at work. One of them, the notorious Mike Fink, known as "the Snag" on the Mississippi and as the "Snapping Turtle" on the Ohio, has left the record, not that he could load a keel boat in a certain length of time, or lift a barrel of whiskey with one arm, or that no tumultuous current had ever compelled him to back water, but that he could "out-run, out-hop, out-jump, throw down, drag out, and lick any man in the country," and that he was "a Salt River roarer." Such men and the craft they handled were known on the Atlantic rivers, but it was on the Mississippi and its branches, especially the Ohio, that they played their most important part in the history of American inland commerce. Before the beginning of the nineteenth century wagons and Conestogas were bringing great loads of merchandise to such points on the headwaters as Brownsville, Pittsburgh, and Wheeling. As early as 1782, we are told, Jacob Yoder, a Pennsylvania German, set sail from the Monongahela country with the first flatboat to descend the Ohio and Mississippi. As the years passed, the number of such craft grew constantly larger. The custom of fixing the widespreading horns of cattle on the prow gave these boats the alternative name of "broadhorns," but no accurate classification can be made of the various kinds of craft engaged in this vast traffic. Everything that would float, from rough rafts to finished barges, was commandeered into service, and what was found unsuitable for the strenuous purposes of commercial transportation was palmed off whenever possible on unsuspecting emigrants en route to the lands of promise beyond.

Flour, salt, iron, cider and peach brandy were staple products of the Ohio country which the South desired. In return they shipped molasses, sugar, coffee, lead, and hides upon the few keel boats which crept upstream or the blundering barges which were propelled northward by means of oar, sail, and cordelle. It was not, however, until the nineteenth century that the young West was producing any considerable quantity of manufactured goods. Though the town of Pittsburgh had been laid out in 1764, by the end of the Revolution it was still little more than a collection of huts about a fort. A notable amount of local trade was carried on, but the expense of transportation was very high even after wagons began crossing the Alleghanies. For example, the cost from Philadelphia and Baltimore was given by Arthur Lee, a member of Congress, in 1784 as forty-five shillings a hundredweight, and a few months later it is quoted at sixpence a pound when Johann D. Schoph crossed the mountains in a chaise--a feat "which till now had been considered quite impossible." Opinions differed widely as to the future of the little town of five hundred inhabitants. The important product of the region at first was Monongahela flour which long held a high place in the New Orleans market. Coal was being mined as early as 1796 and was worth locally threepence halfpenny a bushel, though within seven years it was being sold at Philadelphia at thirty-seven and a half cents a bushel. The fur trade with the Illinois country grew less important as the century came to its close, but Maynard and Morrison, cooperating with Guy Bryan at Philadelphia, sent a barge laden with merchandise to Illinois annually between 1790 and 1796, which returned each season with a cargo of skins and furs. Pittsburgh was thus a distributing center of some importance; but the fact that no drayman or warehouse was to be found in the town at this time is a significant commentary on the undeveloped state of its commerce and manufacture.

After Wayne's victory at the battle of the Fallen Timber in 1794 and the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which ended the earlier Indian wars of the Old Northwest and opened for settlement the country beyond the Ohio, a great migration followed into Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, and the commercial activity of Pittsburgh rapidly increased. By 1800 a score of profitable industries had arisen, and by 1803 the first bar-iron foundry was, to quote the advertisement of its owner, "sufficiently upheld by the hand of the Almighty" to supply in part the demand for iron and castings. Glass factories were established, and ropewalks, sail lofts, boatyards, anchor smithies, and brickyards, were soon ready to supply the rapidly increasing demands of the infant cities and the countryside on the lower Ohio. When the new century arrived the Pittsburgh district had a population of upwards of two thousand.

One by one the other important centers of trade in the great valley beyond began to show evidences of life. Marietta, Ohio, founded in 1788 by Revolutionary officers from New England, became the metropolis of the rich Muskingum River district, which was presently sending many flatboats southward. Cincinnati was founded in the same year as Marietta, with the building of Fort Washington and the formal organization of Hamilton County. The soil of the Miami country was as "mellow as an ash heap" and in the first four months of 1802 over four thousand barrels of flour were shipped southward to challenge the prestige of the Monongahela product. Potters, brickmakers, gunsmiths, cotton and wool weavers, coopers, turners, wheelwrights, dyers, printers, and ropemakers were at work here within the next decade. A brewery turned out five thousand barrels of beer and porter in 1811, and by the next year the pork-packing business was thoroughly established.

Louisville, the "Little Falls" of the West, was the entrepot of the Blue Grass region. It had been a place of some importance since Revolutionary days, for in seasons of low water the rapids in the Ohio at this point gave employment to scores of laborers who assisted the flatboatmen in hauling their cargoes around the obstruction which prevented the passage of the heavily loaded barges. The town, which was incorporated in 1780, soon showed signs of commercial activity. It was the proud possessor of a drygoods house in 1783. The growth of its tobacco industry was rapid from the first. The warehouses were under government supervision and inspection as early as 1795, and innumerable flatboats were already bearing cargoes of bright leaf southward in the last decade of the century. The first brick house in Louisville was erected in 1789 with materials brought from Pittsburgh. Yankees soon established the "Hope Distillery"; and the manufacture of whiskey, which had long been a staple industry conducted by individuals, became an incorporated business of great promise in spite of objections raised against the "creation of gigantic reservoirs of this damning drink."

Thus, about the year 1800, the great industries of the young West were all established in the regions dominated by the growing cities of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Louisville. But, since the combined population of these centers could not have been over three thousand in the year 1800, it is evident that the adjacent rural population and the people living in every neighboring creek and river valley were chiefly responsible for the large trade that already existed between this corner of the Mississippi basin and the South.

In this trade the riverman was the fundamental factor. Only by means of his brawn and his genius for navigation could these innumerable tons of flour, tobacco, and bacon have been kept from rotting on the shores. Yet the man himself remains a legend grotesque and mysterious, one of the shadowy figures of a time when history was being made too rapidly to be written. If we ask how he loaded his flatboat or barge, we are told that "one squint of his eye would blister a bull's heel." When we inquire how he found the channel amid the shifting bars and floating islands of that tortuous two-thousand-mile journey to New Orleans, we are informed that he was "the very infant that turned from his mother's breast and called out for a bottle of old rye." When we ask how he overcame the natural difficulties of trade--lack of commission houses, varying standards of money, want of systems of credit and low prices due to the glutting of the market when hundreds of flatboats arrived in the South simultaneously on the same freshet--we are informed that "Billy Earthquake is the geniwine, double-acting engine, and can out-run, out-swim, chaw more tobacco and spit less, drink more whiskey and keep soberer than any other man in these localities."

The reason for this lack of information is that our descriptions of flatboating and keel boating are written by travelers who, as is always the case, are interested in what is unusual, not in what is typical and commonplace. It is therefore only dimly, as through a mist, that we can see the two lines of polemen pass from the prow to the stern on the narrow running-board of a keel boat, lifting and setting their poles to the cry of steersman or captain. The struggle in a swift "rife" or rapid is momentous. If the craft swerves, all is lost. Shoulders bend with savage strength; poles quiver under the tension; the captain's voice is raucous, and every other word is an oath; a pole breaks, and the next man, though half-dazed in the mortal crisis, does for a few moments the work of two. At last they reach the head of the rapid, and the boat floats out on the placid pool above, while the "alligator-horse" who had the mishap remarks to the scenery at large that he'd be "fly-blowed before sun-down to a certingty" if that were not the very pole with which he "pushed the broadhorn up Salt River where the snags were so thick that a fish couldn't swim without rubbing his scales off." Audubon, the naturalist-merchant of the Mississippi, has left us a clear picture of the process by which these heavy tubs, loaded with forty or fifty tons of freight, were forced upstream against a swift current:

"Wherever a point projected so as to render the course or bend below it of some magnitude, there was an eddy, the returning current of which was sometimes as strong as that of the middle of the great stream. The bargemen, therefore, rowed up pretty close under the bank and had merely to keep watch in the bow lest the boat should run against a planter or sawyer. But the boat has reached the point, and there the current is to all appearance of double strength and right against it. The men, who have rested a few minutes, are ordered to take their stations and lay hold of their oars, for the river must be crossed, it being seldom possible to double such a point and proceed along the same shore. The boat is crossing, its head slanting to the current, which is, however, too strong for the rowers, and when the other side of the river has been reached, it has drifted perhaps a quarter of a mile. The men are by this time exhausted and, as we shall suppose it to be 12 o'clock, fasten the boat to a tree on the shore. A small glass of whiskey is given to each, when they cook and eat their dinner and, after resting from their fatigue for an hour, recommence their labors. The boat is again seen slowly advancing against the stream. It has reached the lower end of a sandbar, along the edge of which it is propelled by means of long poles, if the bottom be hard. Two men, called bowsmen, remain at the prow to assist, in concert with the steersman, in managing the boat and keeping its head right against the current. The rest place themselves on the land side of the footway of the vessel, put one end of their poles on the ground and the other against their shoulders and push with all their might. As each of the men reaches the stern, he crosses to the other side, runs along it and comes again to the landward side of the bow, when he recommences operations. The barge in the meantime is ascending at a rate not exceeding one mile in the hour."

Trustworthy statistics as to the amount and character of the Western river trade have never been gathered. They are to be found, if anywhere, in the reports of the collectors of customs located at the various Western ports of entry and departure. Nothing indicates more definitely the hour when the West awoke to its first era of big business than the demand for the creation of "districts" and their respective ports, for by no other means could merchandise and produce be shipped legally to Spanish territory beyond or down the Mississippi or to English territory on the northern shores of the Great Lakes.

Louisville is as old a port of the United States as New York or Philadelphia, having been so created when our government was established in 1789, but oddly enough the first returns to the National Treasury (1798) are credited to the port of Palmyra, Tennessee, far inland on the Cumberland River. In 1799 the following Western towns were made ports of entry: Erie, Sandusky, Detroit, Mackinaw Island, and Columbia (Cincinnati). The first port on the Ohio to make returns was Fort Massac, Illinois, and it is from the collector at this point that we get our first hint as to the character and volume of Western river traffic. In the spring months of March, April, and May, 1800, cargoes to the value of 28,581 pounds, Pennsylvania currency, went down the Ohio. This included 22,714 barrels of flour, 1017 barrels of whiskey, 12,500 pounds of pork, 18,710 pounds of bacon, 75,814 pounds of cordage, 3650 yards of country linen, 700 bottles, and 700 barrels of potatoes. In the three autumn months of 1800, for instance, twenty-one boats ascended the Ohio by Fort Massac, with cargoes amounting to 36 hundredweight of lead and a few hides. Descending the river at the same time, flatboats and barges carried 245 hundredweight of drygoods valued at $32,550. When we compare these spring and fall records of commerce downstream we reach the natural conclusion that the bulk of the drygoods which went down in the fall of the year had been brought over the mountains during the summer. The fact that the Alleghany pack-horses and Conestogas were transporting freight to supply the Spanish towns on the Mississippi River in the first year of the nineteenth century seems proved beyond a doubt by these reports from Fort Massac.

The most interesting phase of this era is the connection between western trade and the politics of the Mississippi Valley which led up to the Louisiana Purchase. By the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795 Spain made New Orleans an open port, and in the next seven years the young West made the most of its opportunity. But before the new century was two years old the difficulties encountered were found to be serious. The lack of commission merchants, of methods of credit, of information as to the state of the market, all combined to handicap trade and to cause loss. Pittsburgh shippers figured their loss already at $60,000 a year. In consequence men began to look elsewhere, and an advocate of big business wrote in 1802: "The country has received a shock; let us immediately extend our views and direct our efforts to every foreign market."

One of the most remarkable plans for the capture of foreign trade to be found in the annals of American commerce originated almost simultaneously in the Muskingum and Monongahela regions. With a view to making the American West independent of the Spanish middlemen, it was proposed to build ocean-going vessels on the Ohio that should carry the produce of the interior down the Mississippi and thence abroad through the open port of New Orleans. The idea was typically Western in its arrogant originality and confident self-assertion. Two vessels were built: the brig St. Clair, of 110 tons, at Marietta, and the Monongahela Farmer, of 250 tons, at Elizabeth on the Monongahela. The former reached Cincinnati April 27, 1801; the latter, loaded with 750 barrels of flour, passed Pittsburgh on the 13th of May. Eventually, the St. Clair reached Havana and thus proved that Muskingum Valley black walnut, Ohio hemp, and Marietta carpenters, anchor smiths, and skippers could defy the grip of the Spaniard on the Mississippi. Other vessels followed these adventurers, and shipbuilding immediately became an important industry at Pittsburgh, Marietta, Cincinnati, and other points. The Duane of Pittsburgh was said by the Liverpool "Saturday Advertiser" of July 9, 1803, to have been the "first vessel which ever came to Europe from the western waters of the United States." Probably the Louisiana of Marietta went as far afield as any of the one hundred odd ships built in these years on the Ohio. The official papers of her voyage in 1805, dated at New Orleans, Norfolk (Virginia), Liverpool, Messina, and Trieste at the head of the Adriatic, are preserved today in the Marietta College Library.

The growth of the shipbuilding industry necessitated a readjustment of the districts for the collection of customs. Columbia (Cincinnati) at first served the region of the upper Ohio; but in 1803 the district was divided and Marietta was made the port for the Pittsburgh-Portsmouth section of the river. In 1807 all the western districts were amalgamated, and Pittsburgh, Charleston (Wellsburg), Marietta, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Fort Massac were made ports of entry.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 gave a marked impulse to inland shipbuilding; but the embargo of 1807, which prohibited foreign trade, following so soon, killed the shipyards, which, for a few years, had been so busy. The great new industry of the Ohio Valley was ruined. By this time the successful voyage of Fulton's steamboat, the Clermont, between New York and Albany, had demonstrated the possibilities of steam navigation. Not a few men saw in the novel craft the beginning of a new era in Western river traffic; but many doubted whether it was possible to construct a vessel powerful enough to make its way upstream against such sweeping currents as those of the Mississippi and the Ohio. Surely no one for a moment dreamed that in hardly more than a generation the Western rivers would carry a tonnage larger than that of the cities of the Atlantic seaboard combined and larger than that of Great Britain!

As early as 1805, two years before the trip of the Clermont, Captain Keever built a "steamboat" on the Ohio, and sent her down to New Orleans where her engine was to be installed. But it was not until 1811 that the Orleans, the first steamboat to ply the Western streams, was built at Pittsburgh, from which point she sailed for New Orleans in October of that year. The Comet and Vesuvius quickly followed, but all three entered the New Orleans-Natchez trade on the lower river and were never seen again at the headwaters. As yet the swift currents and flood tides of the great river had not been mastered. It is true that in 1815 the Enterprise had made two trips between New Orleans and Louisville, but this was in time of high water, when counter currents and backwaters had assisted her feeble engine. In 1816, however, Henry Shreve conceived the idea of raising the engine out of the hold and constructing an additional deck. The Washington, the first doubledecker, was the result. The next year this steamboat made the round trip from Louisville to New Orleans and back in forty-one days. The doubters were now convinced.

For a little while the quaint and original riverman held on in the new age, only to disappear entirely when the colored roustabout became the deckhand of post-bellum days. The riverman as a type was unknown except on the larger rivers in the earlier years of water traffic. What an experience it would be today to rouse one of those remarkable individuals from his dreaming, as Davy Crockett did, with an oar, and hear him howl "Halloe stranger, who axed you to crack my lice?"--to tell him in his own lingo to "shut his mouth or he would get his teeth sunburnt"--to see him crook his neck and neigh like a stallion--to answer his challenge in kind with a flapping of arms and a cock's crow--to go to shore and have a scrimmage such as was never known on a gridiron--and then to resolve with Crockett, during a period of recuperation, that you would never "wake up a ringtailed roarer with an oar again."


RETURN TO THE NORTHWEST TERRITORY INDEX PAGE