With the Current: Journeys by Flatboat

Traveling by flatboatWhen the first permanent European settlers arrived in the Nashville area in 1780, they came by flatboat down the Ohio River.  When Newit Drew and his family left, some 36 years later, they left in the same way.  Until the coming of the steamboats, flatboats were a primary means of transportation for emigrants traveling west and south.

Giant rafts, thirty or forty feet in length, with  a cabin for the migrating family and space on the decks for livestock, they were a remarkable sight.  John James Audubon, traveling around the American frontier in the first half of the 19th century, described the roofs of the cabins as “not unlike a farmyard, being covered with hay, ploughs, carts, wagons, and various agricultural implements, together with numerous others, among which the spinning wheels of the matrons were conspicuous.  Even the sides of the floating mass were loaded with the wheels of the different vehicles, which themselves lay on the roof.” Sometimes the horses, cattle and hogs could be driven along the banks of a river as the rest of the farmyard floated down, but at other times they shared the deck with the family members and the poultry.

The Reverend Timothy Flint, a New England clergyman who traveled through the Ohio and Mississippi valleys between 1816 and 1826, was somewhat less charitable.   The flatboats, he said, “very nearly resembl[ed] a New England pigsty.”

Other flatboats were commercial enterprises, carrying goods of all sorts to the markets of Natchez and New Orleans.  Flint saw flatboats as long as 100 feet, and was amazed by the density of commerce on the western rivers.  At New Madrid, a river port in the south-eastern corner Bingham, "The Jolly Flatboatmen"of Missouri, as many as 100 boats might arrive in one day.  Some were lashed together, enabling the passengers to trade between them.  In one such flotilla Flint noticed a dry goods shop and a tin manufacturing and repairing enterprise, and he heard rumors of a floating blacksmith shop.  And “almost every boat,  while it lies in the harbor, has one or more fiddles scraping continually aboard, to which you often see the boatmen dancing.”  (At right: George Caleb Bingham, “The Jolly Flatboatmen”)

As the voyagers floated down the Ohio and the Mississippi, they could watch swans, cranes, and pelicans on the sandbars, and flocks of parakeets among the trees.  Every tree was hung with vines, covered according to the season with bright-colored flowers or fruits.  Looking back from the era of steamboats to the richness of that vanished landscape, Audubon mourned the “grandeur and beauty of those uninhabited shores,”  the dense forests that covered the hills, and the “vast herds of elk, deer and buffalo which once pastured on these hills and in these valleys, making for themselves great roads to the several salt-springs.”  Marveling at the villages and towns and noisy factories that had replaced those landscapes in the short space of 20 years, he could not decide whether the change was for the better or the worse.

Further reading: John James Audubon, Delineations of American Scenery and Character,  and Timothy Flint, Recollections of the Last Ten Years in the Valley of the Mississippi, provide vivid pictures of the characters and landscapes that the authors encountered.

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