Upriver by Keelboat was the Hard Part

Keelboat and flatboat

Keelboat and flatboat: easier going down

Going down a river on a flatboat was the easy part.  When you reached your destination, or the place on the river nearest your destination, you simply took the boat apart, sold it for firewood, or used the logs to build yourself a new cabin.  Going upriver was something else entirely.

Keelboats, described by the wandering clergyman Timothy Flint as “long, slender, and elegant,”  rowed by nine or ten men and carrying one or two families, were the means of transportation for those settlers whose journeys took them up a river.  The oars were only useful for part of the trip.  If the boat reached a sandbar, or a point that projected into the river, most of the crew would abandon their oars, take up long poles, and push the boat forward with the poles, walking back along the deck with their shoulders against the poles until they reached the stern, then running up to the bow to start again.

Where poles could not be used, the crew members on the landward side would grab hold of overhanging branches in order to pull the boat along, once again walking backwards toward the stern and then running forward to the bow to repeat the process.  Even in the midst of this exertion,  Flint was aware of the beauty of the willow flowers, and the scent like “nectar and ambrosia” that they gave off when crushed by the hands of the laboring crew and passengers.

The final expedient was “cordelling.”  A long rope would be tied to the boat, and one end flung ashore, to be caught and hauled upstream by crew members waiting on the shore, or tied around a tree and pulled on by people in the boat. But the shore was unstable, covered with fallen trees and snags that entangled the rope.  At times the voyagers would find a whole section of shoreline, with all of its trees, fallen off and blocking all passage on that side. “We often hear, by night,” wrote Flint, “the terrific crash of trees, undermined by the river, or uprooted by the wind, as they fall into the flood.”

Before the arrival of steamboats, the journey upriver from New Orleans to the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville, Kentucky commonly took as much as three months.  Sometimes a boat might be caught in a mass of floating trees and swung around, carried back down river or even sunk.  Fatalities were common, and at some places piles of wrecked boats could be seen on the shore.

And yet the settlers continued to come, in their thousands, and manufactured goods continued to pass up the rivers to their settlements.  The hazards of upriver travel were only one of the obstacles that the travelers were willing to brave in return for the prospect of a better life.

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