Everything Changes: the Arrival of the Steamboats

Painting of steamboats by August Norieri

Painting of steamboats by August Norieri

It is  now refreshing, and imparts a feeling of energy and power to the beholder,  to see the large and beautiful steamboats scudding up the eddies, as though on the wing; and when they have run out the eddy, strike the current.  The foam bursts in a sheet quite over the deck.  She quivers for a moment with the concussion, and then, as though she had collected all her energy, and vanquished her enemy,  she resumes her stately march and mounts against the current, five or six miles an hour.”

The Reverend Timothy Flint, who had described the slow progress of a keelboat up the Mississippi and the enormous difficulties involved, could hardly contain his rapture.   Before the steamboats, a journey upriver from New Orleans to St. Louis could take as much as three months; by 1817 the time was 25 days, and by 1826 eight.

The new speed of transportation spurred a huge increase in commerce along the western rivers.  Horizons broadened; distances beckoned.  Farmers now had access to wider markets, and could get their goods to those markets far more quickly.  The middlemen who assembled those goods, and sent them on their way, saw their profits soar, and prosperous river towns grow up around the steamboat landings. A wider variety of consumer goods became available to the people of the interior, and in middle-class homes the level of domestic comfort increased significantly.  By the 1830s some ambitious farmers, Drews and Bettises among them, were selling off their farms, and heading out to found new towns at likely landings and river junctions.

Plantation owners profited as well.  Steamboats not only carried cotton to distant markets (see picture above), but also carried downriver the slaves whose labor whose labor produced that cotton – men and women torn from their families, chained together on the lower decks in conditions of unspeakable misery.

Steamboat travel was also terribly dangerous.  Boiler explosions were frequent, sinking boats and sometimes killing dozens of passengers and crew members.  A snag floating just beneath the surface could be just as deadly. “We have become the most careless, reckless, headlong people on the face of the earth,” complained one observer. “We…go ahead with a vengeance, regardless of consequences and indifferent to the value of human life.” By one calculation, almost a third of the steamboats on the Mississippi before 1850 were destroyed in accidents.[1]  But the profits were so great that the boats kept coming.

A final contribution of the steamboats is seldom mentioned: their role as an information highway for slaves along the river.  The deckhands and firemen, usually slaves or free people of color, carried messages up and down the river, helping to maintain precious threads of contact between members of severed families. They knew what was going on in distant towns, and sometimes even the names and locations of people willing to assist in a slave’s escape. The passengers above, secure in their increasingly luxurious cabins, had no notion of what was going on right below them, on the crowded, dirty and dangerous lower deck.

[1] Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, p. 230.  A detailed and absorbing account of steamboat life from the perspective of the slaves is given in Thomas C. Buchanan, Black Life on the MississippiSlaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World.

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