Rolling Down the RiverPosted: February 12, 2016
Terre Haute was not the only market for the bounty of Sugar Creek farmers. There was another place to sell their products, and one that provided a sense of adventure. Many young men in the township dreamed of steering a flatboat to the magical city of New Orleans.
Flatboats were the “freight carriers” of their day, precursors of later railroad trains and semis. They had previously been used to transport families of settlers and their goods (including livestock) to their new homes in Indiana. Many a Hoosier family originally reached the state by flatboating down the Ohio River and landing on the Indiana shore.
The craft were built by merchants and farmers, typically several farmers banded together to construct them. They varied in size from twenty to nearly one hundred feet long. Most were fifteen to twenty feet wide. Construction methods were similar to those of log cabin building. Axes, broadaxes, froes and mauls were used. For instance the gunwales of flatboats were fashioned very much in the manner of sill logs for a cabin. A pitch made of lard and rosin and rope made the boat watertight.
Construction good be easily done by local farmers, but just north of Sugar Creek in Parke County there was a man whose sideline was boat building. John Gilkison, a Kentuckian, was one of the first to settle there, along Little Raccoon Creek. He started as a framer, but later added a sawmill. He began building flatboats in the late 1830s. Some he used for his yearly trip to New Orleans, others he sold to local farmers or merchants. Estimates vary, but the average cost of materials to build a flatboat was about 75.00.
Image courtesy Indiana Magazine of History (December 1964)
The time to launch the flatboat was during the Spring rains. The boats were loaded with varying combinations of corn, barrels of pork, smokehouse-cured hams and shoulders, beef, lard and whiskey. Some, and the largest of flatboats could hold over 90 tons of goods, also carried hogs (fed well and further fattened on the journey) and chickens.
Crews, including young men eager for an adventure (like a young Hoosier named Abraham Lincoln who made his first trip as a nineteen year old in 1828), ranged from four to twelve men. They set off in high spirits on a journey of nearly a thousand miles that could take up to five weeks to complete. But, oh, what an exciting journey might be theirs as they drifted south on the currents.
Flatboats were steered by a long rudder (essentially an oar up to 60 feet long) at the back of the boat, and shorter oars on the side called sweeps and another at the front called a gouger . The trip could be dangerous. The crews might find themselves facing high winds or storms, or raging currents caused by flooding. Some flatboats were flung to the banks and smashed. A few boatmen liked to travel at night, but that could be dangerous. Even bright moonlight might not reveal driftwood, sandbars, or swirling currents waiting to snag the flatboat. Most steered the boat to the shore at night and tied up to a stout tree to await the morning.
There are no extant diaries kept by Sugar creek boatmen, but others from the area tell the tale of what the eager youth might have encountered. William Dole, a former Hautean living in Clinton, not fifteen miles from Sugar Creek Township, made several trips down the river. Dole, who would later help nominate Abraham Lincoln for president and served as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, made a habit of writing back home to his family during the trip.
In 1840 he wrote of the fine sunny conditions and that the “hogs are in fine order & will be in fine order” by the time he reached New Orleans. As they reached the Ohio River near Shawneetown, Illinois the boat encountered the results of a great flooding. People had fled to the interior to escape the roiling waters and everywhere he saw the livestock they left behind flailing in the water with no chance of rescue. A few nights later the perils of running at night caught up with him:
“we had a Terrible time night before
Last in a Storm we was runing & about 12 oclock at night a storm
came up drove [us] on an Bar Islandlo it was so dark we could not
See one another on the boat when we struck the Island we not Knowing
which way to pull to get off attempted to fasten her when the
wind blew a perfect huricane & drove us off into the river again
Leaving Joseph on the Island the wind raved & rain poored down
and we runing as hard as the current & wind both would carry us not
Knowing where we would strike or where we was going the night
was so dark that we could not see trees until1 we struck them & tore
off a part of our roof.”
Luckily, they were able to make some repairs, right the boat and continue downstream.
Though New Orleans was the final destination, smart flatboatmen would sell some of their goods along the way. Keeping a keen eye out for the best prices.Whenever they were anchored near a town they would inquire about local prices, or check with returning flatboaters trudging back home about what they might get further downstream. If the prices were lower ahead, they would sell off some of their goods on the spot.
Prices for hogs and corn, especially, were subject to wild swings depending on supply and demand. Dole wrote home lamenting the surplus on the market along the way. He was getting only six cents a pound for salt pork and shoulders, and seven cents a pound for hams. If it continued this way, he said, the trip would be a “Loosing” situation, as he had paid the farmers back home higher prices.
For speculators, having to buy their goods from local farmers instead of raising their own as the farmers did, could make for an anxious trip. Theodore Armitage, from Carrol County, Indiana was one such speculator. He began his trip downstream in 1847 with a no yet full boat. He hoped to buy commodities along the way at a cheap price. While stopped north of Terre Haute. He bought 200 barrels of pork and 389 kegs of lard, among other goods. He fretted about profit and loss throughout the trip. Ultimately he made a profit on the trip.
The adventurous farm boys, many of whom had likely never strayed more than twenty miles from their fields, drifted down into a world much different than their own. They saw the vast wonder that was the Mississippi River, the rolling hills of some of the southern states, and the Louisiana bayous. They also caught glimpses of a society different from their own.
Though many were the sons of upland southerners and heard stories of their parents’ old homes, they were only stories. It is possible many of them had never seen a black man or woman before taking to the rivers.. They had only heard tales of the “nigrahs” and life among the legally divided races south of the Ohio River. They might not have seen slave auctions like the one that revolted the young Lincoln, but many did view the open scorn and contempt of negroes that characterized many of the places where their flatboats had tied up for a rest.
One of those was young Asbury Jaquess of Posey County. In 1834 his flatboat was tied up in Natchez, Mississippi. Hearing that there was to be a hanging, always a well-attended spectator sport, he took it upon himself to head for the jail. He mingled among the crowd, straining to see what was happening. The man was a nurderer he was told.Soon the door of the jail thrust open and a murmur of excitement washed over the waiting spectators. Then a “first rate looking black man,” named Nat of strong, muscular appearance, despite the fcat that he had only one arm. Nat was escorted out by twelve guards, six white and six “mulatoes” (sic). Nat was pushed onto a cart to carry him to the gallows. The only seat on offer to Nat was the coffin he would be buried in. Nat coolly looked over the crowd, his placid face showing neither fear nor hatred.
The sheriff then asked Nat if he had anything he wanted to say, but before the calm face could utter a word, the sheriff pulled the trapdoor. Nat’s body shuddered and swung from the force of his fall, teetertottering from side to side. Within minutes he was dead, many of the crowd, satisfied with the spectacle, lurched toward the saloon. Jaquess never heard whom Nat had murdered, nor why. Not that anyone in the crowd would have cared a whit about what a Black man had to say for himself.
Jaquess moved on to lively, chaotic New Orleans, his destination. He and the crew pocketed the money from selling the goods remaining on the boat. Jaquess did not mention if he enjoyed the delights of the delta city. Doubtless other young men, including some Sugar Creek boys were either tempted or succumbed to the redolent brothels, flowing booze, and the tempting games of chance offered on many a corner.
Once the goods were unloaded, the flatboatmen would tear down the boat and sell the wood. Many a house in New Orleans was built with lumber that had floated down from Indiana. Jaquess was disappointed that he could only get two dollars a cord for the remains of the boat he had helped build, but you took what you could get.
Jaquess took a steamboat back upstream, but many simply walked back home to Indiana. The long trek on sore feet took about three months. When they got home there were chores to don and the start of the harvest lay before them. The cycle of farm life continued so that there would be goods to fill another flatboat in the Spring.