Jacksonian Miscellanies, #6: Feb. 18, 1997

Topic: "Mississippi River Traffic" and "Boom and Bust".

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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All quotes in this issue are taken from A Memoir of S. S. Prentiss, edited by his Brother (NY Scribners 1855), p176-186.

A note on the subject of the Memoir:

Seargent Smith Prentiss was a New Englander who set off for the west soon after he graduated Bowdoin College. From 1827 or 28, he practiced law in Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi, being once (in 1838) elected to congress.

From 1845 to the end of his life, in 1850, he lived in New Orleans, and made such an impression there as to rate inclusion of two speeches by him, and a eulogy of him in a volume of 56 miscellaneous writings (in the style of literary magazines of the day) called the New Orleans Book published the year of his death.

Though his public offices seem minor, he often stirrred the public with his speeches for the Whig cause.

I have had to guess that "his brother" who edited the book was George Lewis Prentiss, a liberal Presbyterian clergyman and from 1871 on, a professor at Union Theological Seminary.

Mississippi River Traffic, and Old Vicksburg, circa 1836.

From his settlement in Vicksburg until his marriage, no small portion of his time was passed in the floating palaces which enliven the bosom of this majestic river. Aside from the calls of business, there was an excitement and variety in this mode of existence, which agreed well with his disposition. lie was generally known on the river; and everybody that did not know him, was anxious to make his acquaintance, or at least to get a glimpse of him. The steamboats between Vicksburg and Natchez were to him little more than ferry­boats, upon which he was perpetually flying to and fro.

It is not surprising, therefore, that he had an affectionate, home­like feeling towards the "Father of. Waters,"*

or that its grand phenomena, and the strange aspects of human character, upon its busy current, should have made an indelible impression upon his observing and plastic mind. Who, indeed, can sail upon this tremendous flood, for the first time, without a vivid sense of wonder and sublimity ? What a mystery seems to enshroud its origin, thousands of miles away amid the eternal snows of the Northwest! What great rivers-Missouri, Ohio Red, and Arkansas, to say nothing of innumerable lesser streams-hasten to pay it tribute, and to swell its "wealth of waters" as they rush onward to the sea!

But to the eye of a stranger from the North, even the river itself was surpassed in interest by the grotesque and shifting forms of humanity, which like dissolving views in a panorama, presented themselves in animated succession from Now Orleans to the mouth of the Ohio. The following sketches, written by a traveller about this time, depicting scenes in the vicinity of Vicksburg, through which Mr. Prentiss was passing so often, will not, perhaps, be unacceptable to the reader, or be deemed here out of place.

We are now ploughing our noisy way between forest­lined shores of cotton­wood on one side and cypress, maple, oak and other heavy timber, as the boatmen term it, on the other. The cotton­wood is always found on the concave side of the river, for here are the constant alluvial deposits; on which, as soon as the water leaves it, the young cottonwood shoots up in groves, and in two years is ten feet high. A cotton­tree forest will grow to the medium height in ten years. As the force of the current is, thrown towards the convex side, that is constantly undermined; but for every foot of soil and every ancient tree that falls into the river, a foot of land and a new tree (cotton however) springs up on the opposite shore. Such is the peculiarity of this great river, on whose banks dissolution and creation are constantly going forward.

On the inner or concave side the current is less forcible, and ascending boats, heaving the lead as they go, hug it as closely as is safe, crossing from point to point, as the meandering course of the river alternately changes the concave shore from one side to the other. Vegetation is at least two weeks behind that of New Orleans, and in looking upon the foliage of the trees, we seem to have retrograded that space of time. We have just rounded a bend of the river, which presented features truly magnificent.

Close to the water's edge, in the shape of a crescent two miles in length, extended a girdle of cotton­trees, or rather bushes, three feet high and ten feet wide, the growth of the last season, upon the alluvial deposit. A second girdle twice the height of this, and of a dark green, rose behind it, and behind this a third, and then a fourth and so on, rising one above the other, eagle a darker shade of green' in beautiful order, like the benches of an amphitheatre, till they terminated in the tall forest­line which formed the eighth belt. The sun was shining brightly aslant this striking scene, increasing by the relief of its lights and shadows its natural magnificence.

In the absence of other objects to attract his attention, the traveller can often find amusement in sitting on the guards and observing the varied character of the gorgeous old forests through which he is moving. A tree as hoary as time, its huge limbs gnarled and twisted into gigantic knots, its branches (themselves huge trunks in size) flinging their scathed and rugged forms into the air, will sometimes attract his eye, and if he is at all romantic, or a poet, or a sober lover of nature, will delight him and give him food for study, poetry or meditation. How many stories of past centuries may such an old forest­king relate!

There is a young lady on board, intellectual, romantic and a beauty, who is ready to go crazy with delight when an old tree, uglier, more gnarled and more picturesque than another, happens to meet her eye: "Oh! what a delightful good old patriarch for a foreground. See how that stern savage monarch flings his arms to the sky, as if in defiance! What majesty in the spread of those limbs; and how gracefully the grey coat of its huge trunk is relieved by the folds of that grape­vine!"

We have just passed several flatboats tied to the shore; the back­water of our paddles made a great commotion among them, and as usual, our deck hands began to laugh at them and they to shout back. "Hand that steamboat here" shouted a flatboatman in a red shirt and blue linsey­wolsey trowsers, " and I'll take it home for the old woman to make tea in.', "Hand me that hand­spike shouted a little squat fellow with red hair," and I'll pick my teeth with it. "Stop that boat and let me light my pipe." "Shovel away them niggers, pitch it in," yelled another to the firemen, "or the gentlemen passengers will go without supper." "Let off your steam or you'll all go to the Dickins together." "Shut up that flatboat and I'll give a pic' for it to keep my bacco' in," roared another. When we got too far off for words to be distinguished, the belligerents began to yell, shout, clap their hands, and make all sorts of hideous and unearthly noises; as the increasing distance rendered these indistinct, a pistol was fired in bravado from one of the flatboats and immediately answered by the sharp crack of a rifle from the forward part of our steamer, and then hostilities ceased.

There is always amusement when a steamer and a flatboat meet; then Kentucky and Hoosier wit is peculiarly brilliant. The majority of deck passengers on upward­bound boats are often flatboatmen, returning home after disposing of their freight and boats. Jingling their dollars in the faces of those who are going to market they brag of bargains and amuse them with extravagant tales of the state of the market which they call "bamboozling."

The appearance of flatboatmen with their loose, coarse, brown trowsers, red or blue shirts, the sleeves drawn up to the shoulders, their rough determined looking faces and athletic limbs, is exceedingly picturesque. The life of a flatboatman is an exceedingly laborious one; the boat committed to the current, does not float idly down to its destined port, but the constant exertions of its "hands" are requisite to keep it from almost hourly shipwreck; the current of the Mississippi is always sweeping against one or the other of its shores, and the flatboat, if left to itself; would be dashed against the convex side of every bend-and the whole course of the Mississippi is only a series of bends; therefore, on turning points the utmost vigilance is necessary to work the boat and keep it out from the bank against which the natural direction of the current would carry it. When the wind blows hard against the shore, the utmost exertions of the half dozen muscular men, who form the complement of flatboatmen, cannot always enable them to counteract the force of both wind and current, and many boats are dashed to pieces.From the wrecks which at intervals strew the shores of the river, the proportion of boats wrecked in their descent must be very large. Sometimes, and indeed most usually two boats' crews unite, and with their boats secured side by side, by their united strength are better able to resist the current.

The old race of professional flatboatmen the chief of whom, Mike Fink, the elegant pen of Morgan Neville, Esq., has immortalized, is passed away. Flatboatmen now are Western farmers, with their sons and hired laborers, whose lands lie on the river and whose markets are the lower towns of the Mississippi The Yankee farmer loads his wagon or sleigh and hauls his produce to the nearest market town; the Western farmer loads his boat and floats his produce a thousand miles to Vicksburg, Natchez and New Orleans; the Yankee farmer returns home in his empty sleigh or wagon, the Western farmer sells his substitute for a wagon, his boat, with his produce, and goes back to his farm as deck passenger on a steamer. I have met with representatives from every farming district of the Ohio and upper Mississippi on the Levee at New Orleans, a hardy, sober, industrious class, little understood and often grossly misrepresented, under the abused term of "Flatboatmen".

The traveller seldom sees steamboats on the Mississippi unless under way. At every landing, however insignificant, flatboats are always to be seen loading and unloading giving employment to one or two stores and keeping business, at least, alive. Near Princeton a steamboat passed us, and although it was not two thirds across the river, we were unable to read its name, painted in large letters on the wheel­house, without a spy­glass. This fact will give a Northerner some idea of the breadth of this great river.

Shortly afterwards an "ark" floated by. This vessel differs from the flatboat, keelboat and broadhorn, in its construction. A solid, oblong raft of timber, twelve feet wide and fifty or sixty long, is the groundwork. On one end of it is erected of rough boards, a sort of covered pen, for cattle and fowls. On the other side is a rude inclosure roofed like a house, often containing a chimney, and in which the family live. If a farmer from the neighborhood of Pittsburgh or Cincinnati sees a piece of land on the lower Mississippi, in one of his boating expeditions, which pleases him, he returns home, sells out, builds an ark, embarks with his family, and committing himself to the waves, after a voyage of five or six weeks, arrives at his new home, ties his ark to a tree, removes his house, stock and family to dry land, commences chopping down the forest, opens a wood­yard, becomes thrifty, buys negroes, grows rich, and is at last a planter. Many of the first families in the Southwestern country, after travelling to Pittsburgh from the Atlantic cities have committed themselves to an ark and so come to this country.

We have passed two of these floating houses to­day. On the last one, was an old gray­headed man and an equally ancient female, comfortably clothed in coarse materials, sunning themselves and smoking their pipes, in the low space left on the bottom of the ark between the dwelling and the stock­pen. A middle­aged stout yeoman in a long­tailed blue coat and snuff­colored trowsers, was standing bareheaded at the long paddle which served as a helm, shading, his eyes with his hair as he stared at our passing boat. Two women in caps and coarse but tidy gowns were seated near him on the top of the dwelling (which was the upper deck of the ark) knitting. Half a dozen white­headed urchins were crowded in a low door, straining their eyes at the grand steamboat, and three or four large dogs equally curious, were gazing at us from the top of the cow­pen A fire burned on the bottom of the ark, between the two habitable divisions; the hearth was a rude pile of brick, with an old stove­pipe for chimney. The pot was boiling and a third female was preparing the evening meal. Two strapping fellows in their shirt­sleeves, working mechanically but idly at an oar, two or three chickens and a proud cock strutting about, a lamb, which appeared licensed to stray from the pen as a pet, the head of a good­natured looking cow protruding from a window, completed the whole. It was altogether so pretty a picture of domestic happiness, that I could not help looking upon it without feelings of envy (sic).

The flatboat is somewhat similar in its construction to the ark, which is the most primitive mode of navigation. The flatboat is made to convey freight. It is a covered shed, five or six feet high, with a bottom sufficiently strong to sustain it, and impervious to water. This shed is covered by a double layer of boards, laid so as to be water­tight, and bent over a ridge­pole running through the centre from stem to stern, so as to form a curve sufficient to shed rain. A portion of the boat at the bows, which are square, is set off for a caboose and sleeping­place for the hands, of which there are usually from four to six. The remainder is filled with freight. Some of these boats will carry from eight to twelve hundred barrels of flour; when light, they draw but six or eight inches, but when loaded, two feet and a half. Some of them are laden altogether with flour, others with horses, others with sheep, or pork alive and in barrels, fowls, cattle and produce of all kinds; some are even freighted with negroes, purchased in Virginia, and embarked at Guyandotte on the Ohio. When flatboats are unladen of their freight, they are sold for what they will bring, which is from twenty to sixty dollars, and the owners return home for ten dollars on a steamboat.

Keelboats are not so commonly seen now as formerly. They are in number about as one to ten compared with flatboats. They are of similar construction to the freighting canal­boat, and used for the same purposes. They are sometimes assisted in descending the river by a square sail, and altogether cut a better figure than the ark or flatboat. Before the introduction of steamboats, the keelboat was the sole medium of river commerce. Leaving its freight in New Orleans, and reloading with purchased articles (both comforts and luxuries) it was propelled up the Mississippi, with great labor, by poling along the banks of the river, and laying to every night. A voyage from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, at that period,, often consumed five months. It can now be made in thirty days. The keelboats are now disposed of with their cargoes at New Orleans, being in great demand as oyster barges, for which, with some change, they are admirably fitted. The broadhorn is only a larger and squarer species of flatboat.

The river has been very rough all the afternoon. There is considerable motion to the boat, and two or three fresh­water passengers are complaining of feeling a slight degree of sea sickness! Sea­sickness on the Mississippi, five hundred miles above its mouth! Nevertheless, the boat rocks, the joints of the cabin creak, the lamps swing from side to side, the wind roars, and the waves show white caps, and we are in the midst of a regular gale of wind. The surface of the country through which we are sailing is for a hundred miles only a few feet above the level of the river, and the wind sweeps over it as it would over a sea.*

The Fateful Speculative Boom of 1836-7.

Vicksburg, in 1836­7, was a remarkable place. Like so many flourishing towns along the great lakes and rivers of the West, it had sprung into existence as if by magic. The city was younger than half the children who played about its streets.*

As the shipping point for a rich and rapidly growing cotton region, its business was very large. Capital and population flowed in from every quarter. Magnificent steamers, freighted with the products of our own and distant climes, were perpetually stopping on their way to and from New Orleans, Nashville, St. Louis, Cincinnati or Louisville; and rarely did an up-river boat arrive without landing one or more passengers in pursuit of fortune. Vicksburg was, in fact, a sort of rendezvous for planters, lawyers, physicians, schoolmasters, mechanics, clerks, and merchants, who, in search of business, were emigrating to the Southwest from New England, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and other parts of the Union. In this respect it was a miniature picture of what San Francisco now is in relation to California [Editor: This was written in the early 1850s]. The character and manners of these strange men, as they congregated in the hall and dining­room of the principal hotel, furnished study for a philosopher. One skilled in the art of American physiognomy, could detect, at a glance, representatives of every race and tribe, whether foreign or domestic, of our great Republican Family.

At an earlier period of its history, Vicksburg was inhabited chiefly by this class of persons; interspersed with not a few specimens of the genus blackleg But the latter had been driven off-and the advent of woman had called into being many pleasant and cultivated homes. Churches and schools were not wanting. The place had outgrown the somewhat wild, boisterous temper of its youth, and was settling down into an orderly, social and domestic life.

The years 1835 and 1836 will ever be memorable in the annals of this country, for the spirit of reckless speculation which seized upon all classes in the community, and made them frantic in the pursuit of gain. To how many hundreds of families throughout New England is the phrase Eastern (should be Western?) Land Speculation still the symbol of pecuniary ruin! The mania spread through the nation; but there were particular points, where it raged with especial violence. One of these was Vicksburg. In the autumn of 1836, strangers, who had scarcely registered their names at the hotel, were eagerly buying city lots; and perhaps the next week, selling them again at an advance of ten, twenty, or thirty per cent.. In this way, by mere attendance upon auctions, every man was expecting soon to be master of a fortune.

It was as a singular infatuation; but the spring nipped it in the bud. Gen. Jackson had laid his strong hand upon the currency, and before the ides of March, the whole monetary system of the country was gasping beneath the pressure of that iron will. There was not a sequestered village or hamlet in the land, which did not feel its touch-while the great commercial centres were convulsed with terror, distress and bankruptcy. In April, 1837, cotton was selling in New York at nine and a half cents per pound, which in December of the previous year, had been sold for nineteen cents per pound.

No State in the Union was a greater sufferer than Mississippi, and perhaps no town in the State was so sorely smitten was Vicksburg. The sudden and extraordinary fall of cotton deprived the State of nearly two thirds of its expected income; while lands and lots about Vicksburg which in October, were bought with avidity at the most extravagant rates, found, in April following, no bidder, at a reduction of two and even three hundred per cent. The stranger who came in the autumn and departed in the spring, could, with difficulty, believe that he had visited, and was leaving, one and the same place.

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