“My object was to display as well the extraordinary sufferings to which the earliest emigrants to the western country were exposed, as the courage with which they met and repelled those hardships.”
—Judge James Hall. The Cincinnati Literary Gazette. May 28, 1825.
You might say that the Hoffman family’s flatboat should be considered one of the characters in my book How Sweet the Sound because of its pivotal role in the plot of the story.
Flatboats were pivotal, too, in the history of America’s westward expansion. For a while they were the workhorses of commercial shipping. Even after the “New Orleans,” made its maiden run down the Ohio River in 1811, ushering in the age of steamboats, merchants and travelers continued to use flatboats.
When the Midwest was opened for settlement after passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the stream of immigrants already leaving the populated eastern states like became a flood of people looking for land in the new territory.
There were no overland roads, just a few rough and dangerous trails through dense forests. And so the Ohio River became their highway, and flatboats their means of transportation.
In May, 1782, Pennsylvania farmer, Jacob Yoder, became the first person to successfully navigate a flatboat from Brownsville to New Orleans, demonstrating how the rivers could be used to reach distant markets and to settle the West. By 1810, an average of 3,000 flatboats a year were descending the Ohio River.
So What Is a Flatboat, Anyway?
A flatboat was a rectangular, flat-bottomed boat built for short term use. To save time and expense, they were built without keels, which made them much less structurally sound and much more difficult to steer than ordinary boats. These floating shoeboxes were one-way only and the precursor to our modern barges.
A booming boat building business sprang up all along the rivers. They built flatboats in various sizes, the smallest being only about 4 ft. by 16 ft. The largest, used to transport cargo, were up to 20 ft. by 100 ft. long. These commercial boats required four crew and a pilot, who were contracted for a four-to-six week period. Some professional boatmen made three or four trips yearly. As mentioned in How Sweet the Sound, those earliest boatmen had to walk back home. By the time Abraham Lincoln piloted flatboats carrying produce from Illinois to New Orleans, once in 1828 and another time in 1831, he could take a steamboat for the return trip.
The typical mid-range size for families going west was about 16 ft. wide by 55 ft. long. They were called broadhorns, Kentucky boats, or Natchez boats. They had a shed or a pen in the rear for horses and cattle, and a cabin in front for people. The cabins were divided into chambers, and many had brick fireplaces and chimneys for heating and cooking, though a basic flatboat only had a sandbox fireplace.
In How Sweet the Sound, the first settlers Merrideth sees during her time-surfing adventure in Cave-in-Rock is a group of families led by Captain James Piggot on their way to settle in the American Bottom in what is now my own Monroe County, Illinois. The Piggot group traveled down the Ohio and would have seen the cave, but whether they actually stopped there or not, I do not know. The Piggots are featured in Once Again, and they will be the main characters of another book I plan to write in the future.
Carl Baldwin says in his book, Captains of the Wilderness, that each family in Piggot’s group, bought a large flatboat 30-40′ x 12′ at the boatyards on the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania.
Packing for the Trip
Just as later pioneers heading west in covered wagons, flatboat travelers had to pack wisely. I imagine it took quite a bit of planning and list-making to insure that everything essential for survival on the frontier was included and stored securely and efficiently. The items mention on the Hoffman’s boat in How Sweet the Sound were only a few of things likely brought along.
If I could have fit in more description, I would told you that bacon was often hauled in large barrels packed in bran so the hot sun would not melt the fat. Also, eggs could be protected by packing them in barrels of corn meal . As the eggs were used up, the meal was used to make bread. And speaking of bread, they probably brought along yeast.
Of course it would have totally bogged down the story to list everything the settlers would have brought. Here are some of the other items they needed:
Farm equipment: such as a plows, shovels, scythes, rakes, hoes, set of augers, ax, hammer, whetstone, oxbows, axles, heavy ropes, chains. Seeds for planting crops and perhaps plant cuttings as mentioned in Once Again.
Carpentry tools: saws, broad axes, mallets, planes, and ready-made wagon wheels, horseshoes and other items that required special skills to make. Shoe-making tools.
Livestock: Besides the horse, cattle, and chickens I mention, the pioneers would probably have tried to bring oxen for the heavy work of clearing timber and plowing.
Weaponry: rifle, pistol, knife, hatchet, gunpowder, lead, bullet mold, powder horn, bullet pouch, holster.
Household: Dutch oven, kettle, skillet, coffee grinder, butcher knife, tin tableware, water keg, matches. surgical instruments, liniments, bandages, campstool, chamber pot, washbowl, lanterns, candle molds, tallow, spyglasses, scissors, needles, pins, thread, blankets and bedding.
Books: A Bible was their first choice, and if there was room, a few school books for the children.
All the above sounds like a lot. But it’s only a fraction of what they had probably owned back East. Just imagine the tears when they had to leave all their luxury items and family heirlooms behind. Like the Hoffmans, they undoubtedly tucked in a few sentimental items to remind them of family and friends they were leaving behind, never to see again this side of Heaven.
The Perilous Journey
The patterns of immigration and settlement in the Illinois Country can be attributed mostly to the fact that rivers, and the flatboats on them, only flowed one way. For many, the great ride west began on the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pennsylvania which flowed into that great river of the Midwest, the Ohio.
Along the way, the would-be settlers faced dangers on every side. Hidden sandbars in the river, mishaps when trying to steer the clumsy boats. And many unfortunate travelers found out the hard way that they’d purchased a poorly constructed lemon, sometimes made with rotten lumber. For a while the river banks were littered with abandoned flat boats.
And there was always the danger of Indian attack. The boats were built like floating forts, with only one door, heavily barred. Windows, if any, were small and had sliding shutters. The walls were pierced with holes through which guns could be fired.
End of the Journey
Some disembarked at places like Pittsburgh and Louisville because the forts there provided (a measure of) safety. Other settlers went farther and built a thousand new towns along the Ohio in West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. Wherever they landed, they dismantled their flatboats and used the lumber to build their new homes or sold it for much-needed cash.
And some went on to Illinois and settled towns like Shawneetown (featured in Every Hill and Mountain), Elizabethtown, Rosiclare, and Golconda (where the Trail of Tears would cross Illinois in 1838, the setting of Only One Way Home). Others settled at Fort Massac, where, many (like the Hoffmans in How Sweet the Sound) chose to sell their boats and go overland to Kaskaskia.
Those with boats capable of going upstream, as the flatboats could not, went on to Cairo where the Ohio meets the mighty Mississippi. Then the easy part was over. From there, it was all upstream to Kaskaskia, the American Bottom, and the rest of the rich Illinois Country.
But others never made it past that stretch of the river south of Shawneetown. They stopped at Cave-in-Rock for supplies, rough entertainment, to help a “poor stranded damsel in distress,” or just because the cave looked like a nice respite from river travel. And there they met Samuel Mason (or one of several other pirates through the years) and their long journey was over.
The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock. Otto A. Rothert.
Captains of the Wilderness. Carl Baldwin
http://www.southernmostillinoishistory.net/flatboats1.html (for a photo of flatboat remains recently discovered.)
It would be so nice of you to share!