River Music, American Music Prior to Civil War

Thirteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

River traffic blew open the West after 1820, driving development and reducing isolation along major valleys. Boats arrived at wharfs and landings round the clock, all types of watercraft bringing people, technology, information, and culture—arts and entertainment. “The tremendous part the river life played in developing the ambitions and intelligence of the western settlers can never be estimated,” Ida M. Tarbell observed for McClure’s monthly in the latter century.

An entertainment core developed along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, including “floating theaters” that landed practically anywhere. “Almost every actor of the time with courage, ingenuity, and a crusading love of [the] art wanted to play the West. The river and boats were ready to provide transportation,” wrote Philip Graham, author of Showboats: History of an American Institution.

The famed Chapman family revolutionized entertainment on water during the 1830s. The talented Chapmans garnered grassroots acclaim from aboard their showboats—a series of flat barges until purchase of a steamer—literally delivering their extraordinary performances in drama, comedy and song. The Chapman Floating Theatre started each trip from Pittsburgh, wending southwest to Cairo then south to New Orleans, and stopped at every shoreline mustering an audience, town or plantation, especially with good fishing.

“Most of the wealth of the region gravitated toward the rivers, and audiences along their banks needed entertainment and were anxious to pay for it,” Graham observed. Modern musicologist Bill C. Malone, author of Southern Music/American Music, noted that early audiences “responded to whatever was available. They could alternate between a melodrama and a Shakespearean tragedy, a minstrel show and a concert by Jenny Lind.”

River entertainers, in turn, learned to expect anything. A Shakespearean troupe worked down the Mississippi on a flatboat in 1835, self-billed as the “Ark Theatre,” staging Hamlet dockside at one village. “Here were music, madness, moonshine—philosophy, poetry and performances—comedy, tragedy and farce, all [on] water,” recounted an actor in attendance.

Lo, a real villain untied the barge, casting it adrift to “our horror and astonishment…,” the actor recorded, “finding ourselves in the mighty current of the Mississippi, floating downstream, without sail or rudder, at the rate of five miles an hour!” The craft was run ashore safely, but far downriver. “I will not tire your gracious patience with the details of our tramp through interminable swamp and across muddy creeks,” sniffed the dramatist. “Suffice it to say, that half the party lost their shoes and all their tempers, and that at about sunrise the next morning, a set of squalid, tired, bespattered and hungry wretches were seen entering the village.”

A theater audience lost control on a summer night at Louisville, indoors under gas chandelier and candlelight. “Louisville was a grand harbor for flatboat men and steamboat men,” explained a Courier-Journal account, decades later, recalling “the free-and-easy style of manners which were sometimes witnessed in the old theaters.”

At Samuel Drake’s theater on the evening of Louisville legend, 1837, audience action eclipsed the stage show after a drunken boatman passed out in tier seating. Had the man slept quietly “the attention of the crowd of spectators would not have been diverted from the stage, where several stars were moving in all their luster,” the paper recounted.

“Alas! The sleeper snored. He emitted long rolls of nasal thunder whose noise threatened to drown out the deep-chested declamation of the actors.” Objections arose immediately at rear of the auditorium, from sweaty river men packed in “the pit,” a sunken area for standing only. “The admission fee there was only a quarter, and the demons of the pit entered their part of the theater through the basement… For such an assembly the sleeper’s notes of defiance were too provoking.”

The snoring continued and catcalls increased until the sleeper woke suddenly, enraged, to curse and threaten his critics. “A knot of men in the pit directly under him especially attracted his attention by their demonstrations… so he quickly leaped over the railing, right in among them and began making his fists play furiously around him.”

“But his courage availed him nothing,” The Courier-Journal continued. “The pit wanted a fight badly… the usual arrangements of the night were completely reversed, the spectators being converted into impassioned actors, while the professional actors, arranged in the spangles, plumes and tinseled finery of the drama, looked in utter amazement on the contest that raged below them.” The offending theatergoer was beaten to the floor, “an unsightly mass of rags, blood and filth,” and carried out. Stage actors resumed their work but warily, lacking the passion of boatmen.

Louisville boomed as gateway to the West and far South, capitalizing on slave trade among businesses. Population spiked, ranking Louisville among leading U.S. cities, and entertainment options grew proportionately. Big circuses were spectacles that stretched urban blocks, such as the G.R. Spaulding and Dan Rice shows, inspiring a holiday atmosphere. Louisville hosted ventriloquists, magicians and occultists, and “human oddities” like Tom Thumb, with his manager P.T. Barnum, of the traveling American Museum and menagerie.

Stars in drama, comedy and music, talents of America and Europe, played regularly in Louisville, typically at Drake’s theater or the Apollo Rooms of William C. Peters and partners.

Drake, as in his management practice since the legendary Green Street Theatre in Albany, employed stock actors at Louisville while allowing amateurs their stage turns. “The Drake family were a magnificent company in themselves,” said E.S. Conner, American actor who tutored under Drake. “Samuel and his sons Sam and Jim were artists, each in their line. His daughter Julia was a transcendent lovely and fine actress. She [became] mother of the renowned Julia Dean.”

W.C. Peters, like the elder Drake, was a charismatic English emigrant, a talented musician and capable entrepreneur. Classically trained, Peters performed, composed and arranged songs prodigiously. He came to Louisville from Pittsburgh, opening a music store and teaching piano and guitar; he founded a music library, circulating sheets of lyric and melody.

Peters branched into song publishing around 1835, right on time for serving America’s first native wave of popular artists. These maverick musicians, primarily whites from the North, needed independent publishers like Peters of the West and South, in the beginning. Their collaboration proved integral for the marketing of purely American music, ballads and spirituals of English and African origins.

This antebellum American music, foreshadowing genre offshoots to come, was forged of interracial sharing, of positive synergy between whites and blacks, yet roiled by racial insensitivity and malice. Interracial greatness entwined with racial conflict would endure for generations in America, and mark the evolving, epic music of the South.

“Ironically, much of the distinctiveness of southern music comes from the region’s long juxtaposition of the white and black races and from its widespread rural poverty and isolation,” wrote Charles P. Roland, historian and editor, in 1979.

“Aesthetically unsophisticated and, by the usual standards, deprived, poor southerners responded by preserving and developing a folk tradition of ballads and spirituals, of blues and jazz, and of hillbilly, country, and gospel music. Finally, strains from all of these types blended to help create rock, the nearest thing there is, perhaps, to an ecumenical art form.”

Select References

Afloat—Chapman’s Floating Theatre. (1837, June 6). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Amusements. (1889, June 2). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 13.

An Old Actor’s Memories. (1881, June 5). New York Times, p. 10.

Baynham, Edward Gladstone. (1944). The Early Development of Music in Pittsburgh [PhD thesis]. University of Pittsburgh Graduate School: Pittsburgh PA.

Booth, J.B. (1835, July 17). Theatrical Adventures on the Mississippi. Weekly Mississippian, Jackson MS, p. 1.

Brown, Maria Ward. (1901). The Life of Dan Rice. Author published: Long Branch NJ.

Chapman. (1839, Aug. 15). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Chillicothee’s 1897 Yesterdays. (1928, June 8). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 2.

C.L. (1881, June 5). An Old Actor’s Memories. New York Times, p. 10.

Cockrell, D. (1997). Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England, and New York NY.

Co-Partnership. (1839, May 4). [Advertisement.] Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

Death of a Well-Known Citizen. (1866, April 23). Louisville Daily Journal KY, p. 1.

Dietz, M.M. (1921, May). A History of The Theatre In Louisville [MA thesis]. University of Louisville, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Louisville KY.

Drake, J.G., & Peters, W.C. (1835). Wound Not Thou the Heart that Loves Thee. George Willig: Philadelphia PA.

Dramatics on a Flatboat. (1884, Jan. 20). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 14.

Dumont, F. (1896, April 5). The Origin of Minstrelsy. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 3.

Extract from a Letter Dated Cairo, Illinois. (1840, Feb. 1). Salt River Journal, Bowling Green MO, p. 3.

First Appearance of Mr. Felix. (1836, June 22). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

Gen. Tom Thumb. (1850, Jan. 23). Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 3.

Gerteis, L. (1995, Spring). St. Louis in the Age of the Original Jim Crow. Gateway Heritage, 15 (4), pp. 1-9. Missouri Historical Society: Columbia MO.

Graham, P. (1951). Showboats: The History of an American Institution. University of Texas Press: Austin TX.

Gudmestad, Robert H. (2011). Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge.

Handy, W.C. (1941). Father of the Blues. The Macmillan Company: New York NY.

He Is Truly American. (1889, Sept. 1). Why Pianist William M. Sherwood Is Fond of Chicago. Chicago Tribune, p. 7.

Hornblow, A. (1919). A History of the Theatre In America: From Its Beginnings to the Present Time. J.B. Lippincott Company: Philadelphia PA and London, England.

Inge, M.T., & Piacentino, E. [Eds.] (2010). Southern Frontier Humor: An Anthology. University of Missouri Press: Columbia MO.

Kleber, John E. (2015, Jan. 13). The Encyclopedia of Louisville. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington KY.

Latest Eastern Musical Publications. (1845, May 6). [Advertisement.] Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 4.

Letter From New York. (1850, Dec. 21). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Lhamon, W.T., Jr. (1998). Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA and London, England.

Local and Provincial. (1848, Oct. 18). Free-Trade Hall—“Juba” and The Serenadors. London Guardian, England, p. 5.

Local and Provincial. (1849, Jan. 24). Juba and The Serenadors. London Guardian, England, p. 5.

Louisville Song Writers. (1900, Dec. 9). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 29.

Ludlow, N.M. (1880). Dramatic Life as I Found It. G.I. Jones and Company: St. Louis MO.

Malone, B.C. (1979). Southern Music/American Music. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington KY.

Messrs. “Potters and Waters.” (1837, Feb. 22). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

Music. (1848, Oct. 2). New Orleans Crescent LA, p. 1.

Music at Home and Abroad. (1866, April 21). Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 3.

Music of the Future. (1891, May 19). Chillicothe Morning Constitution MO, p. 3.

Musical Notes. (1889, Aug. 25). Chicago Tribune, p. 28.

Narine, D. (1995, June 18). African Music’s Journey to Mainstream. Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel FL, p. 1F.

New and Popular Music. (1849, Jan. 24). Nashville Tennessean, p. 3.

O’Connell, JoAnne. (2016). The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham MD.

Owen, R. (2001, April 20). King of Pop: PBS Celebrates the Life and Songs of Stephen Foster. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, p. 44.

School For Young Ladies. (1836, Aug. 27). [Advertisement.] Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 3.

Smith, S. (1868). Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years. Harper & Brothers: New York NY.

Tarbell, I.M. (1896, July 12). The Mississippi Valley Fleet. Salt Lake Herald UT, p. 10.

The Circus in Earlier Days. (1880, Dec. 9). [Advertisement.] Milan Exchange TN, p. 3.

Theatricals In Louisville. (1881, Dec. 11). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p.9.

Thompson, R. (1955, March 19). A Saturday Night Historical Notebook. Dixon Evening Telegraph IL, p.4

Two Nights more of the Great Magician. (1836, June 6). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

William C. Peters, 1805-1866. (Accessed 2017, Oct. 20). loc.gov [online]. United States Library of Congress: Washington DC.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.


Entertainers Followed Rivers West and South

Twelfth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Monday, October 16, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Twenty-year-old Noah Ludlow figured he could sneak away from loved ones without informing them of his adventurous plan, or foolhardiness.

It was July of 1815 in Albany, N.Y., and Ludlow’s widowed mother fretted enough already. Her youngest son had left a business apprenticeship upon his father’s death, only to land at the local theater, of all places, where he pursued “a passion for histrionic fame,” as Ludlow later recalled in memoirs. “My mother was a very religious woman, of the strictest sect, and my father a man who found no particular pleasure in the so-called amusements of the day; therefore my very early youth had been kept free of such ‘delusions’ as theatres.”

Now Ludlow was leaving home to be an actor in the “far, far West,” having joined a theater troupe bound for Kentucky. Eastern actors with paying jobs had rejected the “wild scheme,” so troupe organizer Samuel Drake, Sr., solicited novices like Ludlow. “He told me very candidly that he was going on a voyage of adventure, which possibly might result disastrously,” Ludlow recounted. “I was too glad of an opportunity to embark in what had become now my entire ambition, to hesitate an hour in giving him an answer.”

Ludlow accepted enthusiastically but rued the thought of leaving his mother and young sister, and he told them nothing. Ludlow forwarded baggage to the Albany coach office then, at daybreak of his departure, crept through the family home. “I quietly walked from my bedroom, and as I passed that of my mother, the door standing ajar, I beheld her on her knees in prayer, and heard her utter these words: ‘Oh, Father! Be with him in his journey through life, and keep his soul from sin.’ My heart nearly failed me… I rushed out of the house and saw her no more for 10 years.”

“This was the first regretful act of my life,” Ludlow later confessed. “Reflection soon brought to my mind the anguish of that mother who almost doted on the son that had left her without a parting word, and the thought haunted me like a ghost.” An older brother disavowed Ludlow, calling him a “genteel vagabond” unworthy of family name.

Nonetheless, Ludlow and the rest of Drake’s humble troupers were following a destiny—“pioneer actors of the West,” by a later pronouncement—for a country yet unfolding. Modern historian Louis Gerteis, specializing in entertainment lineage of St. Louis, observed: “In  a  period  of  American  history  that  textbooks  traditionally  associate  with  the ‘politics of the common man,’ an outburst of theatrical entertainment brought an abrupt end  to  a  long-standing  American  bias  against  theatrical  entertainment. The period between 1820 and 1850 marked an unprecedented era of  theatricality.”

In summer 1815, the humble Drake company of 11 actors and actresses were harbingers of a movement, “a stream of theatrical migration westward,” observed Gerteis. The troupe traveled rural New York, working little theaters, presenting productions of tragedy and comedy interspersed with song. Ludlow took the stage at Cooperstown, overdoing his villainous character in “damned bad” fashion, Drake criticized, but novelist James Fenimore Cooper enjoyed the show and encouraged “our pioneer efforts in the cause of the drama,” Ludlow recalled.

At Canandaigua the group outfitted with a pack wagon, small carriage and three horses for the 150-mile trek southwest, to headwaters of the Allegheny River. Able troupers walked the distance, like Ludlow. The wagons and horses were sold at Olean, N.Y., a river access point of few cabins where Drake purchased a flatboat for transport south to Pittsburgh. The American frontier confronted young Ludlow, born and reared in New York City. “The men, especially the young ones, were expected to ‘rough it,’ and rough it we did,” he wrote.

Another traveler joined the Drake party at Olean to complete a dozen for boarding the boat, of adults and teenagers. They were Samuel Drake, Sr., troupe manager, age 46, and his children Samuel, Jr., Alexander, James, Martha, and the youngest, Julia, at 15; Noah M. Ludlow; Frances Ann Denny; Joe Tracy, a stage hand; Mr. and Mrs. J.O. Lewis, with he a carpenter; and the young newcomer, Hull, an army lieutenant during the recent war with England, returning home to the Mississippi Valley.

Drake’s flatboat was a small barge of Kentucky “broadhorn” style, about 25-feet long by 15-feet wide, with sideboards and two compartments for sleeping. A long-stem paddle served as guidance system, mounted at rear, with hardwood poles for emergency maneuvering. The boatload besides people included food provisions, cookware, personal baggage, tools, and stage accessories: a drop curtain, green carpeting, and scenery backdrops, six painted on drapery such as a kitchen setting and a garden.

The party launched for Pittsburgh, 260 miles down the Allegheny, about 10 days by flatboat, and stopped the first night on an island—“for fear of wild beasts, less likely to visit us there than on the mainland,” Ludlow wrote. Coffee and food were prepared over campfire. “I must say, I never enjoyed a meal more in my entire life than that rural supper. After our evening meal, the men smoked, and the ladies sang, and the time passed delightfully.”

But daytime in July on the boat deck proved unbearable. The sun was searing amid drought for mountainous western Pennsylvania; the Allegheny stood at low stage with current at a crawl. Heat was miserable on the flatboat, and females suffered for their dense garments. A small canopy and umbrellas didn’t shield well enough so a scenery panel was unfurled for cover. Rest was finally possible but the rudderless barge drifted into a mill channel, dammed ahead. Men leapt overboard to halt the heavy flatboat, and they towed it back to the river by rope,  walking the bank and tugging against current.

At nightfall wolves yipped and howled along the Allegheny, having frightened the theater group since the overland trails of New York. Wolf packs prowled the river valley, seemingly the only beings after dark for boat travelers of remote Pennsylvania. “The country then was very wild, the buildings small log cabins, and the accommodations very limited,” Ludlow wrote later in memoirs, utilizing a personal diary of the 1815 trip.

On most nights the Drake party landed, mooring at a settlement if possible, where beds and food might be procured. The boat compartments slept the married couple in one, teen girls in the other, while everyone else sought a comfortable way to lie down. A barn with hay or straw suited the men, if available. One night the river-weary troupe landed late at a darkened homestead “indicating cleanliness and plenty,” Ludlow wrote. “It was a substantial Pennsylvania farmhouse, large and well built.”

The owner came out in greeting, an affluent doctor and farmer who rousted his family to meet the “comedians.” A 10 o’clock supper went on in the kitchen while peach brandy was served in the music parlor. Sam Drake, Jr., classically trained in violin, was impressive in “scraping off” a Scottish ballad and English opera melody, accompanied on piano by the doctor’s wife. The army veteran Hull “astonished us all…,” Ludlow attested, “by sitting down to the piano and playing one or two marches and some other pieces in a very creditable manner.” Merriment continued past midnight, and everyone who needed a bed was accommodated on the estate. The gracious hosts also sent a ham, live chickens and vegetables downriver with the travelers.

A few nights later the Drake troupe reached headwaters of the Alleghany River, “Three Rivers,” where the former met the Monongahela to form the Ohio. “About nine o’clock… to our great delight, the glimmerings of a city broke into our view,” Ludlow recalled of arriving at Pittsburgh. The flatboat docked and the young males went downtown in search of lodging and excitement. Even in darkness, the city’s trademark of coal industry was apparent in soot-covered buildings and streets.

The local theater was sooty too, as the thespians discovered. “It was situated on the eastern outskirts of the city [and] had been built, I think, by some amateur in theatricals,” Ludlow wrote. “It contained a pit and one tier of boxes, as they were called… The decorations, if such they might be termed, were of the plainest kind, and every portion bore the Pittsburgh stamp upon it—coal smut.”

Drake’s troupe cleaned the theater to open a Pittsburgh season of productions, which quickly drew 400 spectators nightly, including miners, boatmen, foundry workers, mechanics and livery drivers. Ludlow would remember “beautiful ladies” and a formative period of his career. “The success I met with in my first two weeks in a regular theatre, and in a city of no small consequence even at that early day, gave me great hopes that I might ultimately become an actor of some notoriety. In thought, I saw a realization of my youthful daydreams. [Drake] was obliged, owing to the limited number of his company, to give me characters of importance to play, quite beyond my inexperience to do justice… But my ambition was great, and I labored hard to gratify its cravings.”

The triumphant actors launched from Pittsburgh in a bigger, better flatboat, to float the Ohio southwesterly for 400 miles. Several of the northerners experienced the South for first time, touching down in Virginia then Kentucky, slave-holding states along the great river. At Limestone, Ky., the group unloaded and Drake sold the barge, obtaining more wagons and horses for an overland tour to Lexington, Frankfort and Louisville.

The Limestone port led into Kentucky where Daniel Boone and frontiersmen had battled Shawnee Indians until the 1790s. Now U.S. territory stretched to the Rocky Mountains, Boone and followers were resettled outside St. Louis, and native tribes were removed or contained. The new West and South were open for entertainment of actors and musicians.

The Drakes went on to establish the Louisville City Theatre, an American showcase for drama and music in the Ohio Valley. Historians anointed the Drakes as a first family of popular entertainment in America.

Noah M. Ludlow opened the first showboat in 1817, a hundred-foot barge without steam power at Natchez on the Mississippi River. Later he co-founded theaters in New Orleans, Mobile and St. Louis. Ludlow partnered with Sol Smith, another New York native thespian, as they “dominated the theatrical world in the South and West for nearly two decades and became noted for their fair dealings with performers,” according to a modern analysis.

Arthur Hornblow, author of a 1919 history on American theater, saluted Ludlow and the humble Drake troupe of lore: “The pampered stage favorite of today who gazes idly out of the [train] window, as his private car speeds smoothly across the continent… can have little idea of the hardships and perils the pioneer actors of the West had to face when they set out a hundred years ago to carry the message of Thespis through the American backwoods.”

Select References

Bakeless, J. (1939). Daniel Boone: Master of The Wilderness. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln NE.

C.L. (1881, June 5). An Old Actor’s Memories. New York Times, p. 10.

Dietz, M.M. (1921, May). A History of The Theatre In Louisville [MA thesis]. University of Louisville, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Louisville KY.

Gerteis, L. (1995, Spring). St. Louis in the Age of the Original Jim Crow. Gateway Heritage, 15 (4), pp. 1-9. Missouri Historical Society: Columbia MO.

Graham, P. (1951). Showboats: The History of an American Institution. University of Texas Press: Austin TX.

Hornblow, A. (1919). A History of the Theatre In America: From Its Beginnings to the Present Time. J.B. Lippincott Company: Philadelphia PA and London, England.

Inge, M.T., & Piacentino, E. [Eds.] (2010). Southern Frontier Humor: An Anthology. University of Missouri Press: Columbia MO.

Ludlow, N.M. (1880). Dramatic Life as I Found It. G.I. Jones and Company: St. Louis MO.

Smith, S. (1868). Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years. Harper & Brothers: New York NY.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Steamboats Impacted The South Despite Quaky Start

Eleventh in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, September 30, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

America’s early steamboats shocked witnesses along the major rivers, conjuring fear in many, doom in the very naive.

Thurlow Weed was a boy at Catskill, N.Y., in 1807, when he joined chums on an island to watch Robert Fulton’s maiden steam voyage up the Hudson. “We had heard for several days that some sort of vessel was coming up the river against wind and without sails. Such a thing was regarded as utterly impossible,” Weed later recalled, as a prominent newspaperman.

“Finally we saw the monster coming, vomiting fire and smoke and throwing up sparks. The paddlewheels were not covered. We were frightened almost out of our senses, and at first ran out of sight, but presently took courage and cheered the pioneer steamboat with the people that lined the bank of the river.”

A Fulton-backed steamboat launched on the Ohio River from Pittsburgh in late 1811, christened the “New Orleans.” The $38,000 steamer was built “for the navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, to carry goods and passengers between New Orleans and the different towns of those rivers,” eastern newspapers reported.

“We are told she is an excellent well-constructed vessel;  about 140 feet long, will carry 400 tons of goods, has elegant accommodations for passengers, and is every way fitted in great style. It is supposed that she will go 35 miles  a day against the stream… considerably faster with the current.”

The news moved slower downriver from Pittsburgh than the boat, however. The Ohio and Mississippi valleys—encompassing most western states and incorporated U.S. territories—stood hardly informed that a “steam boat” was en route. And epic earthquakes would raise tension as the foreign machine appeared on western waters.

The New Orleans steamed into Louisville, Ky., by moonlight, alarming inhabitants of both shores, Indiana Territory as well. “The novel appearance of the vessel, and the fearful rapidity with which it made its passage over the broad reaches of the river, excited a mixture of terror and surprise among many of the settlers on the banks, whom the rumor of such an invention had never reached,” The Louisville Courier later recounted.

Farther downstream on the Indiana shore, the steamer attracted settlers who expressed “great alarm,” but not because of the boat. Locals attested of hearing “strange noises on the river and in the woods.” They claimed the shoreline shook earlier that day, “insisting that they had repeatedly felt the earth tremble.” Indeed, the earthquakes of 1811-12 had begun from an epicenter in Missouri Territory at New Madrid, along the Mississippi River, some 170 miles southwest of the steamboat’s location.

Small tremors had been undetectable aboard the steamboat on the Ohio, with the loud engine’s rattling everything, but deck occupants felt jarring that night at anchor. The next day, as a crewman would recall, “we heard a rushing sound, violent splash, and finally saw large portions of the shore tearing away from the land and lapsing into the watery abyss. It was a startling scene… the crew spoke but little.”

The steamboat reached the mouth of the Ohio a week before Christmas, at confluence with the Mississippi River, and crewmen moored on the southern tip of Illinois Territory, future site of Cairo settlement. Directly across the Mississippi sprawled a vast alluvial plain—Missouri Territory of swamp and virgin timber, sparsely populated. A few folks met the steamer on the Illinois side, woodcutters drawn to the landing by talk of “a great monster walking upon the water.”

But earthquakes had become everyone’s concern. Massive shocks erupted as the steamboat headed southward on the Mississippi around Dec. 19, 1811. “Trees along the shores of the river were seen waving and nodding… and all this violence seemed only to increase,” the Louisville paper recounted. “The steamer New Orleans had no choice but to pursue its course down the river… a fearful stream, now unusually swollen, turbid and full of trees.”

The boat docked for a time at New Madrid village, seismic ground zero where the “greatest distress and consternation” gripped residents. “Part of the population had fled in terror to the higher grounds; others prayed… as the earth was opening in fissures on every side, and their houses hourly falling around them.” Superstitious types blamed the steamboat, declaring its manifestation in concert with a current comet at night triggered catastrophic earthquakes and likely end of time.

Thirty miles downstream, at Little Prairie village in future Pemiscot County, Missouri, the steamer was “brought to by the cries of some of the people who thought the earth was gradually sinking,” stated a Natchez dispatch. “Some distance below the Little Prairie the bank of the river had caved in to a considerable extent, and two islands had almost disappeared.”

The steamboat chugged on, passing the Chickasaw Bluffs where Memphis would soon rise, to reach Natchez on Dec. 30 and load cotton bales, the ship’s first cargo. The steamer finally docked at namesake city New Orleans on Jan. 10, 1812; Louisiana statehood was pending, three months away.

“The New Orleans entered the American bloodstream at a propitious moment,” observed modern author Robert H. Gudmestad in his Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. “The Louisiana Purchase had recently doubled the country’s size and Americans were eagerly moving over the Appalachian Mountains.”

By 1860, states of the great Mississippi drainage basin boasted almost half the American population. “The interior South—those slave states west of the Appalachian Mountains—figured prominently in these changes,” Gudmestad noted. “Its population shot from 806,000 to nearly 7 million people… When the New Orleans completed its first voyage, over 17,000 people lived in New Orleans. Fifty years later, 168,675 people dwelled there. Memphis, a city that did not exist in 1812 and owed its existence to riverboats, was the country’s thirty-eighth largest city in 1860.”

“A decade after the first riverboat touched the New Orleans levee, over seventy steamers prowled the western waters. By the time Abraham Lincoln took up residence in the White House, the number surpassed eight hundred.”

Select References

A Talk With Thurlow Weed. (1878, July 1). New York Tribune, p. 2.

Bagnall, N.H. (1996). On Shaky Ground: The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812.  University of Missouri Press: Columbia.

Gudmestad, Robert H. (2011). Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge.

La Pariere. (1884, Jan. 6). Opening The Ohio: Initial Trip of the New Orleans, Made During the Convulsive Earthquake of 1811. Louisville Courier Journal KY, p. 9.

Latrobe, C. (1856, Feb. 15). First Steamboat in the West. Louisville Courier Journal KY, p. 1.

Natchez, Jan. 2. (1812, Feb. 22). Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, St. Louis, p. 2.

Steam Boat. (1811, Oct. 18). Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, p.2.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.