Steamboats Impacted The South Despite Quaky Start

Eleventh in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

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 Email: