Entertainers Followed Rivers West and South Through America

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.