Page images
PDF
EPUB

generally made arrangements by which several flatboats were to travel together as a little fleet. The head of the family or party would also, if possible, hire a frontiersman to go with the boat and take charge of its navigation. Through those conditions there was created a class of men known as western boatmen, who became familiar with all the vagaries of the rivers and fertile in every device that

[graphic][subsumed]

83.—Mississippi Aatboat with superstructure of rough lumber. Craft of this sort were used by families which intended to use the lumber for

house building after reaching their destinations.

might be helpful in an emergency. The professional boatman of the West spent years in travelling down the streams and back again, and became one of the most interesting figures of frontier life the needs of the country have ever produced.

He was of the restless type that in every period of American development has done the unusual and dangerous thing just for the love of doing it; who has never been satisfied unless each new day brought some unexpected event; who has only been happy when he could always keep moving. He was an epicure of excitement. Work no other man could do was his one luxury. In physical make-up the typical boatman was tall, thin and sinewy. His immobile face was tanned to a dark brown, and from above high cheek-bones and a long nose two dull gray eyes gazed blankly. In his normal state he was silently waiting for something to happen, knowing quite well it certainly would. When the bomb of circumstance exploded the human creature was on that dot of time transformed into a combination of rubber ball, wildcat and shrieking maniac, all controlled by instantaneous perception and exact calculation. After the tumult he subsided again into his listless lethargy of waiting, the monotony being endured by chewing tobacco and illustrating the marvelous accuracy with which he could propel a stream of its juice for any distance up to fifteen feet.

The costume he wore was as picturesque as his personality, and in essential features was so widely adopted as to be almost a uniform. It consisted of a bright red flannel shirt covered by a loose blue coat — called a jerkin — that reached only to his hips, and coarse brown trousers of linsey-woolsey. His head covering was a cap of untanned skin, often with the fur side out; the universal moccasins clad his feet, and from a leather belt hung his hunting-knife and tobacco pouch.

Still a third distinguishing feature of the professional flatboatman was his iridescent vocabulary. As was the case with all Americans of the age he spoke in a ceaseless series of metaphors, similes and comparisons. Everything was described, whether the thing discussed was an inanimate object or human action, by likening it to something else. And, as was the fact through all classes of frontier people, he colored his discourse with references revealing his own occupation. In any miscellaneous backwoods assemblage of those years an expert in native speech could

· Boatmen, and many other men of the time, prided themselves on this accomplishment, and often made wagers on hitting a knot-hole or a fly.

have correctly told the kind of work done by most of the men in the gathering simply by listening to their talk for half an hour. When a boatman wanted to say that some act had been performed with celerity he declared it had happened "quicker nor a alligator can chaw a puppy.” To be silent, in his phraseology, was to be "dumb as a dead nigger in a mud-hole.” If he warned a companion to run he did it by shouting “Start yer trotters.” In referring to strangulation, either legal or accidental, he said the victim “choked to death like a catfish on a sand-bank.” A difficult thing to do was “harder nor climbin' a peeled saplin', heels uppard.” To move very swiftly was to “travel like a nigger in a thunder-storm.” And when the crisis for which he was ever waiting suddenly came he would scream "Hell's a-snortin'," and became a blur of arms, legs and profanity.

Guided and helped by men like these the emigrant families travelled down the rivers and absorbed useful knowledge on the way. The routine of daily life on a flatboat did not differ much, except in the actual work of navigation, from that of the cabins on land. At one end of the boat was a large space often called the parlor, or sitting-room, where the travellers ate their meals and the children romped between times. It was furnished with chairs, a table, a looking-glass, and such other articles as the women needed for their work. The kitchen was adjoining. A stove was set up there, and its pipe projected through the roof. A narrow passageway extended down the center of the boat for a considerable part of its length. In front the hall opened into the parlor, and on each side of it were several small bedrooms. At the rear of the boat was another large compartment for the storage of provisions, furniture and agricultural im

[graphic]

8+.—The ark was a big, cumbersome, wide fatboat, and as built in the East

sometimes had V-shaped ends. It was extensively used on the Connecticut, Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers, and later introduced on the Ohio and other interior streams. It could not prevail against a current. Arks were not roofed over, but had little houses amidship. Showing Susquehanna arks that survived until the canal period.

plements, and still farther astern was the abode of the live stock. The rooms in those parts of the craft devoted to the use of the family were created, as a rule, by partitions of linsey-woolsey or chintz cloth that sometimes flared up from contact with a candle or pine knot and left no partitions at all. In more elaborate boats some rooms were divided by thin wooden walls. The enclosure for horses, pigs, chickens or other farm animals on board was separated from the rest of the space by a barrier of planks. Such were the general arrangements of a covered Kentucky boat.

The ark bore less resemblance to a land habitation in its internal arrangements. A wooden house was often

built on it near one end, the farmyard was fenced in at the other, and miscellaneous non-perishable goods, such as wagons, plows and furniture were distributed throughout the rest of the space in order to keep an even keel.

The navigation of the Ohio and "Massasip"— as the Mississippi was popularly called — presented a number of dangers to flatboats, only part of which could be avoided by intelligent precautions. From the others there was no escape except through good luck. First among the perils to which the cumbersome craft lay exposed were countless trunks of once floating trees that had become imbedded in the river bottoms, leaving their free ends pointed upward at an angle, like spikes, to stab whatever hit them. Menaces such as these were known by several names, dependent on their actions and position with relation to the surface of the water. A sunken tree moving slowly up and down with a periodic action under the influence of the current was called a "sawyer.” The moving end might extend either up stream or down, and its successive brief liftings above the surface were usually separated by an interval of several minutes. But sometimes a log of the sort remained under water for twenty minutes before heaving upward again, and in that time a boat might easily have drifted into view of the place where it lay hid, and have reached the exact danger spot without any possible warning, only to be wrecked by running full tilt against the spear. There could be no predetermined avoidance of such a danger, and many a boat suffered catastrophe or grave damage by an accident of that nature. The vigilant boatman was always watching for the turbulent water which gave warning of a lift

1 Neither end of a big timber boat could properly be called the bow, for the current swung it around so that sometimes one extremity and sometimes the other would point down-stream.

« PreviousContinue »