The Flatboat and Transport in Antebellum America

A wistful illustration of a 19th century flatboat A wistful illustration of a 19th century flatboat (click for source)

One of the most prevalent trading vessels in the early United States was the flatboat. A flatboat was a small, cheap boat made of timer that lacked its own propulsion method. One could float downstream from any headwater, carrying goods for sale and trade. It could be used to move people, and if docked could even serve as an inn, restaurant, casino, or bordello. For decades they were a crucial part of the United States's economic infrastructure. Many farmers of the Midwest and upper South relied on the flatboat to transport and sell their surplus produce on the marketplace.

The geography of the Mississipi River watershed could not have been better devised for the flatboat. Its tributaries lead from the farms and towns of the Midwest, Kentucky, and Arkansas, downstream past the cities of Cincinnati, St. Louis, Memphis, and finally to New Orleans. Animals and produce could be cheaply shipped down such an artery in an age before railroads, and their producers compensated accordingly. This arrangement provided food and livestock for many southern plantations, as well as for the large towns on the river.

It was common for farmers to hire young relatives or enterprising locals to guide these boats. A few could make a living on the river, and others would find their first taste of travel and adventure after a childhood on the farm. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, made two cross-country trips steering flatboats down the Mississippi from Illinois as a young man. These were his first experiences with travel outside of the Midwest. Lincoln traded food and animals with the plantations of Mississippi and Louisiana and ultimately found himself in New Orleans. Here he witnessed a slave auction and filed the memory away for future reference. His particular route wound down several tributaries before finding the Mississippi. Starting in Springfield, Illinois on the Sangamon River, Lincoln then merged with the Illinois River before hitting the Mississippi. Such routes were common, and were the reason that even small towns in the Midwest were usually located on rivers.

Once these flatboats were unloaded, they could either be taken apart and sold for their lumber, or towed upstream via steamboat. This decision would depend on the quality and size of the boat. Many of the boats were cheap and never intended for permanent use. Others were larger and better-built. The largest could be over 100 feet long. If a flatboat was taken apart, its pilots would find a steamboat or even walk upstream, back to their original destination. If it was kept intact, it could be towed upstream by a steamboat. Some professional crews built a sturdy boat and took it up and down the river with help from the steamboats, using their experience to reduce accidents and cargo loss.

Thousands of flatboats made their way downstream each year from points in the Midwest. They served as the forerunners of a national economy and increased in prevalence until the 1850s. The Civil War helped interrupt this trade, and by the 1870s the flatboat had become a bit antiquated. Steamboat transit had become cheap enough by that time to completely dominate the river trade, which became concentrated in fewer hands.

The ultimate destination of the flatboats, from all directions north and west, was New Orleans. New Orleans was a bustling port with every type of ware and every type of person. Irish, French, and Anglo-Americans intermixed with creoles, slaves, and free blacks, while slave auctions were ubiquitous. Larger boats loaded some produce, and much cotton, for transit to overseas markets. Throughout this era, New Orleans was the largest city in the South and one of the largest cities in the United States.

Other large cities that relied on river trade to a huge degree were St. Louis, Memphis, and Cincinnati. Smaller, local boats from Ohio and Pennsylvania could seek out Cincinnati as a marketplace. Farmers from Missouri could float their produce down the Missouri River to St. Louis, and those from Arkansas or Tennessee could utilize the Arkansas and Tennessee Rivers to find the Mississippi. How does the flatboat trade compare to the nation's transport system in later eras? It was at once cheaper and more open to the common man, and more limited in its ultimate possibilities. But while it lasted, it served as a critical bridge to a more developed United States./p>

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