River Transportation

Before the steamboat, Tennesseans navigated the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee Rivers and their tributaries in canoes, keelboats, flatboats, and rafts. The original Tennessee rivermen were Cherokees, Shawnees, and other Indians paddling their sleek wooden dugout canoes and cruder “bullboats” (made of hides, mud, and sticks) on western waters. Early European and Euro-American explorers, trappers, and traders adopted the Indian canoes and, by the middle and late 1700s, a bona fide river commerce emerged utilizing canoe, keelboat, flatboat, and raft river craft.

The keelboat was a sleek, prowed upstream craft, averaging about sixty feet in length and eight feet in width. Equipped with sails and rigging, a keelboat resembled a miniature sailing vessel or small oceangoing frigate. Keels were propelled by wind, rowing, poling, or hand-winching upstream through the Herculean efforts of their crews. In 1819 it took sixty-seven days for one crew to propel its keelboat from New Orleans to Nashville; it once took keelboat entrepreneur Andrew Jackson and his crew sixteen days and a reported twenty gallons of whiskey to sail from Nashville to the mouth of the Cumberland River and back. But the heyday of the keelboats was short-lived as steamboats supplanted them, beginning on the Mississippi in 1811.

Flatboats, however, endured well into the late nineteenth century. Pioneer immigrants and professional boatmen alike plied Tennessee’s rivers aboard these flat-bottomed, box-shaped craft averaging fifty feet in length and twelve feet in width. Boatmen navigated these unwieldy downstream craft as best they could with a stern oar and three additional oars, one each on the port, starboard, and bow. Their cargoes included corn, whiskey, furs, flour, hearty fruits and vegetables (apples, squash, etc.), and pork. Upon reaching their destination, boatmen dismantled their flat and sold it for lumber; then the crew walked home. Before 1811 Tennessee flatboatmen walked the Natchez Trace (as Dr. John Bedford did after navigating the Cumberland, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans in 1807). Soon, however, flatboatmen began to buy passage home on the decks of steamers.

Tennessee boatmen could more easily ply the Cumberland than the Tennessee River. The length of the Tennessee, combined with its hazardous Muscle Shoals stretch in northern Alabama, rendered it the less desirable route to the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys and the Gulf of Mexico until well into the twentieth century and the advent of improvements by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Tennessee Valley Authority.

The average antebellum Tennessee flatboatman was a white male of English or Celtic ancestry and twenty-eight years of age. Exceptions included African American (slave and free), Franco-American (“Canadian”), and Indian flatboatmen; very few women worked professionally aboard flats, though many sailed as migrants. Tennessee boasted an array of experienced flatboat hands. In the nineteenth century, Edward Cason, James Stone, and Ambrose Peterman sailed flats down the Cumberland River out of Jackson and Clay Counties. A village called “Boatland” became a flatboat building center on the east Fork of the Obey River. Further west, Colonel Davy Crockett made an infamous flatboat trip in 1826, running aground near the Chickasaw Bluffs and nearly drowning. Boating “went so badly with me, along at the first,” Crockett later wrote, “that I hadn’t much mind to try it any more”; he returned home and ran for Congress. (1)

The heyday of flatboating was 1846-47, just a few years after the infamous 1842 Memphis “Flatboat War.” This “war” was actually a skirmish between flatboatmen tied up at the Memphis wharf and city officials and militiamen intent upon taxing them through a “wharf fee.” In the confrontation between the militia and angry boatmen, one boatman lay dead after an exchange of fire. The flatboatmen eventually paid up, but the “Flatboat War” symbolized the beginning of their professional demise. Soon the combination of steam and railroad transportation ran the flats completely out of business; few returned (except on the upper, low-water portions of the Cumberland and Tennessee systems) after the Civil War. When they did return (on the lower rivers), it was in “tow” as flatboats became the wooden precursors of the modern steel river barge.

The log raft emerged to transport the timber of the Tennessee woods to lumber yards in Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, and other commercial centers. This began in the early nineteenth century and continued until the 1920s on the Upper Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. Raftsmen built rafts in a manner similar to modern barge tows–logs were secured into “stringer” pieces, which were in turn tied together to form large rafts (on the Cumberland these “drifts” were as big as 280 feet long and 48 feet wide). Most raftsmen, like flatboatmen and keelboatmen, sailed in high water to avoid running aground. The winter schedules and freezing temperatures led to raftsmen’s deaths through exposure to the elements, and raftsmen braved not only inclement weather but also snags, rocks, rapids, and caved-in banks.

While rafting endured well into the twentieth century, in most of Tennessee it also mechanized, with steamboats and, later, diesel towboats towing rafts to market. In this way, the raft became an adjunct to the steam and diesel towboat just as the flatboat became a river “barge.” Railroads and logging trucks completed the cycle of mechanization, and log and lumber rafting grew less and less important to transport on the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee Rivers.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title River Transportation
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018