Rob Hardy: 'Wicked River'

October 25, 2010 12:10:00 PM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


If you have read Mark Twain's wonderful "Life on the Mississippi," you have seen the classic portrait of steamboating on the great river, with its sense of privilege, adventure and (essential in Twain) comedy. According to Chicago journalist Lee Sandlin, in the splendid "Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild" (Pantheon), "Twain never pretended to be writing documentary realism. His Mississippi, for all its historical specificity, was still at bottom a nostalgic daydream."  


You will remember, also, how Huck and Jim fleeing on their raft did fine as long as they floated down the river; it was only when they tied up and got involved in activities on shore that they had trouble. "Twain's predecessors hadn't seen it that way," Sandlin writes.  


"To them the Mississippi had been crowded, filthy, chaotic and dangerous." Sandlin has drawn upon the writings of these predecessors to describe something closer to the river as it was, rather than as the grand old man of American letters remembered it. Twain will always remain essential in our understanding of the river, for his understanding, nostalgic though it might be, is also authentic. But Sandlin's book is full of great stories, too, and corruption and plagues and floods and snags. It is not a corrective to Twain's picture, but a description of a different type of river in a different time. 


Before the steamboats, there were smaller, human-powered craft, all of which went generally down the river because there was not a way of easily fighting the current. There were keelboats that made their way as the crew, wearing the traditional bright red shirts of the "voyageurs", the name given to river workers, put poles onto the river bottom and then walked sternward on the keelboat to push it forward.  


Keelboats were valuable, relatively permanent transports, and so it was important to get them back upriver for the next run. This was not so of another common boat, the flatboat, which was essentially a floating box, hard to maneuver, easy to wreck, but drawing only a few feet of water even when fully loaded, so that it avoided the hazards of sandbars and snags. (The rivermen had their own colorful vocabulary for snags, a tree standing upright and rooted in the river bottom being a "planter," and a tree bobbing up and down as though it were being baptized being a "preacher.")  


A flatboat crew didn't have the skill of a keelboat crew because their vessel just floated downriver, and only needed correction in keeping away from obstacles. The flatboats carried plenty of cargo, but were worth little, so when they got to New Orleans and unloaded, they were broken up and sold for scrap; they were known as "the boats that never came back." The voyageurs who had started downriver in the spring would arrive in New Orleans after only a few weeks, and start the long trek home, which might take them all summer and into the fall. The next spring they would build a new boat and perform the cycle again. 


The wild river was completely different from anything we know of now. It was sparsely populated along the river, with few settlements. "If a voyageur had his foot crushed by a loose barrel, he could have gangrene by the time the boat reached the next town with a doctor." Voyageurs stuck to their boats between river towns, because on shore were bears, panthers, Indians and pirates. Going into the tall grasses of the prairie was to risk becoming hopelessly disoriented and lost. The river, of course, had its own dangers. If you fell overboard, you were likely to die of hypothermia even in the summer, since the river was fed by meltwater. A man overboard was simply a man lost; the boats could not maneuver to pick him up. Staying in the river and drowning was a gentler way to go compared to getting ashore in a deserted and dangerous country. 


The boats tied up at night as there was no way of seeing what the river was doing in the dark. With so few settlers along the river, it might seem that they'd be safe tied anywhere, but plantation owners assumed that the voyageurs were all thieves, and had guards on patrol who did not hesitate to shoot trespassers. Instead, the boats assembled together in the riverfront districts of towns every night. Communities would try to keep some sort of order over voyageurs that came ashore, but there was little that could be done over the temporary community of boats tied together. There was little also that could be done about thievery. A boat crew that hankered after a horse or cow, or a barrel of molasses, or any other goods simply helped themselves. If they got to the river with their booty, they ran no risks, even if the original owners had seen the theft in progress. No one could get out to the river to stop the getaway, and there was no way to inform authorities downriver that the thieves were coming, and no authorities anyway.  


Even in traditional trade, there was little trust: "The rule in any commercial transaction was that each party was out to cheat the other." False weights and fake goods were commonplace, and since gold and silver coins were rare, people bartered or used paper currency issued by private banks. Such currency was relatively easy to counterfeit, so all businesses had a subscription to a weekly periodical that described paper that was genuine and paper that was not. 


The voyageurs and other people on the river weren't just guilty of stealing. For all river folk, Sandlin says, "It was as though they were all walking around in a perpetual state of rage." The fights might be over theft, but also about gambling debts or politics, and maybe might be just because of joining into a fight already in progress. A diarist in Natchez wrote, "I rode out today to see the balloon ascend, but the man did not attempt to put it up at all, and told them that they would put it up tomorrow. A mob was soon raised and they tore it all to pieces, destroying everything as they went." Many of these disputes were fueled by alcohol, which was imbibed at every meal; voyageurs tended to drink Monongahela rye, and were simply drunk all the workday. If intoxication from alcohol were not enough, there was always getting drunk on religious enthusiasm. Camp meetings were held in the summers, when farmers could be absent for a week from their fields and when voyageurs were on the land returning north. Within their tent cities, members of the camp meetings would manifest the most extreme of religious pleasures, especially "the falling exercise," by which an enthusiast (as described by a minister of the time) "would, generally, with a piercing scream, fall like a log on the floor, earth, or mud, and appear as dead." In some meetings, so many fell over they were taken to a storage area where no one else would fall or trip on them. There was a rolling exercise, too, and the dancing exercise and the laughing exercise, and howling and grunting. "Many in the crowd got roaring drunk -- and the drunks at their most extreme were hard to tell apart from the fallers and the jerkers and the howlers."  


Sandlin winds up with the story of the siege of Vicksburg, which is one of the more familiar tales in this book full of odd ones. It was during the last of the Civil War that the steamboat Sultana made an ill-fated voyage carrying Union soldiers who had been prisoners of war brought to Vicksburg by the Confederacy. On its trip downriver, the black-creped "Sultana" had brought the news of Lincoln's death; returning, it was to take a huge number of soldiers from Vicksburg back to the North. The ship usually had around 450 people on it in a usual crowded run, but for the returning soldiers, it crammed maybe five times that number. The problem for the ship was a problem familiar to everyone on the river that had anything to do with steamboats: the Mississippi River was a terrible source for the sort of pure water needed for the boilers. A small amount of particles, or even dissolved matter, could c

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]