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Louisiana Anthology

John H. B. Latrobe.
The First Steamboat Voyage on the Western Waters.

The New Orleans
The New Orleans.
Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory, 1856.


WHEN reading to the Maryland Historical Society, on a former occasion, “A Lost Chapter in the History of the Steamboat,” I had occasion to refer to the first voyage of a vessel of that description on the Western waters, calling it a Romance in itself. The desire of the members present seemed to be to hear it told. I now propose to tell it. And, first, a word or two to explain how I come to be the narrator.

Mr. Nicholas J. Roosevelt, the hero of the Lost Chapter, married my eldest sister in the year 1809; and she made the voyage with her husband in 1811. Its events were the stories I listened to in my childhood. The impressions then made have never been effaced. They were deepened, when my father removed his family to Pittsburg, in 1813, having become interested with Livingston and Fulton in the steam navigation of the Ohio. Here lie superintended the building of the Buffalo, the fourth of the steamboats launched at Pittsburg. The second and third were the Vesuvius and Etna, already in course of construction when the Buffalo was commenced, and completed before it. My playmates were the boys who had seen the New Orleans leave for the lower Mississippi, only two years before. Our play ground, on Saturday afternoons, was often the ship-yard where she had been built, at the foot of Boyd’s Hill, on the banks of the Monongahela. Steam navigation was the one engrossing thought of Pittsburg in those days. Even children were interested in the discussion of it. My memory, therefore, supplies me with some of the matter of my story. I am in possession, besides, of my father’s letter books of that date. His correspondence with Mr. Fulton was voluminous, and abounded in minute detail. No name is mentioned in it much more frequently than Roosevelt’s, — no experience is oftener referred to. Mrs. Roosevelt, too, is still alive in a green old age; and, in view of the present paper, I have refreshed my memory of the stories I listened to at her knee, by comparing it with her’s. It is in this way I have come to venture on the present narrative. I, at one time, thought of hunting up the newspapers of the day; but a busy professional life has not permitted me to take the time necessary for the search. I am satisfied, however, that, should they be consulted, nothing will be found inconsistent with what I now set down.

Before coming to the voyage itself, it may not be uninteresting to state some matters germane to the subject, by way of preface.

Prior to the introduction of steamboats on the Western waters, the means of transportation thereon consisted of keel boats, barges and flat boats. Keel boats and barges ascended, as well as descended, the stream. The flat boat was an unwieldly box, and was broken up, for the lumber it contained, on its arrival at the place of destination. The keel boat was long and slender, sharp fore and aft, with a narrow gangway just within the gunwale, for the boatmen as they poled or warped up the stream, when not aided by the eddies that made their oars available. When the keel boat was covered with a low house, lengthwise, between the gangways, it was dignified with the name of “barge.” The only claim of the flatboat, or “broad horn,” to rank as a vessel was due to the fact that it floated upon water and was used as a vehicle for transportation. Keel boats, barges, and flat boats had prodigious steering oars, and oars of the same dimensions were hung on fixed pivots on the sides of the last named, by which the shapeless and cumbrous contrivance was, in some sort, managed. Ignorant of anything better, the people of the West were satisfied with these appliances of trade in 1810.

Whether steam could be employed on the Western rivers was a question, that its success between New York and Albany was not regarded as having entirely solved: and after the idea bad been suggested of building a boat at Pittsburg, to ply between Natchez and New Orleans, it was considered necessary that investigations should be made, as to the currents of the rivers to be navigated, in regard to the new system. These investigations, Mr.. Roosevelt undertook, with the understanding, that if his report were favorable, Chancellor Livingston, Mr. Fulton and himself, were to be equally interested in the undertaking. The Chancellor and Fulton were to supply the capital, and Roosevelt was to superintend the building of the boat and engine. For this duty, as has already been shown in the Lost Chapter, the latter was peculiarly qualified. He accordingly repaired to Pittsburg, in May, 1809, accompanied by his wife, to whom he. had been but recently married. The only means of conveyance to New Orleans, where his investigations were to terminate, were the keel boats, barges, and flat boats already described. None of those then in use were suited to Mr. Roosevelt’s purpose; and as the accuracy of his examination, rather than the speed of the voyage, was important, he determined to build a flat boat which should contain all necessary comforts for himself and wife, and float with the current of the Ohio and Mississippi from Pittsburg to New Orleans. This he accordingly did; and, with the exception of some three weeks, passed on shore at Louisville, and some nine or ten days in a row boat between Natchez and New Orleans, the flat boat was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt for the next six months. Cincinnati, Louisville and Natchez, were then the only places of even the smallest note between Pittsburg and New Orleans. Furnished with letters of introduction to their leading men, the travellers were kindly received and most hospitably entertained. Mr. Roosevelt’s explanations were listened to respectfully, as he stated his purpose in visiting the West, and narrated what steam had accomplished on the Eastern rivers. But he was evidently regarded as a sanguine enthusiast, engaged in an impracticable undertaking. From no one individual did he receive a word of encouragement. Nor was this incredulity confined to the gentlemen he met in society; it extended to the pilots and boatmen, who, passing their lives on the Ohio and Mississippi, possessed the practical information that he wanted. They heard what he had to say of the experience of Fulton and Livingston, and then pointed to the turbid and whirling waters of the great river as a conclusive answer to all his reasoning. That steam would ever be able to resist them, they could not be made to understand. Nothing, however, shook the confidence of Mr. Roosevelt. He had made up his mind that steam was to do the work of the Western world, and his present visit was but for the purpose of ascertaining. how best the work could be done upon its streams. The Ohio and Mississippi were problems that he had undertaken to study; nor did he leave them until he had mastered them in all their bearings. He guaged them: he measured their velocity at different seasons; he obtained all the statistical information within his reach, and formed a judgment with respect to the future development of the country West of the Alleganies that has since been amply corroborated. Not only did he do this, but finding coal on the banks of the Ohio, he purchased and opened mines of the mineral; and so confident was he of the success of the project on hand, that be caused supplies of the fuel to be heaped upon the shore, in anticipation of the wants of a steamboat whose keel had yet to be laid, and whose very existence was to depend upon the impression that his report might make upon the Capitalists, without whose aid the plan would, for the present at least, have to be abandoned.

Arriving in New York in the middle of January, 1810, Mr. Roosevelt’s report, bearing on, its face evidence of the thoroughness of his examination, impressed Fulton and Livingston with his own convictions; and in the spring of that year be returned to Pittsburg to superintend the building of the first steamboat that was launched on the Western waters.

I am not aware that this preliminary exploration has ever been noticed in any of the published histories of steam navigation. It has seemed to me to be of sufficient importance to have a place in the present communication. It appears to us now, with our present knowledge of the Ohio and Mississippi, to have been a work of supererogation: but with the information then possessed geographically, and, as far as steam was in question, scientifically, it would have been most imprudent to have dispensed with it.

Pittsburg, when Mr. Roosevelt took up his residence there in 1811, had but recently commenced the career which has now entitled it to the name of the Birmingham of America. The main body of the town was built on the right bank of the Monongahela, and extended from the point where the junction with the Allegany takes place, for perhaps three-quarters of a mile up the former stream, to within a short distance of the mouth of a small creek, with low grounds on either side, that here debouched into the river. On the Allegany side, which was liable to overflow, there were but few buildings in 1811. Close by the creek and immediately under a lofty bluff, called Boyd’s hill, was an iron foundry, known as Beelen’s foundry; and in immediate proximity to this was the keel of Mr. Roosevelt’s vessel laid. The future antiquarian may, perhaps, find satisfaction in knowing that the Depot of the Pittsburg and Connellsville Railroad now occupies the ground I am speaking of.

The size and plan of the first steamboat had been determined on in New York, and had been furnished by Mr. Fulton. It was to be 116 feet in length with twenty feet beam. The engine was to have a 34 inch cylinder, and the boiler and other parts of the machine were to be in proportion.

The first thing to be done was to obtain the timber to build the boat; and for this purpose men were sent into the forest, there to find the necessary ribs, and knees, and beams-transport them to the Monongahela, and raft them to the shipyard. White pine was the only material for planking that could be obtained without a delay that was inadmissible. The sawing that was required, was done in the old fashioned and now long forgotten saw pits of 1811. Boat builders, accustomed to construct the barges of that day, could be obtained in. Pittsburg: but a shipbuilder and the mechanics required in the machinery department, had to be brought from New York. Under these circumstances, Mr. Roosevelt began the work. One of the first troubles that annoyed him was a. rise in the Monongahela, when the waters backed into his shipyard and set all his materials, that were buoyant, afloat. This occurred again and again; and oil one occasion it seemed not improbable that the steamboat would be lifted from its ways and launched before its time. With my own recollection of the remnants of the rude shops in which Mr. Roosevelt had the engine built, some four years after they bad been abandoned, the wonder to this day is, how be could have accomplished what he did. At length, however, all difficulties were overcome by steady perseverance, and the boat was launched — and called, from the place of her ultimate destination, the New Orleans. It cost in the neighborhood of $38.000.

As the New Orleans approached completion, and when it came to be known that Mrs. Roosevelt intended to accompany her husband on the voyage, the numerous friends she had made in Pittsburg united in endeavoring to dissuade her from what they regarded as utter folly, if not absolute madness. Her husband was appealed to. The criticisms that had been freely applied to the boat by the crowds of visitors to the shipyard, were now transferred to the conduct of the builder. He was told that he had no right to peril his wife’s life, however reckless be might be of his own. Mrs. Roosevelt, too, expected before long to become a mother; and this was held to enhance the offence which the good people of Pittsburg fancied he was committing. But the wife believed in her husband; and, in the latter part of September, 1811, the New Orleans, after a short experimental trip up the Monongahela, commenced her voyage.

There were two cabins, one aft, for ladies, and, a larger one forward for gentlemen. In the former there were four berths. It was comfortably furnished. Of this, Mrs. Roosevelt took possession. Mr. Roosevelt and herself were the only passengers. There was a captain, an engineer named Baker, Andrew Jack, the pilot, six hands, two female servants, a man waiter, a cook, and an immense Newfoundland doff, named Tiger. Thus equipped, the New Orleans began the voyage which changed the relations of the West,— which may almost be said to have changed its destiny.

The people of Pittsburg turned out in mass and lined the banks of the Monongahela to witness the departure of the Steamboat; and shout after shout rent the air, and handkerchiefs were waived, and hats thrown up by way of “God speed” to the voyagers, as the anchor was raised, and heading up stream for a short distance, a wide circuit brought the New Orleans on her proper course, and, steam and current aiding, she disappeared behind the first headlands on the right bank of the Ohio.

Too much excited to sleep, Mr. Roosevelt and his wife passed the greater part of the first night on deck, and watched the shore, covered then with an almost unbroken forest, as reach after reach, and bend after bend, were passed at a speed of from eight to ten miles an hour. The regular working of the engine, the ample supply of steam, the uniformity of the speed, inspired at last a confidence that quieted the nervous apprehension of the travellers. Mr. Jack, the pilot, delighted with the facility with which the vessel was steered, and at a speed to which he was so little accustomed, ceased to express misgivings and became as sanguine as Mr. Roosevelt himself in regard to the success of the voyage. The very crew of unimaginative men were excited with the novelty of the situation; and when the following morning assembled all hands on deck to return the cheers of a village whose inhabitants had seen the boat approaching down a long reach in the river, and turned out to greet her as she sped by, — it probably shone upon as jolly a set as ever floated on the Ohio.

On the second day after leaving Pittsburg, the New Orleans rounded to opposite Cincinnati, and cast anchor in the stream. Levees and wharf boats were things unknown in 1811. Here, as at Pittsburg, the whole town seemed to have assembled on the bank, and many of the acquaintances of the former visit came off in small boats. “Well, you are as good as your word; you have visited us in a steamboat,” they said; “but we see you for the last time. Your boat may go down the river; but, as to coming up it, the very idea is an absurd one.” This was one of those occasions on which seeing was not believing. The keel boatmen, whose shoulders bad hardened as they pressed their poles for many a weary, mile against the current, shook their beads, as they crowded around the strange visitor, and bandied river wit with the crew that bad been selected from their own calling for the first voyage. Some flatboatmen, whose ungainly arks the steamboat had passed a short distance above the town, and who now floated by with the current, seemed to have a better opinion of the new comer, and proposed a tow in case they were again overtaken. But as to the boat’s returning, all agreed that that could never be.

The stay at Cincinnati was brief, only long enough to take in a supply of wood for the voyage to Louisville, which was reached on the night of the fourth day after leaving Pittsburg. It was midnight on the first of October, 1811, that the New Orleans dropped anchor opposite the town. There was a brilliant moon: It was as light as day almost, and no one on board had retired. The roar of the escaping steam, then heard for the first time at the place where, now, its echoes are unceasing, roused the population, and, late as it was crowds came rushing to the bank of the river to learn the cause of the unwonted uproar. A letter now before me, written by one of those on board, at the time, records the fact — that there were those who insisted that the comet of 1811 had fallen into the Ohio and had produced the hubbub!

The morning after the arrival of the vessel at Louisville, Mr. Roosevelt’s acquaintances and others came on board, and here the same things were said that bad been said at Cincinnati Congratulations at having descended the river were without exception, accompanied by regrets that it was the first and last time a steamboat would be seen above the falls of the Ohio. Still, so far, certainly, Mr. Roosevelt’s promises bad been fulfilled; and there was a public dinner given to him a few days after his arrival. Here any number of complimentary toasts were drunk, and the usual amount of good feeling on such occasions was manifested. Sed revocare gradum, however, was still the burden of the song.

Not to be outdone in hospitality, Mr. Roosevelt invited his hosts to dine on board the New Orleans, which still lay anchored opposite the town. The company met in the forward or gentlemen’s cabin, and the feast was at its height, when suddenly there were heard unwonted rumblings, accompanied by a very perceptible motion in the vessel. The company had but one idea. The New Orleans had escaped from her anchor, and was drifting towards the Falls, to the certain destruction of all on board. There was an instant and simultaneous rush to the upper dock, when the company found, that, instead of drifting towards the Falls of the Ohio, the New Orleans was making good headway up the river and would soon leave Louisville in the distance down stream. As the engine warmed to its work, and the steam blew off at the safety valve, the speed increased. Mr. Roosevelt, of course, had provided this mode Of convincing his incredulous guests, and their surprise and delight may readily be imagined. After going up the river for a few miles, the Now Orleans returned to her anchorage.

It had been intended, on leaving Pittsburg, to proceed as rapidly as possible to New Orleans, to place the boat on the route for which it was designed, between that city and Natchez. It was found, however, on reaching Louisville, that there was not a sufficient depth of water on the Falls of the Ohio to permit the vessel to pass over them in safety. Nothing was to be done, therefore, but to wait, as patiently as possible, for a rise in the river. That this delay might, as far as practicable, be utilized, to the extent, at least, of convincing the incredulous Cincinnatians, the New Orleans returned to that city, where she was greeted with an enthusiasm that exceeded, even, what was displayed on her descent from Pittsburg. No one doubted now. In 1832, 1 was detained for several days in Cincinnati, on my return from a visit to the South. There were numbers, then alive, who remembered the first advent of steam, and from some of these I learned what is here stated in regard to the public feeling at the time — the universal incredulity of the first visit — the unbounded confidence inspired by the second.

Returning to Louisville, the great interest of all on board the New Orleans centred in watching the rise in the Ohio. Rain in the upper country was what was wanted, and of this there seemed small promise. There was nothing in the aspect of the Heavens that indicated it. On the contrary, there was a dull misty sky without a cloud — a leaden atmosphere that weighed upon the spirits, and the meaning of which would have been better understood at Naples under the shadow of Vesuvius, than on the banks of the Ohio. The sun, when it rose, looked like a globe of red hot iron whose color brightened at noon, to resume the same look when it sank below the horizon. All day long, one might have (razed on it with unflinching eyes. The air was still and heated; and a sense of weariness was the characteristic of the hours as they wore slowly by. At last, and when a nervous impatience affected every one on board, it was announced, one morning, that there had been a rise in the river during the night. There was another announcement of a very different character. Mrs. Roosevelt had, for the second time, become a mother. The events of the voyage were certainly multiplying. Fortunately, this addition to the passengers happened when the New Orleans was necessarily detained in port. Morning after morning, the rise in the river during the night was reported; and finally, in the last week in November, it was ascertained that the depth of water in the shallowest portion of the Falls, exceeded by five inches the draught, of the boat. It was a narrow margin. But the rise had ceased: there was no telegraph in those days to tell hourly what was the weather in the country drained by the Ohio; and Mr. Roosevelt, assuring himself personally of the condition of the Falls, determined to take the responsibility and go over them if be could. It was an anxious time. All bands were on deck. Mrs. Roosevelt, whom her husband would willingly have left behind to join him below the Falls, refused to remain on shore, and stood near the stern. The two pilots, for an extra one had been engaged for the passage through the rapids, took their places in the bow. The anchor was weighed. To get into the Indiana channel, which was the best, a wide circuit had to be made bringing her head down stream, completing which, the New Orleans began the descent; Steerage way depended. upon her speed exceeding that of the current. The faster she could be made to go, the easier would it be to guide her. All the steam the boiler would bear was put upon her. The safety valve shrieked: The wheels revolved faster than they had ever done before; and the vessel, speaking figuratively, fairly flew away from the crowds collected to witness her departure from Louisville. Instinctively, each one on board now grasped the nearest object, and with bated breath awaited the result. Black ledges of rock appeared only to disappear as the New Orleans flashed’ by them’. The waters whirled and eddied, and threw their spray upon the deck, as a more rapid descent caused the vessel to pitch forward to what at times seemed inevitable destruction. Not a word was spoken. The pilots directed the men at the helm by motions of their bands. Even the great Newfoundland dog seemed affected by the apprehension of danger, and came and crouched at Mrs. Roosevelt’s feet. The tension on the nervous system was too great to be long sustained. Fortunately, the passage was soon made; and, with feelings of profound gratitude to the Almighty, at the successful issue of the adventure, on the part of both Mr. Roosevelt and his wife, the New Orleans rounded to in safety below the Falls. There was still the same leaden sky — the same dim sun during the day — the same starless night; — but the great difficulty had been overcome, and it was believed that there would now, be nothing but plain sailing to the port of destination. It wits yet to be seen how far the expectations of those on board, in this respect, would be realized.

Hitherto, the voyage had been one of pleasure. Nothing had marred the enjoyment of the travellers. The receptions at Louisville and Cincinnati had, been great events. But, now, were to come, to use the words of the letter already referred to, “those days of horror.” The comet of 1811, had disappeared, and was followed by the earthquake of that year, of which the atmospheric phenomena just mentioned were the prognostics; and the earthquake accompanied the New Orleans far on her way down the Mississippi.

The first shock that was observed was felt on board the New Orleans while she lay at anchor after passing the Falls. The effect was as though the vessel bad been in motion and bad suddenly grounded. The cable shook and trembled, and many on board experienced for the moment a naus ea resembling sea sickness. It was a little while before they could realize the presence of the dread visitor. It was wholly unexpected. The shocks succeeded each other during the night. When morning came, the voyage was resumed; and, while under way, the jar of the machinery, the monotonous beating of the wheels and the steady progress of the vessel, prevented the disturbance from being noticed.

It has already been mentioned, that, in his voyage of exploration, Mr. Roosevelt had found coal on the Ohio, and that be had caused mines to be opened in anticipation. Their value was now realized; and, when. he reached them on his way down the river, lie took on board as much coal as lie could find room for.

Some miles above the mouth of the Ohio, the diminished speed of the current indicated a rise in the Mississippi. This was found to be the case. The bottom lands on either shore were under .water, and there was every sign of an unwonted flood. Canoes came and went among the boles of the trees. Sometimes, the Indians attempted to approach the steamboat; and, again, fled on its approach. The Chickasaws still occupied that part of the State of Tennessee lying below the mouth of the Ohio. On one occasion, a large canoe, fully manned, came out of the woods abreast of the steamboat. The Indians, outnumbering the crew of the vessel, paddled after it. There was at once a race, and for a time the contest was equal. The result, however, was what might have been anticipated. Steam had the advantage of endurance; and the Indians with wild shouts, which might have been shouts of defiance, gave up the pursuit, and turned into the forest from whence they had emerged.

While the crew of the New Orleans were more amused than alarmed at this incident of the voyage, Mr. Roosevelt, who had not forgotten the visit to the flatboat on the preliminary exploration, was not sorry, now, when he lost sight of the canoe. That be bestowed a second thought upon the matter, illustrates the nervous excitement that prevailed on board. Mrs. Roosevelt and himself were still discussing the adventure when they retired to rest. They had scarcely fallen asleep, when they were aroused by shouts on deck, and the trampling of many feet. With the idea of Indians still predominant, Air. Roosevelt sprang from his bed, and seizing a sword — the only weapon at hand — hurried from the cabin to join battle, as lie thought with the Chickasaw. It was a more alarming enemy that he encountered. The New Orleans was on fire; and flame and smoke issued from. the forward cabin. The servant who attended there, had placed some green wood too close to the stove in anticipation of the next day’s wants; and, lying down beside it, had fallen sound asleep. The stove becoming over heated, this wood had taken fire; the joiners work close by had caught, and the entire cabin would soon have been in flames, had not the servant, half suffocated, rushed on deck and given the alarm. By dint of great exertion, the fire, which, by this time, was making rapid headway, was extinguished; but not until the interior wood work had been either destroyed, or grievously defaced. Few eyes were closed for the remainder of the night; nor did the accident tend to tranquilize the nerves of the travellers.

A supply of provisions had been taken on board the New Orleans, at Louisville, amply sufficient for the voyage to Natchez, and this was occasionally supplemented by purchases at settlements along the river. These, however, were few and far between, and not at all to be relied on. The crew, accustomed to the simple fare of boatmen on the Mississippi, were. easily provided for. The commissariat of the voyage, therefore, — longer than a voyage to Europe now, — gave no trouble.

Early in the afternoon of each day, the steamer was rounded to, and fastened to, the bank, the crew going ashore to cut the wood required, after the coal was exhausted, for the next’ day’s consumption. On some of these occasions, squatters came on board with tales of their experience upon the land, which they insisted shook and trembled under their feet. At New Madrid, a great portion of which had been engulphed, as the earth opened in vast chasms and swallowed up houses and their inhabitants, terror stricken people bad begged to be taken on board, while others dreading the steamboat, even more than the earthquake, hid themselves as she approached. To receive the former was impossible. The would be refugees had no homes to go to; and ample as was the supply of provisions for Mr. Roosevelt and his wife, it would have been altogether insufficient for any large increase of passengers: and as to obtaining provisions on the way, the New Orleans might as well have been upon the open sea. Painful as it was, there was no choice but to turn a deaf ear to the cries of the terrified inhabitants of the doomed town.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the voyage was the silence that prevailed on board. No one seemed disposed to talk; and when there was any conversation, it was carried on in whispers, almost. Tiger, who appeared, alone, to be aware of the earthquake while the vessel was in motion, prowled about, moaning and growling; and when he came and placed his head on Mrs. Roosevelt’s lap, it was a sure sign of a commotion of more than usual violence. Orders were given in low tones; and the usual cheerful “aye, aye, sir,” of the sailors, was almost inaudible. Sleeplessness was another characteristic. Sound, continuous sleep, was apparently unknown. Going ashore for wood was the event of each twenty-four hours, and was looked forward to by the crew with satisfaction, notwithstanding the labor that it involved. And yet the men, if not sullenly, toiled silently; and if the earth shook, as it often did, while they were at work, the uplifted axe was suspended, or placed quietly on the log, and the men stared at each other until it ceased. Nor was this depression confined to the steamer. Flat boats and barges were passed, whose crews instead of bandying river wit, as they had done when met on the voyage from Pittsburg to Louisville, — uttered no word as the New Orleans went by. Before the travellers had been. many days on the Mississippi, they fancied, as they looked at each other, that they had become haggard. Mrs. Roosevelt records “that she lived in a constant fright, unable to sleep or sew, or read.”

Sometimes, Indians would join the wood choppers; and occasionally one would be able to converse in English with the men. From these it was learned that the steamboat was called the “Penelore,” or “fire Canoe,” and was supposed to have some affinity with the Comet that bad preceded the earthquake, — the sparks from the chimney of the boat being likened to the train of the celestial visitant. Again, they would attribute the smoky atmosphere to the steamer, and the rumbling of the earth to the beating of the waters by the fast revolving paddles. To the native inhabitants of the boundless forest that lined the river banks, the coming of the first steamboat was an omen of evil; and as it was the precursor of their own expulsion from their ancient homes, no wonder they continued, for years, to regard all steamboats with awe. As late as 1834, when the emigration of the Chickasaws to their new homes, west of the river, took place, hundreds refused to trust themselves in such conveyances, but preferred making their long and weary pilgrimage on foot.

One of the most uncomfortable incidents of the voyage was the confusion of the pilot, who became alarmed, and declared that be was lost; so great had been the changes in the channel caused by the earthquake. Where he had expected to find deep water, roots and stumps projected above the surface. Tall trees that had been guides had disappeared. Islands had changed their shapes. Cut-offs had been made through what was forest land when he saw it last. Still, there was no choice but to keep on., There was no place to stop at. There was no possibility of turning back.

In the first part of the voyage when the steamboat rounded to at night, she was made fast to the river bank: but when it was seen, that trees would, occasionally topple and fall over, as the ground beneath them was shaken or gave way, it was thought safer to stop at, the foot of an island, which might serve as a break water, taking care the trees were far enough from the boat to obviate apprehension from them. Once, however, when such a fastening had been made and a plank carried ashore, and the wood chopping had been finished at an earlier hour than usual, a new experience was bad. No shock bad been felt during the day, and Mrs. Roosevelt anticipated a quiet rest. In this, however, she was disappointed. All night long she was disturbed by the jar and noise produced by hard objects grating against the planking outside the boat. At times severe blows were struck that caused the vessel to tremble through its entire length. Then there would follow a continuous scratching mingled with the gurgling sound of water. Drift wood had caused sounds of the same sort before, and it was thought that drift wood was again busy in producing them. With morning, however, came the true explanation. The island had disappeared; and it was the disintegrated fragments sweeping down the river, that had struck the vessel from time to time and caused the noises that Mrs. Roosevelt bad been disturbed by. At first, it was supposed, that the New Orleans bad been borne along by the current: but the pilot pointed to land marks on the banks which proved that it was the island that had disappeared while the, steamboat had kept its place. Where the island had been, there was now a broad reach of the river; and when the hawser was cut, for it was found impossible otherwise to free the vessel, the pilot was utterly at a, loss which way to steer. Some flat boats were hailed, but they too were lost. Their main effort was, by dint of their long oars to keep where the current was the strongest. This was, evidently, the best plan for the New Orleans. It was not without its peculiar risks, however. In the bends, where the rushing waters struck the shore, to whirl around the curve, and glance off to form a bend in an opposite direction, the deepest water was immediately under the bank; and here the trees, undermined by the current, would be seen at times, to sink into the stream, often erect until the waters covered their topmost twigs sometimes, falling against each other, interlacing their great arms, as strong men might do, struggling for life when drowning sometimes, they fell outward into the water; and, then, woe to the vessel that happened to be near them in the bend. This danger, however, steam enabled the New Orleans to avoid. Referring to it all, it is not wonderful that the survivor of the voyage still speaks of it as “one of anxiety and terror.”

As the New Orleans descended the river it passed out of the region of the earthquake, and the principal inconvenience was the number of shoals and snags, and sawyers. These were all safely passed however, and, the vessel came in sight of Natchez, and rounded to opposite the landing place. Expecting to remain here for a day or two, the engineer had allowed his fires to go down, so that when the boat turned its head up stream, it lost headway altogether, and was being carried down by the current far below the intended landing. Thousands were assembled on the bluff and at the foot of it; and for a moment it would have seemed that the New Orleans bad achieved what she bad done, so far, only that she might be overcome at last. Fresh fuel however was added, — the engine was stopped that steam might accumulate, presently the safety valve lifted — a few turns of the wheels steadied the boat, — a few more gave her headway; and, overcoming even the Mississippi, she gained the shore amid shouts of exultation and applause.

The romance of the voyage ended at Natchez, where the same hospitalities were extended to Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt, that had been enjoyed at Louisville. From thence to New Orleans, there was no occurrence worthy of note. The Vesuvius and the Etna followed the New Orleans, and they in their turn were followed by others, and again by others, until now, the traveller on the Mississippi is never, or, rarely, If ever, out of sight of the white and feathery plumes that accompany the boats of the Western waters as their high pressure engines urge them on their way.

And this is the story of the “First Voyage of the First Steamboat on the Western waters” — another link in the chain that should have connected the name of Roosevelt with the names of Fulton and Livingston among the benefactors of mankind.


  1. Six months. The following reference to the voyage of exploration contained in a recent letter from Mrs. Roosevelt to the writer, may not be uninteresting:
          “The journey in the flat boat commenced at Pittsburg, where Air. Roosevelt had it built; a huge box containing a comfortable bed room, dining room, pantry, and a room in front for the crew, with a fire-place where the cooking was done. The top of the boat was flat, with seats and an awning. We bad on board a pilot, three bands and a man cook. We always stopped at night lashing the boat to the shore, The row boat was a large one, in which Mr. Roosevelt went out constantly with two or three of the men to ascertain the rapidity of the ripples or current. It was in this row boat we went from Natchez to New Orleans with the same crew.”
        “We reached New Orleans about the 1st December, 1809, and took passage for New York in the first vessel we found ready to sail. We had a terrible voyage of a month, with a sick captain. The yellow fever was on board. A passenger, a nephew of General Wilkinson, died with it. Mr. Roosevelt and myself were taken off the ship by a pilot boat and landed at Old Point Comfort. From thence we went to New York by stage, reaching there the middle of January, 1810, after an absence of nine months.
         “Once, while in the flat boat, on the Mississippi, Mr. Roosevelt was aroused in the night by seeing two Indians in our sleeping room, calling for whiskey, when Mr. Roosevelt had to get up and give it to them before be could induce them to leave the boat.” — Author’s quote.
  2. Dispensed with it. The exploring voyage proper ended with the arrival of the flat boat at Natchez, but Mrs. Roosevelt's account of the subsequent boat voyage to New Orleans is, perhaps, worth adding, if only for the sake of the comparison that it suggests:
         “By placing,” says Mrs. Roosevelt, “a large travelling trunk between the stern of the boat and the first seat, it made a level place on which we could spread a Buffalo robe to sleep on. Our pilot, who had lived all his life as a boatman on these waters, assured us that there would be no difficulty in finding lodgings for the few nights we should be out. But it appeared that the inhabitants on the river had been so often imposed upon by travellers whom they had received into their houses, that they refused all applications. A pouring rain came up one evening and we tried to reach Baton Rouge, which we did at nine at night. It was it miserable place at that time, with one wretched public house; yet we felt thankful that we bad found a shelter from the storm. But when I was shewn into our sleeping room, I wished myself on board the boat. It was a forlorn little place opening on, of the bar room, which was filled with tipsy men looking like cutthroats. The room bad one window opening into a stable yard, but which had neither shutters nor fastenings. Its furniture was a single chair and a dirty bed. We threw our cloaks on the bed and laid down to rest, but not to sleep, for the fighting and the noise in the bar room prevented that. We rose at the dawn of day and reached the boat, feeling thankful we bad not been murdered in the night. It is many, many years ago: but I can still recall that night of fright. Our second night on shore was passed with an old French couple who allowed us to spread our Buffalo skins on the floor before a fine large fire, where we felt safe, though disturbed once or twice during the night by the old people coming into the room we occupied, and kneeling before a crucifix which stood upon a shelf. They were Roman Catholics.
         “The time actually occupied by the voyage from Natchez to New Orleans in the row boat was nine days. Two of these nights were passed, as above described, under it roof; four in the boat, partly drawn out of the water, and hearing the alligators scratch on the sides, taking it for a log; when a knock with a cane would alarm them, and they would splash down. into the water: the remaining three nights were passed on a buffalo robe on the sand beach, fancying, every moment, that something terrible might happen before morning.” — Author’s quote.
  3. Sed revocare gradum. But to retrace their steps. — Latin.
  4. Down the Mississippi. In the language of a very intelligent traveller of those days: “Many things conspired to make the year 1811, the annus mirabilis [wondrous year] of the West. During the earlier months, the waters of many of the great rivers overflowed their banks to a vast extent, and the whole country was in many parts covered from bluff to bluff. Unprecedented sickness followed. A spirit of change and recklessness seemed to pervade the very inhabitants of the forest. A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being, left their reckless and gambolling life, and their ancient places of retreat in the North, and were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and solid phalanx to the South. No obstacles seemed to check their extraordinary and concerted movement. The word had been given them to go forth and they obeyed it, though multitudes perished in the broad Ohio which lay in their path. The splendid comet of that yearlong continued to shed its twilight over the forests, and as the autumn drew to a close, the whole valley of the Mississippi, from the Missouri to the Gulf, wits shaken to its centre by continued earthquakes.” — C. J. Latrobe’s Rambler in North America. — Author’s note.
  5. New Orleans. Although forming no part of the story of the voyage proper, yet, as this has been called a Romance, and all romances end, or should end ill a marriage, the incident was not wanting here: for the Captain of the boat, falling in love with Mrs. Roosevelt’s maid, prosecuted his suit so successfully as to find himself an accepted lover when the New Orleans reached Natchez; find a clergyman being sent for, a wedding marked the arrival of the boat at the chief city of the Mississippi. — Author’s note.

Text prepared by:


Latrobe, John H. B. The First Steamboat Voyage on the Western Waters. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1871. Fund Publication, No. 6. Internet Archive. 17 Feb. 2006. Web. 26 Nov. 2016. <https:// archive.org/ details/ firststeamboat v00latrgoog>.

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