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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Flatboats Brought Early Settlers Down River To Ohio Valley

Dallas Bogan on 26 July 2004
Dallas Bogan, Warren County, Ohio and Beyond (Bowie Maryland: Heritage Press, 1979) page 162
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

The closing of the French and Indian War can be said to perhaps have triggered the migration to the West. At this time the English took permanent possession of the Ohio valley. Traders and private individuals were preparing to invade the lands along the Ohio with purpose to trade with the Indians. George Crogan, an early explorer of the Ohio country, was permitted to negotiate with the Indians. The Illinois country was considered the most profitable trade territory. Fort Pitt, which was positioned at the headwaters of the Ohio, was in a fine situation to prosper as a boat-building center.
Boat building was set up as early as 1765 at Pittsburgh. Materials were hauled in by way of Philadelphia in wagons and by packhorses, timber being excluded. The firm of Baynton, Wharton, and Morgan employed six hundred wagons for this excursion.
The Treaty of Fort Stanwix, in 1768, opened up an entirely new era in river transportation. The spring and summer of 1770 saw a great tide of river travelers. From 1768 through 1770, an aggregate count of river passengers was between four and five thousand settlers. The greatest interest for the settlers in the new territory was to begin a new life with more favorable living conditions. The lands on the upper Ohio were not best suited for these conditions, so their course was turned toward Kentucky.
With the arrival of the new adventurers at Pittsburgh, a craft that would accommodate the pioneers and allow for the proper transportation down the Ohio was needed. Advertising for sale "boats of every dimension," was the occasion at Elizabeth, Pennsylvania.
The evolution of the flatboat was at first canoes, pirogues and rafts. The original flatboats were at first only from four to six feet in width, but soon were made much larger. The construction was of green oak plank. No nails or iron was used in building them. Wooden pins to still heavier frames of timber fastened the heavy oak planks. The seams were at first closed with pitch or tar, but this being very expensive, tow or some other pliant substance was afterward used in caulking. Because of its construction, descending the river was the only practical way of navigating.
There is a record of a semi-mechanical boat that was built at Fort Pitt in 1761 by William Ramsey. This apparatus consisted of two small boats joined together by a swivel in such a way as to make one. The boat was propelled by wheels attached to a treadle that was moved by the feet of the operator. As impractical as this boat was, it could turn in a shorter space than could smaller boats and that it could rise over falls with great safety.
Flatboats in this period of time were of different varieties, they being named ark, barge, broadhorn, Kentucky boat, and New Orleans boat. These craft were useful in their own way, but the standard flatboat had preference over the others because of its size and practicality. These rectangular shaped craft had generally boarded up sides from two to three feet high. The width and length had no standard size. The family generally set size preference. The lesser sort had no covering, but was provided with a shed in the rear for horses and cattle, and a cabin forward for the use of the owner and his family.
The craft that was used for shorter trips were called Kentucky boats or broadhorns. The boats that were used for longer trips were called New Orleans boats and were covered throughout their entire length. The propelling of these boats was a task in itself. All flatboats were propelled by "sweeps" which were mounted on the sides. They also consisted of a rudder and a short oar in front known as the "gouger." A "hawser" was a strong rope, which was mounted to a reel on board that, could be attached to a tree stump on shore, which in turn allowed the boat to be wound ashore. The flatboat was designated as "the boat that never came back." It was broken up at the end of its journey and the lumber used for building houses, furniture, etc.
The first parties to reach Columbia (now a part of Cincinnati) used the planks for construction of sheds and camps, this being the only form of habitable quarters erected at the close of the year 1788. By the close of February 1789, four cabins had been erected at Cincinnati, and ten or twelve camps or shanties had been built with the materials from the flatboats.
A lady told of her first residence at Cincinnati that was a log cabin. The furniture consisted of one bedstead, one table, one chair and several wooden stools. The flooring was of boat plank, which was better than that of most of her neighbors, who had for floors logs split in two, and laid flat side uppermost. General Josiah Harmar had noticed the large number of flatboats descending the Ohio and ordered the officer of the day to take an account of the number of boats that passed the garrison. From the tenth of October 1786, until the 12th of May 1787, 127 boats, 2,689 souls, 1,333 horses, 756 cattle and 102 wagons passed Muskingum bound for Limestone (Maysville, Ky.), and the Rapids (Louisville, Ky.). An average of 3000 flatboats descended the Ohio River every year between 1810 and 1820.
At Limestone the boats became so numerous that they frequently were set adrift in order to make room for others. General Harmar noted that he had purchased at Limestone from 40 to 50 flatboats at the moderate price of from $1 to $2 each, to be used in the construction of Fort Washington at Cincinnati.
In the winter of 1799, David Lowry loaded a flatboat at Dayton with grains, pelts and five hundred venison hams. The trip proceeded down the Great Miami in the spring. With the raising of the waters at this time of year, a two-month trip to New Orleans was accomplished. Lowry's cargo was sold, along with his boat, and he returned by horseback. This was the first recorded trip from Dayton thru Franklin to New Orleans.
Warren Countians were instrumental in building flatboats. These boats were made as cheaply as possible. John N.C. Schenck, of Franklin, in 1812, moved his trading post and home to the north of the bridge where a pier was erected at the rear of the building to the river's edge so flatboats could dock. Free rooms and plenty of food were available for travelers. Schenck retired a wealthy man after 35 years with his store.
William Paxton, a miller on the Little Miami, employed William Crosson, an early citizen of Harlan Township, to travel on a flatboat to New Orleans. In 1818, Crosson loaded a flatboat at Stubbs Mill with produce and went with it to New Orleans. He disposed of his cargo and walked home, making the journey from New Orleans to Cincinnati in twenty-one days. Crosson engaged in this vocation for several years afterward.
In Dayton, on March 26 and 27th, 1825, a fleet of thirty or more boats was waiting for the river to rise because of a rain that had occurred a few days before. The people of Dayton were anxiously awaiting, shouting and hurrahing the gentle rise of the river. On the 26th, Saturday, many wagons were nervously being unloaded to the waiting boats. Flour, pork, whiskey, etc., was being loaded for the eventual trip to New Orleans. An estimate of the worth of the goods was set at approximately $100,000. On Sunday, the 27th, the water slowly began to fall and the boats got underway. Most of them finished their journey.

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