One of my favorites of the minor characters in His Promise True was Kirby, the loud-mouthed keelboat sailor. Since part of the point of the book was to portray the different types of people in the early American frontier, I certainly wanted to include the keelboatmen, a unique group who were legendary at one time but now are all but forgotten.
Recently, I was reading Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, and one of his early chapters was an excerpt from “a book which I have been working at, by fits and starts, during the past five or six years, and may possibly finish in the course of five or six more” (the book is Huckleberry Finn). In the excerpt, Huck sneaks onto a keelboat and overhears some pretty hilarious conversation among the men on the boat, including a couple of ghost stories and this passage:
“Whoo-oop! I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw! Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Destruction! Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the smallpox on the mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing. I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak! Whoo-oop! Stand back and give me room according to my strength! Blood’s my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music to my ear. Cast your eye on me, gentlemen! and law low and hold your breath, for I’m ’bout to turn myself loose!”
That passage, written forty or so years after the end of the keelboat era, perfectly captures the essence of the keeler folklore – the bawdy, colorful talk of a tough, hard-working, harder-playing group of men. Earlier than Twain’s story, people were well-acquainted with the keeler legends through stories about Mike Fink, the keelboat captain. Fink, like Davy Crockett, was a real person who became a folk celebrity during his own lifetime. Fink was known as the “king of the keelboatmen,” an embodiment of the rowdy Western frontiersman in popular literature from 1829 through the Civil War (Brittanica). When steamboats began to draw business away from the keelboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Fink moved on to the next frontier – the Western fur trade, where he died in a quarrel around 1823. The Legends of America website says Fink’s death was the eventual outcome of his killing a friend in an “accidental” shooting – with an accident unlikely, since Fink was known to be a crack shot.
Although Mike Fink was the name and face of the keelboat men in American legend, there was a basis in truth for the exaggerations of the legend. As Baldwin notes in his book The Keelboat Age on Western Waters, ” keelboatmen were recruited from the wildest and toughest men on the frontier, at first largely Indian fighters. They were usually tall, gaunt, and big boned, like the western type, and walked with a long stride. More daring and restless than the Creole boatmen, they were also more vicious and bellicose” (p. 87). The celebrated verbal jousting that Twain portrayed was a particular point of pride for the keelboatmen; as Baldwin notes, “blackguarding was the boatman’s lighter relaxation…The Westerner of that day, however much one may deplore his lack of culture and cosmopolitan interests, yet was possessed of a vocabulary and a celerity of wit eminently suited to these tilts” (p. 96). The verbal battles would continue until one of the combatants was silenced, with the winner a hero and the loser “the butt of his comrades’ jokes” (Baldwin, p. 96). Often, these tirades were the opening challenge to a physical fight, especially in the towns where the keelboats stopped and the crews would take advantage of the opportunity for unsupervised revelry and drinking. “These challenges,” Baldwin states, “are, in retrospect, one of the ludicrous features of frontier life, thought they were probably not so funny to the law-abiding citizen who had to listen to a ‘half-horse, half-alligator’ boatman telling the world how good he was” (p. 100).
In an earlier post, I wrote about the methods used to move a keelboat, and I ended with the line, “Maybe because the work was so hard, keelboats seemed to attract a special kind of personality as crew members.” Certainly, a man had to be tough to serve on a keelboat. The work was physically demanding. The diet was “of the coarsest and plainest, based on the usual western staples of corn, potatoes, hardtack, and meat. The cooking was a matter of indifference” (Baldwin, p. 87). Whiskey or river water were the only means for slacking thirst. Their main source of entertainment along the river was the fiddler who “kept our own crew in good humor, and hailed every boat we passed with some stroke of pleasantry” (Baldwin, p. 91). Add to these primitive conditions the fact that these men were working in prime areas for malaria, with no systems in place for caring for sick sailors. As one eyewitness quoted by Baldwin said, “It is really pitiable to see such numbers of distressed objects, as sometimes present themselves to view, in the sickly months, who have been left to shift for themselves, after their employers have made their markets” (p. 89). As Baldwin noted, usually “the sick lay in their ships or boats or in wretched cabins, in which they died miserably” (p. 89). All this might net the keeler a wage of $25-$40 per month in 1810 (Baldwin, p. 88), most of which he probably lost by drinking, gambling, or general carousing in places like the famous Natchez-Under-the-Hill.
The golden age of the keelboat lasted only about fifty years, from the 1780s until the 1830s, when steamboats began to be the vessel of choice for hauling both passengers and freight. As Baldwin said, by 1825, “the supremacy of the steamboat was assured,” and “the color and romance [of the keelboats] were gone” (p. 194), along with an early, legendary American hero, the keelboatman.
Baldwin, L.D. (1941). The Keelboat Age on Western Waters. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Chittenden, H.M. (2003). The Treachery of Mike Fink. Legends of America. Retrieved from http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-mikefink.html
Encyclopedia Brittanica. (2016). Mike Fink: American Frontiersman. Encyclopedia Brittanica [online]. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/biography/Mike-Fink.
Pennsylvania Jack (n.d.) Mike Fink – King of the Rivers. Retrieved from http://www.pajack.com/stories/pennsylvania/mikefink.html
Twain, M. (2000). Life on the Mississippi (Dover Thrift Editions). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.