LINCOLN IN NEW ORLEANS: The 1828-1831 Flatboat Voyages and Their Place in History


LINCOLN IN NEW ORLEANS: The 1828-1831 Flatboat Voyages and Their Place in History, Richard Campanella, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2010, 381 pps.  BOOK NOTES by Bill Norris    1/1/11

 Allen Gentry and Abraham Lincoln poled out of Rockport, Indiana into the Ohio River on Friday or Saturday, April 18 or 19 of 1828 for the purpose of delivering a cargo to the New Orleans market. The flatboat, made of course cut timbers, measured about 15′ by 40′ had a flat bottom and canopy or roof over whole or part for protection of the crew and cargo. These boats were navigated by long paddles on each side often called “broad horns.” Owned by Gentry’s father, it carried a cargo of “barrel pork” often used to feed slaves. They planned to drift in the currents by day and tie up at night to get a early start before daylight the next day. Spring was the prime floating time for flatboats with the snow melt and spring rains raising the river waters and increasing the current flow. Their boat moved at about 5.5 miles per hour.

Appreciating this book best begins by reading Appendix A – Western River Commerce in the Early 1800’s and Appendix B – New Orleans in the 1820’s and 1830’s where Campanella presents an overview of those two dimensions of the culture that affected life in New Orleans. With the settings described the reader can better understand the account of Lincoln’s entrepreneurial voyages of 1828 and 1831. I have taken the liberty of rearranging it here. BN

RIVER COMMERCE – Campanella describes the types of commercial boats on the River in that period, specifically the raft, flatboat, keelboat and the steamboat. The raft was the earliest and cheapest, made of logs cobbled together to float on the surface became more sophisticated by 1780’s as carpentry evolved. The flatboat that evolved could be up to 20′ wide by 40′ to 80′ long with raised sides and a roof over the deck, manhandled with long paddles as it drifted in the current. The keelboat, used for other purposes, could be 15′ wide by 40′ long in the shape of a canoe with a center board made of a large beam forming a keel in the center at the bottom of the hull. It, too, would have a cover over the deck. Carrying 30 tons originally, they grew to ten times that in later versions. The keelboat was favored for a return trip up river, being pushed, paddled, and pulled upriver against the current with an occasional wind being caught by a single sail to help. New Orleans to St. Louis could take three months. Flatboats outnumbered keel boats by twenty-to-one. During Lincoln’s voyages, over one-thousand flatboats registered in New Orleans.

Then came steam. As early as 1786 John Fitch propelled a large skiff with steam on the Delaware River. Robert Fulton brought design skills in both the U.S. and France to improve boats and engines. Teaming up with Robert Livingston they were joined by Nicholas Roosevelt as investor in building the New Orleans in Pittsburgh to serve in a monopoly for transportation in the Louisiana section of the Mississippi River. The maiden voyage to New Orleans in 1811 was legendary. The New Orleans served for three years before a snag pierced its hull and it sank. By then it had proven its technology. Keelboats died with the advent of steamboats, but flatboats continued in use until the 1880’s though reduced in numbers.

Loads often included pork, flour, whiskey, tobacco, bagging and bale rope. Tennesseans carried cotton. Foodstuffs included corn, apples, cider, dried fruit, lard, beef, venison and whiskey. Others transported steers, chickens, turkeys cows and horses. Some provided shops for extended stays in river towns with tinners, blacksmiths, toolmakers and dry-goods stores. Thieves and bandits preyed at night on boats tied up on the shore.

NEW ORLEANS IN 1820s–1830s – New Orleans was characterized by opportunity in the early 19th Century. Etienne de Bore’ with his process for granulating sugar, Eli Whitney with his cotton gin and Fulton’s steamboat combined to create a mega trend for opportunity at the lower end of the Mississippi River. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase followed in 1812 by statehood created a fertile environment for prosperity. A fortune could be created rapidly with certainty in the river city. Banks swarmed to the city. The creole populous of French, Spanish, and Germans were split between Catholics, Protestants and Jews with Catholics predominating. The financial heyday demanded a continual flow of slaves with auction houses selling them for an average of $500 each from pens above Canal St. and below Esplanade Ave. The largest population of free people of color in America resided in the city, often wealthy and slave owners. In the 1830’s railroads arrived with the Ponchartrain Railroad pulled by horses out Elysian Fields from the river to the lake followed by the New Orleans to Carrollton line that still runs on St. Charles Ave. Faubergs, or suburbs, grew above and below the old, creole French Quarter. The city teeming with energy was a magnet to thousands wanting a part of the American dream.

LINCOLN’S 1828 VOYAGE – Allen Gentry’s father hired Abe Lincoln to assist his son in getting the flatboat to New Orleans. Their cargo is best believed to have been “barrel pork” a product widely used to feed slaves. At the spring flow rate they drifted at about 5.5 miles an hour, very likely tying up at night for rest and to avoid night time hazards. Neither man left a journal of the voyage. Describing the trip requires reasoning from sources, including Lincoln’s own comments in later years, and studying similar experiences. Their trip took them down the Ohio River to its confluence with the Mississippi, then down river past numerous historic river towns. Memphis, Walnut Hills (Vicksburg), Rodney, Natchez, Fort Adams, Bayou Sara (St. Francisville), Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville, and Convent. The sugar plantations above New Orleans would have provided sights and stops. Abe was in the heart of the southern slave society based on cotton and sugar cane. Often boatmen marketed their wares to the plantations as they passed. Many other flatboats were working their ways down the river at the same time. Some provided special services to the river men such as banking, food, entertainers, innkeepers, and prostitutes. Tying up a night, often with groups of other boats for security, afforded them occasions for interaction with other flatboat river men. On shore were a veritable industry of vice on the riverside of sandbars with taverns, dance halls, grog shops, boarding houses and brothels, catering to flatboat men. Continually, steamboats going up and down the river dodged the flatboats drifting with the current while both struggled to avoid sandbars and snags.

One memorable experience was a raid on their vessel while tied up at night. Seven Blacks, probably runaways seeking provisions, jumped aboard and attacked the two boatmen. Evidence suggests the area of Convent LA in St. James Parish as the location of the battle. Gentry and Lincoln fought with the stick bearing men, Gentry calling to Lincoln to get the guns and shoot. With that the men fled, indicating they understood English, being American slaves imported from the east coast, rather than Creole French speaking natives slaves of south Louisiana. There were no guns aboard. Both men were injured in the struggle. They weighed anchor and floated downriver for safety.

After a 1276 mile journey from Rockport, Indiana Gentry and Lincoln arrived in the bustling port of New Orleans. Steamboats, flatboats and sailing vessels jammed the port on the east bank. The dates were likely May 14th or 17th for their arrival. They paid their $6 landing fee to the city. Vessels crowded the piers, levees and wharfs from the lower Garden District, passed the French Quarter to the Bywater downriver. Sailing vessels tied up from the French Quarter to the Bywater. Steamboat docked in a section above and below Canal Street. The flatboats moored in the Warehouse District. The first task was to market their goods. Many shipments arrived as consignments to certain brokers, traders and factors. Once unloaded the flatboats had about 48 hours to disassemble and sell the boards to builders, lumber yards, and the city. Demand for lumber was strong. Boards were often used to deck the waterfront over the mud. The shifting river added land to the east bank batture by means of alluvial deposition, extending hundreds of yards from the original levee. Where the boats tied up in 1828 is now located under Convention Blvd and Tchoupitoulas Street. One riverboat hull was found buried at a constructionsite on land.

When the produce was sold and the boat disassembled it was time for vituals, drink, entertainment and shelter. The scene was one of chaos in the streets with boatmen, steamboat crews, sailors, immigrants, slaves, free-people-of-color, French, Spanish, German, and the Irish overwhelming the city, plus hoards of Americans flocking to the waiting pots of gold. Inns, bars, taverns, coffee houses, oyster houses, cafe’s and restaurants invited passerby to join the fun, food and beverages. They may have visited the Chalmette battlefield, celebrating its 13th anniversary in 1828. Years later Lincoln sponsored a bill in the Illinois legislature to honor Andrew Jackson and the American victory at New Orleans over the British.

Slavery was everywhere in this city, the largest slave market in America. Brought there by steamboats, flatboats and coffles, walking overland from the east coast. The slaves were sold by advertisements, direct sales and auction house. The grim scenes of slavery were everywhere. Auctions placed families up to be sold individually to distant parts of the South as the victims wept. Northern observers could not believe the hardness of those handling the auctions. Slaves were lined up to be examined by prospective buyers for condition of teeth, feet, hands, limbs and joints. A slave with whelps from beatings or scars from branding was a warning of a trouble maker. Later, in 1841 Lincoln commented on his past observations of slavery, indicating his appalling awareness of the inhumanity of slavery, and to his amazement, the slaves resolve to tolerate the system with music, dancing, joking, and card playing. He said of slaves he had seen in chains, “The site was a continual torment to me.”

The return trip to Rockport by steamboat must have intrigued Lincoln, especially while making a swift trip upriver, to see all the flatboat men struggling in the current to get to New Orleans. If they left June 8th, they would have reached Natchez by June 11 and Vicksburg the next day. They would have made the 1276 mile return trip to Rockport by June 21, a thirteen day to two week trip, compared to their four week trip downstream. On return Lincoln’s earning were probably given to his father for family expenses and the lanky river man returned to work on the family farm much more knowledgeable of the world about him.

His family was induced to sell their farm in Indiana and move 200 miles to a site on the Sangamon River in Ohio, ten miles west of Decatur. There the Lincolns constructed a log cabin and began a new life. Shortly after, a political candidate came to town, making a bad speech, so a friend turned a box on its side, ushering Abe up to make a better speech re navigating the Sangamon River. Some credit this as his first political speech, nevertheless it was his first public audience for a speech on public issues.


On March 1, 1831 Lincoln and John Hanks set off to meet Denton Offutt in Springfield to take Denton’s flatboat with loaded cargo down river to New Orleans. When they got there Denton was having drinks at his favorite watering hole. No preparations had been made, neither boat construction nor cargo. They met John D. Johnston, the third crew member. Offutt offered to pay them fair wages to build a flatboat, felling trees, sizing logs, floatings them down river to a water powered saw mill for cutting into lumber, sawing lumber, designing and building the vessel. Measuring 18′ by 50′, it was considerably larger than the 1828 vessel. On April 19 the crew with Offutt poled out into the Sangamon River loaded with Offutt’s sacks of corn, sides of bacon, barrels of pork and some live hogs. More hogs were picked up downstream. The boat became stuck while passing by a mill dam threatening the venture. Abe came up with the solution, using another boat to unload the cargo which lightened the vessel, allowing the men to push it loose. Then it was reloaded. The voyage was saved from disaster.

The boat cruised in the slower current at about 4.75 mph or 66.5 miles per day. They entered the more turbulent Missouri River. At St. Louis, John Hanks returned to his home. Capt. Henry Shreve’s engineering work was succeeding in removing snags and sawyers, making the trip faster and safer. On this trip there is no indication that they stopped for sales to plantations, rather they delivered the cargo directly to New Orleans. They arrived May 12, 1831 after 1627 miles from New Salem. There were about 400 vessels in the harbor…tall ships, steamboats, flatboats, schooners, sloops and brigs. They completed the sales, unloading and disassembling in three weeks. Then they were free to see the city.

They were immersed in a sea of slavery seen from the pier to the streets to the auction houses. Hewett’s Exchange on the downriver lakeside of the intersection of Chartres and St. Louis streets sold seven per day, six days a week. Slave pens and brokers sold others. The abhorrence he felt regarding slavery never left him.

Coinciding with their visit the Ponchartrain R.R. had completed tracks (now Elysian Fields Blvd.) and held an Inaugural horse-drawn excursion from the French Quarter to Lake Ponchartrain. There lots were for sale in a new subdivision, named Milneburg for its founder, Alexander Milne. Lincoln very likely took in this new mode of transportation as well as a display of a steam train engine that showed off its potential for future steam powered transportation. Lincoln would later become a railroad attorney. Lincoln, Offutt and Johnston returned to New Salem by late June. Lincoln continued captaining flatboats to St. Louis in 1834-1835.

In Campanella’s lengthy conclusion the essence of his perspective is – Geographically, environmentally, culturally, racially, religiously, linguistically and economically, Lincoln’s trip to New Orleans informed and expanded his world view. p. 233

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