High Piracy on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers

Today in the news we hear a good deal about piracy at sea. Somalia of course is one good example. Another is the piracy that continues to be a threat to ocean freighters in the area of Indonesia. While most of these crimes involve the stealing of ships and cargo not too many, but still some, involve the capturing of ship crews. To help prevent ocean hijacking and outright piracy, several nations including the United States have begun patrolling the most dangerous of these sea lanes. What is a story that hasn’t been publicized too much is the piracy and murder that took place on the inland waterways right here in the U.S. The river pirates at the turn of the 19th century were an obstacle to westward immigration.

keel boats

Flatboat and keelboat on Ohio River, public domain image

There was a time when traveling down the Ohio River was akin to journeying on the Oregon Trail by wagon train. The dangers were every bit as great. The threat on the inland waterways didn’t come from a party of raiding Indians. It came from ruthless pirates who had no qualms at all to hijack a river boat, steal the boat itself and murder crew and passengers. Piracy attack along the Ohio River bank took many lives. The dangers on the Ohio went all the way down to Cairo Illinois where it merges with the Mississippi River.  An article written in the book, Waterways West, by author Robert West Howard, estimates that between the early years of 1785 and 1805, more than two-thousand men, women and children lost their lives at the hands of these violent river pirates. Think about it. That is an astoundingly high figure of deaths at a time when our nation’s population was a fraction of what it is today. During that period of time, rivers like the Ohio and Mississippi represented what we often call the Wild West. The Ohio River was the original home of the legendary figure Mike Fink, probably the most famous boatman on the early Ohio.

This was the era before steamboats. The description of a typical vessel in this era was a flatboat perhaps forty to seventy feet in length and twelve to fifteen feet wide. The hull was raised maybe seven feet out of the water. On the deck was built a log cabin. Wagons and livestock might have been carried on the flat roof of the cabin. Two large rudder/oars were fixed on the front and back. These boats or arks depended on the river current for power. Basically, it served the same as a wagon train wagon except it floated down the river. These powerless barges with valuables onboard were prime targets for the river pirates and murderers.

River pirates had a few ways to commandeer these floating arks. They would hide out in a cave along the river. Perhaps one would offer to help navigate the relatively helpless barge over some supposed dangerous rapids downriver. He might get aboard and suggest that they maneuver to a cave where there was also supposedly good clean water and a marvelous sight. When the boat entered the cave area it would be set upon violently by the pirate gang. Once inside the cave the immigrants would be slain, the vessel looted of everything and perhaps then floated downriver to the Cumberland River and sold in Tennessee. It was that ruthless and in many ways more deadly than the attacks that occurred decades later on the Oregon Trail.

mississippi river

Today's Mississippi River near confluence of Missouri River

To say these murderers were chased is an understatement. This was a time when the United States was a very new nation. The frontier Wild West was the region of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. There was no established law enforcement and the only method to deal with these deadly pirates were as vigilantes. Vigilante groups were the law enforcement of that era and in that place. They were similar to the later groups in Montana, Wyoming and other frontier territories.

One particular event probably illustrates best as to how these pirates were dealt with when captured or killed. The Harpe brothers led a small gang of pirates/robbers who moved around the lower Ohio and upper part of the Mississippi. The Harpe brothers, sometimes described as actually cousins, didn’t only rob and kill people on the rivers but also did the same by ambush on land. They were both river pirates and cold blooded killers. The Harpes roamed the entire area of Kentucky and down to the Cumberland Gap and on the Natchez Trace. The Harpes were also connected with a shady robber named Wilson. The Harpes with all their wisdom decided to kill Wilson and bring his head in to Natchez to collect a bounty. The problem was, the boatmen of Natchez recognized the Harpes for who they really were. They were both promptly arrested, tried and beheaded. So to discourage other would be pirates, the heads of all three were displayed on stakes along the Natchez Trace. A strong statement by the people and boatmen of Natchez was truly made.

old cincinnati ohio

Early Cincinnati Ohio with the Ohio River running through

Eventually, and as a protective measure, flatboats began traveling down the Ohio as a flotilla. This of course was very similar to the wagon trains that flowed across the prairie decades later. Some believe the idea for the wagon trains went all the way back to these river flotillas. Obviously, there was strength in numbers. Additionally, the flotillas had a keel boat in the middle of the chain of flatboats as protection. Keelboats were first built in Pittsburgh PA around 1775. The keel boat had a deck house with bunks and cargo space which in the case of protecting the flotilla included a one pound cannon, rifles and cutlasses and a crew not shy to use them. You can see the better maneuverability the keel boat had from the picture at the top of this page.The keel boat was positioned in the middle of the flotilla so to guard against trouble downriver and upriver. The keel boats assured that the flotilla would make it safely past known plunder points. There were many hidden ambush points on the river banks. The Keelboats were largely successful in protecting the defenseless flat boats..

Pirates operated on the rivers during the last part of the 18th century and during the early part of the 19th century. They also operated on the Great Lakes during the 1800’s. Wherever there was an opportunity to plunder and a lack of law enforcement, the pirates/robbers will appear. In the violent events that took place on the Ohio River at the turn of the century, a good argument could be made that the perpetrators were vicious murderers rather than pirates. In many instances they were both. Pioneers have always been in harms way. It went with the territory. At the time of the piracy and murders along the Ohio River, the river represented the American frontier very similar to what the Dakotas were in the 1830’s.

A few other interesting stories you will be interested in. The Great Train Robbery and The Yellowstone Steamboat in Texas.

The river piracy and violence on the early Ohio River was an unfortunate part of history. Essentially it was a violent and dangerous part of American westward expansion which would repeat itself over and over with pioneer immigrants who would travel the old Santa Fe Trail after 1821 and the various Overland trails beginning in the late 1830’s.

(Photos and images are from the public domain)


The Explosion of the Steamboat Pennsylvania and the Missing Engineer

The history of steamboats is fascinating. Steamboats helped America expand westward. It was able to travel where there were no roads. It carried people and needed supplies to hard to reach places. During the mid 1800’s, this remarkable invention in transportation had only one problem, and it was a big problem. It’s boilers could and would explode. The boilers that powered the steam boat engine were a huge concern. The explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania on June 13, 1858 is very representative of the dangers river travelers faced during the period. Steam boat history is filled with stories like it.

steamboats in memphisDuring this era steam boilers the size required to run a steamboat were a relatively new creation. Pressure instruments were not what they are today and the strength needed in the materials used in boiler construction was a bit sketchy. This required that the boilers be physically monitored. Simply put, if too much pressure were allowed to build up, the boiler might explode. And explode they did and with great numbers of people lost. In the case of steamboats, boilers naturally were placed down within the infrastructure of the boat. Explosions therefore had a catastrophic effect occurring deep inside a wooden vessel. Steamboats would literally blow apart in a ball of fire and hot steam. In many cases, those who didn’t die during the explosion itself often drowned after jumping or being thrown into the water. The huge loss of life was even more significant when you consider how much smaller the general population was in the mid 1800’s.

Steamboat mishap statistics during the mid 1800’s tells quite a story. During the years 1838 and 1870 a total of 2,200 people were killed.and hundreds injured. The largest explosion ever recorded was that of the SS Sultana just north of Memphis Tennessee in April 1865 with an estimated 1,800+ loss of life. The Sultana was grossly overloaded with returning Union soldiers from the recently ended American Civil War, most of whom spent the past few years in Confederate POW camps including the infamous Andersonville Prison. The Sultana was supposed to be their ticket home after the war. In addition to these statistics concerning steamboats, there were 111 deaths attributed to industrial boiler explosions during the period. A picture of the Sultana in early 1865 just prior to the explosion is shown below right.

The tragic explosion of the SS Pennsylvania was not only a disaster for the nation but was a personal disaster for the ex-steamboat pilot Mark Twain. It so happened that Mark Twain, who was quite fond of steamboats, was working as a steersman on the SS Pennsylvania up until a few days before the explosion. He had personal differences with the boat’s master and resigned, but not before getting his brother a job on the vessel. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain’s) brother was killed during the riverboat disaster. Understandably, Clemens was haunted with this reminder the rest of his life.

st louis steamboatsConcerning the boiler explosion itself, it seems that the SS Pennsylvania engineer tasked with keeping an eye on the boilers steam pressure was aft, away from his post, speaking with female passengers. According to the New York newspapers at the time, an eyewitness gave court testimony to the fact that the engineer was not at his post in the engine room just prior to the explosion and was seen with the women. All four of the boilers exploded while the SS Pennsylvania was about 75 miles below Memphis Tennessee on the Mississippi River and about 300 yards from shore. It was estimated that the entire structure of the boat was in flames only about a minute after the explosion. The SS Pennsylvania left New-Orleans on the ninth of the month with one hundred and twenty-five cabin passengers and one hundred and fifty-eight crew. With stops on the way up the river at Baton Rouge, Natchez and Vicksburg, there were a total of about 450 people in all.
Out of this number, 182 were rescued by a another boat, and about 70 others escaped. These numbers included the wounded and burned. About 200 were estimated lost and missing.
The wreck of the SS Pennsylvania floated about two miles down river and burned all the way to the water line.

steamboat sultanaThe SS Pennsylvania explosion unfortunately was one of many during the 1800’s. The federal government was pressured to do something to safeguard the traveling public and as a result passed several maritime bills. The bills tried to set certain requirements and training standards and to some degree they helped but certainly didn’t rectify the problem. Compounding the problem of faulty equipment and poor monitoring was the habit of steamboats trying to make speed records on their runs and in some cases racing. This just overtaxed the boilers and was the cause of more than one disaster. The boilers could be unpredictable as in the case of the Saluda explosion just off the docks at Lexington Missouri on April 9, 1852. The Missouri River was swollen from spring rains and snow melt and the captain was determined to make it upriver around a sandbar. He had been held back by the current previously and this time was determined to make it. He called for maximum boiler pressure while leaving the dock.The resulting explosion which occurred right after the paddle wheel started to turn threw bodies all through the town of Lexington and even killed some standing on the dock.The body of the captain, last seen standing on the roof of the boat, was eventually found on the far side of a dock warehouse. The explosion was so violent that just about all of the passengers, and some bystanders, died. Out of 250+ people on board, most of them Mormons traveling to Salt Lake City, only about 40 to 50 survived. It ranked as one of the worst steamboat disasters.

Over the decades, progress was made it both safety and boiler construction. The string of federal regulations put in place continued into the 1900’s. As dangerous as steamboat travel could be, people needed the transportation especially before road improvements and before the transcontinental railroad. Probably, the area most improved by federal regulations had to do with training. This helped some in the type of people made responsible for boiler monitoring. Boiler construction materials and pressure instruments also improved over the years. What essentially was an unregulated industry became more and more regulated.

There are some interesting historic sites regarding  steam boat history.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is an excellent place to learn more about the early days of steamboats. The museum is located at 400 Grand Blvd in Kansas City Missouri. The side wheeler steamboat Arabia hit a snag in September of 1856 on the Missouri River. The boat sank and was eventually found in 1988 by researchers. The Arabia Steamboat Museum now displays a wide collection of artifacts taken from the old vessel. They have a very impressive collection. Well worth the visit when you travel to Kansas City MO.

Another very good museum is the Howard Steamboat Museum located in Jeffersonville Indiana. According to the Howard Steamboat Museum, their mission is to preserve the Howard family story, their mansion and the history of their shipyards and to foster an appreciation of the development of river steamboats and commerce along inland rivers. The Howard Shipyard was started in 1834. The museum address is 1101 E. Market Street, Jeffersonville Indiana.

(Photos in public domain)