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Flatboats or "flats" were rectangular, flat-bottomed boats without keels. Relatively easy to build, this simple and affordable design also made them awkward. The vessels were primitive and suffered greatly from an inability to ascend the river against the current. (2) Many lead miners used flatboats to carry their ore south and then sold the ore and the flatboat for its lumber. Flatboats were constructed in different sizes and layouts depending on the load they carried and the distance to be traveled. Small flatboats were used on short trips and might only be 16' by 4'. They had no covering or a simple shelter with a cooking area. Long and narrow, they were able to navigate small rivers on the way to market. (3)
Mid-range flatboats were about 55' by 16' and were called "broadhorns," "Kentucky boats," or "Natchez boats." Built for long river journeys, they were used by farmers and traders for produce and goods and by families moving West. They had a shed or a pen in the rear for horses and cattle and a cabin forward for the owners.
The largest, long-range flatboats were called "Mississippi broadhorns," "New Orleans boats," "barges," scows, or arks (a reference relating to the many animals often carried by farming families). These could be 100' by 20' or more, and were generally covered throughout their entire length. Built for navigating big rivers, particularly the Ohio and the Mississippi, they were used by freighters, traders, and sometimes by two or more families traveling West with their farm animals. A large flatboat required four crew and a pilot who were contracted for a four-to-six week period; some professional flatboat operators made three or four trips yearly.
Typically flatboats were constructed of green oak planks, with no nails or iron. A method common to Ohio and Mississippi flatboats was Chine-girder construction where a log was split in half to create two equal "gunwales". Positioned on either side, they formed a ledge that held the ends of the floor planks. Wooden uprights were set into the gunwales. The heavy oak planks were fastened using wooden pins to the heavier timber frame. The stern and sides were vertical planks of 4 to 6 feet. The bow was angled like that of a modern barge. The seams were caulked with pitch or tar, but as this was expensive, other substances were later used. Even fully loaded, they drew only about three feet of water.
Flatboats served almost any purpose including storeboats by storekeepers, showboats by entertainers, chapel-boats by ministers, galleries by photographers, printshops by printers, floating brothels, wanigans (cook shanty, bunkhouse, supply boat), and as shantyboats on which families would live permanently.
Subject to Indian attack, the boats were built with only one door, heavily barred. Windows, if any, were small and had sliding shutters through which guns could be fired. Over the years, flatboats became more comfortable with cabins divided into chambers. After the CIVIL WAR, it became common for barges to be 'towed' by steamboats upriver and downriver.
For navigation, flatboats were rigged with 30'-55' sweeps on the sides, a rudder or steering-oar, and a short front sweep called a "gouger". The great side sweeps, resembling horns from a distance, led to the name "broadhorn." The side sweeps were used for directing the flatboat into the current, or for pulling into slack water when landing. Some flatboats also had hawsers mounted to reels. The hawser (rope) would be attached to a tree or stump and wound in to "warp" the boat off a sandbar, or to assist landing.
Although the flatboat preceded the steamboat, it was in regular use for many years after steamboats had become common. Flatboat numbers increased until about the mid-1850s, carrying ever more goods and settlers West, while the steamboats provided a quick and easy passage upriver for those involved in downriver trading.
In some cases, boats would lash together and make the voyage to New Orleans, sometimes navigating months in company. There would be songs and dances; the sounds drifting across the waters by night and settlers would sometimes arrive in their skiffs to meet the unknown voyagers, ask for the news from the East, and share in their entertainment. (4)
In 1816, before the steamers became prominent, 1,287 flats arrived in New Orleans. The number had more than doubled, to 2,792, in the November-to-June shipping season of 1846-1847. Since a great many flatboats stopped short of New Orleans estimates have been made that there were at least 4,000 flats operating annually during the 1840s, carrying perhaps 160,000 tons of produce, and manned by more than 20,000 boatmen. Throughout the 1823-1847 period, flatboating was profitable, competitive, and provided an alternative to downstream steamboat shipment. (5) Flatboats were still sufficient to handle commerce on the upper Mississippi by the 1850s, although not for many more years. (6)
With the settlement of the Mississippi Valley and admission of new states into the Union, flatboating increased on the Lower Missouri River, the Arkansas and Yazoo, the Illinois River, and on the Upper Mississippi. Flatboats were not so crucial to the growth of the upper Midwest, yet much of the LEAD from mining regions was first transported by flats and keels. Because of the treacherous rapids and low water on the Upper Mississippi River, farmers preferred flatboats to steamers when they started exporting their first agricultural surpluses in the late 1850s. (14) Retrieving salvage from steamboats sunk by a snag was a lucrative part of the flatboat's role throughout the era of steam. (7)
Because of river improvements begun in the 1823-1861 period, flatboating ceased to be dangerous. Not only did flatboatmen complete their trips much more quickly than before, but flatboats often could be seen "running day and night." (8)
Flatboating died slowly. Even before the Civil War ended, flatboatmen resumed shipments south and hoped to pick up the business they enjoyed during the 1840s and early 1850s. It was during the postwar years that towing became the principal method of transport on the western rivers. (9)
A few flatboatmen continued their trade until the turn of the century. Along shallow, isolated tributary streams where steamers could not always navigate, flatboats, keels, and lumber and log rafts continued to prove useful. Thousands of flatboat operators gave up the profession during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. (10) One of the saddest uses of flatboats came in 1877 when they were used to move Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce from their home in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon to eventual settlement in Oklahoma. (11)
1. Clark, Thomas D. "Steamboat Times," Online: http://steamboattimes.com/flatboats.html
2. "River to Rail," Online: http://www.mjcpl.org/rivertorail/beforesteam/flatboat
5. "The Upper Mississippi Navigation," Dubuque Herald, May 3, 1866, p. 1
6. River to Rail..."
7. "The Past Whispers," Online: http://www.thepastwhispers.com/flatboats.html
11. Petty, Terrence. "Wilderness a Great Backpacking Intro," Telegraph Herald, September 24, 2000, p. 71