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Friday, April 24, 2015

Floating Down the Ohio River

The characters in my WIP travel from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the Northwest Territory of present-day Ohio. River travel is what opened the new lands secured by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Roads were primitive to non-existent there at the turn of the 19th Century. 
People sailed anything that would float down the Ohio River. Settlers would build a barge - commonly called a flatboat - large enough to hold their belongings and livestock. They'd float it to their homestead site, then use the wood from the flatboat to build a house. Farmers would sail a flatboat full of cargo all the way to New Orleans. They'd sell the cargo and then sell the flatboat for its wood, purchasing horses for the ride back home.

Return trips on the river were nearly impossible until someone invented the keelboat.

This awkward-looking conveyance changed - and hastened - the settling of the Northwest Territory. Like the flatboats, it was floated down the river. Once unloaded at its destination, the sailors would "pole" the flatboat back up the river against the current. A team of men on each side of the boat would start at the bow and shove long poles down into the river's bottom. At a signal from the captain, they'd lean into their poles and walk down the length of the boat, shoulders pressed against the poles, literally shoving the boat upstream. It took a team of strong men to best the current of the Ohio River. 

A whole industry cropped up with the introduction of the keelboat. Settlers were able to hire their conveyance to the new territory. The same boat could be used for many journeys down and back along the river.

River travel was faster than overland travel by wagons, but it was not safer. The river was constantly changing, creating sandbars, snags, exposing boulders, etc. And because the flatboats and keelboats sailed near the edges of the river to avoid the worse currents, they were prone to attack by Indians and pirates.

The Ohio River and the brave sailors who plied their trade along it, opened up the slave-free territory of what is now Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. 


  1. Nice post, Pegg! River travel must have been very interesting back then.

    1. I think I would have preferred the overland route, even though it was longer and harder. The pioneers were sitting ducks for the Indians and pirates. There's no place to run or hide on a boat!

  2. Great post, Pegg. I still remember the breathtaking scene in How The West Was Won, when the settlers were sailing on a flatboat to their new life.

  3. Was that the movie version or the mini-series? I may have to look up a DVD copy. I remember the keelboat race in the Disney version of Davy Crockett with Fess Parker.

  4. Enjoyed this post Pegg. I agree with you about overland, tho there were many dangers their as well. Those Indians were great at hiding. Maxie


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