As in most of the South, waterways enormously influenced developments in Mississippi. The Mississippi River forms the state’s western boundary, while the Gulf of Mexico stretches across the southern border. Elsewhere, rivers such as the Big Black, Pascagoula, Pearl, Tennessee, and Tombigbee and the interconnected streams that form the Yazoo River system played important roles in settlement and economic activity.
In 1811 the journey of the steamboat New Orleans down the Mississippi presaged the rise of a transportation system that affected the state for more than a century. Although keelboats and flatboats remained viable watercraft throughout the antebellum era, steamboats gradually grew in importance. By 1830 steamboats operated on all the major tributaries of the Mississippi, although the trade on most was dominated by boats of smaller tonnage that ran in the spring and fall. On the Mississippi itself, early steamboats connected New Orleans and Natchez. Antebellum Mississippi River communities such as Commerce, Bolivar, Prentiss, Greenville, and Vicksburg existed in large measure because of the steamboats that landed at their doorsteps. Other nascent towns such as Columbus on the Tombigbee and Yazoo River towns such as Greenwood and Yazoo City (originally Hannan’s Bluff) were buoyed by steamboat access. As boats became larger and more numerous, they played a corresponding role in cultural and economic affairs. Steamboats carried away many Choctaw who ceded their lands in northwest Mississippi in 1830 and in turn brought in settlers eager to stake claims to these areas. Steamboats likewise carried large numbers of slaves to their destinations, especially in the fertile wilderness of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta.
Steamboats transformed the lives of Mississippians, carrying livestock and farm produce from hundreds of individual landings and conveying manufactured goods of every conceivable sort to plantations and towns. The boats offered passengers a conduit to the outside world, served as an information source, and forged community by linking residents along the state’s waterways. An enormous variation in size and shape characterized these vessels, from small unadorned workhorses to large, lavishly decorated steamers, but all played roles in the market economy that hinged on river travel.
The nature of southern rivers and the emphasis on carrying freight ultimately led to development of a distinctive design for steamboats on these waters. The typical steamboat was erected on a relatively narrow and shallow flat-bottomed hull. After the mid-1820s most vessels were powered by noisy high-pressure steam engines. Several decks projected above the waterline, with larger steamboats possessing a main deck, a boiler deck, a hurricane, and a texas. Towering above were twin chimneys that carried away the soot and smoke generated by the engine and created a natural draft in the furnace. The vast majority of boats that plied Mississippi’s rivers were constructed in Ohio River shipyards at Cincinnati; Jeffersonville, Indiana; Louisville; and Pittsburgh. Steamboat crews varied in size, from perhaps five men for a small boat to several dozen for the larger vessels. Officers were almost invariably native-born white men, while antebellum deck crews included immigrants, slaves, and a few free blacks. The proportion of slaves employed expanded throughout the antebellum era. After the Civil War, African Americans formed a large proportion of cabin and deck crew hands, while other blacks found employment in shipyards and as roustabouts on the levees and wharfs.
The shallow hull contributed to the relatively low life expectancy of a steamboat on Mississippi waters. Snags often resulted in the destruction of boats, although pilots often could maneuver stricken vessels close enough to shore to save both passengers and cargo. One notable exception occurred in late January 1851 above Greenville, when the sidewheeler John Adams was broken in half by a snag and sank immediately, killing roughly 123 of the 230 people aboard. Countless other hazards existed, including collisions, sandbars, fire, fog, and storms. Steamboats occasionally struck previously sunken vessels. Boiler explosions could have particularly devastating impacts. In most cases, the valuable machinery was salvaged from steamboat wrecks and transplanted into new vessels.
Mississippi’s secession altered life for steamboat owners, captains, and crews. Many steamboats went on the Confederate registry and hauled troops, provisions, and war materiel. Other captains found opportunities doing likewise for the Federals. Both the Union and Confederate governments chartered boats, and wartime demand was so great that many older steamboats found ample work despite their deficiencies. Some were eventually converted into gunboats, rams, or cottonclads. Confederate lieutenant Isaac N. Brown created a naval yard at Yazoo City that produced the formidable ironclad CSS Arkansas before being destroyed in May 1862 when a Union flotilla was steaming up the Yazoo. While the war fattened the pockets of some owners, others lost their boats to capture, burning, or deliberate scuttling. Steamboats played a major role in the Vicksburg Campaign and other wartime operations, were instrumental in the thriving (and often illegal) cotton trade, and hauled away thousands of slaves fleeing Mississippi plantations.
Mississippi steamboating reached its zenith in the postwar years. Opulent vessels such as the J. M. White, Natchez, and Robert E. Lee attracted widespread attention and symbolize the grand era of steamboat travel. These boats and dozens of others conveyed thousands of bales of cotton from Mississippi landings and levees to New Orleans. Trade was carried on by individually owned boats apt to move from one river to another, by packets that made regular trips at scheduled intervals, and by lines of two or more steamboats that offered packet service in a particular trade, such as New Orleans to Natchez or Vicksburg to Greenville. Merchants in river towns often used very small steamboats to deliver sundries, plantation supplies, and even ice to customers along the rivers. A few boats were converted to mobile sawmills or cotton gins. The steady encroachment of railroad lines gradually sapped business from the steamboats and led to a slow decline in river commerce.
Only a few steamboats still operated in the 1920s, and the automobile age doomed these holdouts. Despite their demise, the idealized image of steamboats churning along Mississippi rivers exerts a powerful hold on the modern imagination and forms a romantic component of the “moonlight and magnolias” image cultivated by tourism officials.
- Louis C. Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History (1949)
- Adam I. Kane, The Western River Steamboat (2004)
- Harry P. Owens, Steamboats and the Cotton Economy: River Trade in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta (1990)
- Frederick Way Jr., Way’s Packet Directory (1983, 1994)