It was around April 18th-19th, 1828, and an extremely tall strong young feller was hired by Allen Gentry’s father to navigate a large Broadhorn “Flatboat” from Rockport Indiana to New Orleans, La. The boat was made from local timber and measured around 40ft long and 15ft wide. It would be loaded with barrel pork, which was used to feed slaves in the south. Other goods would be loaded on to the flatboat as well to either be sold or bartered along the way or in the New Orleans markets. Allen and this tall young man set off down the Ohio River. Since it was Spring the river would have been flowing pretty good, around 5.5 mph which would help them make good time as they drifted down river. They would tie up to shore most nights to avoid river hazards. Towards the end of the Ohio River they would then navigate through the confluence into the Mississippi River. Along the way they would raft up to other flatboats to help each other protect their goods and share stories and laughs. Some of these flatboats would also be purpose built to provide services like, Banking, food, innkeepers and even prostitutes. Further down the river, river towns would give these flatboat captains and crews much needed services like bath houses, bars and more. Once they started to drift past southern states they would notice large plantations and hundreds of people working the lands. This would be something curious and new to this young man helping Gentry down the river.
After a nearly 1300 mile journey they would arrive at New Orleans in mid May. Stepping off the flat boat this young man was surrounded by a world he had never seen before. Prostitutes running around in public, people from Germany, France, Ireland and more. He would also be shocked to see the large amount of slavery. To his shock he even seen slaves and their entire families being auctioned off to land owners and slave owners. These people would be torn from their families to never see each other again. This would shock this tall young man.
Once they off loaded their cargo they would also dismantle the flatboat and sell the wood and nails to build houses. Northern wood was heavily sought after and since these boats were pretty much “One Way Boats” they figured the wood would be good product as well.
Around June 8th Gentry and this young man would hope on a steamboat and head back north. What was a 4 week trip down river would only take about two weeks to return. This young man had time to think about the atrocities he witnessed and it would change him for the rest of his life. This young man would eventually become the 16th President of the United States in 1861, his name was Abraham Lincoln.
I have never been much on history, not that I didn’t like it, I guess I just didn’t have the patience to learn it. I learned what I needed to know in highschool but nothing more. It was not until I really got into paddling that I would take a liking to river history. Most people know the general history of things like the Civil War, past presidents and the major things they are known for. What a lot of people don’t know is “including me” when you start looking into the history of one thing, it leads to some really cool discoveries about other things. I never knew Lincoln navigated flatboats down our rivers, and to read about his first experience and how it would shape his future is really cool if you think about it.
I have always lived on the river, all my life, I loved paddling, taking my Jon boat on trips and just spending weekends out on the water. A few weeks ago I seen a Facebook post from a friend of mine, Churchill Clark about river flatboats, or Broadhorn boats. I took a look at a couple websites and realized that this was some really cool history and I wanted to know more. It was when I ran into this story about Abraham Lincoln and how it was something I never would have known about him if I would not have dove head first into flatboat construction and history. Now I am in this giant wormhole of river history and it is pretty exciting. Is it Stand Up Paddleboarding, No, but where you learn the history of our rivers you can also experience it in many different ways. Canoes, Kayaks, Flatboats and Paddleboards. This makes me excited to learn more and more about our river history and how it shaped our country. Living and playing on the river is a lifestyle not a fad and history proves that.