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The Hard-Working Life

William Wells Brown was born into slavery in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1814 and when he was in his twenties, he worked aboard the Mississippi River steamboats Missouri, Enterprize and Chester, and on the Missouri River steamer Otto for a while. In 1847, after fleeing to freedom in Ohio and later having found a home in Boston, he wrote his autobiography, giving glimpses of life on the Mississippi as he saw it.

Brown was the son of a white plantation owner and a black slave woman and was sold as a child to a relative of his father. He moved with his new master from Kentucky to Missouri and was hired out to a Major Freeland, who in turn hired him out to work aboard the steamer Missouri, which ran between St. Louis and Galena, Illinois. In his book, a slender volume titled The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Brown calls that steamboat assignment “the most pleasant time for me that I had ever experienced.” He later was hired out to the captain of the Enterprize to work as a waiter. “My employment on board,” he wrote, “was to wait on gentlemen, and the captain being a good man, the situation was a pleasant one to me — but in passing from place to place, and seeing new faces every day, and knowing they could go where they pleased, I soon became unhappy, and several times thought of leaving the boat at some landing place and trying to make my escape to Canada.”

Although he apparently received little or no ill treatment himself while working as a waiter, he got a close look at how other slaves were treated and the conditions in which they were hopelessly trapped. It was the cargoes of fellow slaves that bothered him most. “On our downward passage,” he recalled, “the boat took on board, at Hannibal, a drove of slaves, bound for the New Orleans market. They numbered from fifty to sixty, consisting of men and women from eighteen to forty years of age. A drove of slaves on a southern steamboat, bound for the cotton or sugar regions, is an occurrence so common that no one, not even the passengers, appear to notice it, though they clank their chains at every step.

“There was on the boat a large room on the lower deck,” Brown wrote, “in which the slaves were kept, men and women, promiscuously — all chained two and two, and a strict watch kept that they did not get loose; for cases have occurred in which slaves have got off their chains, and made their escape at landing-places, while the boats were taking in wood — and with all our care, we lost one woman who had been taken from her husband and children and having no desire to live without them, in the agony of her soul jumped overboard and drowned herself. She was not chained.” The part of the boat where the slaves were kept, Brown noted, giving an idea of the conditions under which the slaves traveled, was almost impossible to keep clean.

Brown was but one of many slaves who worked aboard Mississippi River steamboats. Historian Thomas C. Buchanan posits that if the crews of the 93 steamboats docked at St. Louis in September 1850 were representative of the 700 to 1,000 steamboat crews working on the western rivers by the middle 1800s, there were about 2,000 to 3,000 slaves and 1,000 to 1,500 free blacks at work on western steamboats at any given time. “The crew lists of these 93 boats,” Buchanan reports, “indicate that 230 free blacks (6 percent) and 441 slave workers (12 percent) out of a total workforce of 3,627 toiled on these vessels.”

The remainder of the steamers’ crews were composed of American-born whites (43 percent), Irish-born (24 percent), German-born (11 percent) and 3 percent from an assortment of other foreign countries. The figures also show that 57 percent of steamboat crewmen worked as deckhands, 20 percent were cabin workers, and 1 percent were independent contractors, working for themselves as barbers or bartenders. The 2 percent of the crew members who were women worked as chambermaids.1 The rest of the crew members were the boats’ officers.

In the early days on the Mississippi practically all crewmen were white, but according to Herbert and Edward Quick, authors of an early twentiethcentury book on Mississippi River steamboats, “Gradually, the negroes replaced all others as deck hands. They began as servants in kitchen and cabin and the more brawny found jobs as firemen.... As waiters their grins and native flattery were more pleasing to the officers and passengers than the grim condescending attendance of the whites; as cooks they were more satisfactory, and as firemen they would put up with more heat and abuse. They supplanted the white stewardess....

“It was not long until the happy, unworldly negroes made up more than half the crew of the steamboat. They cooked and served the meals, made up the bunks, stoked the fires and rolled the freight up and down the gangplank, working as stevedores in the hey-day of high wages for no more than fifty dollars a month. But they were free, and perhaps better off than the slaves who were always to be seen traveling on the main deck, having been bought by a slave dealer who was taking them to sell somewhere else.”2

The racial and ethnic mixes of steamboat crews often made for explosive situations aboard the boats, as evidenced by the stories of racial violence sometimes published by newspapers. In June 1839 the Picayune in New Orleans reported that “a coloured man casually employed on board the Maid of Orleans, was wounded with a knife and much beaten on Friday night. The cause, we learn, was his attempting to eat supper with the white ‘hands’ on board.”3 In another case reported by the Picayune, this one resulting in the death of a black crewman, “One of the white deck hands undertook to beat the negro and ... another one drew a knife and stabbed the negro.”4 The reason for that altercation was not reported. Often the cause of fights was little more than racial bigotry. A free black who was a cook aboard the steamer Aunt Letty in 1857, drawn into a fight between white deckhands and a black fireman, bellowed a menacing challenge as he went to the fireman’s aid: “I can whip any goddamn white-livered son of a bitch on the boat if they would give me a white man’s chance!” Minutes later, the white deckhands having been reinforced by the boat’s mate and at least one other officer, a free-forall erupted. White crewmen attacked a group of blacks that included the cook, now armed with a knife, the steward, also armed with a knife, and several waiters. After the initial clash, the black crewmen, except for the steward, fled the fray. The steward, holding a sixteen-inch knife from the kitchen, stood alone to face the white crewmen, who quickly overwhelmed him and were about to cut his throat when the boat’s clerk, armed with a gun, threatened to shoot the first man that moved toward the steward. That ended the confrontation, at least temporarily, but the threat of violence remained. Not long after that incident, six of the Aunt Letty’s free-black crew members quit their jobs and went ashore after the boat’s mate declared that he would “kill every nigger on board the boat.”

Much of the racial animosity between crew members arose from white resentment over steamboat owners’ employment of slaves and free blacks at a cost cheaper than the wages of white crewmen, which inspired in white workers a fear that their jobs would be lost to blacks. In an effort to reduce racial friction and violence aboard their vessels, some captains resorted to hiring cabin crews that were either all white or all black.

One usual device for avoiding friction between black and white crewmen, in accordance with the social norms of the time, was to segregate crew

Cotton bales piled high on the decks of the steamer William Garig, docked at Baton Rouge. The bales were brought aboard the steamboats by roustabouts and were stacked by the boat’s deckhands under the direction of the boat’s first mate. Deckhands also stowed other freight, either in the boat’s hold or on deck, and retrieved it when the freight’s destination was reached (Library of Congress).

members during meals, not only by race but by the crewmen’s status in the steamboats’ work force. On the lower Mississippi, cabin passengers generally were served first, then, at separate sittings, the boats’ officers were served, then white servants and black passengers, then black crew members. Black passengers were not allowed to occupy staterooms and were restricted to the boats’ main deck. One contemporary account reports that the dining sequence was as follows: “the passengers, one set after another, and then the pilots, clerks, mates and engineers, and then the free colored people, and then the waiters, chambermaids, and passengers’ body servants.”5

Crewmen not included in any of those groups ate as best they could from the leftovers of diners who had had their fill. One account reports that the feeding procedure was for the roustabouts, the lowest workers in the steamboat crews’ pecking order, to grab what they could from leftovers placed on the main deck in pans, meats in one, bread and cake in another and jellies and custards in a third. The low-status crewmen were summoned to their food with a cry of “Grub pile!” and after they had taken what they could, they would sit on the deck and eat.

Brawn was the main requisite for the roustabouts’ job, which required the roustabouts to strong-arm freight onto and off of the boats. Nimbleness was a big plus, because of the danger of slipping off narrow gangplanks while carrying freight aboard and ending up in the river, which sometimes resulted in roustabouts drowning. Once brought aboard by the roustabouts, the freight, including weighty, cumbersome bales of cotton, was stowed by the deckhands, either in the hold of the vessel or on deck, under the direction of the mate. Stacking cotton bales was an important part of the deckhands’ job, and until the 1840s, when the steam engine was adapted for hoisting the bales, it was done manually, using capstans to lift and precisely stack the bales. Deckhands also retrieved items of freight from stowage when they reached their destinations.

Deckhands were used, too, by the pilot to take soundings of the water’s depth and to call back to him the measurements. The depth was measured in fathoms, six feet to a fathom, using a thirty-foot rope that was dropped overboard and allowed to sink to the river bottom. One detailed account of the sounding procedure describes the rope as weighted with a twelve-inchlong pipe about an inch and a half in diameter, into which a length of chain was inserted and held in place with lead that was poured into the pipe. The end of the rope was tied to a link of the chain that extended from the pipe. Markers were affixed to the rope, called a “lead line,” to indicate the water’s depth as the weight sank into the river. Four feet from the end of the line was a piece of white flannel that was woven into the rope. At six feet from the end there was a piece of leather attached to the line, and at nine feet was a piece of red cloth. At twelve feet — mark twain — there was a piece of leather split into two thongs. At eighteen feet — mark three — there was a piece of leather split into three thongs, and at mark four there was a leather strip with a round hole in it. Those markers were readily identified even in darkness by the leadsman, the deckhand manning the lead line, and he called out the depth as the weight sank and the line slipped through his hands. When the leadsman called, “Mark twain!” he was telling the pilot that the water was two fathoms, or twelve feet, deep. “Quarter less three” meant the water was a quarter of a fathom less than three fathoms, or sixteen and a half feet, deep. “Half twain” meant the water was two and a half fathoms, or fifteen feet, deep. A depth shallower than a “quarter less twain” was measured in feet. A depth of more than “mark four”— twenty-four feet — was reported by the leadsman as “No bottom!” That was the call the pilot yearned to hear.

Measurements differed according to whether the weighted pipe lay horizontal on the river bottom or stood upright, with only its end touching the bottom. In some cases that difference could be critical. When the pipe rested horizontal on the bottom, the measurement was known as “laying lead.” When the pipe was vertical, it was called “standing lead.”

When a depth measurement was desired by the pilot, he would sound a whistle or bell, once for the measurement to be taken on the starboard side, twice for the larboard side. The soundings would be taken about every one hundred feet as the boat moved through the water. The leadsman, who ordinarily was some distance from the pilot standing atop the boat in the pilothouse, had to make certain he could be heard, even through the noise of wind and rain. To do so, leadsmen used chants when they called out the measurements, singing their own tunes and rhythms that they felt expressed the various depths of the river, always holding their notes to be sure their reports of the measurements were understood. On the Mississippi’s largest steamers the distance between the leadsman, down near the surface of the river, and the pilothouse was so great that the measurements were relayed from the leadsman to a deckhand posted closer to the pilothouse, who would then repeat the leadsman’s call. When the steamer was out of danger, having moved into deeper water, the pilot with a signal would end the soundings.

For times when the river was unusually low there was a more cautious procedure for sounding, which is detailed by Samuel Clemens in Life on the Mississippi. The boat would tie up to shore, he explains, and the pilot who was not on duty would take a hand-picked crew of deckhands and with them would leave the steamer, board its yawl — or a special sounding boat if the steamer was big and posh enough — and row out ahead of the steamer, searching for a channel that would allow the steamboat to get over the menacing sand bar that lay before them. At night, the yawl crewmen would find their way through the river’s blackness in the light of the yawl’s lantern. In the pilothouse the pilot on duty would watch the sounding crew’s movement through a telescope and by means of signals with the boat’s whistle would direct the sounding crew to test the water’s depth in one direction or another. When the yawl approached the shallow spot — the shoal place — the rowers would slow the yawl and the off-duty pilot would repeatedly measure the water’s depth with a pole ten or twelve feet long until he found the shallowest place. He would then order the yawl stopped and have the crew drop a buoy overboard.

At that, the yawl’s crewmen would stand their oars straight up to signal the pilot in the pilothouse, and he would give a blast of the boat’s whistle to acknowledge the yawl’s signal. “The steamer comes creeping carefully down,” Clemens relates, “is pointed straight for the buoy, husbands her power for the coming struggle, and presently, at the critical moment, turns on all her steam and goes grinding and wallowing over the buoy and sand and gains the deep water beyond.”6 At night a paper lantern with a lighted candle in it was placed atop the buoy, its glow visible for a mile or more.

Or maybe the steamer doesn’t make it across the sandbar, Clemens conceded. In that case the steamer would rest there on the sandbar until its crew sparred it off, a procedure that tediously lifted the boat, with the aid of steam power, and shoved it ahead inches at a time, until the boat finally escaped the sandbar after many hours or even days.

Sometimes a buoy was not used, and instead of heading for the buoy, the steamboat would simply follow the yawl at a safe distance and at a cautious speed. Clemens claimed there was often a great deal of fun and excitement that went along with sounding in the yawl, particularly if done on a beautiful summer day. But in the winter, he said, the cold and the danger took most of the fun out of it.

Other responsibilities of the deckhands included manning the ropes to tie up and to cast off at landing sites, as well as keeping the main deck clean and pumping out water that had seeped into the hold. Individual deckhands also served as night watchmen, taking turns at patrolling the deck during the night, alert for fire or any other danger to the vessel. The typical Mississippi River steamboat would have forty or so deckhands in its crew.

Firemen, the crewmen who kept the furnaces fueled, were part of the deck crew. Most were negroes. The work was so physically demanding that many boat officers considered the fireman’s job to be for blacks only. One eyewitness described them at their labors. “The immense engine fires,” she wrote, “are all on deck, eight or nine apertures all in a row ... like yawning fiery throats, and beside each throat stood a negro naked to his middle, who flung in firewood. Pieces of wood were passed onward to these feeders by other negroes, who, standing on a lofty stack of firewood, threw down with vigorous arms food for the monsters on deck.”7

It wasn’t only the stoking of the fires, moving four-foot-long logs from stacks on the deck and tossing them into the roaring furnaces, that made the job laborious; it was the hauling of wood onto the boats from riverside woodyards. Steamers burned six or more cords of wood a day, and the boats had to stop periodically to take on more fuel, often loading twenty or more cords onto the vessel each time it stopped for refueling. It was the firemen’s task to hand-carry the wood aboard, sometimes aided by deck passengers who had paid discounted fares on the condition that they would help with wooding, as the wood-toting task was called. The firemen and whatever helpers were assisting them would line up in a long queue and file off the boat on a gangplank, or landing stage, trudge up the levee and gather into their arms several of the four-foot logs, turn around and plod back down onto the boat and stack their burdens in piles near the furnaces, then go back, again and again, for more armloads until the wooding was completed. That work, of necessity, was carried on day or night, wintry or warm, dry or raining. Firemen were also required to clean out the furnaces and haul away the accumulated ashes. For their demanding work they received wages slightly higher than those paid other members of the deck crew. Around the middle of the nineteenth century deckhands and roustabouts were paid about thirty dollars a month, and firemen were paid about thirty-five dollars a month.

Over time, a faster system of taking on wood aboard the steamers was developed. It involved the use of a flatboat, or scow, loaded with twenty or more cords of wood, to be towed alongside the steamer and the wood transferred from the flatboat to the steamer while the two vessels moved upstream together. A contract for the wood would be made in advance of the fueling, the date and time of the steamer’s arrival being specified, and the flatboat would be waiting, day or night, for the steamboat, which would pause only long enough for the flatboat to be tied up to it. As the two vessels proceeded upriver, the steamer’s team of wood bearers would toss or carry the pieces of wood from the flatboat to the steamboat. The whole process, employing as many as forty men, would take about thirty minutes, the steamboat continuing its movement all the while, and when all the wood had been transferred to the steamboat, the towlines were cast off and the flatboat, manned by two crewmen of its own, would be allowed to drift downriver back to the wood yard with the current, the two crewmen guiding it with a long steering oar at each end of the craft. The distance it covered would usually be no more than five or six miles. Steamers paid a premium for the wood when such wood-boats were used. The system was seldom employed on downriver trips, for short of being towed, there was no way for the flatboats to return to their woodyards.

Cooks were another group of crewmen who worked on the main deck — and not under the best of conditions. George Byron Merrick in his recounting of steamboat operations on the upper Mississippi reports that there was a popular saying that if you wanted to save on the meals that a passenger was entitled to on his trip, you would take him through the kitchen the first thing after he came aboard. The implication being, Merrick pointed out, that after seeing the food in the process of preparation, passengers would have little appetite for it when it came to their tables. Merrick claimed it would be unfair to the average steamboat steward to accept the saying as wholly justified, but, he acknowledged, “it would be stretching the truth to assert that it was without foundation.” Steamboat kitchens in which meats and vegetables were prepared were cramped — usually measuring no more than ten by twenty feet — congested, messy and almost continually busy.

The cooks were required to turn out three meals a day for three to four hundred people, including passengers and crew, starting with an earlymorning breakfast for which preparations began at 3 A.M. As soon as breakfast was over, the menu for dinner was written down by the steward and turned over to the chief cook, and efforts were begun to round up whatever was needed, often requiring time to take on provisions at the steamer’s next stop. Pigs, lambs and chickens were taken aboard live and slaughtered and dressed on the boat by assistant cooks. Chickens, taken from their coops, their necks wrung or broken on the iron rim of a barrel, were plunged into a barrelful of scalding water drawn from the steamer’s boilers and then had their feathers plucked from their steaming bodies before being eviscerated and their parts prepared for cooking, the process sometimes reaching a rate of a hundred and fifty chickens an hour, all done within the purview of the cooks and their bustling kitchens, reeking of many odors and aromas simultaneously.

On the other side of the boat was the bakers’ and pastry cooks’ kitchen, no bigger but far more inviting. It was, according to Merrick, the showplace of the boat. “Most stewards,” he wrote, perhaps revealing then popular tastes in food, “are shrewd enough to employ pastry cooks who are masters of their profession, men who take pride not only in the excellence of their bread, biscuit, and pie crust, but also in the spotlessness of their workshops. They are proud to receive visits from the lady passengers, who can appreciate not only the out-put but the appearance of the galley. It is a good advertisement for the boat, and the steward himself encourages such visits, while discouraging like calls at the opposite side.”8

Cooks sometimes worked eighteen-hour days, often in torturous heat, from early morning till the middle of the evening when all their pots and pans were again clean and put away for the next day’s use. The cook designated as first cook was the head of the kitchen, directing and overseeing a staff that might total as many as four cooks, depending on the size of the boat and its passenger-carrying capacity. On small steamers there might be as few as two cooks, including the first cook, and those two did everything the kitchen operation required. The first cook also did the hiring and firing of his subordinate cooks and paid them their wages from funds provided by the captain. The man lowest in the cooks’ pecking order was responsible for the most onerous kitchen duties — lighting the fires, washing pots and pans, and assembling the piles of leftovers from which ordinary crewmen ate. First cooks were able to bargain with captains for their pay and in the 1850s made as much as fifty dollars a month, sometimes more. Subordinate cooks received considerably less.

Above the main deck toiled the cabin crew, an assortment of workers whose primary duty was to make the cabin passengers comfortable and keep them happy. As important as any members of the cabin crew were the chambermaids, usually the only female members of the steamboat’s complement of workers and usually numbering no more than two aboard an average size steamer. Not only did they keep the passengers’ staterooms clean and orderly — which included making up beds, emptying washbowls and refilling water pitchers — they also washed the bed linen, towels, tablecloths and napkins, and often the passengers’ and boat officers’ clothes. The washing was done in wooden tubs, and the items were hung up to dry along the rails or on the main deck. Whatever needed pressing the chambermaids ironed with irons heated on coal fires and when all items were clean and pressed, the chambermaids returned the clothes to the passengers and the boat’s linen to the steward. Working from early morning till late evening, chambermaids had good reason to believe the maxim that “woman’s work is never done.”

Their pay might run as high as twenty-five dollars a month, but they also received tips. Passengers tipped them for washing and ironing their clothes, for assisting women passengers with getting dressed and for other help. Slave workers ordinarily were not tipped, but passengers often couldn’t tell who was and who wasn’t a slave and tipped them regardless. One chambermaid, a free black woman, reported that she made six to seven dollars in tips on each trip between New Orleans and Natchez.

Like other members of the crew, chambermaids received what was in effect free room and board while working on the steamers. They slept on the floor of the main cabin, or saloon, after the cabin passengers had turned in for the night or, on trips when there were empty staterooms, they were allowed to sleep in the passengers’ berths.

Sexual abuse was an occupational hazard for chambermaids. They were vulnerable to unwanted advances and even assault from ordinary crewmen, passengers and the boats’ officers, including the captain. Slave women were particularly vulnerable, with little or no legal protection, but after the Civil War and the elimination of slavery, black women resorted to the courts to protect them and punish their abusers, not often with satisfactory results, however.

The boats’ porters carried the cabin passengers’ baggage aboard and off the boats, under the supervision of the clerk. They issued baggage-claim checks to passengers and stowed the bags that were not kept in the passengers’ staterooms. While the boats were in motion, the porters had little to do, but at every stop where cabin passengers came aboard or disembarked, they leaped into action to assist.

Waiters were almost a separate class of crew members. Their jobs, more so than the others, put them in continued contact with cabin passengers, which included the traveling elite of the times, and thus required of the waiters a certain poise, intelligence and appearance, as was the case with William Wells Brown. Appropriately dressed to serve the boats’ first-class passengers, waiters usually wore suits or dark pants and white coats. They set the dining tables, took food orders, served the food and drinks and bussed the tables. They also tended the coal stoves that warmed the saloon, set up cots in the saloon for cabin passengers who bought their tickets after the staterooms had already filled, sometimes helped the cooks with food preparation, ran errands for the steward and kept the saloon clean. They worked under the direction of the steward, who hired them. The job of steamboat waiter, along with that of steward and chief cook, carried prestige in the black communities along the river, and it often led to promotion, by the captain, to steward, a position highly prized and well rewarded.

Steamboat barbers were usually free blacks, though sometimes slaves, who contracted with the boat owner and rented space for their shops and worked for fees and tips. Bartenders, or barkeepers, were usually white, bright, young and personable. “ It was required by their employers,” George Merrick wrote, “that they be pleasant and agreeable fellows, well dressed, and well mannered. They must know how to concoct a few of the more commonplace fancy drinks affected by the small number of travellers who wished such beverage — whiskey cocktails for the Eastern trade, and mint juleps for the Southern.”9 Western men, Merrick claimed, took their whiskey straight, “four fingers deep.”

Merrick also claimed that “in the old days on the river”— before the Civil War — whiskey was considered a necessity, including aboard Mississippi River steamboats. “It was a saying on the river,” he wrote, “that if a man owned a bar on a popular packet, it was better than possessing a gold mine.... Men who owned life leases of steamboat bars willed the same to their sons, as their richest legacies.”10 It was not unusual for a person to hold leases on bars aboard several steamboats, hiring bartenders to operate them for him while he strictly supervised them. In the 1860s, Claiborne Greene Wolff, who had once been a steamboat steward, was the co-owner of the leases to bars on some thirty steamers.

Tending to confirm Merrick’s assertion of the popularity of whiskey on Mississippi River steamers was the practice of providing a free supply of it to crewmen as they worked. Like rum on sailing vessels, whiskey rations for crewmen on Mississippi River vessels, first keelboats and then steamers, were a means of attracting workers to burdensome jobs as well as a way to ease the pains of their tasks. “We always gave our men, black or white, as much as they wanted,” the captain of the Ben Sherrod admitted. “[We] kept a barrel of whiskey tapped on the boiler deck for them, have always done so, and let one of the watch draw for his mates. I have done the same for the last ten years.”11

After the Ben Sherrod caught fire during a race between New Orleans and Natchez in May 1837, that same captain, named Castleman, denied that whiskey was part of the cause. “My acquaintances will vouch for my discipline about drunkenness being severe,” he said. “Indeed I am generally blamed for being rigid with my hands.” He conceded the truth of reports that his firemen were singing and dancing when the fire broke out, but stated that “they always do when on duty,” apparently as a means of removing some of the hardness from the work.

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