Recollections of the Last Ten Years

by Timothy Flint

[Timothy Flint travelled on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers a few years after the Roosevelts made their pioneering trip.   In the following excerpt from his memoirs, he describes river traffic as he observed it in about 1816, and he discusses the increasing use of steamboats by that time. Also, he lived in New Madrid (now in Missouri) a few years after the earthquakes, and his memoirs include what he learned from the longtime residents there about their experiences and what the Roosevelts would have seen as they passed by. -smv]

[In about 1816], one hundred boats have been numbered, that landed in one day at the mouth of the Bayan, at New Madrid. I have strolled to the point on a spring evening, and seen them arriving in fleets. The boisterous gaiety of the hands, the congratulations, the moving picture of life on board the boats, in the numerous animals, large and small, which they carry, their different loads, the evidence of the increasing agriculture of the country above, and more than all, the immense distances which they have already come, and those which they have still to go, afforded to me copious sources of meditation. You can name no point from the numerous rivers of the Ohio and the Mississippi, from which some of these boats have not come In one place there are boats loaded with planks, from the pine forests of the southwest of New York In another quarter there are the Yankee notions of Ohio. From Kentucky, pork, flour, whiskey, hemp, tobacco, bagging, and bale rope. From Tennessee there are the same articles, together with great quantities of cotton. From Missouri and Illinois, cattle and horses, the same articles generally as from Ohio, together with peltry and lead from Missouri. Some boats are loaded with corn in the ear and in bulk; others with barrels of apples and potatoes.  Some have loads of cider, and what they call "cider royal," or cider that has been strengthened by boiling or freezing. There are dried fruits, every kind of spirits manufactured in these regions, and in short, the products of the ingenuity and agriculture of the whole upper country of the west. They have come from regions, thousands of miles apart. They have floated to a common point of union. The surfaces of the boats cover some acres.  Dunghill fowls are fluttering over the roofs as an invariable appendage. The chanticleer raises his piercing note. The swine utter their cries. The cattle low. The horses trample as in their stables. There are boats fitted on purpose, and loaded entirely with turkeys, that having little else to do, gobble most furiously.  The hands travel about from boat to boat, make inquiries, and acquaintances and form alliances to yield mutual assistance to each other, on their descent from this to New Orleans. After an hour or two passed in this way, they spring on shore to raise the wind in town. It is well for the people of the village, if they do not become riotous in the course of the evening; in which case I have often seen the most summary and strong measures taken. About midnight the uproar is all hushed. The fleet unites once more at Natchez, or New Orleans, and although they live on the same river they may perhaps never meet each other again on the earth.

Next morning at the first dawn, the bugles sound. Everything in and about the boats, that has life is in motion. The boats, in half an hour, are all under way. In a little while they have all disappeared, and nothing is seen, as before they came, but the regular current of the river. In passing down the Mississippi, we often see a number of boats lashed and floating together. I was once on board a fleet of eight, that were in this way moving on together. It was a considerable walk, to travel over the roofs of this floating town. On board of one boat they were killing swine. In another they had apples, cider, nuts, and dried fruit. One of the boats was a retail or dram shop. It seems that the object in lashing so many boats, had been to barter, and obtain supplies These confederacies often commence in a frolic, and end in a quarrel, in which case the aggrieved party dissolves the partnership by unlashing, and managing, his own boat in his own way. While this fleet of boats is floating separately, but each carried by the same current, nearly at the same rate, visits take place from boat to boat in skiffs.

While I was at New Madrid, a large tinner's establishment floated there in a boat. In it all the different articles of tin ware were manufactured and sold by wholesale and retail. There were three large apartments, where the different branches of the art were carried on in this floating manufactory. When they had mended all the tin, and vended all that they could sell in one place, they floated on to another. A still more extraordinary manufactory, we were told, was floating down the Ohio, and shortly expected at New Madrid. Aboard this were manufactured axes, scythes, and all other iron tools of this description, and in it horses were shod. In short it was a complete blacksmith's shop of a higher order, and it is said that they jestingly talked of having a trip-hammer worked by a horse power on board. I have frequently seen in this region a dry goods shop in a boat, with its articles very handsomely arranged on shelves. Nor would the delicate hands of the vender have disgraced the spruce clerk behind our city counters. It is now common to see flat-boats worked by a bucket wheel, and a horse power, after the fashion of steam-boat movement. Indeed, every spring brings forth new contrivances of this sort, the result of the farmer's meditations over his winter's fire.

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The advantage of steam-boats, great as it is every where, can no where be appreciated as in this country. The distant points of the Ohio and Mississippi used to be separated from New Orleans by an internal obstruction, far more formidable in the passing than the Atlantic. If I may use a hard word, they are now brought into juxtaposition. To feel what an invention this is for these regions, one must have seen and felt, as I have seen and felt, the difficulty and danger of forcing a boat against the current of these mighty rivers, on which a progress of ten miles in a day, is a good one. Indeed those huge and unwieldy boats, the barges in which a great proportion of the articles from New Orleans used to be transported to the upper country, required twenty or thirty hands to work them. I have seen them day after day, on the lower portions of the Mississippi, where there was no other way of working them up, than carrying out a cable half a mile in length, in advance of the barge, and fastening it to a tree. The hands on board then draw it up to the tree. While this is transacting, another yawl, still in advance of that, has ascended to a higher tree, and made another cable fast to it, to be ready to be drawn upon, as soon as the first is coiled. This is the most dangerous and fatiguing way of all, and six miles advance in a day, is good progress.

It is now refreshing, and imparts a feeling of energy and power to the beholder, to see the large and beautiful steam-boats scudding up the eddies, as though on the wing; and when they have run out the eddy, strike the current. The foam bursts in a sheet quite over the deck. She quivers for a moment with the concussion; and then, as though she had collected her energy, and vanquished her enemy, she resumes her stately march, and mounts against the current, five or six miles an hour. I have travelled in this waj for days together, more than a hundred miles in a day, against the current of the Mississippi. The difficulty of ascending, used to be the only circumstance of a voyage that was dreaded in the anticipation. This difficulty now disappears. A family in Pittsburg wishes to make a social visit to a kindred family on Red River. The trip is but two thousand miles. They all go together; servants, baggage or "plunder," as the phrase is, to any amount. In twelve days they reach the point proposed.  Even the return is but a short voyage. Surely the people of this country will have to resist strong temptations, if they do not become a social people.

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[The area around New Madrid] had almost expired, had been resuscitated, and had again exhibited symptoms of languishment, a number of times. 

But up to the melancholy period of the earthquakes, it had advanced with the slow but certain progress of every thing that feels the influence of American laws and habits. By these terrible phenomena, the settlement again received a shock which portended at first entire desertion, but from which, as the earthquakes have lessened in frequency and violence, it is again slowly recovering. From all the accounts, corrected one by another, and compared with the very imperfect narratives which were published, I infer that the shock of these earthquakes in the immediate vicinity of the centre of their force, must have equalled in their terrible heavings of the earth, any thing of the kind that has been recorded. I do not believe that the public have ever yet had any adequate idea of the violence of the concussions. We are accustomed to measure this by the buildings overturned, and the mortality that results. Here the country was thinly settled. The houses, fortunately, were frail and of logs, the most difficult to overturn that could be constructed. Yet, as it was, whole tracts were plunged into the bed of the river The grave-yard at New Madrid, with all its sleeping tenants, was precipitated into the bend of the stream. Most of the houses were thrown down. Large lakes of twenty miles in extent were made in an hour. Other lakes were drained. The whole country, to the mouth of the Ohio in one direction and to the St Francis in the other, including a front of three hundred miles, was convulsed to such a degree as to create lakes and islands, the number of which is not yet known, -- to cover a tract of many miles in extent, near the Little Prairie, with water three or four feet deep; and when the water disappeared, a stratum of sand of the same thickness was left in its place.   The trees split in the midst, lashed one with another, and are still visible over great tracts of country, inclining in every direction and in every angle to the earth and the horizon. They described the undulation of the earth as resembling waves, increasing in elevation as they advanced, and when they had attained a certain fearful height, the earth would burst, and vast volumes of water, and sand, and pit-coal were discharged, as high as the tops of the trees. I have seen a hundred of these chasms, which remained fearfully deep, although in a very tender alluvial soil, and after a lapse of seven years. Whole districts were covered with white sand, so as to become uninhabitable. The water at first covered the whole country, particularly at the Little Prairie; and it must have been, indeed, a scene of horror, in these deep forests and in the gloom of the darkest night, and by wading in the water to the middle, to fly from these concussions, which were occurring every few hours, with a noise equally terrible to the beasts and birds, as to men. The birds themselves lost all power and disposition to fly, and retreated to the bosoms of men, their fellow sufferers in this general convulsion. A few persons sunk in these chasms, and were providentially extricated. One person died of affright. One perished miserably on an island, which retained its original level in the midst of a wide lake created by the earthquake. The hat and clothes of this man were found. A number perished, who sunk with their boats in the river. A bursting of the earth just below the village of New Madrid, arrested this mighty stream in its course, and caused a reflux of its waves, by which in a little time a great number of boats were swept by the ascending current into the mouth of the  Bayou, carried out and left upon the dry earth, when the accumulating waters of the river had again cleared their current.

There was a great number of severe shocks, but two series of concussions were particularly terrible; far more so than the rest. And they remark that the shocks were clearly distinguishable into two classes; those in which the motion was horizontal, and those in which it was perpendicular. The latter were attended with the explosions, and the terrible mixture of noises that preceded and accompanied the earthquakes, in a louder degree, but were by no means so desolating and destructive as the other. When they were felt, the houses crumbled, the trees waved together, the ground sunk, and all the destructive phenomena were more conspicuous. In the interval of the earthquakes there was one evening, and that a brilliant and cloudless one, in which the western sky was a continued glare of vivid flashes of lightning, and of repeated peals of subterranean thunder, seeming to proceed as the flashes did, from below the horizon. They remark that the night, so conspicuous for subterranean thunder, was the same period in which the fatal earthquakes at Carraccas, occurred, and they seem to suppose these flashes and that event parts of the same scene.

One result from these terrific phenomena was very obvious. The people of this village had been noted for their profligacy and impiety. In the midst of these scenes of terror, all, Catholics and Protestants, praying and profane, became of one religion, and partook of one feeling. Two hundred people, speaking English, French, and Spanish, crowded together, their visages pale, the mothers embracing their children, -- as soon as the omen that preceded the earthquakes became visible, as soon as the air became a little obscured, as though a sudden mist arose from the east, -- all, in their different languages and forms, but all deeply in earnest, betook themselves to the voice of prayer. The cattle, as much terrified as the rational creation, crowded about the assemblage of men, and seemed to demand protection, or community of danger. One lady ran as far as her strength would permit, and then fell exhausted and fainting, from which she never recovered. The general impulse, when the shocks commenced, was to run; and yet when they were at the severest point of their motion, the people were thrown on the ground at almost every step. A French gentleman told me that in escaping from his house, the largest in the village, he found he had left an infant behind, and he attempted to mount up the raised piazza to recover the child, and was thrown down a dozen times in succession. The venerable lady in whose house we lodged, was extricated from the ruins of her house, having lost every thing that appertained to her establishment, which could be broken or destroyed.  The people at the Little Prairie, who suffered most, had their settlement, -- which consisted of a hundred families, and which was located in a wide and very deep and fertile bottom, broken up. When I passed it, and stopped to contemplate the traces of the catastrophe which remained after seven years, the crevices where the earth had burst were sufficiently manifest, and the whole region was covered with sand to the depth of two or three feet. The surface was red with oxided pyrites of iron, and the sand-blows, as they were called, were abundantly mixed with this kind of earth, and with pieces of pit-coal. But two families remained of the whole settlement. The object  seems to have been in the first paroxysms of alarm to escape to the hills at the distance of twenty-five miles. The depth of the water that covered the surface soon precluded escape.

The people without an exception were unlettered backwoodsmen of the class least addicted to reasoning And yet it is remarkable how ingeniously, and conclusively they reasoned from apprehension sharpened by fear. They remarked that the chasms in the earth were in direction from southwest to northeast, and they were of an extent to swallow up not only men, but houses, "down quick into the pit." And these chasms occurred frequently within intervals of half a mile. They felled the tallest trees at right angles to the chasms, and stationed themselves upon the felled trees. By this invention all were saved. For the chasms occurred more than once under these felled trees. Meantime their cattle and their harvests, both here and at New Madrid, principally perished. The people no longer dared to dwell in houses. They passed this winter, and the succeeding one in bark booths and camps like those of the Indians, of so light a texture as not to expose the inhabitants to danger in case of their being thrown down. Such numbers of laden boats were wrecked above, and the lading driven by the eddy into the mouth of the Bayou, at the village, which makes the harbour, that the people were amply supplied with every article of provision. Flour, beef, pork, bacon, butter, cheese, apples, in short, every thing that is carried down the river, was in such abundance, as scarcely to be matters of sale. Many boats, that came safely into the Bayou, were disposed of by their affrighted owners for a trifle. For the shocks still continued every day; and the owners, deeming the whole country below to be sunk, were glad to return to the upper country as fast as possible. In effect, a great many islands were sunk, new ones raised, and the bed of the river very much changed in every respect.

After the earthquake had moderated in violence, the country exhibited a melancholy aspect of chasms of sand covering the earth, of trees thrown down or lying at an angle of forty-five degrees, or split in the middle. The earthquakes still recurred at short intervals, so that the people had no confidence to rebuild good houses, or chimnies of brick. The Little Prairie settlement was broken up. The Great Prairie settlement, one of the most flourishing before on the west bank of the Mississippi, was much diminished. New Madrid again dwindled to insignificance and decay; the people trembling in their miserable hovels at the distant and melancholy rumbling of the approaching shocks. The general government passed an act allowing the inhabitants of this country to locate the same quantity of lands, that they possessed here, in any part of the territory, where the lands were not yet covered by any claim. These claims passed into the hands of speculators, and were never of any substantial benefit to the possessors. When I resided there, this district, formerly so level, rich, and beautiful, had the most melancholy of all aspects of decay, the tokens of former cultivation and habitancy, which were now mementos of desolation and desertion. Large and beautiful orchards left uninclosed, houses uninhabited, deep chasms in the earth, obvious at frequent intervals, -- such was the face of the country, although the people had for years become so accustomed to frequent and small shocks, which did no essential injury,  that the lands were gradually rising again in value, and New Madrid was slowly rebuilding, with frail buildings, adapted to the apprehensions of the people.  

Made possible by the Rivers Institute and the
History Department of Hanover College.


How to cite this excerpt:  Timothy Flint, Recollections of the Last Ten Years (Boston: Cummings & Hilliard, 1826), pp. 103-8, 221-28, excerpt available at