Posted by: oldsalt1942 | August 24, 2009

Shantyboats in the1870s

In 1875 Nathaniel H Bishop, and avid canoe adventurer, commissioned Captain George Bogart of Manahawken, New Jersey to build him a 12′ long Barnegat Bay “sneak box,” a hunting skiff common to that area of the north Atlantic coast for the cost of $25. Bishop would pay for the building materials himself along with all the gear, oars, sails, etc. He named the boat the Centennial Republic in honor of his proposed adventure of cruising the small boat from Pittsburgh, PA down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during the centennial celebration of the country.

This is a modern version of the boat posted because the illustration from the book didn’t publish correctly.


In 1879 Bishop published Four Months in a Sneakbox, a story of his adventure and one of the first books by a micro cruiser or camping cruiser, predating Harlan Hubard’s iconic books by eighty years.

Naturally it didn’t take long for Bishop to come across shantyboats and shantyboat communities and he gives the following description:

“By far the most interesting and peculiar features of a winter’s row down the Ohio are the life-studies offered by the occupants of the numerous shanty-boats daily encountered. They are sometimes called, and justly too, family-boats, and serve as the winter homes of a singular class of people, carrying their passengers and cargoes from the icy region of the Ohio to New Orleans. Their annual descent of the river resembles the migration of birds, and we invariably find those of a feather flocking together. It would be hard to trace these creatures to their lair; but the Alleghany and Monongahela region, with the towns of the upper Ohio, may be said to furnish most of them. Let them come from where they may (and we feel sure none will quarrel for the honor of calling them citizens), the fall of the leaf seems to be the signal for looking up winter-quarters, and the river with its swift current the inviting path to warmer suns and an easy life.

“The shanty-boatman looks to the river not only for his life, but also for the means of making that life pleasant; so he fishes in the stream for floating lumber in the form of boards, planks, and scantling for framing to build his home. It is soon ready. A scow, or flatboat, about twenty feet long by ten or twelve wide, is roughly constructed. It is made of two-inch planks spiked together. These scows are calked with oakum and rags, and the seams are made water-tight with pitch or tar. A small, low house is built upon the boat, and covers about two-thirds of it, leaving a cockpit at each end, in which the crews work the sweeps, or oars, which govern the motions of the shanty-boat. If the proprietor of the boat has a family, he puts its members on board,–not forgetting the pet dogs and cats,–with a small stock of salt pork, bacon, flour, potatoes, molasses, salt, and coffee. An old cooking-stove is set up in the shanty, and its sheet-iron pipe, projecting through the roof, makes a chimney a superfluity. Rough bunks, or berths, are constructed for sleeping-quarters; but if the family are the happy possessors of any furniture, it is put on board, and adds greatly to their respectability. A number of steel traps, with the usual double-barrelled gun, or rifle, and a good supply of ammunition, constitute the most important supplies of the shanty-boat, and are never forgotten. Of these family-boats alone I passed over two hundred on the Ohio.

“This rude, unpainted structure, with its door at each end of the shanty, and a few windows relieving the barrenness of its sides, makes a very comfortable home for its rough occupants.

“If the shanty-man be a widower or a bachelor, or even if he be a married man laboring under the belief that his wife and he are not true affinities, and that there is more war in the house than is good for the peace of the household, he looks about for a housekeeper. She must be some congenial spirit, who will fry his bacon and wash his shirts without murmuring. Having found one whom he fondly thinks will fill the bill,” he next proceeds to picture to her vivid imagination the delights of “drifting.” “Nothing to do,” he says, “but to float with the current, and eat fresh pork, and take a hand at euchre.” The woods, he tells her, are full of hogs. They shall fall an easy prey to his unfailing gun, and after them, when further south, the golden orange shall delight her thirsty soul, while all the sugar-cane she can chew shall be gathered for her. Add to these the luxury of plenty of snuff with which to rub her dainty gums, with the promise of tobacco enough to keep her pipe always full, and it will be hard to find among this class a fair one with sufficient strength of mind to resist such an offer; so she promises to keep house for him as long as the shanty-boat holds together.

“Her embarkation is characteristic. Whatever her attire, the bonnet is there, gay with flowers; a pack of cards is tightly grasped in her hand; while a worn, old trunk, tied with a cord and fondly called a “saratoga,” is hoisted on board; and so, for better or for worse, she goes forth to meet her fate, or, as she expresses it, “to find luck.”

“More than one quarrel usually occurs during the descent of the Mississippi, and by the time New Orleans is reached the shanty-boatman sets his quondam housekeeper adrift, where, in the swift current of life, she is caught by kindred spirits, and being introduced to city society as the Northern Lily, or Pittsburgh Rose, is soon lost to sight, and never returns to the far distant up-river country.

“Another shanty-boat is built by a party of young men suffering from impecuniosity. They are “out of a job,” and to them the charms of an independent life on the river is irresistible. Having pooled their few dollars to build their floating home, they descend to New Orleans as negro minstrels, trappers, or thieves, as necessity may demand.

“Cobblers set afloat their establishments, calling attention to the fact by the creaking sign of a boot; and here on the rushing river a man can have his heel tapped as easily as on shore.

“Tin-smiths, agents and repairers of sewing machines, grocers, saloon-keepers, barbers, and every trade indeed is here represented on these floating dens. I saw one circus-boat with a ring twenty-five feet in diameter upon it, in which a troop of horsemen, acrobats, and flying trapze artists performed while their boat was tied to a landing.

“The occupants of the shanty-boats float upon the stream with the current, rarely doing any rowing with their heavy sweeps. They keep steadily on their course till a milder climate is reached, when they work their clumsy craft into some little creek or river, and securely fasten it to the bank. The men set their well-baited steel traps along the wooded watercourse for mink, coons, and foxes. They give their whole attention to these traps, and in the course of a winter secure many skins. While in the Mississippi country, however, they find other game, and feast upon the hogs of the woods’ people. To prevent detection, the skin, with the swine-herd’s peculiar mark upon it, is stripped off and buried.

“When engaged in the precarious occupation of hog-stealing, the shanty- man is careful to keep a goodly number of the skins of wild animals stretched upon the outside walls of his cabin, so that visitors to hisboat may be led to imagine that he is an industrious and legitimate trapper, of high-toned feelings, and one “who wouldn’t stick a man’s hog for no money.” If there be a religious meeting in the vicinity of the shanty-boat, the whole family attend it with alacrity, and prove that their BELIEF in honest doctrines is a very different thing from their daily PRACTICE of the same. They join with vigor in the shoutings, and their “amens” drown all others, while their excitable natures, worked upon by the wild eloquence of the backwoods’ preacher, seem to give evidence of a firm desire to lead Christian lives, and the spectator is often deceived by their apparent earnestness and sincerity. Such ideas are, however, quickly dispelled by a visit to a shanty-boat, and a glimpse of these people “at home.”

“The great fleet of shanty-boats does not begin to reach New Orleans until the approach of spring. Once there, they find a market for the skins of the animals trapped during the winter, and these being sold for cash, the trapper disposes of his boat for a nominal sum to some one in need of cheap firewood, and purchasing lower-deck tickets for Cairo, or Pittsburgh, at from four to six dollars per head, places his family upon an up-river steamer, and returns with the spring birds to the Ohio River, to rent a small piece of ground for the season, where he can “make a crop of corn,” and raise some cabbage and potatoes, upon which to subsist until it be time to repeat his southern migration.

“In this descent of the river, many persons, who have clubbed together to meet the expenses of a shanty-boat life for the first time, and who are of a sentimental turn of mind, look upon the voyage as a romantic era in their lives. Visions of basking in the sunlight, feasting, and sleeping, dance before their benighted eyes; for they are not all of the low, ignorant class I have described. Professors, teachers, musicians, all drift at times down the river; and one is often startled at finding in the apparently rough crew men who seem worthy of a better fate. To these the river experiences are generally new, and the ribald jokes and low river slang, with the ever-accompanying cheap corn-whiskey and the nightly riots over cutthroat euchre, must be at first a revelation. Hundreds of these low fellows will swear to you that the world owes them a living, and that they mean to have it; that they are gentlemen, and therefore cannot work. They pay a good price for their indolence, as the neglect of their craft and their loose ideas of navigation seldom fail to bring them to grief before they even reach the Mississippi at Cairo. Their heavy, flat-bottomed boat gets impaled upon a snag or the sharp top of a sawyer; and as the luckless craft spins round with the current, a hole is punched through the bottom, the water rushes in and takes possession, driving the inexperienced crew to the little boat usually carried in tow for any emergency.

“Into this boat the shanty-men hastily store their guns, whiskey, and such property as they can save from the wreck, and making for the shore, hold a council of war. There, in the swift current, lies the center of their hopes, quickly settling in the deep water, soon to be seen no more. The fact now seems to dawn upon them for the first time that a little seamanship is needed even in descending a river, that with a little care their Noah’s Ark might have been kept afloat, and the treacherous “bob sawyer” avoided. This trap for careless sailors is a tree, with its roots held in the river’s bottom, and its broken top bobbing up and down with the undulations of the current. Boatmen give it the euphonious title of “bob sawyer” because of the bobbing and sawing motions imparted to it by the pulsations of the water.

“Destitute of means, these children of circumstance resolve never to say die. Their ship has gone down, but their pride is left, and they will not go home till they have “done” the river; and so, repairing to the first landing, they ship in pairs upon freighters descending the stream. Some months later they return to their homes with seedy habiliments but an enlarged experience, sadder but wiser men.

“And so the great flood of river life goes on, and out of this annual custom of shanty-boat migration a peculiar phase of American character is developed, a curious set of educated and illiterate nomads, as restless and unprofitable a class of inhabitants as can be found in all the great West.



  1. nowadays so many foreclosures
    I guess thousands of citizens will build shantyboats????

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