Slave Life on the Rivers


Cincinnati Riverfront, September 1848
Detail, Plate 4, of Daguerreotype View of Cincinnati. Taken from Newport, Ky., by Charles Fontayne and William Porter
Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

In a time when slavery had become a focal point of American culture and conflict, commerce of the Ohio and Mississippi passed between northern and southern boundaries. The muddied waters of the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers have become an iconic image in American history. Steamboats traversed these murky waterways shipping goods and people back and forth. The steam engine had become a masterful tool during the 1800’s that not only fueled boats but factories and trains. Slaves were also shipped on Steamboats into slavery down south. Slaves also became crew on these Riverboats and even created a culture and society that differed from the majority of the slave population.

For starters Steamboat slaves, had a considerable amount of freedom, as compared to the average plantation slave. Unlike plantation slaves, who for the most part lived within a self-sustaining community; river slaves were given the ability to walk and work around the steamboat freely and when boats docked, were sometimes given the right to go ashore and either collect supplies for the ship or unload cargo, all of this with the captain’s permission and supervision of course. This improved freedom, gave rise to songs and ballads that described river life as freeing. Edwin Pearce Christy a Philadelphian composer and founder of the blackface minstrel group, Christy’s Minstrels, composed the song Down the River, Down the Ohio in 1854. The song has an upbeat tempo and cheerful demeanor. Stanza 5 is as follows.

O, the massa is proud of the old breadbore,

For it brings  him plenty of tin.

O, the crew they is darkies, the car ­ go is corn,

And the sentry comes tumbling in;

There is plenty on board for the darkies to eat

And der’s something to drink and to smoke,

Der’s the ban ­ jo, the bones and the tambourine

Der’s the [song] and the comic joke. [1]

As you can see the song has wording that fit the linguistics of a slave and the whole songs seems to show only the positives of river life. Unfortunately songs like Down the River, Down the Ohio, Zip Coon and even Oh! Susanna played off the hardships that was slave river life. These songs all composed by white men, tried to play slave life off as enjoyable but did not reference the hardships. Boiler explosions on these Steamboats happened more than was originally thought, and most slaves worked in the boiler rooms, these explosions either killed them instantly or trapped them below deck as the ship sunk. Even in Oh! Susanna written by Stephen Foster in Cincinnati in the year 1848, he reference a steamboat explosion on a ship called the Telegraph that killed 500 blacks, but play it off as nothing and continue on with the rest of the song. We also saw increased floggings on steamships and an increased rate of illiteracy. These songs did little to show steamboat life as accurate and even contributed to misconceptions about river life. Slaves on the rivers not only lived hard lives just like their plantation brothers and sisters, but also lived closer to freedom, stopping at cities like Cincinnati unable to get off permanently and live a free life.

[1] Christy, Edwin Pearce. “”Down the River, Down the Ohio”.” Public Domain Music. (accessed April 21, 2014).

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