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7 A Great Business Is Done Once American and European migrants surged over the Appalachian Mountains in the late eighteenth century, they pursued commercial opportunities. But “markets cannot affect the behavior of people if people lack access to them,” noted historian David Danbom. Rivers provided this access. Peddlers and flatboat stores met rural consumer needs until the development of towns and transport integrated western areas into an expanding national market. Steamboats allowed the cheap movement of goods and people up rivers and linked Missouri to other regions. These vessels utterly changed the economic life of the antebellum West, reducing travel time and slashing the cost of goods, providing access to a cornucopia of consumer items. Missourians took full advantage of the new opportunities provided by improved access to markets, collecting cattle for sale to overland migrants or selling surplus farm goods downriver. The Santa Fe trade, beginning in the 1820s, as well as migration to Oregon in the 1840s and 1850s, spurred the growth of towns and market demand in central Missouri. The California gold rush also encouraged the economic development of the state, rewarding many who produced for the market economy in central Missouri.1 In the 1820s, minister Timothy Flint wrote that the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers contained scores of boats full of Americans selling products from Kentucky , Illinois, and Missouri. “The products and ingenuity and agriculture of the whole upper country of the west” were for sale. Boats had arrived from regions thousands of miles apart, he noted with some exaggeration; sometimes a collection of these vessels covered a few acres. Flint wrote that boats loaded 116 chapter seven with planks from southwest New York mixed with “Yankee notions from Ohio.” Pork, flour, whiskey, hemp, and tobacco could be found in Kentucky boats. Illinois farmers sent cattle and horses, while Missourians exported furs and lead. Some boats, he recalled, were loaded with ears of corn or turkeys “that gobble most furiously,” while others had barrels of apples and potatoes or cider or dried fruits. “Every kind of spirit manufactured in these regions” was sold onboard as well. Henry Vest Bingham also noted the extensive commerce on rivers. He wrote of seventy or eighty keelboats and barges at St. Louis in June 1818. Bingham estimated that each boat could carry 30 to 100 tons of goods. Only one steamboat was docked in the city.2 The American drive to make money was shown by the great variety of goods and services for sale on these waterborne craft. Some boats operated as floating mercantile shops, while others were the equivalent of a floating tavern. While traveling on the Mississippi River, Flint found that more than 100 boats had landed in New Madrid, a small river town in southeast Missouri. He watched a “tinner’s establishment” float by, which made and sold various metal articles. Another vessel, a blacksmith’s shop, manufactured axes, scythes, and other iron tools. The aquatic blacksmith even shod horses. There was also a dry goods dealer on a boat. Indeed, Flint declared, every spring brought forth “new contrivances of this sort, the result of the farmer’s meditations over his winter’s fire.” Christian Schultz, traveling along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in 1807 and 1808, found a floating grain mill. The boat moved up and downstream “wherever [a] customer calls” and proved “valuable in a country so destitute of mill-seats such as this.” Missourian Thomas Beckwith also noted the commercial interests of western farmers. He recalled that farmers in western Kentucky had loaded boats with corn, hogs, cattle, lumber, or “whatever they had for sale.” Other flatboats sold “every thing you could buy in a store,” including wagons, plows, ropes, bells, silk, sugar, coffee, and molasses. These floating merchants tied up their boats near a town or village and remained for a few days, until the residents were supplied with the goods they wanted. Then the small ship headed downriver to another community.3 Another form of waterborne opportunity existed before the Civil War. Steamboats burned wood for fuel, and wood yards were stocked next to rivers . On the southern Mississippi River, slaves often prepared them. When the supply of fuel ran short, a steamboat pilot steered to the nearest wood lot. The boat tied up to a tree, with planks put down to serve as a gangway. Crew and A Great Business Is Done 117 deck passengers helped carry wood onboard. Deck passengers, often flatboat crewmen returning home upriver, received a 20...


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MARC Record
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