- Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom
In Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom, Robert Gudmestad examines the impact of the steamboat on the interior South in the five decades prior to the Civil War. Long before the railroad dominated travel and trade routes, the Mississippi River and its tributary "western waters" served as the region's connection to the outside world. Hundreds of steamboats plied these waters in the early nineteenth century and turned New Orleans, Memphis, Mobile, St. Louis, and Nashville into bustling cities. More important, Gudemestad notes, were the social, economic, and environmental changes that accompanied the rise of steamboat activity.
Gudmestad's book begins with a vivid description of thousands of onlookers awaiting the arrival of the first steamboat in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1819. The General Jackson was soon moving staples, goods, and merchandise between Nashville and New Orleans and back in one-quarter the time required for conventional flatboats. This new technology gave southern businessmen greater control over the supply and cost of goods. Within a decade, hundreds of ships were traversing the region, opening up its goods, including cotton, to global markets.
A number of interesting themes are developed by Gudmestad regarding steamboats in the interior South and the rise and fall of the Cotton Kingdom. Steamboats provided access to virgin land for development, aligning with notions of Manifest Destiny. Rapid settlement of the region, however, produced an environmental disaster with deforestation of hundreds of thousands of acres, destruction of ecosystems, and pollution of the region's waterways. By the 1840s, "steamboats roiled fetid waters that flowed through a scarred landscape" (139). [End Page 329]
Steamboats also supported efforts to open up land for white settlement by providing an advantageous means of moving human cargo. A majority of American Indians relocated to what is now Oklahoma were transported by steamboats. Another kind of human cargo, slaves, was also moved in large numbers from the Upper South to the interior South by steamboats. Although whites touted the progressive nature of using steamboats to move American Indians and slaves, the reality was that hundreds died during passage in overcrowded, filthy conditions where disease, especially cholera, was rampant.
Gudmestad suggests that the coming of the railroad realigned trade patterns and reduced steamboat traffic between the southern interior and the Midwest. This caused residents of the Southwest to think of themselves as more southern than western. That this reorientation took place is clear. The book does not, however, firmly establish the causal relationship of trade and transportation patterns on the emergence of a more southern worldview among the region's residents. More compelling is the author's discussion of the intersection of the steamboat, internal improvements, and public policy. The steamboat provided the region with cheap and efficient transportation that required little public funding to maintain. Much of the rest of the nation, however, moved toward public support for railroad construction to promote economic development. This left the interior South relatively dependent on the North for technology and manufactured goods and the administrative expertise to coordinate integrated transportation systems. These factors became serious problems for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The author's exhaustive research in private papers, newspapers, governmental records, articles and books provides new insight and perspective in an area largely ignored by scholars seeking to understand the convergence of transportation technologies and its impact on the evolution of the interior South. Crisply written with vivid first-person accounts of life on the "western waters," Steamboats makes a significant contribution to our understanding of one of the major factors that shaped the evolution of the Cotton Kingdom.