Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom by Robert Gudemstad (review)
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Keywords

South, Cotton, Steamboats, Transportation, Slavery

Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. By Robert Gudemstad. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 280. Cloth, $42.50.)

This concise and engaging book tells the story of technological and market development, social transformation, and ecological change through the history of steamboats in the interior South. It synthesizes previous scholarship and also adds much that is new. The book begins with the hopeful and pioneering passage of the New Orleans from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in 1811 and ends with Mark Twain's embroidering steamers into a tapestry of memory, one that helped to obscure the history Robert Gudmestad invigorates with incisive analysis and often harrowing detail. "By the 1830s," he contends, "steamboats had become the workhorses of the economy in the southern interior, as they enhanced the value of slaves, raised plantation productivity, and provided new sources of revenue for planters" (158).

The architects of steamboat commerce were engaged in a promethean process of capitalist economic development, and steamboats were "floating engines of capitalism" (155). Steamboat entrepreneurs understood that "steamboats stood at the intersection of risk, opportunity, and power in the burgeoning Southwest" (8). Americans quickly awoke to their power and promise, and soon steamers were hauling cotton and other commodities to entrepôt cities and ferrying finished goods back into the interior, creating economic linkages, information networks, and political ties. Operators sought to maximize their cargo capacities, and "ambitious captains bragged that their steamboats were 'loaded to the guards' " with bales of cotton by the thousands (142). Most steamboats were owned by southerners who operated them with Yankee shrewdness. [End Page 382] As cotton production grew, so did boats, which became faster, longer, wider, and more capacious.

Steamboats were social spaces, and Gudmestad explores steamboat culture from captains, clerks, and pilots down to the waiters, chambermaids, and roustabouts, unskilled laborers—often enslaved—who carried the heavy cords of wood, rolled barrels of goods, and stacked bales of cotton. An interior view of steamboats reveals how social differences were created and reinforced. For instance, middle-class white female passengers confined in parlors and cabin rooms were ostensibly being protected from the aggressively masculine culture of the deck. Boats' saloons were filled with games and bluster, tobacco and whiskey. First-class passengers allured by ever-loftier claims of luxury and speed were often frustrated at the realities of mediocre fare; noisy, filthy, and cramped accommodations; and delays on account of weather, mechanical failure, or operators' intrigues. Deck passengers, including many immigrants, struggled for space, and workers struggled for sleep amid their unremitting toil. "Although there were instances of racial comity," Gudmestad contends, "the bulk of the surviving evidence points to a pattern of racial intolerance and harassment" (48). A greater human tragedy also unfolded on steamers.

Steamboat operators became agents of two forced migrations taking place simultaneously. "Even though Indian Removal is usually associated with a land journey," Gudmestad argues, "the majority of Native Americans traveled all or part of the way to Oklahoma in steamers" (79). Gudmestad contends that steamers' technological advancements that made them essential to the commercial transformation of the country also seemed to make them attractive to agents removing Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Cherokees, Seminoles, and even enslaved people whom some Indians claimed as property. Boats were often dangerously overcrowded with involuntary passengers. Slave traders packed their chained human property aboard steamers, which floated them to market in cities like Natchez.

On rivers, steamboat operators faced a raft of perils including sandbars, storms, and the boilers that blew so many steamers to bits. Snags or submerged trees and debris were responsible for most wrecks. Steam engine technology was not as dangerous, however, as the culture of speed that overrode considerations of safety. "The public's fascination with steamboat speed existed in tension with the need for responsible safety measures," with the result that some of the more spectacular [End Page 383] explosions and wrecks, which Gudmestad vividly illustrates, were caused by human error (116). Besides opening much of the southern interior to commerce and settlement steamboats also changed attitudes toward the environment and humans' relationship to nature.

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