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FALL 2012 3 “The invention of the steamboat was intended for US” Steamboats and Western Identity in the Early Republic Kim M. Gruenwald I n 1848, artist Samuel A. Hudson unveiled a work that had taken him a decade to complete in a Louisville warehouse. His panorama of the Ohio River stood nearly a story tall and stretched over three quarters of a mile of canvas. Over the course of an hour, audiences took a journey from Pittsburgh to Cairo, with an abbreviated trip down the Mississippi River to Natchez and New Orleans as the great painting unrolled from one cylinder to the other. Hudson captured the spirit of Marietta, Cincinnati, and Louisville, as well as Indian mounds, the falls of the Ohio, and Cave-in-Rock. Broadsides advertised the chance to see “a great variety of water craft, including steamboats passing up and down the rivers…the villages and towns, the rich and fertile lands, and Broadside for the steamboat New World, 1849. CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER “THE INVENTION OF THE STEAMBOAT WAS INTENDED FOR US” 4 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY all the peculiarities of Western Life.” People flocked to see it not only in western cities, but throughout New England as well. The panorama proved so popular that Hudson hired others to make a copy. When a building fire destroyed his original, Hudson took the second canvas on a tour of Germany in 1850. Historian Walter Havighurst writes that viewing the moving spectacle allowed audiences who knew of the region only through letters from family who had made the journey to see the shores of the beautiful river for themselves.1 Hudson’s panorama stood as a testament to the tangible results of over a halfcentury of settlement in the Ohio Valley. When American colonists looked westward across the Appalachian Mountains, they saw space—a vast expanse that “suggest[ed] the future and invite[d] action.” If only they could make the valley their own, they could float their produce down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to the Atlantic trade world. The American and British challenge to the French for control of the valley helped spark a world war in the 1750s, and during the American Revolution those who had come to settle Kentucky took the opportunity to make forays against the Shawnees and other Native Americans north of the river. After the Revolution, veterans sought entry, though much of the land first passed through the hands of land speculators. The Ohio Valley invited action, indeed, and as one state after another gave up their claims so that the Confederation Congress could decide the valley’s fate, the United States took its first steps toward becoming a nation.2 But when most people consider the history of the Ohio Valley, nationalism does not usually come to mind. Traditionally, historians use the 1789 passage of the Northwest Ordinance that outlawed slavery in most instances to begin separate histories of the northern and southern banks of the river. Scholars allow sectional differences to dictate the history of the region, and state histories of Ohio and Kentucky abound. But empire-building in the name of the new United States preoccupied many minds in the earliest days, and when sectionalism first became an issue initial tensions grew between East and West rather than North and South. The Ohio River did not become a boundary until much later. The struggle over who would control steamboat traffic on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers highlights this western regional identity in the 1810s and 1820s. The Northwest Ordinance may have created an official border at the banks of the Ohio River, but those who transformed space into place—home where people live and work—had a more pragmatic view. Northerners and southerners, merchants and farmers, settled the valley together. The founders of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Marietta and Cincinnati, Ohio, and Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky, planned for their towns in the interior to attract market-minded farmers. They would harness the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to do no less than claim a continent for the new United States, and ties of commerce would bind East and West together as the nation expanded. Correctly predicting the future success of the site...


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