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Descent of the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Its Mouth

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians
 

Descent of the Ohio River from Cincinnati to its mouth--Ascent of the Mississippi, from the junction to Herculaneum--Its rapid and turbid character, and the difficulties of stemming its current by barges--Some incidents by the way.


1818. At Cincinnati, I visited a sort of gigantic chimney or trunk, constructed of wood, which had been continued from the plain, and carried up against the side of one of the Walnut Hills, in order to demonstrate the practicability of obtaining a mechanical power from rarefied atmospheric air. I was certain that this would prove a failure, although Captain Bliss, who had conducted the work under the auspices of General Lytle, felt confident of success.

When I was ready to proceed down the Ohio, I went to the shore, where I met a Mr. Willers, who had come there on the same errand as myself. Our object was to go to Louisville, at the falls of the Ohio. We were pleased with a well-constructed skiff, which would conveniently hold our baggage, and, after examination, purchased it, for the purpose of making this part of the descent. I was expert with a light oar, and we agreed in thinking that this would be a very picturesque, healthful, and economical mode of travel. It was warm weather, the beginning of May, I think, and the plan was to sleep ashore every night. We found this plan to answer expectation. The trip was, in every respect, delightful. Mr. Willers lent a ready hand at the oars and tiller by turns. He possessed a good share of urbanity, had seen much of the world, and was of an age and temper to vent no violent opinions. He gave me information on some topics. We got along pleasantly. One day, a sleeping sawyer, as it is called, rose up in the river behind us in a part of the course we had just passed, which, if it had risen two minutes earlier, would have pitched us in the air, and knocked our skiff in shivers. We stopped at Vevay, to taste the wine of the vintage of that place, which was then much talked of, and did not think it excellent. We were several days--I do not recollect how many--in reaching Louisville, in Kentucky. I found my fellow-voyager was a teacher of military science, late from Baltimore, Maryland; he soon had a class of militia officers, to whom he gave instructions, and exhibited diagrams of military evolutions.

Louisville had all the elements of city life. I was much interested in the place and its environs, and passed several weeks at that place. I found organic remains of several species in the limestone rocks of the falls, and published, anonymously, in the paper some notices of its mineralogy.

When prepared to continue my descent of the river, I went to the beautiful natural mall, which exists between the mouth of the Beargrass Creek and the Ohio, where boats usually land, and took passage in a fine ark, which had just come down from the waters of the Monongahela. It was owned and freighted by two adventurers from Maryland, of the names of Kemp and Keen. A fine road existed to the foot of the falls at Shippensport, a distance of two miles, which my new acquaintances pursued; but, when I understood that there was a pilot present, I preferred remaining on board, that I might witness the descent of the falls: we descended on the Indiana side. The danger was imminent at one part, where the entire current had a violent side action, but we went safely and triumphantly down; and, after taking our owners on board, who were unwilling to risk their lives with their property, we pursued our voyage. It was about this point, or a little above, that we first noticed the gay and noisy parroquet, flocks of which inhabited the forests. The mode of attaching vessels of this kind into flotillas was practiced on that part of the route, which brought us into acquaintance with many persons.

At Shawneetown, where we lay a short time, I went out hunting about the mouth of the Wabash with one Hanlon, a native of Kentucky, who was so expert in the use of the rifle that he brought down single pigeons and squirrels, aiming only at their heads or necks.

After passing below the Wabash, the Ohio assumed a truly majestic flow. Its ample volume, great expanse, and noble shores, could not fail to be admired. As we neared the picturesque Cavein-Rock shore, I took the small boat, and, with some others, landed to view this traveler's wonder. It recalled to me the dark robber era of the Ohio River, and the tales of blood and strife which I had read of.

The cave itself is a striking object for its large and yawning mouth, but, to the geologist, presents nothing novel. Its ample area appears to have been frequently encamped in by the buccaneers of the Mississippi. We were told of narrow and secret passages leading above into the rock, but did not find anything of much interest. The mouth of the cave was formerly concealed by trees, which favored the boat robbers; but these had been mostly felled. As the scene of a tale of imaginative robber-life, it appeared to me to possess great attractions.

Our conductor steered for Smithfield, I think it was called, at the mouth of the Cumberland River, Tennessee, which was thought a favorable place for transferring the cargo from an ark to a keel-boat, to prepare it for the ascent of the Mississippi River; for we were now drawing closely towards the mouth of the Ohio. Here ensued a delay of many days. During this time, I made several excursions in this part of Tennessee, and always with the rifle in hand, in the use of which I had now become expert enough to kill small game without destroying it. While here, some of General Jackson's volunteers from his wars against the Creeks and Seminoles returned, and related some of the incidents of their perilous campaign. At length a keel-boat, or barge, arrived, under the command of Captain Ensminger, of Saline, which discharged its cargo at this point, and took on board the freight of Kemp and Keen, bound to St. Louis, in Missouri.

We pursued our way, under the force of oars, which soon brought us to the mouth of the Ohio, where the captain paused to prepare for stemming the Mississippi. It was now the first day of July, warm and balmy during the mornings and evenings, but of a torrid heat at noon. We were now one thousand miles below Pittsburgh--a distance which it is impossible for any man to realize from the mere reading of books. This splendid valley is one of the prominent creations of the universe. Its fertility and beauty are unequaled; and its capacities of sustaining a dense population cannot be overrated. Seven States border on its waters, and they are seven States which are destined to contribute no little part to the commerce, wealth, and power of the Union. It is idle to talk of the well-cultivated and garden-like little rivers of Europe, of some two or three hundred miles in length, compared to the Ohio. There is nothing like it in all Europe for its great length, uninterrupted fertility, and varied resources, and consequent power to support an immense population. Yet its banks consist not of a dead level, like the lower Nile and Volga, but of undulating plains and hills, which afford a lively flow to its waters, and supply an amount of hydraulic power which is amazing. The river itself is composed of some of the prime streams of the country. The Alleghany, the Monongahela, the Muskingum, the Miami, the Wabash, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee, are rivers of the most noble proportions, and the congregated mass of water rolls forward, increasing in volume and magnificence, until the scene delights the eye by its displays of quiet, lovely, rural magnitude and physical grandeur.

Yet all this is but an element in the vast system of western waters. It reaches the Mississippi, but to be swallowed up and engulfed by that turbid and rapid stream, which, like some gaping, gigantic monster, running wild from the Rocky Mountains and the Itasca summit, stands ready to gulp it down. The scene is truly magnificent, and the struggle not slight. For more than twenty miles, the transparent blue waters of the Ohio are crowded along the Tennessee coast; but the Mississippi, swollen by its summer flood, as if disdainful of its rural and peace-like properties, gains the mastery before reaching Memphis, and carries its characteristic of turbid geologic power for a thousand miles more, until its final exit into the Mexican Gulf.

I had never seen such a sight. I had lost all my standards of comparison. Compared to it, my little home streams would not fill a pint cup; and, like a man suddenly ushered into a new world, I was amazed at the scene before me. Mere amplitude of the most ordinary elements of water and alluvial land has done this. The onward rush of eternal waters was an idea vaguely floating in my mind. The Indians appeared to have embodied this idea in the word Mississippi.

Ensminger was a stout manly fellow, of the characteristic traits of Anglo-Saxon daring; but he thought it prudent not to plunge too hastily into this mad current, and we slept at the precise point of embouchure, where, I think, Cairo is now located. Early the next morning the oarsmen were paraded, like so many militia, on the slatted gunwales of the barge, each armed with a long and stout setting pole, shod with iron. Ensminger himself took the helm, and the toil and struggle of pushing the barge up stream began. We were obliged to keep close to the shore, in order to find bottom for the poles, and whenever that gave out, the men instantly resorted to oars to gain some point on the opposite side, where bottom could be reached. It was a struggle requiring the utmost activity. The water was so turbid that we could not perceive objects an inch below the surface. The current rushed with a velocity that threatened to carry everything before it. The worst effect was its perpetual tendency to undermine its banks. Often heavy portions of the banks plunged into the river, endangering boats and men. The banks consisted of dark alluvion ten to fifteen feet above the water, bearing a dense growth of trees and shrubbery. The plunging of these banks into the stream often sounded like thunder. With every exertion, we advanced but five miles the first day, and it was a long July day. As evening came on, the mosquitos were in hordes. It was impossible to perform the offices of eating or drinking, without suffering the keenest torture from their stings.

The second day we ascended six miles, the third day seven miles, the fourth day six miles, and the fifth eight miles, which brought us to the first settlement on the Missouri shore, called Tyawapaty Bottom. The banks in this distance became more elevated, and we appeared to be quitting the more nascent region. We noticed the wild turkey and gray squirrel ashore. The following day we went but three miles, when the severe labor caused some of the hands to give out. Ensminger was a man not easily discouraged. He lay by during the day, and the next morning found means to move ahead. At an early hour we reached the head of the settlement, and came to at a spot called the Little Chain of Rocks. The fast lands of the Missouri shore here jut into the river, and I examined, at this point, a remarkable bed of white clay, which is extensively employed by the local mechanics for chalk, but which is wholly destitute of carbonic acid. We ascended, this day, ten miles; and the next day five miles, which carried us to Cape Girardeau--a town estimated to be fifty miles above the mouth of the Ohio. Here were about fifty houses, situated on a commanding eminence. We had been landed but a short time, when one of the principal merchants of the place sent me word that he had just received some drugs and medicines which he wished me to examine. I went up directly to his store, when it turned out that he was no druggist at all, nor wished my skill in this way, but, having heard there was a doctor aboard, he had taken this facetious mode of inviting me to partake of some refreshments. I regret that I have forgotten his name.

The next day we ascended seven miles, and next the same distance, and stopped at the Moccason Spring, a basin of limpid water occupying a crevice in the limestone rock. The day following we ascended but five miles, and the next day seven miles, in which distance we passed the Grand Tower, a geological monument rising from the bed of the river, which stands to tell of some great revolution in the ancient face of the country. The Mississippi River probably broke through one of its ancient barriers at this place. We made three unsuccessful attempts to pass Garlic Point, where we encountered a very strong current, and finally dropped down and came to, for the night, below it, the men being much exhausted with these attempts. We renewed the effort with a cordelle the next morning, with success, but not without exhausting the men so much that two of them refused to proceed, who were immediately paid off, and furnished provisions to return. We succeeded in going to the mouth of the Obrazo, about half a mile higher, when we lay by all day. This delay enabled Ensminger to recruit his crew, and during the three following days we ascended respectively six, seven, and ten miles, which brought us to the commencement of Bois-brule bottom. This is a fertile, and was then a comparatively populous, settlement. We ascended along it about seven miles, the next day seven more, and the next eleven, which completed the ascent to the antique town of St. Genevieve. About three hundred houses were here clustered together, which, with their inhabitants, had the looks which we may fancy to belong to the times of Louis XIV. of France. It was the chief mart of the lead mines, situated in the interior. I observed heavy stacks of pig lead piled up about the warehouses. We remained here the next day, which was the 20th of July, and then went forward twelve miles, the next day thirteen, and the next five, which brought us, at noon, to the town of Herculaneum, containing some thirty or forty buildings, excluding three picturesque-looking shot towers on the top of the rocky cliffs of the river. This was another mart of the lead mines.

I determined to land definitively at this point, purposing to visit the mines, after completing my ascent by land to St. Louis. It was now the 23d of July, the whole of which, from the 1st, we had spent in a diligent ascent of the river, by setting pole and cordelle, from the junction of the Ohio--a distance of one hundred and seventy miles. We were still thirty miles above St. Louis.

I have detailed some of the incidents of the journey, in order to denote the difficulties of the ascent with barges prior to the introduction of steam, and also the means which this slowness of motion gave me of becoming acquainted with the physical character of this river and its shores. A large part of the west banks I had traveled on foot, and gleaned several facts in its mineralogy and geology which made it an initial point in my future observations. The metalliferous formation is first noticed at the little chain of rocks. From the Grand Tower, the western shores become precipitous, showing sections and piled-up pinnacles of the series of horizontal sandstones and limestones which characterize the imposing coast. Had I passed it in a steamer, downward bound, as at this day, in forty-eight hours, I should have had none but the vaguest and most general conceptions of its character. But I went to glean facts in its natural history, and I knew these required careful personal inspection of minute as well as general features. There may be a sort of horseback theory of geology; but mineralogy, and the natural sciences generally, must be investigated on foot, hammer or goniometer in hand.


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Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers, 1851

Thirty Years with the Indians

 

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