In his youth, Abe Lincoln made two flatboat trips down the Mississippi River (from Indiana and Illinois respectively) to New Orleans.  They were  formative experiences in many ways, Lincoln’s only visit to the Deep South, where he got a glimpse of slave markets in New Orleans — by far the biggest city he’d ever seen up to that time.

You might not think that a book devoted exclusively to those trips would be exciting, but this one is, surveying all that’s known of the trips from the documentary record and filling in what’s not known with a wealth of detail about river commerce and river navigation on the frontiers of America in that time, the landscapes and the settlements Lincoln would have seen.


Some of the information offered is extremely detailed, indeed — such as step-by-step instructions for building a flatboat — but the book vividly evokes a strange and exhilarating time in America, and the dreamlike journeys on rivers that helped build the nation.



. . . by George F. Fuller, 1859.

Click on the image to enlarge.

Steamboats virtually wiped out upriver traffic by keelboats on the Mississippi by the 1830s, but downriver cargo traffic by flatboats lingered on for many decades.  Keelboats going upstream under sail or oar power were slow and labor-intensive, but farmers upriver could build their own flatboats for their own produce, steer them to markets downriver, break up the boats afterwards to sell as scrap lumber and then walk or take steamboat passage back home.


It was almost a rite of passage for young farmers up north, including Abe Lincoln, and reliably profitable — until the railroads in turn made the flatboat obsolete.