Western Rivermen, the first documented sociocultural history of its subject, is a fascinating book. Michael Allen explores the rigorous lives of professional boatmen who plied non-steam vessels—flatboats, keelboats, and rafts—on the Ohio and lower Mississippi rivers from 1763-1861.
Allen first considers the mythical “half horse, half alligator” boatmen who were an integral part of the folklore of the time. Americans of the Jacksonian and pre-Civil War period perceived the rivermen as hard-drinking, straight-shooting adventurers on the frontier. Their notions were reinforced by romanticized portrayals of the boatmen in songs, paintings, newspaper humor, and literature. Allen contends that these mythical depictions of the boatmen were a reflection of the yearnings of an industrializing people for what they thought to be a simpler time.
Allen demonstrates, however, that the actual lives of the rivermen little resembled their portrayals in popular culture. Drawing on more than eighty firsthand accounts—ranging from a short letter to a four-volume memoir—he provides a rounded view of the boatmen that reveals the lonely, dangerous nature of their profession. He also discusses the social and economic aspects of their lives, such as their cargoes, the river towns they visited, and the impact on their lives of the steamboat and advancing civilization.
Allen’s comprehensive, highly informative study sheds new light on a group of men who played an important role in the development of the trans-Appalachian West and the ways in which their lives were transformed into one of the enduring themes of American folk culture.
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