Missouri Bicentennial Minutes: The Rivers and Transportation on Them

Mar 18, 2021

Welcome to the Missouri Bicentennial Minute from the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Most commercial transportation at statehood was on the major rivers by flatboat or keelboat. Use of flatboats began in the 1780s, offering a method for moving goods and passengers downstream. Most moved goods to markets in New Orleans. A flatboat was a flat-bottomed craft, sometimes with a shelter aft. Averaging about 20 feet long, they allowed navigation in often obstructed channels. Each cost roughly $75, a substantial investment, but could carry up to $3000 worth of goods. Crew steered using a steering oar or rudder, short front sweep, and long side sweeps. In New Orleans, the crew marketed the goods, the craft was usually broken up, and the lumber sold. The crew returned in a 2-3 month overland journey.

Many immigrants arrived on flatboats descending the Ohio River.  Minister Timothy Flint recalled that it was "no uncommon spectacle to see a large family, old and young, servants, cattle, hogs [on flatboats] ... bringing to recollection the cargo of the ancient ark."

Upstream and downstream travel was often by keelboat, a longer, narrower craft with a slight keel. Propulsion upstream was by oars or setting poles, sometimes assisted by a sail. Keelboats offered greater flexibility, although moving upstream was still slow.

River travel was revolutionized after 1817, when the first steamboat, the Zebulon M. Pike, ascended the Mississippi to St. Louis. The speed of steam boats compared to keelboats was a marvel. The 220-mile voyage of the Washington from St. Louis to Franklin, Howard County, took 6 days in 1821, opposed to 20-30 days by keelboat. The effect of steamboats was to begin concentration of economic activity to the large river towns.