The teenager’s long, muscular arms and callused hands often were covered with sweat and sawdust in the spring of 1828 as he spent three months chopping down trees and hand-sawing them into boards to build a flatboat. He then steered the boat, carrying kegs of produce and salted pork, on a perilous three-month river journey to market in New Orleans. Three decades later he became president of the United States.
Historians often rank Abraham Lincoln as the greatest United States president. But their biographies tend to overlook the influences of Midwestern rivers on his views of law, politics and slavery.
Carl Sandburg covered Lincoln’s river days in just eight pages of his six-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography published in 1926.That doesn’t mean they weren’t impactful. As a poor Indiana teenager Lincoln earned precious silver coins ferrying passengers to steamboats passing on the Ohio River. Twice he built crude flatboats and steered them down the rivers to New Orleans, where he witnessed slave auctions—moments that experts say shaped his later anti slavery views and actions. He was also awarded a patent for a steamboat device and as a young lawyer argued a landmark case on river transportation rights.
“Abraham Lincoln was a riverman for only a short time, but his relationship to the river had great signifi-cance in American history,” stated the National Rivers Hall of Fame in Dubuque, Iowa, when it inducted him in 2007.
When Lincoln was 18 and operating his part-time ferry, he was lured across the river and abducted by brothers John and Lin Dill. Claiming Abe was violating their Kentucky charter to operate a ferry there, they took him to the nearest court. justice of the Peace Squire Samuel Pate dropped the charge because Lincoln had not carried passengers beyond the middle of the river and therefore had done business in Indiana—not Kentucky.After the ruling, Lincoln decided to study law.
At age 19 he was hired by farmer James Gentry, who “believed Abe could take his pork, flour, meal, bacon, potatoes and produce to trade.” Lincoln built a flatboat to do so with Gentry’s son Allen, who accompanied him down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
By 1831 the Lincoln family had moved to a farm near Springfield, Illinois, and Abe was hired to build a flatboat and guide goods to market. In 1830 New Orleans was the river valley’s major market. It had 50,000 mouths to feed: twice as many as St. Louis and Memphis combined. Lincoln’s boats probably measured 12 by 30 feet and could carry a couple of tons of cargo, said Capt. John Cooper of Gallatin, Tennessee, who has built 23 flatboat replicas. “It took them three to four months to build the first flatboat. He was a very strong, tough man. We can’t imagine doing today what those men did.”
Floating with the river’s current was not leisurely work, Cooper said. The crew had to fight strong winds and steer away from the shore, shoals and dead tree snags. Unless the boat was rowed faster than the current, four to six miles an hour, the rudder was useless. The crude hulls were assembled with hickory plugs banged into hand-drilled holes. Seams were con-stantly plugged with cotton rope soaked in tar. River banks were littered with wrecks.“
Of every 10 flatboats that set sail for New Orleans, probably one or two never made it,” Cooper said. In New Orleans, the boats were dismantled for their wood and sold along with their cargo. “Flatboats were built to go downriver and never come back,” Cooper said.In 1849 Lincoln received a U.S. patent for inflatable canvas bladders that would lift a steamboat through shallow water. A working version was never built.Lincoln’s memories of New Orleans remained vivid during his presidency and the Civil War, Sandburg wrote. At the end of the first trip, he “lingered and loitered a few days, seeing New Orleans, before taking a steamer north.” He saw “slaves passed handcuffed into gangs headed for cotton fields” and heard talk of “how to rawhide the bad ones with mule whips.”Years later Lincoln said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think and feel.”