WE could now hear the dull reports of shotguns far to our left, and on inquiry of a shanty-boatman as to the cause of such an unusual amount of firing, learned that they came from the guns of the duck hunters on Reelfoot Lake, distant, as the crow flies, not more than four miles, but to reach it one must go many miles down river, and then up Reelfoot Bayou, as the country between us and the lake is an impenetrable swamp. This lake is the result of a series of earthquakes which occurred in 1811-13, when large areas of country were upheaved, while others were depressed far below the level of the Mississippi, whose waters ran in and converted what may have been a fertile plantation into a large lakelike sheet of water, out of which protruded the tops of tall cypress trees, and over whose surface had spread a rank growth of vegetable matter, which yearly attracts immense numbers of waterfowl to feed upon it. By reference to the chart of the river I find we are in the vicinity of Island No.10, made famous during the great Civil War. It should lie to the left as we pass down the river, with the steamboat channel some distance from its shore.


Fort Donaldson.

The site of Fort Donaldson should also be to the left of us, but in a deep bend. The mild atmosphere induces us to go along leisurely, while we study the geography of the river, but cannot make it fit the chart. This is an indication of the remorseless destructiveness of the great Mississippi. Of Island No.10 there remains today no sign, save a low sand bar, on which are stranded a few stumps and drift logs, which the next high water will carry off, while the channel makes a long sweep to the left of where the island was located, with its fortifications and heavy guns. Of Fort Donaldson there is no vestige left; the steamboat now runs over the site of the once formidable earthworks and the graves of the blue and the gray.

My attention has been so absorbed by the associations of the scenes through which we have been drifting that I have not noticed the leaden-hued clouds slowly sweeping up from the horizon, and the uncomfortable sultriness of the atmosphere. Night is rapidly falling, and we have struck no place within the past eight miles that would answer even for a bivouac. All along the navigable portions of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, at every turn of the channel, the Government has stationed a beacon light, consisting of a lantern set in a box-like concern on a post, placed in the most conspicuous position as a guide to the river pilots. We sweep around the bend near the site of Fort Donaldson, and then shoot across to the Missouri side, heading for the beacon which we can make out far in the distance, hoping that near it we may find a place to land. Sure enough, there is a place, but so swiftly are we borne along by the rapid current that we dare not attempt a landing among the fallen trees and heaps of driftwood for fear we may come to grief. We head for the next beacon, which we can see looking like the light from a tallow dip in the distance. Away we go across the broad expanse of water, and when in midstream meet a steamer on her way up river, but the light is so faint that we cannot make out her name. Before reaching the beacon we find a short sandy beach on the Kentucky shore, beneath the shelter of a thick forest growth. Having eaten a light lunch only at noon, we have appetites that demand a bountiful supper; and a hearty one we have, seated about the glorious campfire, the like of which I have never seen except on the lonely shores of this changeable river. In order that we may make an early start on the morrow, the big tent is not pitched and as little unpacking done as possible.

While reclining about the fire, smoking and jotting down notes of the day's run, the river ripples along within twenty feet of us. Barnacle tells me the story of a storm he once witnessed on the coast of South America, being reminded of it by the closeness of the atmosphere tonight. Hardly had he finished the narrative ere we are brought to our feet by a moaning sound from across the river, which in a moment's time increased to a roar, accompanied by the snapping and falling of trees and all the unmistakable signs of a tempest.


A Tempest.

Quicker than I can write it, the wind has leaped the broad river, and striking our fire, catches the brands and whirls them in all directions. Grasping long poles that are at hand, we rake the coals and sticks out toward the water, trampling some under foot and kicking others in all directions; this was done that we might save from burning the canoes and sails that were distant not more than twenty feet from the fire. The wind is a tempest, and while we have been taking care of our fire it has gone tearing through the forest, snapping the tops off some of the trees, while it has leveled others to the earth. The Aurora, which had been lying with her stern to the water's edge, has been turned fore and aft the stream by the force of the wind, and the white blankets spread on her captain's comfortable bed have been well coated with sand and ashes. But the fury of the wind has passed, and is succeeded by a brisk breeze from the north, which blows upon us with its chilling influences, compelling the donning of heavier clothing and the renewal of the fire which had been so unceremoniously extinguished. The wind becomes very cold as it comes down on us from the ice-bound north.

"Early to bed and early to rise," I say, as I crawl into my snug retreat with a thick coat thoroughly warmed at the fire wrapped closely about my feet. I hear Barnacle, as he slowly pushes his length into his cabin, and then all is still save the moan of the wind through the trees and the snap and crack of the fire, and I drop off into a sound sleep. I am suddenly awakened by a loud bang, as though another canal-driver were pelting stones at my canoe.

"Hi, there! what's up?" I call out.

"Why in thunder don't you turn out? Why do you want to lie there and freeze?"

That's Barnacle out there, but his voice sounds as though it had a "tremolo stop" attached to it. I find he has awakened me by accidentally striking the Aurora with the end of a pole that he was throwing on the fire. He tells me that it is so cold that he cannot keep warm in his canoe, and is now going to try what effect a fire will have on him. I am not aware that it is cold; I am very comfortable, but I discover that my breath has congealed on my blankets. I can hear the wind moaning and whistling through the trees, and ask Barnacle how the weather is, and on his saying, "We can't leave here as long as the wind blows this way," I draw my head beneath the blankets and go to sleep. Long after daylight I awoke again and turned out, finding the ground frozen hard and a fringe of ice along the shore. I can now appreciate the comforts of my little cabin in which I have slept so snugly, and almost resolve never to pitch the tent again for my own convenience. But where is Barnacle? Nothing of the fire remains but a couple of smoking sticks. I look into his canoe; he is not there. I call to him, and from out the depths of the timber above me comes the answer, "I'm up here in a hole." Mounting the bank, I catch sight of the smoke from his fire, and am soon by his side in a depression of the earth made by the uprooting of a large gum tree.


Digger Indian Style.

By building a framework of poles and covering it with the sails and tent, we are enabled to make a snug shelter, under which we cook and eat our breakfast.




ALL day the wind continued to blow, keeping us in our hole, and by four o'clock, although the wind had less fury in its blasts, the cold had increased. About this time a young man came along, and stopping to inspect our primitive habitation, told us that he had charge of the Government lights, and lived about a mile and a half distant. He said, "We have plenty of room in the house, and father will be glad to see you," and insisted on our accompanying him back to the house to spend the night. Packing our blankets in their rubber bags and making all things snug about camp, we followed our new-found friend, and were within a half hour sitting by the side of a roaring fire. Mr. Larry Everett, our host, together with his three sons, entertained us through the long evening with anecdotes of the operations of the armies in this neighborhood during the war, and with accounts of the destructiveness of the Mississippi.


Life on Stilts.

I mentioned my search for Island No. 10.
"Yes, a great portion of that island is now the bank in front of this door. When I bought this farm, a few years ago, the house stood within three hundred feet of the river's bank. A freshet came the following year and carried it away, together with all its outbuildings and ten head of horned cattle and seven sheep. I then built this house, about three hundred feet back from the river. Five years ago another freshet came, changed the channel and built up the bank in front of me, so that now my house stands as many hundred yards from the river as it formerly did feet."

Mr. Everett's case is not an uncommon one. Many plantations have been swept away at various points on the river, and in several instances planters who have owned land and voted in Kentucky at the beginning of one week, with the river flowing in sight from their verandas, have found themselves at the end of the week citizens of Missouri, with the steamboat channel several miles in the rear of their homes, while a broad lake may be occupying its former location.

When the young lightkeeper assured us that there was "plenty of room in the house," he evidently meant on the floor, for that was where we spread our blankets, in company with the boys. All the houses on the river bank are built on stilts as a precaution against being carried away in times of high water. The open spaces beneath the floor, among the poorer class of farmers -- such as was our host -- are generally a refuge for the hogs and dogs. Frequently, during the long hours of the night, I was awakened by a short, sharp bark from one of the dogs, accompanied by a grunt and squeal from the pigs, as they fought for closer companionship and protection from the cold blasts of wind that reached my bones through the open cracks of the floor. Drawn up in a knot, with chin almost touching my knees, I turned out at sunrise, and on going to the rear of the house, my surprise may be imagined at finding the mercury marking three degrees below zero.

"Colder," Mr. Everett said, "than I have ever known it in all the long years of my life here."

After a breakfast of bacon, corn bread and coffee, we returned to our camp, where I would have had a much more comfortable night had I chosen to remain and sleep in my own quarters.

By ten o'clock the wind had not risen, and the atmosphere, although still cold, had been moderated somewhat by the influence of the sun, which shone from a clear sky. It required fully an hour for us to get the duffle down to the canoes from the hole we had occupied in the woods. The canoes were launched over a ridge of ice which had formed along the shore, and I was forced to paddle most of the day with the Aurora's masts stepped, as they had been frozen so tightly in the tubes that I could not remove them until thawed out. About five miles below camp a turn in the river brought us into the teeth of a brisk breeze which had now risen with considerable strength, throwing water over decks, where it froze, and the spray flying over our arms cased them in ice, and often we were compelled to beat the ice off the loom of the paddle to reduce its weight.


Overcome by the Cold.

With cap drawn tightly down over my ears, and a pair of long woolen stockings over the heavy gloves on my hands, I was as comfortable as could be expected under the circumstances. Having paddled about two miles further, I missed the sight of the familiar nose of the Comfort, and on looking astern saw that the captain was not paddling, but beating his hands against one another. I held the Aurora against the current, and the Comfort was rapidly borne down to me, when Barnacle said: "Doctor, I must get shelter, or I will perish." Here was an alarming situation, surely -- my companion in danger of freezing to death, and no house, shantyboat nor steamer near. A break in the bank comes into sight, and I urge Barnacle to paddle for it. His hands are so cold that he can scarcely handle his paddle, but it is best that he receive no assistance as long as he can gain the shore unaided. The more exertion he makes the sooner will the circulation be restored and the blood go racing through his veins. A few moments later and we have gained the shelter of the shore; the Comfort is hauled out, and active preparations made for the restoration of Barnacle. The veteran camper requires but a short time in which to get a good fire started, and in less than half an hour Barnacle was feeling like himself again, and did full justice to the pot of coffee which steamed by the side of the fire.

It is useless to attempt any further progress today, and we make preparations for remaining over night.

I do not propose to weary my readers with the details of the everyday life of this vast, always rising or falling river. For hundreds of miles the same monotonous scenery is to be met with. Great belts of cottonwood trees in endless succession, low bars stretching out into the river, crowding the steamers so closely to the shore that in many places the great paddlewheel must be held motionless until the vessel drifts by, and from which the wind sweeps the sand in clouds, reminding me of the illustrations I have seen of the sand storms on the great deserts.




OUR commissary department is getting low, and it is with a shout of delight that I spy a small log building on the high Missouri bank. It bears a sign, "U.S. Mail." No need to ask the question, "Is this a store?" All mail stations on this section of the river are posts for trade and barter of all descriptions. As I mount the bank the first object of interest to meet my view is a long rope with a hangman's noose on the end, swaying in the morning breeze from the branch of a tall cypress tree. Here is the mark of the summary manner in which justice is meted out to the offender against the laws of the land. As I enter the door of the cabin, a motley group of men in broad-rimmed felt hats, red shirts, and trousers tucked into long-legged boots, which have spurs strapped to the heels, turn toward me with a look of surprise which is so marked that I at once state my business and explain that my little ship is moored to the bank a few hundred yards above, and invite them all to go and have a look at her. They tell me they have heard of us. The mailboat, when last there, left some papers, and the pilot told them that the "Yankee canoemen from away up north" were at Cairo when he left there. While the postmaster-storekeeper is putting up the goods that I have called for, I make a cautious remark about the noose that I saw on landing.

"Yes, they hung 'Red-necked Bill' there, about a month ago, for horse stealing, and there are two or three more fellows about these parts that will be served in the same way one of these days."

Although I had never stolen a horse, it was with feelings of intense relief that I boarded the Aurora and pushed off from the scene of Judge Lynch's court.

During the afternoon we came up with and passed a floating sawmill and carpenter shop combined. In appearance these mills are similar to the "kick-up" steamers. They tie up to the bank when a planter wants his timber sawed or building erected, and when the job is completed go on up or down stream, to the next engagement. At the terminus of a long reach we come upon the site of Fort Pillow. No traces of the fortifications now remain, the remorseless river having swallowed up the greater portion of what was once the highest and most important bluff on the river. Now and then we come upon the small clearings of the negro planter, in which he raises cotton, corn and a little tobacco for his private use. Today we have passed some large fields of unpicked cotton, the opened bolls giving the fields the appearance of being covered with snow glistening in the sunlight. To obtain some eggs, we made a landing before one of these small negro settlements.


A Close Call for James Henry.

A great fat negress, with skirts reaching a little below the knees, sleeves rolled up to above the elbows, neck and breast bare, came down to the shore with a water pail on her head. Spying the Aurora, she exclaimed:
"Fo' de Lawd, honey, what kind of a little boat does yer call dat? How long is yer gwine ter stay? Jis wait till I fetch James Henry ter see dat little boat."

And setting her pail down, she waddled off up the steep bank more like a big bear than a human being, while a dozen or more of her neighbors, men, women and children, gathered about the canoes. Not more than five minutes had elapsed before I saw the great dark bulk of the enthusiastic negress come sweating and puffing down the bank, with a little imp of blackness sitting on her head. Standing with arms akimbo, she called out, as her eyes rolled toward the sky,

"Dar, James Henry, duz yer see dat little canoe -- duz yer see dat geenman in his little canoe? Dat little canoe done come all de way from de Noff. Duz yer want to sit on de little boat?"

And taking him from this perch on her wooly crown, she sat him squat on the forward deck. I had been holding the bow against the bank with the paddle, and it required but an instant for me to gently push the canoe off, when the youngster set up a howl that reminded me of a "cat in our back yard." The mother if James Henry, fearing that I intended to kidnap her offspring, dropped on her knees, and clasping her hands, raised them toward heaven, praying, "Gor-a-mighty bring back my picaninny." Fearing that the young imp might fall off and drown, I returned him to his terror-stricken mother, who was heartily laughed at by the assembled company.

Barnacle now returned with the spoils of his hunt, and we paddle off in search of a camp. Until within a few days ago we have been able to use the river water for drinking and cooking purposes, but now, owing no doubt to the floods in some of its tributaries, the water is so thick with the muddy solution that we cannot see the bright bottom of a tin pail through it, and it becomes necessary to set it to settle over night, that we may have it clear for coffee-making on the morrow.

It was while lying in my snug quarters on board that I heard a steamer coming down the river, her wheel slowly revolving while the "leadsman" heaves the lead, and at each cast sings out the depth in a not unmusical tone:


(Quarter of a fathom less than three fathoms -- 16 feet 6 inches -- and mark of two fathoms -- 12 feet).

Mark Twain, the humorist, was a Mississippi River pilot, and even at that time was writing humorous articles for the press. There is an old story among the river pilots to the effect that "at the foot of President's Island the humorist had finshed an article and wanted a nom de plume. Just then the leadsman cried out 'Mark twain,' and down it went at the foot of that article, and to many a one since."



About noon of the next day the bows of our canoes grated on the stone-paved levee of the city of Memphis. We had directed that our mail should be sent here; and we eagerly thread our way through the vile-smelling streets to the post office, where we find our letters, some of which have been held for us many days.

The second day after leaving Memphis, we met the U.S. snagboat De Russy, and on invitation from the captain, went on board and dined. These boats, of which there are several on the Mississippi, are employed in picking up and clearing away the enormous masses of trees, stumps and debris constantly borne down on the current, and lodged in the channel. The river is continually undermining the banks and trees; sometimes acres of them at a time are precipitated into the river, when the fluvial soil is washed from their roots, and they are swept away down stream, generally lodging in the channel and presenting most dangerous obstacles to navigation. These are familiarly termed "snags." The snagboat is a powerfully built steamer, having a double bow with a V space between, heavily sheathed with plates of iron. Over the space between the bows is a powerful derrick with a projecting arm, over which a chain is run with a set of grapnels at one end. This grapnel is let down to the bed of the channel, and as the steamer slowly advances, catches the submerged tree or log, when "the doctor" (a small engine used for the purpose) is set in motion and the snag drawn to the surface over the plates of iron between the bows, and there cut into small pieces by axmen and allowed to again go adrift.

I asked the pilot of the De Russy whether I should avail myself of the cutoffs of the Mississippi, and was warned that although I would save in point of distance I would lose in time, as the strength of the current always follows the channel. He assured me that I would not only find very little current, but in many of the chutes scarcely water enough to float my canoe. Said he,

"Three miles below here you will turn to the left and go through what was last winter an old 'cutoff,' which had become almost a lake, dammed at the upper end, but today the cutoff is the stream's channel, while the old channel is the cutoff."

As we swing around the Walnut Bend we sight a shantyboat moored to the bank. Strewn about on the shore are many articles of household furniture, and a hog and some fowls are roaming about at will. At one end of the shanty sat a young negro, across whose knees rested a rifle of a pattern seldom seen in these days of fixed ammunition and breechloaders, but which in the days of Daniel Boone was a terror. A pleased expression is on his countenance as we push up to his perch, and he exhibits a fine large wild goose that he had shot but a few moments before, one of a flock that we had kept in sight since leaving the snagboat. This man had charge of the Government lights, and as the surrounding country is subject to inundation twice a year, he lives in a floating home rather than to risk being washed out of one on shore.


I Turn Executioner.

Every day and all day we start up immense flocks of ducks and geese from the long, low sand bars. At our approach they rise into the air with a great flapping and whistling, and go sailing off over our heads with a quacking and honking that at times is almost deafening. We look for the wind to drop as the sun declines below the forest of cottonwoods, but instead it increases in strength, blowing the sand into our faces as we paddle close under the bars for protection. A deep indentation of the high sandy bank on the Arkansas shore is chosen for the night's camp, and we haul out, congratulating ourselves on the record of forty-six miles as the day's run, most of which has been made against a cold head wind.

The next day breaks with the wind still blowing a gale from the north, and the ground frozen like adamant. We pitched the large tent last night, and heaped the moist sand well up about its sides as a precaution against the searching wind, and then filled the interior with a deep carpeting of leaves. Of course, our canvas house is now frozen fast, and we must wait until a change in the temperature softens the frozen wall. Here, having discarded the suit of clothes worn so long, a brilliant idea strikes me, and soon another horse thief, whose make-up is a pair of dilapidated trousers and a shirt of blue, evidently much too small for the well-developed chest of the criminal, hangs dangling by the neck from the end of a pole, which reaches several feet out from the bank and over the whirling waters. The deception is a fair one. The piece of cloth, part of an old coat lining that serves as a black-cap, hides the distorted features, while the wide belt of cottonwood bark with the flesh side out, gives a semi-military effect to the effigy. As the steamers ply on the river or the flatboat is borne on the current, their occupants have before their eyes a dangling, swaying evidence of swift Arkansas justice.

© 2000 Craig O'Donnell
May not be reproduced without my permission.