CRUISE OF THE AURORA
IN WHICH BARNACLE CRAWLS INTO A HOLE.
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.
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.
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.
FROZEN IN THE SUNNY SOUTH.
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
"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
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
WHICH INTRODUCES JUDGE LYNCH AND MARK TWAIN.
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
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
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
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
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.