A Night on a Mississippi Steamboat in 1833

giant-steamboats-at-neworleans-1853

– 26 August 2015 –

Barzillai “19th Century” Bozarth:

19th-century-barzillaiCarolus David Arfwedson, a Swedish merchant and writer, traveled throughout the United States and the Canadian colonies from 1832 to 1834, quickly publishing a two-volume English account of his travels in 1834, which he called simply The United States and Canada in 1832, 1833, and 1834.

The book is similar in some ways to the more famous journey of Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, which was translated into English in 1835 under the title Democracy in America.  Unlike Democracy in America, however, Arfwedson spares the reader the detailed analysis of American government and society and concentrates on the narrative, which makes for a remarkably entertaining read.

The following excerpt is from Volume II of the account.  Arfwedson describes his eighth day on the long voyage from New Orleans by steamboat up the Mississippi to Louisville, Kentucky on the Ohio River, a journey that takes twelve days in all.

I have now proceeded a considerable distance up the Mississippi, without having said a word about the company who happened to be on board.

My fellow-passengers from New Orleans were chiefly persons from States bordering on the Atlantic Ocean, returning home after a short residence in the latter city. I passed in their agreeable society moments which would otherwise have been very tedious.

But, at every landing-place, new passengers, chiefly farmers, were taken on board, some of whom were in reality “half horse, half alligator;” others again seemed to possess a good fund of information, and manners entitling them to the first place among men even in the Eastern States.

They were generally frank, hospitable, and jovial, having apparently nothing on the mind to depress their spirits. Their language was as original as the subjects they discussed. No conversation, however brief, could take place, without a due proportion of anecdotes full of jocoseness; and in less than five minutes generally the whole auditory were convulsed with laughter.

But these were not the only persons added to our number. We also received an accession of those despicable beings, who make gambling their profession, and live upon their winnings. Every steamboat from Pittsburg to New Orleans is filled with such persons, who form regular societies among themselves, to “pluck young and inexperienced pigeons.”

A number of disgraceful contrivances, illustrative of their profession, were mentioned to me, as practised by these hard-hearted gamblers to lull suspicion, and plunder the unwary. The ablest and most barefaced croupiers of London and Paris are hardly more dexterous, or can perform their legerdemain tricks with more apparent fairness than these sharpers. How often industrious and honest farmers return in despair to their wives and children, totally ruined and reduced to beggary, after having visited New Orleans, sold their crop, received the proceeds, and, on the home voyage, fallen into the hands of desperate gamesters who have stripped them of every dollar!

Fatigued with beholding the cold-blooded looks of the gamblers, and the pale visages of the victims at the hazard-table, I hastened into the open air, anxious to shun the sight of men, clearly endeavoring to ruin each other.

night run to friars point - john stobart

The evening was cool, but serene; the stars appeared in all their brightness. I seated myself on deck, trying to dispel by the contemplation of objects before me the recollection of the scene I had just witnessed. Around me was Nature, majestic and grand; a stream so wide that both banks could not be seen at the same time, and a forest resembling a massive, dark, interminable wall.

In the fore-part of the steamboat were a group of engineers, whose blackened countenances were now and then brightened by the reflexion of the immense fires of the furnaces, and who laughed immoderately at every jocular expression. A few merry songs were also heard issuing from the same jovial group, each sally of boisterous mirth generally concluding with a copious libation of whisky.

In another corner, half a dozen Kentuckians were stretched on their backs, relating to each other their many hair-breadth escapes, and affirming on oath that none had better guns or wives than themselves.

Yonder again, a few young passengers were dancing to the sound of an old broken fiddle: and in another place an aged matron related to listening children how barbarously the Indians had slaughtered and eaten her ancestors of blessed memory. Here, a man, advanced in years, was reading passages from the Bible to a numerous auditory—there, two champions were wrestling.

In a word, I saw and heard nothing but singing, laughing, dancing, and innocent mirth around me, until night was far advanced, and a few game-cocks, confined in cages, informed me by their crowing that dawn was near at hand. Every one repaired to his birth, and I hastened to mine, far better satisfied with the time I had thus spent than if I had watched the gamblers gathering their ill-gotten harvest.

How these simple words sweep the reader into the enchantment of another, more innocent, time, overwhelming him with nostalgia for a year he never knew!

Arfwedson, C. D., The United States and Canada, in 1832, 1833, and 1834, 109-112. London: R. Bentley, 1834.

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3 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Brittius.

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  2. Going on the wish list

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    • I’ve been reading it off and on in pdf form for some time. If it was fiction, I wouldn’t like it as much, but the idea that at least the majority of the events depicted actually happened fascinates me. A peek into another and in my opinion—better—world. Hope you enjoy it when you get the chance!

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