Work, Slavery, and Freedom on the Steamboat

By Sasha Coles

A runaway slave ad posted in a New Orleans newspaper, November 28, 1833.

A runaway slave ad posted in a New Orleans newspaper, November 28, 1833.

On November 28, 1833, an advertisement in a New Orleans newspaper offered a $20 reward for the return of William, a slave who had escaped Colonel Proctor’s plantation. The ad mentioned that he would likely try to leave the city via steamboat and cautioned boat captains to refrain from “harboring” this runaway slave. This brief mention of William captures an important but underappreciated aspect of nineteenth-century steamboats. You might be familiar with the image of the steamboat popularized by Mark Twain’s famous novels, or represented in one of my favorite movies, The Princess and the Frog (2009). If you stepped on a riverboat in the 1800s, you might hear jazz bands playing and see passengers chatting, dancing, and drinking cocktails, but you would have also encountered the enslaved and free black men and women who labored on deck and in cabins.

Black men and women held various jobs in the river trade. Women typically served as chambermaids, and they did laundry, cleaned the cabins, and waited on passengers. Black men’s positions depended on their status. Slaves typically held the most dangerous and labor-intensive jobs as firemen, who fed the boat with wood fuel; roustabouts, who carried freight on and off the boats; and deckhands, who stowed the goods, cleaned the deck, and measured river depths. Free black men occupied the more skilled positions as barbers, waiters, porters, and cooks. The most prestigious and well-paying job that a free black man could get was as a steward, who supervised the rest of the workers, kept the peace on the boat, purchased food for the voyage, and established vast business and social networks in river towns.

Black roustabouts unloading cotton from steamboat, 1900.

Black roustabouts unloading cotton from steamboat, 1900.

While each job had its unique characteristics, they all shared one thing in common. A steamboat was a dangerous and challenging place to work! Hundreds of workers died each year from exposure to freezing temperatures, disease, and gruesome boiler explosions. Mark Twain’s own brother met his end in a steamboat blast. In addition, steamboat captains and officers constantly tried to restrict the mobility of their workers. They felt anxious about uprisings and frequently used violence to ensure a consistent, efficient, and reliable workforce. White immigrants from Germany and Ireland made up a significant percentage of riverboat laborers, which caused racial strife on board and on shore. Even though black and white workers rarely worked in the same jobs due to the pervasiveness of segregation and fears of interracial mixing, fights between workers frequently broke out. Some cities required that captains imprison free black workers in northern ports, because southern legislators did not want these laborers to inspire enslaved men and women to escape. The boats also transported enslaved people to southern and western plantations. These men and women, chained together, lived in squalor, completely unprotected from the elements. Police patrolled the levees to ensure that enslaved workers (and cargo) would not try to flee.

Black people made the best of these difficult circumstances. In fact, the steamboat nurtured a sense of possibility among black workers who lived in a racially restrictive society. The work offered opportunities for building community, earning money, and even escaping to freedom. In the nineteenth century, the black community viewed river work as cosmopolitan and respectable, especially when compared to the inhumane conditions of plantation labor. Laborers used strategies of resistance, like slowing down their jobs and refusing to answer to racist names and language, while on the job. Black workers also enjoyed leisure activities in bustling river cities like New Orleans and St. Louis, and on board, they met marriage partners, learned skilled trades, read books, and sang and danced together. Slave owners typically leased the short-term labor of their slaves and bargained with steamboat officers over wages, but enslaved men and women also negotiated their own contracts and pocketed the tips they earned. Black women often secured enough pay as chambermaids to support a family back home. The steamboat economy also allowed for the creation of a vast communication network. Abolitionists passed along warnings to runaway slaves, and these messages helped them avoid capture and re-enslavement. Family members separated by the slave trade reconnected with and relayed messages to loved ones. For example, an enslaved woman named Sally used steamboat workers to connect with her free son, Isaac, who eventually purchased Sally’s freedom.

The steamboat presented even more revolutionary possibilities for black Americans. Enslaved people working on the boats took advantage of their mobility and escaped to freedom, as did slaves who worked on the land and secretly boarded steamboats. There are accounts of men and women stowing away, pretending to be servants, and “passing” as free people by wearing nice clothing and forging identification papers. Many disembarked in free cities up the river, like Cincinnati or Pittsburgh. Some found safety in Native American communities, and others made new lives for themselves in maroon colonies, or settlements composed of other runaway slaves. Many of these paths to freedom required the assistance of allies, like friendly white passengers or black workers.

When the Civil War began in 1861, the river trade became enveloped in the conflict between North and South. A flood of black men and women began using the steamboat to escape slavery. The Union and Confederate militaries commissioned boats and relied on black steamboat workers during the war. Union soldiers became new allies in black emancipation, because the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862 allowed Union forces to seize Confederate property (including slaves). The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, proclaimed the freedom of about three million slaves in ten southern states. As a result, black steamboat workers gained new rights under maritime law, and they used the court system to protect their wages and resist cruel treatment.

In the postbellum period, the nature and the function of the steamboat transformed. Miles and miles of railroad began to cover the United States and replaced the steamboat as the primary way to transport goods and people across long distances. Black Americans began using Republican politics and newspapers for and by black people to create community solidarity and establish support networks. River boats continued to service mostly local trade, but they also became sites of leisure and a symbol of a nostalgic “southern way of life.” This version of the steamboat has received the most attention in popular media, but as you have learned here, those representations often miss stories about people like William. These boats were site of pain and hardship, but also great mobility and freedom for black men and women.

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