For the Clarion, Part Three

Journal of a Voyage from Nashville to New-Orleans from the Clarion, March 9, 1815

The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Scott, Fentress, and Pickett Counties of Tennessee and McCreary County, Kentucky, USA.

Saturday, January 23 —  At 2 o’clock in the morning Col. Benton went on board Capt. Gibbs boat, half a mile below Clarkesville, and put off.  At day break he came up with Major Martin, nine miles own the river at Shelby’s ferry, where he received from the politeness of Col. Shelby a present of biscuit and vegetables.  The boat which carried to Massac the field and staff officers of the second Regiment was then lashed along side of that of Capt. Reynolds; to whom, on account of his knowledge of the navigation of the western rivers, the conduct of both was given.  The whole of the boats of the second regiment were now ahead [?] except that of Capt. Smith, which would not be ready for sailing until some time in the day.

Gen. Jackson  had left Clarkesville on the morning of the 13th, he was therefore eight days ahead.  To overtake him was the anxious wish of every individual who had been so unfortunate as to fall into the rear.

At the approach of night the boat which carried the field and staff of the second was still behind.  The evening threatened a storm, but it was not deemed necessary to put to.  Suddenly the sky was overspread with thick clouds; the darkness became extreme; and squalls of wind and rain drove  at intervals with great violence.  The steers-men were driven from the helm; & the boats floated at random.  Still it was deemed practicable to go on.  The number of hands on board were thought sufficient to pull the vessels in any direction on the appearance of danger.  Having floated two hours in this way, the boats received a sudden shock, and the officers rushed to the bow; but the darkness was so impenetrable that they could not see upon what they had struck.  Nothing was distinguishable until candles were brought.  It was ten perceived that they had been driven stern foremost against the left bank.  Capt. Reynolds ordered the bows to be shoved off, and they swung again into the current.  Proceeding an hour longer and two boats were discovered moored under the shore:  they were those of Cannon and Caperton.  Col. Benton ordered them to slip their cables at the rising of the moon, and follow.

The darkness and the wind still continuing, and it being known that there was an Island just ahead, the passes of which cold not be distinguished without more light, and the opinion became general that the boats should be brought to for some hours.

Sunday 24th — The moon rose a few minutes after twelve.  She was already half wasted, and the clouds which were flying rendered the light of her beams but little better than ‘darkness visible.’  But Capt. Reynolds deemed it safe to put off; and before one the boats were in motion.

At two they passed the boat of Capt. Gibbs, moored under the shore.  Col. Benton directed him to put off and follow, and half an hour afterwards that of Capt. M’Ferrin, also moored, to whom the like order was given.–Of the four Captains ordered out in the course of this night, Gibbs instantly obeyed, and kept in company with the field and staff; the other three did not come up until Tuesday night.

At noon they passed the north boundary line of Tennessee, and entered the state of Kentucky.  The boundary of the two states is marked by a cluster of small islands, called the ‘Line Islands,‘ about 110 miles below Nashville.  Eight or ten miles below this place the rivers Cumberland and Tennessee approach within two thousand eight hundred yards of each other; and then diverging to ten or fifteen miles distance, they hold parallel courses for sixty miles, when they empty themselves into the Ohio, twelve miles asunder.–One would think that when two such great rivers had approached so near each other, they had as well have met; and the reason of their separation is the less obvious, as the ground between them is a very low ridge, without rocks, or impervious soil.

Near the point of approach is a singular place in the Cumberland river.  A ledge of rock runs directly across its channel, so as to am the water above it, and the make a swift current below. Near the middle of this ledge is a gap or chasm of no more than thirty feet wide, through which in dry season the whole volume of water passes which rolls down the bed of this Cumberland.  When the volunteers passed, the ledge was entirely covered; but the ridge [ illegible] was clearly distinguished by the depression and smoothness of the water in that part.–The pass through this chasm is called by the boatmen in their vulgar language, ‘The Devil’s Shoot.”

The day was warm and cloudy, and towards evening repeated rumblings of distant thunder were heard; and as the night came on squalls of wind and rain with excessive darkness rendered floating on a river which could not be seen, rather an unpleasant employment.  But such was the universal ardor to overtake the General that it was continued for upwards of two hours; when the boats were brought to, to wait the rising of the moon.

Monday, the 25th — At one o’clock, according to the almanac, the moon was to rise, and at that time the boats put off, but the clouds, the fogs, & the rain, prevented her rays from affording any  light.  Yet the boats went forward under the showers of rain, the oars-men feeling for the river which they could not see.  For nearly five hours, they floated without alarms; and as the day was to break at 6, the dangers were supposed to be passed; and one man alone stood at the helm  But at this instant the rain, which had been driving at intervals with considerable violence, suddenly poured down in torrents.  The lightning flashed vividly; followed by a crack of thunder, to which succeeded a profound and pitchy darkness.  In this interval of gloom, the boats floated at random, until a sudden shock and the grating of their bottoms upon rocks and gravels, clearly shewed that they were running aground.  It was to no purpose that all hands rushed to the oars and made the greatest exertions to draw them off, they were already sticking fast; and they could do nothing but wait for day light to shew them their situation and the means of relief.–The day soon appeared, and it was then seen that the river was flooded by the recent rains and perfectly muddy; and that the two boats still lashed together, were driven sideways upon a bank of gravel which divided the stream into several branches.  To get off it was necessary to push by main strength up the stream, and then turn to the left whither the current was sitting with great force– Capt. Reynolds had the direction and all hands were ordered to obey in silence.

Hand spikes having been provided, the crew with several officers, leaped overboard.  The exertions of the men soon had the boats from their place, and in half an hour they were again under  weigh–Major Martin, always the foremost in scenes of difficulty, would have entered the water with the young men, but was restrained.

In the course of the morning the field and staff of the 2d regt. passed in the dark the wreck of the boat lost by the first regiment.  It was the property of Lieut. Alexander, quarter-master to Col Hall.  A planter in the river had struck her bottom, and bilged her so that she quicklly filled with water and went down.  Ten or a dozen men and two horses on board, were got out in safety.

At noon they arrived at Eddyville (Ken.) 140 miles below Nashville:  Gen. Jackson had passed there on the evening of Sunday the 17th.  On that day the bosom of the Cumberland, some miles above Eddyville, exhibited a spectacle but little to have been expected thirty years ago.

Thirteen companies of Infantry, with officers, a general, his staff and suite, were formed on the tops of a number of boats floating together.  A Minister of the Christian religion, stood upon a pulpit in the midst of them; and the gospel morality of Christ was heard to resound upon the bosom of a river and upon the spot, where, within the memory of several present, the Buffalo had come to drink; the Indians to way-lay the solitary travellers, and the enterprising whiteman had cautiously crept along, in continual peril of his life.

From Eddyville to the mouth of Cumberland was 45 miles; to arrive there on the succeeding day it was necessary to sail a good part of the night; but this was found to be impossible.  In the course of the day the weather had undergone a violent change.  From a degree of warmth which rendered fire unnecessary, the cold in a few hours had become extreme.  The rain which continued to fall, freezed as it fell, and the trees and ground were covered with ice.  Soon after dark the steersman complained that his clothes were frozen, and that he was incapable of managing the oar.  The boats were therefore rowed to the shore, and secured for the night.

(To be continued.)

The Headliners Foundation appreciates and supports efforts to preserve our national journalistic legacy and suggests that Texans and others who love journalism and its rich history in this country consider donating to their state’s efforts to put these early newspapers online.  Contact your state library, historical society or university.  For a list of historic newspapers online, use this link: http://guides.library.upenn.

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden