The steamboat played a big role in Natchez history. Stories about the early days of steamboat travel still fascinate us today, as we envision the floating palaces replete with elegant furnishings and fine cuisine and, among the passengers, the dark eyed gambler with charming smile and a persuasive line.
The truth is, though, that the first steamboat to travel on the Mississippi River provides us with perhaps the best stories of all, with an action-packed trip that started late in 1811 and ended in New Orleans in early 1812.
The little steamboat “New Orleans”, named after the city of its final destination, was a far cry from a palace and had not a single elegant thing about it unless it was the main passengers, Nicholas Roosevelt and his pregnant wife.
However, make no mistake, all the passengers on board were gamblers in a way, just not the card-playing kind. They were river pioneers, taking a chance on the steamboat that had been a success in the much tamer Hudson River, hoping it also could maneuver the churning, fickle Mississippi.
Roosevelt and his wife, Lydia, the daughter of the famous architect-designer Benjamin Latrobe, had spent their honeymoon on a flatboat traveling down the Mississippi, a kind of dry run to determine whether the steamboat idea should be pursued. They concurred it should.
New Madrid Earthquake
So, the story continued in 1811 when Mrs. Roosevelt insisted, despite her delicate condition, that she would make the steamboat trip, too. The timing could not have been worse. One of the rover valley’s most serious earthquakes in history occurred as the little boat made its way down the Ohio River and into the Mississippi.
The New Madrid earthquake, taking the name of a small Missouri village where the epicenter might have been located, shook the earth literally for hundreds of miles. Even as far away as Natchez, the ground trembled.
The river suddenly changed course, even ran backwards in places; landmarks that the pilot of the little steamboat had known were no longer there. Utter confusion reigned aboard the boat.
On shore, terrorized Indians theorized the little vessel with its belching tower must have caused the earthquake as well as the burning comet that blazed across the sky during this time. It was Halley’s comet. How could anyone have known?
Indians chased the monster from along the riverbanks, intent on destroying the steamboat. The Roosevelt’s’ little dog barked madly at earth charging natives, who, thankfully, were not successful in their attack.
Still, a fire broke out on-board the boat, partially destroying the kitchen. Mrs. Roosevelt gave birth to her baby. In all the excitement, no one noticed that the captain of the steamboat was falling in love with Mrs. Roosevelt’s maid.
Arrival At Natchez
When the New Orleans arrived within view of Natchez Under-the-Hill, awed onlookers watched the boat approach the landing. In keeping with the story so filled with twists and turns, the little boat lost steam and floated past the landing. Deflated and disappointed, the Natchez crowd stood by helplessly, thinking the moment was lost. Not so. The heroic captain and his crew brought up the steam again and headed into the landing. The captain and his sweetheart de-boarded to find a preacher. They were wed in Natchez.
When the steamboat "New Orleans" left Natchez, it took with it to the city of New Orleans the first bale of cotton to be shipped by steamboat. Oh, it would be the first of many such bales and the story, the first of many such tales.
By: Joan Gandy
The Natchez Democrat