It is a little known fact that the U.S. Army built a small fleet of keelboats on the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers during the winter of 1817-1818.
This article is part of a continuing series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the first year of the Seminole War. Please click here to access the entire series.
Paddlewheel steamboats existed by then but were still relatively new on the scene. The first steamboat trip down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans had taken place during the winter of 1811-1812, but another three years passed before one proved up to the challenge of making the reverse trip upstream against the current. Even as late as 1817 it still took 25-days for a paddlewheel boat to travel from New Orleans to Louisville.
Despite such innovations, keelboats were still the “go to” vessels for moving cargoes and passengers on American rivers in 1817-1818.
These wooden boats could move surprisingly heavy cargoes and were quite elegant in their own way. They could be quite large – one launched at Fort Scott in the winter of 1817-1818 could carry 100 barrels as well as a large crew – but were remarkably shallow in draft. The modern reproduction Aux Arc, which took part in the Scott 1817 Seminole War event at Chattahoochee and on Lake Seminole in 2017, draws less than 18-inches of water but is 38-feet long. She will be back again for this year’s event on November 30-December 2.
The boats were called keelboats because they were built with a keel instead of a flat bottom. They were still relatively flat-bottomed, though, and could navigate the shallows in rivers such as the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola with little difficulty.
Keelboats could be as long as 80-feet or more and usually had a cabin on deck to provide shelter for cargo, passengers and crew. The decks were also often stacked with cargo. They were propelled using oars or poles, although some also had sails.
The number of keelboats launched on Southwest Georgia rivers in 1817-1818 is not entirely clear. It is known that one was under construction on the Chattahoochee River at Fort Gaines 200 years ago today. Two more had just been launched at the Creek Agency near present-day Roberta, Georgia. The Georgia Militia troops at Fort Early near today’s Cordele were reported to be engaged in “building boats” and other boats were used to navigate the Chattahoochee between Fort Mitchell and Fort Gaines.
Several keelboats are known to have been built at a large boatyard on the banks of the Flint River at Fort Scott in what is now Decatur County, Georgia. The first of these was the vessel on which Lt. Richard W. Scott and his command was attacked on November 30, 1817. The size of Scott’s boat is not known, but it was big enough to carry 51 men, women and children as well as a cargo of ordnance stores and regimental clothing. One account also indicates that it had a deck cabin and carried at least one small swivel gun similar to the one on the Aux Arc.
At least two other keelboats had been launched at Fort Scott by the time of the attack on Scott’s command (please see Bloodiest U.S. Defeat of the First Seminole War). News of the deaths of the lieutenant, 34 soldiers, 6 women and 4 children led the officers at the post to order immediate modifications to these vessels. They were “fitted with covers” made of planks thick enough to stop the bullets from the rifles and British muskets of the Seminole, Miccosukee, Muscogee (Creek), Yuchi and maroon (Black Seminole) warriors.
Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle of the 7th Infantry also reported in December 1817 that he had two more boats on the stocks at the Fort Scott boatyard. One of these was a massive craft that could carry 100 filled barrels, other cargo, a full crew and a detachment of troops. They were both launched in January-February 1818.
Various military reports of the time period confirm that at least 8 keelboats were active on the river system in November 1817-February 1818, exclusive of boats reported to be under construction at Fort Early. At least one vessel from that post struck a rock and sank in the Flint River below present-day Albany in late February, but it is not known if it was one of the vessels sent down from the Creek Agency or it was one of those being built at the fort.
Whether the actual number was 8, 9, 10 or more, this little U.S. Army fleet proved vital in moving troops and supplies up and down the Apalachicola/Chattahoochee/Flint river system throughout the first year of the Seminole War.
This series will continue. Click here to learn more about the keelboat Aux Arc. You can learn more about the Seminole War in 1817-1818 from the books at the bottom of this page.