Seminole War
Soldiers make wild keelboat run down the Chattahoochee! (Seminole War 200th)

The Chattahoochee River as seen from the bluff at Fort Gaines, Georgia. This was the beginning mile of Capt. Birch’s 73.5 mile voyage.

“I put off at daylight,” wrote Capt. George Birch 200 years ago today about a single-day 73.5 mile keelboat run down the Chattahoochee River.

This article is part of a continuing series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the first year of the Seminole War. Click here to read other articles in the series.

Birch had reached Fort Gaines two days earlier with a small detachment of a sergeant, corporal and 12 privates to carry out orders from Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle to complete a keelboat then under construction at the post. Work on the vessel had been started in January during a brief stay at the fort by troops under Maj. Peter Muhlenberg of the 4th U.S. Infantry.

It took Birch’s detachment – with help from local citizens – only one day to complete the vessel, launch it and load it with a cargo of corn from the supply in the fort. The size of the boat and its cargo are not known, but the vessel was at least large enough to carry the shipment of corn as well as Birch and his 14 men.

The red line on this map of Southwest Georgia shows the route followed by Capt. Birch on February 18, 1818.

The distance from the landing site at Fort Gaines to the original mouth of the Flint River is 73.5 miles today. It was a bit longer in 1818 as no dredging or straightening of the river channel had yet taken place. That the Chattahoochee was running very high is evident from other reports of the time which describe the rivers and streams in Southwest Georgia as being at flood stage due to run-off from heavy snows that fell across the region that winter.

The planned run was dangerous. Not only did the soldiers face the possibility of attack from Seminole, Miccosukee, Muscogee (Creek) and maroon (Black Seminole) warriors, but the river was filled with snags, flood debris, rocks and other dangers. The Chattahoochee still turns brown with mud when it reaches flood stage and in 1818 – before it was somewhat tamed by modern dams – it quickly became a raging torrent at times of high water.

Knowing that his cargo of corn was desperately needed at Fort Scott, however, Capt. Birch set off on a voyage that he planned to complete as rapidly as possible. “I put off at daylight on the 18th and descended the Chattahoochee,” he reported, “and arrived at the mouth of the Flint at 9 o’clock that night.” [I]

Sunrise this morning in Fort Gaines came at 7:17 a.m. and first light was at 6:53 a.m. Since Birch wrote that he “put off at daylight” 200 years ago today, he probably left the landing at around 7 a.m.

J.J. Dolan with the keelboat Aux Arc in the distance.

Neither time zones nor Daylight Savings Time existed in 1818 and military officers either synchronized their watches to those of other officers or set them to the time in their home towns. Since Daylight Savings Time does not begin until March 11 at 2 a.m., there is no need to adjust for it in computing the actual length of Birch’s trip. Neither is there a need to account for more western time zones since most of the U.S. population was still concentrated in the region east of the Mississippi.

In other words, Birch’s time piece was probably no more than 1-hour off at most – if it was off at all – from the time observed today.

With this in mind, it can be determined that his keelboat completed its 73.5 mile trip in approximately 12 hours. The average speed maintained by the boat was 6.13 miles per hour, not accounting for the slightly longer distance that had to be covered prior to channel improvements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The reproduction keelboat Aux Arc, which took part in the 200th anniversary commemoration of the Scott battle of 1817, spent a day ferrying living history participants across the Flint River arm of Lake Seminole and along the still waters of a modern canal. The vessel maintained an average forward speed of 2 to 4 miles per hour, although obviously she would have sailed much faster while moving downstream on a flood-swollen river. [II]

Click the play button below to see the Aux Arc underway in Southwest Georgia on December 1, 2017:

The trip down the Chattahoochee, part of it after dark, must have been wild. The crew would have spent the entire journey trying to avoid snags, floating logs and other debris in the river, while also keeping the boat on course as they navigated bends and other hazards. It is interesting to note that while Birch covered 73.5 miles in 12 hours while moving downstream, it would take his crew 2 days to row the boat up 10-miles of the smaller Flint River to Fort Scott.

This series will continue.

[I] Diary of Maj. George Birch, 1809-1825 (manuscript).

[II] Speed of the Aux Arc as calculated from modern escort vessels.

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