Journey on a Flatboat into Kentucky

Many of our ancestors were Kentucky pioneers who made their way down the Ohio river on a flatboat. They settled in one of the many river towns along the Ohio River. KYGS member and genealogy blogger, Barb LaFara, shares the story of the brave pioneers, David and Margaret McCash.

Migrating to Kentucky on a Flatboat

My ancestors arrived in North America using the only form of transportation then available for crossing the Atlantic: sailing ships. Once in America, they would have traveled by the various means of transportation for seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century Colonial Americans. Those modes of transport would seem slow and tedious compared to how we travel today. But one set of my immigrant ancestors used transportation after their arrival, which although probably slow, sounds interesting to me: flatboats.

Kentucky Pioneers: David and Margaret McCash

My fourth-great-grandparents, David (1758-1807) and Margaret (1758-1804) McCash, arrived at the port of Philadelphia in 1787. [1] They had immigrated from Glasgow, Scotland, to make a better life for themselves and their children. Their three children, who traveled with them, were all under the age of five. After provisioning themselves, they joined a group traveling overland to Pittsburgh, PA.

Once there, they boarded a flatboat and went down the Ohio River to Limestone, KY, intending to acquire land and homesteading. In Scotland, David McCash had been a blacksmith but probably had some farming skills.

Making a Journey on a Flatboat

Traveling by Flatboat Souce: Public Domain US, expired, Attribution: Alfred Waud, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1782, a Pennsylvania farmer named Jacob Yoder became the first person to navigate a flatboat from Brownsville, PA, to New Orleans successfully. This feat demonstrated how the rivers could reach distant markets and to settle the West. [2] The typical flatboat for families going west was about sixteen feet wide by fifty-five feet long.

With a shed aft for horses and cattle and a cabin in the fore for people, a basic flatboat only had a sandbox fireplace. For navigation, all flatboats were propelled by sweeps which were mounted on the sides and used for directing the flatboat into the current. They also had a rudder and a short oar in front.

The flatboat was often called the boat that never came back. Flatboats were typically broken up at the end of the journey and the lumber used for building houses for the homesteaders. [3]

Army Needed Flatboats Also

Another use for the flatboats was discovered by General Josiah Harmar, 1753-1813. General Harmar was Commander of the US Army in Ohio, and he had noticed the large number of flatboats descending the Ohio River.

He ordered an account of the boats that passed the garrison at Muskingum, OH. From 10 October 1786 until 12 May 1787, 127 boats, 2,689 people, 1,333 horses, 756 cattle, and 102 wagons passed Muskingum bound for Limestone, KY.

General Harmar recognized the value of the boats. In 1788, he purchased at Limestone about fifty flatboats at the moderate price of one to two dollars each. He used the lumber from the boats to construct Fort Washington at Cincinnati. [4]

Pioneers Prepare for their Flatboat Journey

While researching flatboats, I came across a charming old movie, Flatboatmen of the Frontier.[5] While intended for school children, this ten-minute instruction film answers some of the questions you may have about flatboats and migration into Kentucky. 

This film was created with the help of Thomas D. Clark from the University of Kentucky and is part of the Prelinger Archive on archive.org.

 

Pioneers Settled in Limestone, Mason County, Kentucky

European-American settlers traveling down the Ohio River in the late 18th and early 19th century found a natural harbor at Limestone Creek on the Kentucky side of the river. At Limestone, the boats became so numerous they frequently were set adrift to make room for others.

In 1784, a man named Simon Kenton built a blockhouse at the site and founded Kenton's Station. Then, in 1786, John May acquired the land at Limestone and renamed the place Maysville, as it is called today. [6]

Mural at Maysville, KY, celebrating their flatboat history. Source: Author’s Collection

Establishing a Kentucky Homestead in Maysville

My McCash ancestors, after surviving the river journey to Kentucky, became homesteaders. It was there, near Limestone, that my third-great-grandfather James McCash was born on August 26, 1788. The family evidently were successful farmers and traders. I discovered David McCash mentioned in a book about the early history of Cincinnati, OH.

In 1792, David arrived by small boat at the Stone Landing near present-day Cincinnati bearing all manner of fresh produce. At this time, the settlement was primarily Fort Washington. The arrival of quality foodstuff was very welcome. [7]

A year later David moved his young family to the north side of the river and established a homestead in present-day Cincinnati near the current intersection of Walnut and Third Streets. [8] (Steps away from the baseball stadium and probably beneath I-71.) There, the family continued to farm and supply provisions to the Army. [9]

Cincinnati in 1800 Source: Public Domain US, expired, Attribution: Lithograph by Strobridge Litho. Co., Cincinnati, based on a painting by A.J. Swing, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Conclusion

McCash Brothers Source: Author’s Collection

I like to imagine my McCash ancestors arriving at their first homestead on a flatboat with just the necessities to begin a new life in America. Making the trip across Pennsylvania and then down the river with three very small children is hard to imagine though. It must have taken determination and grit. 

All three of their immigrant children survived well into adulthood. Their eldest son, William McCash (1783-1871) and their American-born son, James McCash (1788-1871), have thousands of descendants alive today.

 

 

References

  1. Profile of David McCash, Website: Ancestry.com, Family tree: Osborne; https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/13493206/person/-60123635/facts
  2. Website, Wikipedia: Flatboat; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatboat
  3. Website, The Paths of Inland Commerce, by  Archer B. Hulbert, Chapter 5: Flatboat Age; https://www.history1700s.com/index.php/18th-century-history-the-basics/18th-century-e-text-archive/192-classic-historical-works/paths-of-inland-commerce/912-chapter-v-the-flatboat-age.html
  4. Website, Wikipedia: Josiah Harmar; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josiah_Harmar
  5. Website, Archive.org; Video, Flatboatmen of the Frontier, by ERPI Classroom Films, Inc., pub: 1941, run time: 10:18; https://archive.org/details/flatboatmen_of_the_frontier
  6. Website, Wikipedia: Maysville, Kentucky; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maysville,_Kentucky
  7. Book, Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1859, pg. 129, by Charles Cist, pub: 1859, Cincinnati, OH. Access online: https://archive.org/details/sketchesstatisti01cist
  8. Book, History of Cincinnati, Ohio, with illustrations and biographical sketches, pg. 46, by  Henry A. Ford, pub: 1881, LA Williams and Co., Cleveland, OH. Access online: https://archive.org/details/cu31924032193520 
  9. Book, Cincinnati, the Queen City : 1788-1912, pg. 81, by Charles Frederic Goss, Pub: 1912, S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., Chicago. Access online: https://archive.org/details/cincinnatiqueenc02goss

Editor’s Notes

The Transportation post first appeared in the author’s blog in July 2021. You are invited to post a story about your family. Submit your story using the Write for Us link.

About the Author

Barb LaFara is originally from Indianapolis and now lives in Cape Coral, FL. Barb describes herself as an 'arm-chair' genealogist since nearly all of her research is done using online resources. Barb enjoys collaborating with others, contact her via her website, barblafara.com.


 

 

 

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