Black River Roustabouts Lost and Found

Roustabouts in St. Charles County, Missouri, ca. 1880. John J. Buse Collection, State Historical Society of Missouri Photograph Collection.

In January 1882, John Woodson, a twenty-two-year-old Black roustabout from Hannibal, Missouri, drowned near Hanging Rock, Ohio, while working on the sternwheeler John L. Rhoads, an elegant Pittsburgh & St. Louis steamboat line that included ports of call in Cincinnati and Huntington, West Virginia. It was his first work experience on a steamboat packet carrying freight and passengers. On January 22, the Evansville (Indiana) Courier and Press (p. 3) briefly noted the drowning but did not know Woodson’s name.

John L. Rhoads, University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, Murphy Library, Historic Steamboat Photographs Collection.

John was the oldest child of Malinda and Isaac Woodson. His father, born in 1835 in nearby Perry, Missouri (Ralls County), was a drayman on the Hannibal waterfront and former volunteer soldier in Company I of the 3rd Arkansas Infantry (African descent). Isaac was among the first Black Missourians to seize the opportunity for military service. First formed on the Mississippi River in St. Louis in 1863, the 3rd Arkansas Infantry consisted almost exclusively of enslaved Missourians who flocked to join the fight for freedom, at first with the permission of masters who remained loyal to the Union. Isaac’s unit was assigned to the 7th Corps of the Union Army in Helena, Arkansas along the Mississippi, St. Francis, and White rivers. Later, it was reorganized and folded into the newly created 56th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry until it was mustered out in 1866. At the time of his son’s drowning, Isaac, a former sergeant who fought under the name of Orear, was the secretary of the Colored Mason’s Lodge and the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Colored Lodge in Hannibal.

U.S. Colored Troop Recruitment Broadside, 1863-65. Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.

In a separate incident on the John L. Rhoads on the same night that John Woodson perished, twenty-one-year-old Green Osborne also drowned in the Ohio River. As in the case of Woodson, it was his first packet. A Black roustabout from the Missouri River town of Glasgow, Osborne, too, had joined the crew on one of Captain H. B. Cock’s and clerk John C. Fisher’s frequent runs to St. Louis. The Evansville newspaper did reveal Osborne’s name in its scant coverage of the drownings.

Such drownings were routinely reported but rarely investigated by the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service in the late 1800s. The reports were spotty and misleading at best. Often there was no inquest or investigation. In some cases, drownings weren’t even reported. For roustabouts at the bottom of the steamboat packet pecking order, conditions were especially perilous. They often loaded and unloaded heavy cargo and livestock without enough sleep or adequate lighting under terrible weather conditions, sometimes at small landings with steep embankments and inadequate loading facilities. Packets relied heavily on cheap German and Irish labor before the Civil War, but the steady trend after 1865 was toward the employment of Black roustabouts, including many who were once enslaved.

Thanks to Walter Wyman, Surgeon-General of the U.S. Marine-Hospital Service in 1882, we know the name of Woodson as the other drowning victim. We also better understand the conditions under which he and Osborne lost their lives in the performance of their job duties under the supervision of the same white mate. The drownings occurred in the iron range between Hanging Rock, Ohio, and Huntington, West Virginia. Wyman, an advocate of greater federal protection for steamboat roustabouts, took it upon himself to investigate the drownings. He urged the Steamboat Inspection Service to adopt a more aggressive oversight role, but he was pessimistic that much would be done by the federal government on behalf of lowly river roustabouts.

Walter Wyman, ca. 1898. A graduate of the St. Louis College of Medicine (Washington University School of Medicine) in 1873, he joined the Marine Hospital Service in St. Louis in 1876. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Osborne was the first to lose his life that night. Around dusk, he and the crew of roustabouts were loading pig iron from a barge that lay between the steamer and shore. Two wooden planks were stretched between the boats so that roustabouts could carry pig iron from the barge via one plank, load it onto the steamer, and return for more pig iron via the other plank. The deck of the steamer sat a bit higher in the water than that of the barge, which was somewhat unsteady in its twisting and swaying. Osborne, yelled at by the mate to run faster with the pig iron, missed the plank and vanished between the boats in the Ohio River. The crew of roustabouts, cowed by the mate, were afraid to stop working and search for Osborne. Officers of the John L. Rhoads did nothing to attempt a rescue or search for the body. An eyewitness told Wyman: “The mate walked up and looked over the guard and said, ‘Well, pick up your iron and get out of the way; the man’s drowned now; needn’t be standing around.’”

Woodson lost his life around eight o’clock that evening while the steamer was pushing a barge loaded with coal. On a pitch-dark night, the mate commanded roustabouts to load some coal from the barge onto the steamer, two men to a coal-box, which had a handle on two sides. Only two hand-held lanterns provided the light, which did not extend to the outer side of the barge or the backside of the coal pile. A roustabout who was working behind Woodson described to Wyman what led to the drowning: “The mate caught hold of him and told him, ‘Hurry along, ___ ___ you;’ and so he was hurrying along where he couldn’t see, and went too far, and just walked off the side of the barge. . . No, sir; neither of these men had been drinking anything. The boat slowed up a little and stopped her headway, but didn’t back, and nothing was thrown overboard.”

Roustabouts on deck of steamboat, ca. 1900. Missouri Historical Society Collections, St. Louis, Mo.

The relationship between hard-driving, abusive mates and roustabouts was often at the heart of violent conflicts on the lower deck of steamboats. Whippings and beatings were a common feature of racialized labor discipline on the packets, as they had been under the institution of slavery. In this case, the mate had a terrible reputation among experienced roustabouts in St. Louis who avoided working a steamboat that employed him. The Ohio River, with the aid of an aggressive white mate and a steamboat packet system that often pushed its labor force beyond the pale, swallowed two young inexperienced men whose families may never have been notified of their death.

Selected Sources: Walter Wyman, “Hygiene of the Steamboats on the Ohio River,” 265-278, Annual Report of the Supervising Surgeon-General of the Marine-Hospital Service of the United States for the Fiscal Year 1882 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1882); 1880 United States Federal Census, Hannibal, Marion Co., Mo.; 1890 Veterans Schedules of the U.S. Federal Census, Marion County, Mo.; U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934; U.S., Find a Grave Index, 1600s to Current; “Black Union Troops,”; Evansville Courier and Press, January 22, 1882, p. 3; Gregg Andrews, “River Roustabouts of St. Louis,” Missouri Historical Review 116 (January 2022): 87-122; Gregg Andrews, Shantyboats and Roustabouts: The River Poor of St. Louis, 1875-1930 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, forthcoming, fall 2022).

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