Tuesday, March 3, 2009

River Pirates

I've been reading up on river pirates. They occupy a big place in media peaking with a segment in How the West Was Won. Like most stories about the wild west, river piracy was never as common as popular fiction would have it. On the other hand, it did exist and its extent is hard to judge because of the dangers of river traffic.

River piracy flourished in the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the mid-18th century. During this period there was a lot of one-way traffic going down the rivers, mainly on flatboats. These were large rectangular rafts with sides and, often, some sort of cabin or shelter. They were used to float cargo down river. When they reached their destination they would break up the flatboat and sell it as lumber.

Most flatboats traveled in convoys. It was the loners that attracted pirates.

Unlike an open-sea pirate who needed a ship, river pirates only needed a boat or two. They didn't try to live on their boats. They either lived on islands or along the river banks. From there they could watch for targets.

People who became river pirates were either ruthless whites or escaped slaves (or both). They usually had some sort of arrangement with a local merchant or two who would accept merchandise without questioning the source.

River piracy was only possible during the early years of colonization. As cities and towns grew up along the rivers there was no place for the pirates to hide and the rivers became relatively safe.

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