Barging Down the Mississippi

To Market, To Market

After an era of conflict over the land in the Ohio Valley, the land was finally opened for peaceful settlement at the end of the Revolutionary War. In that era of primitive transportation, the Allegheny Mountains posed a great barrier to expansion and trade. Because the trek to eastern markets across the mountains was so difficult, and the movement of goods in bulk by boat along the westward flowing Ohio and southward flowing Mississippi waterways was easy in comparison, commodities produced in the Ohio Valley settlements moved most easily to the eastern states and foreign markets through the port of New Orleans. The Falls of the Ohio were the only major barrier to navigation on the river (precipitated the founding of Louisville, Kentucky), but otherwise the Ohio offered an easy way to move produce. The Mississippi pushed along goods laden boats on the 1.5 to 3 mile-per-hour current with only a little steering necessary to miss the sandbars. The meager one-fifth population of the U.S. living west of the Alleghenies as farmers in the Ohio Valley, businessmen, trappers and lumbermen were creating over $1 each worth of commerce that passed through New Orleans each year. Flour, Indian corn, peas, beans, oats, cotton, tobacco, pork, beef, bacon, lard, tallow, live-stock, poultry, whiskey, wines, cider, furs and skins, feathers, marble, and lead are some of the commodities that made up the American portion of annual trade passing through New Orleans. By 1802, over one million dollars in American trade was floating down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to the port of New Orleans. This comprised two-thirds of the commerce passing through the city.

The flatboat was the cheapest of the many types of boats and became the standard conveyance for families moving west. All of the boats in this period were hand-powered, using poles or oars for steering, and usually just floated with the current. Unwieldy flatboats were not intended for round trips since they couldn't fight the current for the return journey. This vessel both carried families to new homes in the Ohio Valley and transported goods down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to market. Once in the Mississippi port of New Orleans the boats were broken up and sold for firewood. The traders would then spend weeks in slow and laborious travel either walking or riding home.

More seaworthy keelboats loaded with produce and commodities made their way quickly down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Most keelboats were from 50 to 80 feet (24 m) long and 15 feet (4.6 m) wide. Streamlined keelboats could be poled in shallow water or towed upriver from shore.

High Tech

Two technological breakthroughs of the 1790's dramatically altered and increased the trade passing through New Orleans. The first was planter Etienne Bore's introduction of an improved process for refining sugar, which led to a wholesale substitution of sugar cultivation for indigo on the plantations surrounding New Orleans. The second was Eli Whitney's cotton gin which transformed the highly labor-intensive removal of seeds from raw cotton into a speedy mechanical process. At this time, cotton cloth became the nearly universal standard for wearing apparel creating an increased demand for cotton to supply English factories. Cotton quickly supplanted tobacco in the drier areas north of Baton Rouge. At the same time, rice continued to be cultivated in south Louisiana. By 1800, New Orleans had become a center for the preparation, storage, shipping, and financing of local sugar and rice crops, cotton from further up the river, and wheat and other products from the American midwest. Clearly New Orleans' economic development was now tied to its position as the port at the terminus of the great Mississippi River--Federal America's natural western highway of transport.

The Port of New Orleans

To the recently elected President Jefferson, the importance of New Orleans could not be understated. "There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three eighths of our territory must pass to market," he wrote to Robert Livingston, his ambassador to France, early in 1802. President Jefferson authorized negotiations with France with the purchase of New Orleans as their goal. The American Federal Republic was prepared to spend up to ten million dollars to acquire this strategic port and outlet of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.

The French had established the Port of New Orleans as a trade center for traffic between the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico in 1718. A Scot named John Law was hired to establish and settle the colony. Unfortunately he was a scam artist, giving investments in New Orleans a bad reputation in France. In 1720, the colony was in need of women, so prostitutes from the Paris jails were shipped to New Orleans. By 1721, 470 people lived there. The French secretly transferred the city and land west of the Mississippi to Spain in 1763. It was again secretly returned to Napoleon, who negotiated its sale to the U.S. in 1803. At that time, it contained about 8000 people, half of them white and a third of them slaves. Louisiana became the 18th state on April 30, 1812, barely a month later, Congress declared war on Britain.

In 1803, the New Orleans with a population 8,050 was hardly an important city in size. In comparison, the entire United States population stood at 5.3 million persons, of whom only 1 million lived west of the Alleghenies (two thirds of Americans lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean). With a population of 70,000 Philadelphia was the largest U.S. city, at that time; New York came in second with a population of 60,000. Miniscule populations compared to European cities like Paris with a population of around 650,000 and London, by far the largest European city, with a population of nearly 1.1 million.

Despite extensive holdings in the Caribbean, neither country seemed able to make the Mississippi port profitable. French ships were reluctant to call at New Orleans to pick up cargos of indigo and naval stores because their value did not match their bulk. Those wishing a large return on their investments preferred the more profitable cargoes of sugar, molasses, or rum that were available in nearby Caribbean ports.

The American negotiators sent to Paris by President Jefferson were prepared to pay up to $10 million for the port city of New Orleans but were dumbfounded when the entire region was offered for only $5 million additional dollars. Napoleon had recently suffered troop losses on the rebellious Caribbean Island of St. Domingue and war with Britain seemed eminent, so Napoleon needed cash. Marquess de Barbé-Marbois offered Robert Livingston all of Louisiana instead of just New Orleans. President Jefferson had instructed Livingston to only purchase New Orleans. However, he was certain that the United States would accept the deal including lands on the west of the Mississippi to the Rockies because he knew that Jefferson was concerned about having an aggressive nation like France with holdings on the young nation's western border. The treaty was signed by the negotiators. The vast Louisiana territory stretching from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to Rupert's Land in the north, and from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west doubled the size of the United States at a cost in 1803 currency of less than 3 cents per acre.

With the young republic moving inexorably westward, and the major western transportation system for moving people and goods being the Ohio-Missouri-Mississippi river system. New Orleans was the natural outlet for the agricultural products and manufactured goods produced by the Americans west of the Appalachians. Thus, the addition of Louisiana to the United States was inevitable. Annexation to the American States brought growth and economic development. By 1810, the census revealed a population of 10,000 making New Orleans the United States' fifth largest city, after New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore and the largest city west of the Appalachians.

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