One of my current projects is an as-yet-uncontracted historical romance set mostly in America in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans. And the first thing I realized as I developed the idea was just how little I know about my own country’s early 19th century history. What I do know is patchy. I learned a good bit about the War of 1812 researching my 2012 book, An Infamous Marriage, but my focus was on the war in and around Canada. Partly because of that research, I know Tecumseh, but he died in battle before this story started. I’ve learned about Cherokee history and the Trail of Tears–my husband’s family is Oklahoma Cherokee–but that doesn’t directly touch this story, either.
So I’m now in all-out research mode. Since I’m writing a road romance, I can’t just learn New Orleans. I have to learn about everywhere my hero and heroine would pass through on their way to safety–including what transportation methods and routes actually existed back then in what was still largely frontier country. When I mentioned this to my husband, who’s far more up on the history of technology than I am, the first thing he said was, “Steamboats.”
Now, when I hear “steamboat,” I picture something like the musical Show Boat, or maybe Mark Twain or the Civil War. (Told you the history of technology is one of my weak points!) But because I trust my husband’s instincts, I immediately started looking into it…and discovered that 1815 was just at the dawn of steam travel on the Mississippi. When my story opens, the Enterprise was in New Orleans.
She’d come all the way downriver from Pennsylvania, bringing much-needed supplies for Andrew Jackson’s army. During the rest of the winter and early spring, she mostly shuttled between New Orleans and Natchez. Later in the year she earned fame by sailing all the way upriver (up rivers, plural) to her Pennsylvania home port. Though the journey took many months, it was a portent of the future. Before steamboats, travel upriver on the Mississippi was impractical–rivermen would float down on flatboats, barges, or canoes, then abandon their boats and walk or ride overland to their homes in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, or other points north.
Once I found out there was a steamboat–and one named Enterprise!–I had to set my hero and heroine aboard her. They’ll get off at Natchez, though, and take the Natchez Trace…which is a story for a future blog.
Have you ever stumbled across a piece of history that wasn’t what you expected it to be? And do you have any historica blind spots like mine for technology?
That is really cool, Susanna. I also had no idea there were steamboats in America that early. Research does turn up interesting things. When I was looking into the history of pregnancy and childbirth, I was interested to find that there was something akin to the natural childbirth movement in the earlier part of the Regency. It was a reaction against the excesses and damage from the over-use of forceps. Sadly, Princess Charlotte’s death in childbed changed all that, helping to bring about a new period where invasive techniques were used more often than needed. I found it interesting that this is something that has swung back and forth more than once.
I’ve read about that, Elena. Do you have In the Family Way by Judith Schneid Lewis, by any chance?
There are always blind spots, but I usually don’t realize they are there until I encounter them. We like to travel and I try to research the history of an area before going there. That is usually when I find all sorts of interesting things. When we visit, there are always more discoveries. We went to New Orleans and learned what you did about the flatboats making a one way trip down river. They were sold and the lumber was used to build the city. At the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, you can see the exposed boards that come from an early flatboat.
The piece of history I was really surprised by was that surrounding the English occupation of Ireland. I had no idea they sold hundreds of thousands of irish men, women, and children into slavery. The Potato Famine was manipulated by the English. The potato crops did fail, but there were stores of food from other crops being exported while the undesirable Irish catholics starved and were forced to leave the country. Canada was active in helping many leave and helped them resettle. There is a much bigger story surrounding this for the slave trade went on for 100 years or so.
I hadn’t heard about the Irish being sold into slavery, but I had heard that during the Famine all the non-potato crops were doing just fine but kept being exported to England rather than being used to feed the Irish, and there was this whole attitude of “We can’t just hand these people food without making them work for it, because then they’ll become dependent and never learn to be hard-working and self-sufficient,” when people were actually STARVING. Pretty reprehensible all around.
In the Family Way is one of my favorite references on the subject. I also found a lot of useful information in The Making of Man-Midwifery by Adrian Wilson. The latter covers an earlier period but helps one understand what led up to Regency practices.
I’ll have to look for that one, Elena!
I can’t even go there, to how the English treated the Irish in “our” time period and shortly after. It is too upsetting.
Almost all of history has been a blind spot to me! I used to think history was just a subject to get through in school. Now I find it fascinating.
Love this idea of a road story!!
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Nice interesting article. The steamboat activated trade along the Mississippi; it brought new towns, new industry, new jobs. As Americans continued on their heady plunge in to the western territories, the steamboat proved invaluable.