From Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure, by Rinker Buck (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2022), Kindle pp. 28-29:
Historic periods rarely begin at a single, defined moment, and the flatboat era’s antecedents dated back more than forty years. The reason, mostly, was war, and the American passion for cleansing desirable new lands of their indigenous peoples. During the French and Indian War and the Revolution, and then again during Mad Anthony Wayne’s Ohio campaign against the Shawnee and the Miami during the Northwest Indian War in the 1790s, agents dispatched by British and then American army quartermasters had sailed southwest on the Ohio and the Mississippi in flotillas of flat-bottomed barges or keelboats, to trade Monongahela flour and whiskey for imported gunpowder, muskets, and bayonets in New Orleans. The bustling munitions trade between the Americans and the Spanish authorities in Natchez and New Orleans during the Revolution set the tone for the next one hundred years, when wartime needs accelerated transportation improvements on the rivers. During the Revolution, Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana and Cuba, was openly pro-American and even led successful expeditions against British forts at Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola. His sponsorship of arms smuggling along the Mississippi is still regarded as a decisive contribution to the American cause, and after independence Gálvez was awarded honorary American citizenship.
The success of the arms supply routes along the Mississippi midwifed the new commercial era, opening the Ohio and Mississippi corridor to a fresh, ambitious cast of players. By the late 1790s, French trading firms, mostly backed by investors from Philadelphia, had taken over the old military routes and established a reliable network of shipping agents along the Monongahela, the Great Falls at Louisville, and at Natchez and New Orleans. During the same period, according to one historian’s estimate, more than nine hundred “settler” flatboats bearing pioneers for the Kentucky frontier cast off every year from western Pennsylvania. These rakish boats, measuring fifty or sixty feet long, were particularly colorful, loaded bow to stern with everything a family, or several families, needed to carve a homestead out of the Kentucky forests. A fenced area in the stern carried horses, cattle, pigs, and goats, and the settlers’ boats were often called “arks,” after the fabled vessel of Noah in the Book of Genesis. A log cabin for the family to sleep in was built mid-vessel, and planting seed and flintlock powder were stowed in watertight barrels on the deck. Pioneers with less money to spend simply threw up a crude canvas tent on the deck and roped their milk cow and horses to the sides. Children romped in play spaces between the tents. After 1788, when the federal government issued the first land warrants in the West for Revolutionary War veterans, more than five thousand veterans from Virginia alone, including Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, headed over the mountains with their families on these floating farms, plying the Indiana and Kentucky banks of the Ohio and its tributaries in search of likely homesites to clear.