The River Pirates by Edward Eggleston
A hundred years ago the country near the great rivers in the interior
of the United States was a wilderness. It contained only a few people,
and these lived in settlements which were widely separated from one
another. Hardly any of the great trees had been cut down.
There were no roads, except Indian trails through the woods. Nearly all
travelers had to follow the rivers. Steamboats had not yet been
invented. Travelers made journeys on flatboats, keel boats, and barges.
It was easy enough to go down the Ohio and the Mississippi in this way,
but it was hard to come up again. It took about fifty men to work a
boat against the stream, and many months were spent in going up the
Boats were pushed up the river by means of poles. The boatmen pushed
these against the bottom of the river. When the water was deep or the
current very swift, a rope was taken out ahead of the boat, and tied to
a tree on the bank. The line was then slowly drawn in by means of a
capstan, and this drew the boat forward.
Sometimes the boat was "cordelled," or towed by the men walking on the
shore and drawing the barge by a rope held on their shoulders. But when
there chanced to be a strong wind blowing upstream, the boatmen would
hoist sail, and joyfully make headway against the current without so
These slow-going boats were in danger from Indians. They were in even
greater danger from robbers, who hid themselves along the shore. Some
of these robbers lived in caves. Some kept boats hidden in the mouths
of streams that flowed into the large rivers.
In 1787 all the country west of the Mississippi still belonged to
France. The French territory stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to what
is now Minnesota. It was all called Louisiana. New Orleans and St.
Louis were then French towns, and the travel between them was carried
on by means of boats, which floated down the stream, and were then
brought back by poles, ropes, and sails.
The trip was as long as a voyage to China is nowadays. The boats or
barges set out from St. Louis in the spring, carrying furs. They got
back again in the fall with goods purchased in New Orleans.
In this year, 1787, a barge belonging to a Mr. Beausoleil (bo-so-lay)
started from New Orleans to make the voyage to St. Louis. The goods
with which it was loaded were very valuable. Slowly the men toiled up
against the stream day after day. At length the little vessel came near
to the mouth of Cottonwood Creek. A well-known robber band lurked at
this place. With joy the boatmen saw a favorable wind spring up. They
spread their sails, and the driving gale carried the barge in safety
past the mouth of the creek.
But the pirates of Cottonwood Creek were unwilling to lose so rich a
treasure. They sent a company of men by a short cut overland to head
off the barge at a place farther up the river. Two days after passing
Cottonwood Creek the bargemen brought the boat to land. They felt
themselves beyond danger. But the robbers came suddenly out of the
woods, took possession of the boat, and ordered the crew to return down
the river to Cottonwood Creek.
When they turned back toward the robbers' den, Beausoleil was in
despair. His whole fortune was on the barge. He did not know whether
the robbers would kill him and his men, or not. The only man of the
crew who showed no regret was the cook. This cook was a fine-looking
and very intelligent mulatto slave named Cacasotte. Instead of
repining, he fell to dancing and laughing.
"I am glad the boat was taken," he cried. "I have been beaten and
abused long enough. Now I am freed from a hard master."
Cacasotte devoted himself to his new masters, the robbers. In a little
while he had won their confidence. He was permitted to go wherever he
pleased, without any watch upon his movements.
He found a chance to talk with Beausoleil, and to lay before him a plan
for retaking the boat from the villains. Beausoleil thought the
undertaking too dangerous, but at length he gave his consent. Cacasotte
then whispered his plan to two others of the crew.
Dinner was served to the pirates on deck. Cacasotte took his place by
the bow of the boat, so as to be near the most dangerous of the
robbers. This robber was a powerful man, well armed. When Cacasotte saw
that the others had taken their places as he had directed, he gave the
signal, and then pushed the huge robber at his side into the water. In
three minutes the powerful Cacasotte had thrown fourteen of the robbers
into the waves. The other men had also done their best. The deck was
cleared of the pirates, who had to swim for their lives. The robbers
who remained in the boat were too few to resist. Beausoleil found
himself again master of his barge, thanks to the coolness and courage
But the bargemen dared not go on up the river. Against the stream they
would have to go slowly, and there would be danger from the robbers
remaining at Cottonwood Creek: so they kept on down the river to New
The next year ten boats left New Orleans in company. These barges
carried small cannons, and their crew were all armed. When they reached
Cottonwood Creek, men were seen on shore; but when an armed force was
landed, the robbers had fled. The long, low hut which had been their
dwelling remained. There were also several flatboats loaded with
valuable goods taken from captured barges. This plunder was carried to
St. Louis, and restored to the rightful owners. For fifty years
afterwards this was known as "The Year of the Ten Boats." Cacasotte's
brave victory was not soon forgotten.