The “Mighty Mississippi River” has had a mighty influence over the maritime and economic history of the United States. Long before the New Orleans, the first Mississippi River steamboat, left Pittsburgh in 1811, people plied the Mississippi in skiffs, flatboats, and other water craft carrying goods and themselves up and down its 2,530 miles and its nearly as powerful tributaries like the Ohio and Missouri Rivers. River pirate gangs also plied the river and waited in ambush for honest flat boaters as they traveled the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers.
Flatboat Form and Freight
In 1782, Pennsylvania farmer and Revolutionary War veteran Jacob Yoder built the first flatboat at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, which lies along the Monongahela River, and in May of that year he floated a load of flour to New Orleans on his new invention. His successful trip, the first attempt to navigate the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers carrying freight, demonstrated to his fellow Americans that they possessed the tools and the know how to explore and settle the new country they had just wrested from the British.
For the next 70 years, flatboats were the primary means of carrying people and goods up and down the Mississippi River and its tributaries, from Minnesota to New Orleans and countless points in between. Water was the cheapest and most efficient transportation until the railroads extended their tentacles across the country a half century later.
Flatboats were as varied as the people and goods that they carried, Flatboat builders usually constructed a log cabin on the deck for shelter and often people carried their livestock and wagons on the cabin roof. For short trips, people used small flatboats that could measure just 16 feet long by four feet wide, either open to the elements or having a crude shelter with a cooking space. They were long and narrow and able to navigate creeks and small rivers.
Medium range flatboats measured approximately 55 feet long by 16 feet wide, and people called them Broadhorns, Kentucky or Natchez boats. Sweeps- two large rudders or oars- were fixed on the front and back of the flatboat to navigate with when the Mississippi River current didn’t flow swiftly enough or when the flatboat had to make its way through shallow backwaters. Flatboats with medium sized sweeps were called Broadhorns because from a distance, the sweeps resembled horns. Farmers and traders used Broadhorns to carry their produce and goods on extended river trips to markets. Families migrating west also used Broadhorns with the added features of a pen in the rear to hold their horses and cattle and a forward cabin for the owners.
The largest flatboats that traveled long distances were called Mississippi Broadhorns, New Orleans Boats, barges, scows, or arks. The New Orleans boats were fully covered and provided good shelter and durability. Sometimes people attached wheels to their flat boat so that a horse could pull it over portages and other land obstacles. For the most part, flatboats made one way trips. Once they reached their destination, the owners broke them up and sold the lumber or used it themselves.
Between 1810 and 1820, about 3,000 flatboaters a year traveled down the Ohio River floating toward such destinations as Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois to forge new homes and take goods to market in New Orleans. Abraham Lincoln made two flatboat trips down the Mississippi River, one in 1828 from Indiana, and one in 1831 from Illinois. Thousands of anonymous immigrant families traveled the rivers to new homes in the south and west and many of them encountered pirates.
Pirates on the Mississippi River
Besides the perils of navigation, flatboat crews and passengers faced another grave danger while navigating the Mississippi River- the very real possibility of a pirate attack. Every day crews of from four to eight men poled hundreds of flatboats up and down the Mississippi, carrying cotton, sugar, tobacco, and produce to New Orleans from distant places like Pittsburgh or from nearby plantations along the bayous and smaller streams that steamboats couldn’t navigate. The flatboats carried goods to market and returned bearing groceries and provisions. Traveling up stream, the crew tied up along the banks of the Mississippi River at night, and this gave the pirates the opportunity to attack.
Often local men and runaway slaves working together, the river pirates operated from hideouts located at the head of a small stream or bayou, a swamp, or a hidden place in the woods known only to them. If robbery victims survived a pirate attack and pursued them, they very seldom caught the pirates. If the pursuers did catch the pirates, they still faced the danger of being ambushed and murdered by other members of the pirate band.
River pirates had perfected different methods of attack. In one method, pirates used natural hideaways like caves along the river and waited until the flatboat was parallel with the cave to rush out and attack it. Another method involved a pirate offering to help navigate a flatboat over some dangerous downriver rapids and once he got aboard he would overpower the crew and signal to his fellow pirates to attack the boat. A more resourceful pirate might make friends with the people on the flatboat and maneuver them to a cave that he assured them contained clean water and a wonderful view. Once the flatboat entered the cave, the pirates would violently attack it, murder the crew, and plunder the boat, sometimes taking it and selling it to others innocent of its history.
The names of local pirate bands became notorious up and down the Mississippi River, and a few like the Samuel Mason, the Harpe Brothers and Jim Wilson pirate gangs acquired a national reputation for plundering flatboats and murdering their passengers and crews. The state governments of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi offered large rewards for captured pirates, dead or alive.
The Sam Ferrell Gang Ambushed a Flat Boat
The Sam Ferrell Gang operated on the stretch of the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee, to New Orleans in the mid 1840s. According to a story reported in the Brooklyn Eagle of November 15, 1899, a Colonel Lafourche during a voyage on the Ohio River steamship Pittsburg told the story of the capture of the Sam Ferrell gang first hand. The Colonel’s friends Si Bowman, an old swamp trapper, and Si’s partner Louis Noche, a Cherokee Indian, led a party of planters to the Ferrell gang’s headquarters. In fact, Colonel Lafourche told the Brooklyn Eagle’s West Virginia correspondent that Si Bowman and Lewis Noche lived on his Arkansas plantation and they had a home with him as long as they wanted to stay there. The Colonel said that both of his friends were getting older, but they were still lively great favorites of his children and grandchildren and they remembered the capture of the Ferrell Gang like it had happened yesterday.
Then Colonel Lafourche told his fellow passengers on the Pittsburg the story of the Sam Ferrell Gang. According to the Colonel, one evening an old boatman by the name of Jim Andrews, tied up his two flat boats which were loaded with goods for his plantation located about three miles above the mouth of the Ramapo Bayou. Sam Ferrell’s pirate band attacked the two flat boats, and out of the nine men aboard the flat boats, only Jim Andrews, Joe Logan, and William Rocket managed to escape. The Colonel’s plantation was located about twenty miles from the site of the attack, and the three surviving flatboat men managed to reach it the next day.
William Rocket and Joe Logan were badly wounded and immediately were put to bed, leaving Jim Andrews to tell the story of the attack. As he told his story, Colonel Lafourche called in his friends Si Bowman and Lewis Noche who had arrived with a load of wild game the evening before, to hear the story. When he heard the story of the robbery and murders, Si Bowman, a young and strong man, told the Colonel that he and Lewis knew the location of the river pirates’ headquarters. They had accidentally found it while trapping in the swamp about a week earlier and they had been talking about cleaning it up themselves.
Colonel Lafourche Consolidated a Plan Against the Pirates
Colonel Lafourche asked the location of the pirate headquarters and Si Bowman told him that the pirates had established their headquarters in a bayou running back to the big swamp. He said that the bayou wound in and out for a long distance and following it more than a mile or two was very difficult. People who didn’t know the area who tried to get to the pirate headquarters from the Mississippi River would get lost in the swamp. Si said that he and Lewis had found a better way to reach the pirate headquarters. An opening in the swamp existed south of the plantation, a narrow and winding opening that wove between hummocks and cane breaks for six or seven miles up to a little island in the middle of the swamp. The pirates had established their headquarters on the island, which consisted of four or five acres.
Si Bowen estimated that there were at least forty men in the pirate gang, and they had built seven log cabins in two rows on each side of the bayou and one across the upper end. The pirates had taken the precaution of installing loopholes for their rifles in each cabin so it would take a large invading party to overpower them. Si said that he and Lewis Noche had thought about picking them off one by one, but if they could get enough men to help them, they could take the pirates with one battle.
The battle plan included the tactic of taking a dozen men with double barreled shotguns loaded with buckshot and putting them in a flatboat with inside gunnels to shoot under and then lay the boat across the mouth of the bayou. The raiding planter party would stretch a strong cable across the bayou to keep the pirates from all boarding the boat at once if they came that way, and then the planters would take twenty or thirty men through the swamp and attack the pirates from the rear. If any pirates tried to get away though the bayou the planters could pick them off from the flat boat.
After a council of war, Colonel Lafourche, Si Bowman, Jim Andrews, and Lewis Noche agreed that this plan would work, and the Colonel sent day runners out to the neighboring planters to come to Laforche. Thirty five men had arrived by sun down and after dinner the men discussed the campaign strategy. Every man there had suffered from the pirate raids and all of them were anxious to avenge their losses.
The Planter Campaign Against the Pirates Commenced
Both Si Bowen and Lewis Noche owned canoes and john boats – small flatboats- but they would only hold three or four men at the most. Colonel Lafourche had plenty of laborers, and he knew that he could build flatboats in a day. The next morning he instructed his men to build half a dozen small flat boats about four feet wide and twelve feet long which were large enough to hold four men with their supplies and ammunition.
In the meantime, the Colonel sent twelve men back to the river to get a flat boat, commanding them to be at their posts by the next afternoon and to stay there until the pirates came out or they received orders to the contrary. By about ten o’clock the next morning, everything was ready and the raiding party of 26 men, including Si Bowen and Lewis Noche, started out in the newly built flatboats.
Si Bowen piloted the forward boat and Lewis Noche’s boat brought up the rear. The boats kept within a few yards of each other to keep each other in sight and to avoid getting lost in the swamp. They made their way slowly through the windings and turnings in the swamp and just before dark, Si Bowen halted the flotilla, sending word along the line that they had progressed to within a half mile of the island. He ordered everyone to stop and lay still until midnight and to tie the flatboats end to end so that they wouldn’t separate from each other. The men ate supper, and while two or three stood guard, the rest laid down in the boats to sleep.
At midnight, the message to move rippled along the line of flatboats, and the flotilla once again advanced. Thirty minutes later, the flatboat flotilla touched the bank of the little island and every man quietly stepped ashore with his rifle at the ready. Si Bowen led the entire force creeping through the bush until it reached an opening of two or three acres in the center of the island. The planters could see seven small log cabins and Lewis Noche, who had gone to scout to see if any of the pirates were on guard, returned with the information that all of the pirates were sleeping. Lewis Noche suggested that the men creep across and fronting the row of six others, and that the men wait until he set the roof of one of the lower cabins on fire. Then they could break down the door of the first cabin and fight the rest of the pirates under cover. The light of the burning cabin would alarm the pirates and flush them into plain view where they would be targets for the planters hidden behind the walls of the upper cabin.
The Pirates vs. the Planters
A few minutes later, the planters saw the flash of light at the lower end of the street and they knew that Lewis Noche had set the cabin on fire. Hollering, the planters broke down the door of the first cabin and rushed in, taking the seven pirates inside by surprise. Before the pirates could act, the planters captured them. The noise woke up the pirates in the other cabins and they rushed out from both sides of the street, only to be silhouetted in the light of the burning cabin. They made perfect targets for the planters who killed eight of the pirates in the first round they fired.
The planters recognized one of the men running out of the lower cabin, a big burly redheaded giant, to be Sam Ferrell, the leader of the pirates. Charley Edistoe, a young planter who lived about ten miles from Colonel Lafourche asked the other men to allow him to shoot Sam Ferrell, telling him that Farrell had murdered his 18-year-old brother, Tom, in cold blood the year before. None of the planters fired at Ferrell and Charley Edistoe shot him, but didn’t kill him.
The pirates continued to shoot from the cover of their cabins, but the planters picked off five more of the gang without any of their men being wounded. Suddenly, about fifteen pirates dashed to the boats.
Lewis Noche had anticipated their move and he appointed twelve of the planters to go to the mouth of the bayou to reinforce the others waiting there for the pirates. The planters hauled three of their flatboats across the island to the bayou and Si Bowen led the twelve men down the bayou to take the pirates in the rear. The rest of the planters secured their pirate captives and explored their cabins. The planters found much stolen property in one of the cabins, including boxes and barrels of groceries and dry goods worth thousands of dollars that had not been opened and still bore the names of their consigners. They discovered over one hundred guns and a large stock of ammunition. In Sam Ferrell’s cabin, the planters found over $20,000 in cash.
While some of the planters investigated the pirate cabins, others brought out the seven prisoners they had taken in the first cabin and discovered three of them still alive, including Sam Ferrell, the pirate chief. Charley Edistoe had deliberately shot him in the leg.
According to Colonel Lafourche, Charley Edistoe must have been crazed with revenge, because despite the protests of the other planters, he cut off Sam Ferrell’s ears and threw them down in front of him. The planters forced Ferrell to sit where he had fallen and watch them hang his men. Then the planters picked up Sam Ferrell, cursing and blaspheming, and strung him up alongside the other pirates.
The Planters Returned to Colonel Lafourche’s Plantation
After the planters had buried the pirates, they returned to their boats and poled back to the Lafourche plantation. The next evening, the planters who had gone to the Mississippi River to pursue the fifteen retreating river pirates returned. The planters had chased the pirates so closely that when the pirates reached the mouth of the bayou, the planters drove them back with a volley of shots, killing six of them. The remaining nine pirates surrendered and the planters took them to the nearest town, about five miles from Napoleon.
The pirates never came to trial, because the night after they were locked up, a mob broke open the jail and lynched everyone of them. Colonel Lafourche said that there had been 35 men in the pirate gang and nearly half of them were “runaway Negroes, and desperate ones at that.” Every member of the Ferrell gang had been killed.
The Colonel said that the killing of Sam Ferrell’s pirate gang freed that part of the Mississippi River from the pirate menace, and soon after the last of the pirates were lynched, the stolen goods were taken off the island and nearly all of them were identified and returned to their owners. Nobody claimed the bounty and no legal inquiries were made about the pirates.
Colonel Lafourche ended his story by saying, “That’s the true story of the extermination of Sam Ferrell’s river pirates.”
Rothert, Otto A. The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock. Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.
Sandlin, Lee. Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild. Pantheon, 2010.
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.