In writing of life on the main deck of a Mississippi River steamboat fifty years ago, a prefatory note may be in order. The reader must bear in mind that times have changed; and men, in the mass, have changed, and that for the better, in the years that have elapsed between 1860 and 1908. Slavery then held sway on the west bank of the river, from the Iowa line to the Gulf. On the east side in the State of Illinois even, the slavery idea predominated; and on the river there was no “other side” to the question. Slavery was an “institution”, as much to be observed and venerated as any institution of the country. A black man was a “nigger”, and nothing more. If he were the personal property of a white man in St. Louis, or below, he was worth from eight hundred to fifteen hundred dollars, and was therefore too valuable to be utilized in the make-up of a boat’s crew running north. The inclemency of the weather, or the strenuousness of the mate, might result in serious physical deterioration that would greatly depreciate him as a chattel, to say nothing of the opportunities offered him by the northern trip to escape to Canada, and thus prove a total loss.
Of free negroes there were not enough to man the hundreds of steamboats plying on the upper river. Thus it came about that the cabin crews on some boats, and the firemen on others, were colored, while the deck crews (roustabouts and stevedores) were white. So marked was this division of labor that it came to pass that no “nigger” was permitted by the white rousters to handle any freight, on any boat. The modern unions take no greater exception to a non-union workman than the white deck hands then expressed for a “nigger” as a freight handler.
Another class distinction was, that nine-tenths of the deck