A Study of the James River Batteau
By Thomas D. Mackie
Director, Amherst County Historical Museum
In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, the inland rivers of Virginia and surrounding states teemed with graceful river boats known as Batteaux. Flat-bottomed and pointed at each end, these craft were the invention of two brothers from Amherst County, Virginia. Although nearly forgotten for over a century, the Bateau has been the object of revived interest in the 1980's.
The two Amherst Brothers credited with inventing the Bateau, Anthony and Benjamin Rucker, were part of a large, influential family in Amherst and Nelson Counties. Five Rucker brothers who settled in Amherst in the mid-18th Century became very active in the public life of the community. Benjamin Rucker was a lawyer, justice of the peace, trustee of Warminster Academy, a member of the Amherst County Committee of Safety, and a captain in the Revolutionary War. Anthony Rucker, the youngest brother, was also a Revolutionary War captain, as well as Amherst's Commissioner of Provision Law in 1781 and Tobacco Inspector in 1792. (1)
The first Bateau was launched in April, 1775. The primary purpose of this craft was to move tobacco, packed in hogsheads, down the James River and its tributaries to Richmond. The earliest known reference to the Bateau comes from Thomas Jefferson's account book, dated April 19, 1775. Jefferson had been at that first launching and forty-six years later was to witness the successful patenting of the Bateau by heirs of the Ruckers.
The patent, issued on April 3, 1821, was disputed by the Lynchburg Virginian newspaper. It was thought that the Bateau was too common a craft to have been developed from a single source. By August of that same year, however, the editors of the Virginian retracted their attacks and stated their belief in the Ruckers' patent claim:
When we first heard that such a patent had been obtained, we were also inclined to the belief that it had been granted improvidently either from inattention on the part of the keeper, or some defect in the laws on the subject of Patent rights Nevertheless, when we came to inquire more particularly into the circumstances under which the Messrs. Ruckers, claim the privilege of Patentees . . . (t)here can be no doubt, that Anthony Rucker the Elder, was the original inventor and constructor of the James River Batteaux, and that it was a species of boat essentially different from any before that time used on the waters of America. (2)
The article goes on to state that Thomas Jefferson, who had been in attendance at the original launching, would be willing to testify to the Ruckers' claims. Anthony Rucker is named and is given sole credit for the Bateau, but in Deed Book "P" at the Amherst County Courthouse, dated November 23, 1821, is a document according equal credit to Benjamin and Anthony Rucker. (3)
While the primary historical sources clearly reveal the identity and importance of the inventors of the Bateau, only scant detail is given regarding the design of the craft. Thomas Jefferson made notes in his account book describing this new river boat in 1775: "Rucker's battoe is 50 f. long 4 f. wide in the bottom & 6 f. wide at the top. she carries ll.hhds. & draws 13 ½ water."(4) Twenty years later, Isaac Wald described these boats as "from forty-eight to fifty-four feet long, but very narrow in proportion to their length. (5)
Another major source of contemporary references to the Bateau is the Calendar of Virginia State Papers, a collection of military and civilian correspondence dating from the 17th to early 19th Centuries. Although there is no direct description of a Bateau in these papers, they do give a fairly clear picture of the boat's uses. One 1780 letter records,
The commandant at Pittsburg has..... informed me that there was about 50 Light Batteaux at Fort Pitt, which might be had by an order from the War Board I think it (Bateau) is much better calculated for these rivers than barges, as they run over shoals where a keeled vessel must be carried. (6)
According to this letter, five years after the Ruckers' launching, boats called Batteaux were used in numbers on shallow rivers in the North. They were not a keeled vessel but flat, to enable them to "run over shoals".
Several references in the Calendar of Virginia State Papers highlight the construction and use of Batteaux by the Continental Army. Batteaux were used to move troops, munitions and supplies on the shallow inland rivers during the Revolutionary War. They were carefully built craft as they were often mentioned as being built by a boat builder or "ship's carpenter." (7) This evidence infers that the crafts known as "James River Batteaux" were strong, shallow-drafted vessels. They were a valuable military asset and were considered a major loss if captured by the enemy. (8)
Another military communication mentions that two Batteaux left Kaskaskia on November 15, 1779. They carried twelve men and "three or four" families west toward the Ohio Falls. From this we observe that both cargo and significant numbers of passengers were sometimes transported long distances on the inland river system by means of Batteaux. Unfortunatelv for settlers, the boats apparently appealed to Indians as well, for this particular group suffered an attack along their voyage. One of the Batteaux was seized and its crew killed. (9)
During more peaceful periods the Bateau was described by travelers and scholars along the James River. The earliest illustration of a boat believed to be a Bateau is in a book about the tobacco trade, written by William Tathams in 1800. The boat is labeled with the vague term "upland boat." Tathams states that "there are a number of boats (similar to those upon the Grand Trunk Canal) which carry on this business professionally." (10)
A first-hand description of a Bateau and Bateau life is given by Porte Crayon (David Strother) in Virginia Illustrated. While visiting Lynchburg in the 1850's Crayon reminisced about his Bateau journey twenty years earlier. During the narration of his adventures he described the Bateau as gliding down the current controlled by three men who "poled their batteau through the shallows, or bent to the sweeps on the long stretches of still water." (11) His sketches show the Batteaux with rounded bows coming to a peak and tall arched awnings covering the center of the boats. The oars in the sketch on page 231 indicate that the bateau was at times rowed.
Another noted traveler, Mrs. Ann Royal, was impressed by the freight boats (Batteaux) at Lynchburg, and their ability to carry heavy hogsheads on shallow waters. After some questioning Mrs. Royal was told that each hogshead weighed 1500 pounds and that a Bateau could transport 9000 pounds of cargo or more, depending on river conditions. (12) During this time (1820-1840), there were at least 500 Batteaux and more than 1500 Bateaumen operating between Lynchburg and Richmond alone. (13)
The primary sources describing the Batteaux decline sharply after the 1840's, when the James & Kanawha River Canal reached Lynchburg. When David Strother was in Lynchburg in the 1850's he bemoaned the loss of the "picturesque". "There are no boats on the river now… This cursed canal has monopolized all that trade, I suppose." (14) Apparently with the coming of the packet boat and rail the Batteaux were relegated to the backwaters and continued to fade from use. Eventually even the appearance of the Bateau, once commonplace, was forgotten.
The reproduction Batteaux of the 1980's have begun to illustrate one aspect of Virginia's heritage and to stimulate a popular interest in its River culture. Though the era of the famed James River Bateau is past, it is once more being remembered and celebrated.
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