The James River Batteau:

Tobacco Transport in Virginia

Bruce G. Terrell

Department of Maritime History and Underwater Research

East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27834



In this paper, the James River bateau is presented as instrumental in the development of tobacco culture in Virginia from 1770 through the late 1850's. As a unique regional adaptation of Indian log canoes and the French Fur bateaux of the Canadian trappers, this vessel became the main freight carrier on the rapid rivers between Tidewater and the mountain regions. The bateau’s range included Tennessee, West Virginia, and North Carolina.

The only known remains of these vessels were uncovered in an emergency excavation at a constructions site in Richmond, Virginia. Digging and mapping one step ahead of the bulldozers, remains of several vessels were recovered in the fall and winter of 1984-1985 at the site of the James River and Kanawha Canal Basin.

A comprehensive picture of the economic and social life of the upland Virginia planter and slave crews manning the boats from analysis of archaeological data and manuscript records.


The James River Tobacco bateau was a unique vessel, designed primarily for the transportation of tobacco on the upland reaches of the James River in eighteenth and nineteenth century Virginia. It became the major freight carrier on the rapid rivers of Piedmont and Appalachian Virginia and was partially responsible for the transformation of that region from a colonial frontier wilderness into a successful agrarian economy in the antebellum period.

Although a small collection of illustrations and contemporary descriptions of these boats remain, little is known about their construction and origin. An opportunity to study these peculiar-looking vessels presented itself in the form of an emergency archaeological excavation in the fall of 1983 and again in the winter of 1984-1985. In the process of digging for a building foundation in downtown Richmond, Virginia, the remains of a number of bateaux and canal boats began to appear. Alert members of the Virginia Canal and Navigation Society had been ready and waiting for this event and in an admirable but often frustrated effort, attempted to save what they could of a significant chapter of the history of inland navigation, and of southeastern American commerce in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

This activity took place at the sight of the once bustling Great Basin. Though given only days and sometimes hours to work, data and material on over fifty boats were recovered. In time, this will provide invaluable information on Richmond's significance as a pre-Civil War entrepot. It will also help build the record on canal navigation and pre-canal commerce along the upper James River.

The story of the Great Basin is also the story of Richmond's economic development. The prosperity and economic promise delivered by upland, rapid-water navigation in the mid eighteenth century convinced such visionaries as George Washington and John Marshall that the James River could be a major link to the Mississippi. By creating a canal that linked the James with the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, commerce could be initiated directly between the Atlantic and the fertile lands in the West. Through Washington's patronage, the James River Canal Company was begun in 1785, with Washington himself installed as titular president (Dunaway 1922: 26).

The canal was built in several stages. The early ones were primarily concerned with bypassing the more severe rapids above Richmond and above Lynchburg. Until its completion, most of the crops brought down river were landed above Richmond and carted around the worst falls to the city's deepwater port at Rocketts (Gallatin 1808: 89).

Several acres square, the basin was the heart of Richmond's commercial activity. It was surrounded by massive tobacco and flour warehouses. The Richmond flour mills and warehouses became the second largest exporters of that product in the world until the Civil War. The Brazilian coffee that was exchanged for the flour also made the city the largest U.S. coffee market at that time (Chesson 1981:8-9).

The basin allowed Richmond to become a major entrepot for crops coming downstream and goods being sent upriver to the rapidly growing upland plantations and communities. Eventually a ship canal was built connecting Rocketts and the basin. The basin and the canal were to prosper until the ravages of the Civil War, poor business practices, and the rise of the railroads made its operation no longer feasible. By 1882, the canal had been sold to the C&-O Railroad and had become little more than a stagnant reminder of better times.


The vessel which consolidated river trade on the James was the James River Tobacco bateau. Its development was a response to the rapidly developing agricultural movement taking place in the upland regions of Virginia. The first wave of tobacco planting in the seventeenth century Tidewater had so ravaged the soil, that new land was desperately needed if the colony's prosperous industry was to continue. The rich forest land of upland Virginia was considered to be excellent for that purpose.

An initial problem arose concerning the conveyance of the crops to market. The previously accessible ports of Tidewater were now much farther away from the plantations. The heads of river navigation at the fall-line were the farthest points inland that a ship could ascend to receive the crops. Trading posts began to develop at these spots and the small town of Richmond was such a place.

Another obstacle was that of getting the upland product to these transhipment points. The roads were narrow paths through the wilderness. Wagons could not carry enough to return much worthwhile profit and those that attempted the journey often ended mired in mud (Robert 1938:54-55). One solution was the rolling hogshead which was essentially a hogshead barrel mounted on an axle and pulled by oxen. Unfortunately, after rolling a hundred and fifty miles over dusty roads and muddy streams, the tobacco tended to arrive in poor condition (Robert 1938: 54).

Attempts at using Indian-derived log canoes and flatboats to move tobacco downriver met with similar limited success. The flats were found to be uncontrollable in the rocky current, while the dugout cano6s were limited in their carrying capacity (Morton 1960: 557).

The first major innovation came with the development of the "doubledugout" canoe by the Reverend Robert Rose of Amherst, Virginia. In 1748, Rose (a. prominent tobacco planter) was credited with creating a stable platform by attaching two log canoes with poles and balancing several hogsheads on the gunwales. The canoes could be separated downstream and poled back upriver. This method was immediately adopted by a number of the planters in the region who soon realized increased returns for their tobacco and other crops (Maury 1967:389).

By 1767, the Virginia House of Burgesses responded by appointing individuals to take subscriptions and begin the work of clearing the falls and creating sluice channels for improved navigation of the James River (Virginia Gazette, 21 May 1767). By strategically placing rocks in shallow water spots, navigable channels were improved, making the canoes less vulnerable to shallow water and periods of drought.

Unfortunately, as profits and settlement increased, the forests were rapidly stripped of the large trees required for canoe building (Tatham 1800,1969:64). The limited availability of tobacco canoes was surely compounded by a major flood in 1771 which destroyed almost all of the warehouses along the James and no doubt a great many canoes. It was recorded in 1781 that there were, 11 ... very few canoes left in the river of that kind" (Calendar of Virginia State Papers 1875: 45 ) . The tobacco trade was at a critical point with the forests depleted and the canoe fleets diminished. If it was to continue to prosper, a substitute for the double dugout was required.


A mountain planter, Anthony Rucker had apparently foreseen this eventuality and had been experimenting with cargo boat design. Just four years after the flood of 1771, the first reference to the James River bateau is found. Thomas Jefferson recorded the purchase of a bateau in his account book, stating, "Apr. 29. Rucker's battoe (sic) is 50. f. long. 4.f. wide in the bottom & 6.f. at top. she carries 11. hhds & draws 13 1/2 I. water." ( Betts 1976:257). It may be that Rucker developed the idea for this vessel from reports brought back by Virginia volunteers in the French and Indian war. The French fur trapper type bateau had been- in wide use in the Old Northwest since the late seventeenth century. Like these vessels, the James River bateau was flat-bottomed, keel-less, and pointed at both ends. It was navigated with long sweeps at either end and could be poled up and downstream by the crew (Baldwin 1941:42).

The James River bateau also manifested features of the dugout canoe in its extreme length of up to 60 feet and its low freeboard of approximately one and a half feet. It had a shallow draft of about twelve inches and the breadth of the vessel (generally four to six feet) was just enough to accommodate standard size hogsheads of tobacco across the floor.*

*There are a number of contemporary references to the dimensions of the James River bateau and many indicate that they were developed to accommodate tobacco hogsheads. This would intimate that vessel size was governed by the standard regulated size of the hogshead at any given time. The recorded dimensions increase as the decades of the late eighteenth century pass. Some references are William Tatham quoted in (Tatham 1800,1969:64-67), Isaac Weld quoted in (Morrison 1922:105), and architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe quoted in (Virginia Cavalcade 1959:42).

It could carry up to twelve hogsheads or 75 barrels of flour in a single trip depending upon water levels. The bateau was constructed of sawn planks which were easier to obtain than the massive tree trunk hulls of the log canoes. There is little recorded on the actual construction of these boats, but it was simple enough that they could have been easily fabricated by plantation slaves or workers with basic carpentry skills.

The bateau needed to be sturdy enough to make a few journeys from the mountains to the market towns downriver. The 150 mile trip from Lynchburg to Richmond on the James could be covered in about two weeks; five days down and about ten days to pole back upriver (Christion 1900:61). When a bateau became worn out it could be broken up and sold for lumber in Richmond (Harlow 1926:214).

Between the development of the James River bateau in the late eighteenth century and the completion of the main line of the James River and Kanawha Canal in 1840, the bateau was the main freight carrier on most of the navigable upland Virginia rivers. Its use extended into Tennessee, western Virginia (later West Virginia) , Maryland, the Carolinas, Alabama and Georgia (Wood 1932:155).

Thomas Jefferson was just one of the prominent Virginia planters who made extensive use of this vessel. Jefferson had several plantations along the James and its tributary, the Rivanna River. Jefferson's association with the bateau was so personal that he even became involved in a dispute in 1820 when the heirs of Anthony Rucker tried to secure a patent for the design. Jefferson made a public statement that he was present at the launch of Rucker's first bateau (Lynchburg Press 17 August 1821).


Although some vessels were owned by commercial concerns, the majority of the boats appear to have been owned by landowners and were crewed by slaves. There are numerous references from the "bateau era" which give insight into the men who crewed the vessels. Contemporary newspaper accounts from river towns contain letters and articles concerning the boatmen's notorious habits of raiding garden patches and henhouses and appropriating fence rails for campfires. This became such a problem that by the 1820's the Virginia state legislature began passing laws to deal specifically with the boatmen's depredations. In addition, the contemporary papers contained numerous announcements placed by slave owners searching for escaped boatmen who were supposed to be in hiding along the river.**

**Notable among newspapers are the Lvnchburg Virginian, Richmond Enquirer and Richmond Whig from approximately January, 1800 through the late 1830's.

The bateau’s intensive use on the James River died out soon after the opening of the James River and Kanawha Canal between Richmond and the mountains in 1840. Canal boats relied on cheaper and more efficient horsepower and were not at the mercy of currents and rocks. The James River-type bateau did continue to be used on many of the smaller Virginia rivers and in some cases, were used until the twentieth century (Virginia Board of Public Works Papers).



As mentioned above, an excavation for a building complex in downtown Richmond brought to light a number of canal and river vessels. The basin, which had fallen into disuse in the late nineteenth century, was eventually filled in and adapted to a number of industrial uses in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As members of the Virginia Canal and Navigation Society and other local historians realized that important historical resources were in danger of being destroyed, they quickly attempted to negotiate with CSX Corporation and the contractors to obtain permission to maintain a watch in the excavation pit as the earthmovers turned the dirt. The companies agreed that if a good speciman was found, a week would be given to excavate and remove the vessel. Using volunteer forces, at least six bateaux and canal boats were retrieved and placed in holding facilities where they now await financing to begin conservation. The first phase of the project ended in the fall of 1983. A second area of the basin was begun in the fall and winter of 1984-1985. The author's participation in the project was to excavate and map the remains of a sixty foot bateau which probably sank sometime in the late 1820's. The construction schedule allowed approximately five days to dig it out and to measure it.

The vessel itself was never seen in one piece even though it lay complete on the bottom of the basin, preserved by the accumulated mud and dirt fill of a hundred and fifty years. Because of the time restrictions, ten to fifteen foot portions of the bateau had to be uncovered, cleaned and recorded in a matter of hours before the earth movers came to claim their victim. The south end of the bateau (designated vessel #28) was dismantled and placed in a holding area where hopefully it can be conserved and reconstructed at some point in the near future. Even though the largest portion of the vessel was destroyed in a mudslide before a detailed examination could take place, enough measurements were taken that a set of drawings could be made. These plans are currently being used by a number of counties along the James River to build replicas of the bateau to be used in a race down the river. It is hoped that this will measure of the quality of the hurried examination of vessel #28.

Although detailed analysis is still ongoing, it is possible to make some determinations about the recovered boat and its relation to the historic, record. It does indeed appear to be a James Rive bateau. It bears a@ physical resemblance to late nineteenth century engravings of bateaux on West Virginia’s New River as they appeared in Harper's Weekly magazine.

The vessel’s construction conforms to contemporary descriptions of a double-ended, flat-bottomed vessel with no keel. The measurements of fifty-seven feet length by seven feet beam conforms also to the historic accounts. While there are no apparent signs of walk boards from which the boatmen poled the boats, there are two floor boards which run the length of the vessel. It would appear that these boards would make-the rolling of tobacco hogsheads over the frames an easier task.

There are several other features apparent on vessel #28. Loose boards of approximately three by one feet lay under a short deck atop each end of the vessel. Because they are not fastened in any way, they appear to be planks which could facilitate the rolling of barrels onto the boat.

There is also a short keelson in each end of the vessel which anchors two half frames and provides the main structural stability to the ends. The longitudinal stress for the' rest of the bateau seems to be taken by the joint at the place where the upper and lower frames are scarphed together.

The frames and planks were fastened with hand wrought nails which indicate an origin of either late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Since the basin did not open until 1800 and these boats were reputed to have short lives, it is likely that this bateau was built and used within the first twenty years of the nineteenth century.

One other interesting feature was the appearance of a clay and ash hearth sitting directly in the bottom of the boat. A pig (bar) of iron shielded one scorched frame and the wooden planks were apparently protected by a layer of grass over which lay the clay and then the ash. George Bagby, who was Richmond's wartime editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, reminisced about the bateaux of his childhood when he wrote, "Their cooks galley was a little dirt thrown between the ribs of the boat at the stern with an awning on occasion to keep off the rain, and what they didn't eat wasn't worth eating" (Bagby 1879:11).

There were also numerous artifacts associates with the vessel. Iron pots and cooking utensils were found associated with the hearth, axe heads and other tools were apparent, and a quantity of early nineteenth century pearlware was found associated- with the vessel. There is difficulty in trying to interpret much of the cultural material associated with the vessels of the basin dig because the basin was a convenient trash dump for neighboring taverns and many similar ceramic pieces were found throughout the basin.

Several small sections of the Great Basin are as yet untouched. Some of it is still under highly traveled downtown streets. Enough data has already been uncovered so that some of the story of the commercial trade and navigation on the upper James can be told, but much more was lost. There was an enthusiastic response from the general public to the recovery of the boats and it would be fortunate in the future if responsible state organizations and the business community could show the same interest when the time comes to uncover remaining sections of the Richmond Basin.






Dr. William E. Trout III


Virginia Canal Society members


Lyle Browning, archaeologist


CSX Corporation








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1941 The Keelboat Age on Western Waters. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.


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1900 Lynchburg and Its People. J. P. Bell Co. Printers, Lynchburg.


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1959 "An Essay on Landscape." Virginia Cavalcade, VIII,4:42.


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1875 Calendar of Virginia State Papers and of the Manuscripts. 1781, Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond, Vol. I. R. F. Walker, Richmond.


1938 The Tobacco Kingdom: Plantation and Factory in Virginia and North Carolina, 1800- Duke University Press, Durham.


1969 "An Historical and Practical Essay on the Culture and Commerce of Tobacco" (1800) In William Tatham and the Culture of Tobacco. University of Miami Press, Coral Gables.


1932 The Rucker Family Genealogy. Old Dominion Press, Inc., Richmond.


"Virginia Board of Public Works Papers", Virginia State Library, Richmond.

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