Voyage of 1811
The various popular accounts of the voyage of 1811 are typically based on a number of confusing secondary sources that present the facts of the voyage rather imperfectly. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in the numerous dates cited as the beginning and end of the expedition. Incautious historians tend to confuse the “launch” of the hull with the actual departure of the completed steamer seven months later. Some also took the reported “steaming time” of 259 hours, the length of time clocked by the captain while actually progressing toward New Orleans, as the overall length of the entire voyage. In fact, with the delays characteristic of river travel and the frequent demonstrations given to awe-struck crowds, the expedition lasted from October 20, 1811 to January 10, 1812, quite a bit longer than the ten days suggested by the “steaming time.”
The voyage of the New Orleans can only be sensibly understood through one of several monographs on the subject. Most profitable to this historian was “Mr. Roosevelt’s Steamboat: The First Steamboat to Travel the Mississippi” by Mary Dohan.
While the New Orleans was steaming down the Ohio, the governor of Indiana Territory, future president William Henry Harrison, was marching up the Wabash with an army of nearly 1,000 riflemen. Harrison was determined to scatter a hostile collection of native forces that had assembled near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers. On November 7, 1811, while the New Orleans was awaiting a rise in the river in order to pass the Falls of the Ohio, native forces under their charismatic general Tecumseh attacked Harrison’s men encamped near the settlement of Prophetstown. The American’s successfully defended themselves, routing the native army and burning Prophetstown to the ground. The battle of Tippecanoe was seen as a great victory by the American forces and proved to be one of the last native attempts to forge a coalition to oppose American expansionism.
“From these [natives] it was learned that the steamboat was called the “Penelore,” or “fire Canoe,” and was supposed to have some affinity with the comet that had preceded the earthquake, – the sparks from the chimney of the boat being likened to the train of the celestial visitant. To the native inhabitants…the first steamboat was an omen of evil.” J.H.B. Latrobe.
Despite its allure, a popular story that the New Orleans was commandeered to help move munitions and reinforcements for the defense of the city of New Orleans during the War of 1812 is incorrect. The Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815, at which point the New Orleans had been at the bottom of the Mississippi River for some months. The steamer in question was the Enterprise, which later went on to become the first steamboat to make the upriver journey from New Orleans to Louisville.
- “They Say and Do in the Country” by Chas. E. Heberhart. Madison Courier, March 3, 1939.
- “They Say and Do in the Country” by Chas. E. Heberhart. Madison Courier, January 3, 1939.
- “New Orleans: The First Steamboat on the Ohio, Its Advent, Trip and History” A newspaper article of unknown origin and authorship, in the Historical Files of Madison-Jefferson County Public Library.
- “The First Steamboat on Western Waters” by J.H.B. Latrobe