Old Man River:  History Along the MississippiApril 19-November 2, 2003

River Days

Characters on the River:
Roustabouts, Minstrels and Showboaters,
Gamblers and Immigrants

Bald eagle and alligator crossing sign
The Upper vs. The Lower Mississippi
characters exhibit section
Artwork and artifacts were loaned from many sources, including:
~ Clinton Showboat, Clinton IA
~ Des Moines County Historical Society, Burlington IA
~ George M.Verity Riverboat Museum, Keokuk IA
~ National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque IA
~ Charles Pope, Marion IA
~ Michael Zahs, Ainsworth IA


River boatmen were "rude, uneducated…heavy drinkers, coarse frolickers… bankrupt at the end of the trip…prodigious braggarts…strong, comical, brave…"
- Mark Twain

Flatboating and keelboating were adventures filled with peril and required boatmen who were rough and ready, on the lookout for eddies, sandbars and submerged trees that could rip the hull. Rugged and boisterous, the King of the Keelboatmen was big Mike Fink. Famous for his brawls, boasts, "cher amis" romances, and deadly marksmanship, he was a crack shot who liked to shoot cups of whiskey off the top of another's head.

Even though uneducated laborers, boatmen needed to be wily and keep their wits about them because on the road home - especially on foot - thieves lurked behind every bend. The world of the boatmen was ultimately brutal; their lives were hard, their futures limited.

Minstrels and Showboaters

"Ah gits weary, an' sick of tryin',
Ah'm tired of livin' and skeered of dyin'
But Ol' Man River, he jes' keeps rollin' along."
- "Ol' Man River" from "Showboat" 1927

Showboats with elaborate Victorian gingerbread railings traveled the river from the mid-1800s into the early 1900s. These floating palaces brought magic, comedy, song and dance, even political speeches to residents along the banks of the Mississippi.

The most popular form of entertainment was the minstrel show using "blackface" that played to the worst racial stereotypes. White entertainers slathered on black, burnt-cork makeup to perform bawdy sketches and sing in exaggerated black dialect. Eventually, however, authentic African American musicians such as Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong brought ragtime and early jazz upriver.

One of the first theatrical productions to directly target societal problems was set on the Mississippi River. Opening on Broadway in 1927, "Showboat" chronicled life aboard The Cotton Blossom, and dealt squarely with racism, miscegenation, failed marriage, alcoholism, and gambling.

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Did you know … ?
One of the most beautiful songs ever produced for stage or screen was "Ol' Man River," a heart-rending commentary on racism. However, the song was added to "Showboat" primarily to cover a noisy scene change at the end of Act 1, Scene 1!


Elegant Gamblers and Poor Immigrants

"You've got to know when to hold 'em, Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away, Know when to run…"
- Kenny Rogers, "The Gambler"

Once riverboats were designed for passengers, the lavish gambling parlor was an important feature of travel. Elegant passengers played games of chance against other travelers, as well as the professional gambler. Not surprisingly, these charming poker faces could humor the other players at the table while often cheating them out of their savings.

Another set of passengers were in even greater peril if they were allowed to hobnob with the pleasure-seekers. Poor immigrants from Europe seeking a new life in America would regularly head north from New Orleans on the steamboat lines. Germans and Irish, in particular, flocked to "N'Awlins" because it was the fastest, cheapest way to get to St. Louis and the American West. If the immigrants were skilled tradesmen, their passage was often paid by northern businessmen seeking such coopers or blacksmiths for their communities on the upper stretch of the river.


Did you know … ?
Returning in the 1990s as state-regulated gaming, riverboat gambling is now a revenue stream in five states along the Mississippi River: Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana.


The Section "River Days" has the following related pages:
Characters on the River: Roustabouts, Minstrels and Showboaters, Gamblers and Immigrants

Continue through exhibit

2 men in a canoe
Early Exploration and Development
You are here!steamboat
River Days
view of Bellview, Iowa
Riverfront Property
Civil War enenactors
Man vs. Man
Bald eagle and conservation officer
Man vs. Nature
jazz musician
The Arts Along the River
New Orleans graveyard
Legends and Spirits
View Selected Artifacts
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