Of Showboats and Slavery

In my never-ending quest to ferret out every detail of the lives of my ancestors, I have found some branches of my family tree to be more, shall we say, accessible, than others. Case in point: my mother’s entire family line. My mother’s parents were born in Hardin County,Tennessee where their families had lived for generations. But they spent their adult lives in Oklahoma where my mother was born. I don’t remember ever meeting any of her Tennessee extended family. One of the few family stories that made it from my grandparents, through my mother to me was my grandmother’s childhood memory of seeing show boats on the Tennessee River. The county seat of Hardin County, Savannah, is situated on this river.

So having very few family clues to go on, I started looking for historical information that might give me some context for my ancestor’s lives in that place. Fortunately for me (although not so much for the soldiers involved) a major Civil War battle was fought in Hardin County….the Battle of Shiloh. Oh for a family diary about those days! Hey I can dream. Now you could probably fill many libraries exclusively with books about Civil War battles and the Battle of Shiloh is no exception. Surely somewhere in that sea of ink is something about Hardin County and the people who lived there.

Sure enough, in The Civil War Collection I found an article published in the New York Herald on April 10, 1862. The title was Pittsburg Landing, Savanna, Corinth and Neighborhood and describes what was expected to be the next area of conflict. (The Battle of Shiloh took place on April 6-7, 1862 but presumably the news of it hadn’t yet reached New York at publication.)

Pittsburg Landing is situated on the west side of the Tennessee river, nearly opposite to Savannah. It is in itself of little importance, being too close to Savannah which is a flourishing post village of Hardin county, Tennessee, and is situated on the eastern side of the river. …

The country is very wild, the surface rising on both sides of the river after the manner of inclined planes, the ascent being gradual. Iron ore is abundant in the neighborhood. …

Savannah is the capital of Hardin county, and is a place formerly noted for its active business. Previous to the rebellion it had been considered of rising importance, and the progress made therin during the years from 1854 to 1860 inclusive had been the matter of general remark. A good trade Was done there in cotton and slaves, which were shipped from Savannah in steamers by way of the Tennessee river. The population in 1853 was but eight hundred, but had since been much increased. …

The river is navigable for steamboats all through the entire county, which has a population of over ten thousand persons, nine- tenths of whom are free.

–Pittsburg Landing , Savanna, Corinth and Neighborhood.
The New York Herald, April 10, 1862

The Battlefield at Shiloh

The Battlefield at Shiloh

It’s interesting to note that the country was described as being “very wild”. I wonder what the term meant to someone from New York in 1862! The fact that the river was described as “navigable for steamboats” confirms my grandmother’s memory of the showboats. However I shuddered a little at the writer’s remark of trade in “cotton and slaves” as though they were interchangeable commodities. Yuck. Yes, yes..I know I shouldn’t judge 19th century mores by 21st century standards, but still. I’m also unsure of the accuracy of the statistic quoted which claims 9/10 of the population of Hardin County were free. I would like to think this was indicative of possible anti-slavery views but I imagine it had more to do with their economic status and thus being too poor to own slaves.

So what is the moral of this little story? If you’re lacking in personal details of an ancestor you can often get a sense of them by looking at the times and places where they lived. And who knows? Maybe you will uncover that elusive family diary as well.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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