A sad event on the riverfront


G. Sam Piatt



More than 25 years before the Civil War broke out, there was a scene on the Portsmouth waterfront that showed the reason – one of the reasons – in the name of Democracy and humanity, at least, why President Abraham Lincoln saw fit to mobilize an Army to prevent the southern states from breaking away from the Union.

You can’t rely on my reporting because this event took place 100 years before I was born. But research of Portsmouth’s early years, available to any inquisitive person, reveals that in 1834 a “slave caravan,” making its way down the Ohio River by flatboat, stopped late in the evening on the Portsmouth waterfront. The caravan was made up of seven Negro men and one woman, all tied to a rope, one behind the other. There were also five Negro girls, varying in age from 12 to 15, following the caravan and carrying large and heavy bundles on their heads.

Three white men oversaw the caravan. One, who appeared to be respective enough, carried a double-barreled shotgun. Someone on the scene (the caravan drew a crowd) reported that the other two guards appeared to be nothing but ruffians. Each carried a pistol and a blacksnake whip.

One of the Negroes was seen talking to a free Negro in the crowd. One of the “ruffians” began beating the slave Negro, whose hands were tied, over the head with the butt of his whip. Each blow was accompanied with a curse. The respectable-looking guard stopped the beating, saying “that’s enough for now, but if you catch him at it again, knock his d- – n head in.”

He turned his attention to the free Negro. “If I catch any of you talking to my gang again, I will put a load of buckshot into your black hides.”

The slaves were kept in the city jail overnight and the caravan continued downstream the next morning.

Hard to believe that such treatment by one group of humans to another group – in a land where the Constitution declared that all men are created equal – could take place.

And so, the Southern plantation owners, about to lose the free labor used to pick the cotton crop, which would drive down profits to where they could not maintain their “high society” lifestyle, went to war.

As stated earlier, there were other reasons this nation was torn apart by Civil War, but the issue of slavery was certainly one of the major reasons. And such events as the one taking place on the Portsmouth riverfront 184 years ago stirred the

minds and hearts of freedom-loving men and women of this great nation.

Credit for the report on the slave caravan of 1834 must go to Elmer Sword, who writes of the event on Page 48 of his interesting booklet, “The Story of Portsmouth.”

End of the world

Fishing camps have always harbored a practical joker who was always looking for ways to “pull a good one” on his fellow campers. The late Mike Royko, a writer with the Chicago Tribune who produced a national newspaper column once shared with readers a practical joke that’s a classic. He told the story again at a conference of national outdoor newspaper columnists I attended. I talked with him afterwards and he gave me permission to use it as I saw fit to use it.

Here it is:

A restaurant owner and three friends were on a fishing trip way up north, staying in a cabin on a remote lake. It was 10 p.m. They had fished all day, caught some good ones early in the day, came in and had a few beers, played some poker, and were going to hit the sack and get up before dawn for some more fishing.

“One of them, let’s call him Joe,” Royko wrote, “was the first to his bunk. He was exhausted. Within a few minutes he was snoring.

“The restaurant owner quickly told the others his plan.

“One of them got Joe’s wristwatch, which he had laid on a nightstand, and changed the time to 4:45.

“They set the alarm clock to go off at exactly 5 o’clock, turned off all the lights, took off their clothes, and went to bed.

“Fifteen minutes later, the alarm went off. They all got up, shuffling around, making the gumbly, miserable sounds that men make early in the morning. One of them put toast and coffee on.

“The most miserable was Joe. He sat on the edge of his bed, and was heard saying, ‘I don’t feel like I’ve been to bed at all.’

“He kept looking at his watch. He complained as he drank his coffee, and on the way to the boat.

“’I must be getting old,’ he said, as they dropped anchor and began fishing. Every few minutes, he’d glance at his watch and look at the eastern horizon and say: ‘What time have you got?’

“’Five-forty,’ somebody would say.

“Boy, it’s dark,’ Joe would say.

“A little later: ‘What time have you got?’

“’Six.’

“He began looking concerned. ‘Shouldn’t it be getting light soon?’ he asked.

“By the time his watch said 6:40, he had stopped casting. He just sat there looking into the

darkness.

“Finally, in a voice filled with genuine terror, he cried, ‘I’m telling you, something is wrong! It’s

not getting light today! Something is wrong!’

“’End of the world, Joe,’ they hooted. ‘Doesn’t matter. The fish aren’t biting anyway.’

“That’s when he caught on. And he took it well, although they had to wrestle an oar out of his

hands.”

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G. Sam Piatt

Reach G. Sam Piatt at gsamwriter@twc.com or 606-932-3619.

Reach G. Sam Piatt at gsamwriter@twc.com or 606-932-3619.