How Many Creek Died in a Steamboat Crash on the Mississippi River? In the annals of history, there are tragic events that often remain veiled in obscurity, overshadowed by the passage of time and the lack of accessible information. One such devastating incident occurred on a fateful night in 1837, when the steamboat Monmouth, traversing the mighty Mississippi River, met with an unforgiving collision that would claim the lives of numerous Creek Indians. Today, we delve into the depths of this forgotten tragedy, seeking answers to the question that still lingers: How many Creek perished in the wake of this calamitous steamboat crash?
The Night of Tragedy
On a misty October night in 1837, the steamboat Monmouth embarked on its ill-fated journey, departing from New Orleans and heading northward up the lower Mississippi. The boat was heavily laden with 700 Creek Indians, who were being transported to new Western lands, away from their ancestral homes in Georgia and Alabama. Little did they know that this journey would end in catastrophe.
A cold rain pelted the river’s surface, and darkness shrouded the boat’s path. Suddenly, a shrill sound pierced the night, and panic ensued as the pilot rang the bell in alarm. Another boat had collided with the Monmouth, shattering its bows and allowing the Mississippi’s unforgiving waters to rush in. In the chaos that ensued, Monmouth split in two, taking with it over 300 Creek Indians, marking one of the deadliest pre-Civil War disasters on the Mississippi River.
The Slow Spread of News
In the era preceding rapid communication, news of the Monmouth disaster spread at a snail’s pace. With no telegraph lines connecting distant regions, newspapers, letters, and pamphlets had to be transported by horseback, stagecoach, and steamboat. Residents of the East might remain ignorant of the accident for weeks, if they ever received word at all.
Local newspapers did pick up the story from surviving boat officers and crews, but it quickly faded into obscurity, with no one held accountable for the tragedy. It would take years for corporate and political pressure to push for improvements in river navigation practices, challenging the outdated rules that governed river travel.
The Steamboat Era
The steamboat had revolutionized travel on the Mississippi since its introduction in 1811. By 1820, these paddle wheelers had become a common sight on the river, preferred for their low freight costs and passenger capacity. The development of the vast Mississippi Basin owed much to the steamboat’s influence.
In the 1830s, around 18,000 Creek Indians were forcibly relocated from their homelands to new Western territories. A group of 1,600 Creeks embarked on a journey in the summer of 1837, culminating in their departure from Pass Christian, Alabama, to the West. Contracted by the U.S. Army, three steamboats—John Newton, Yazoo, and Monmouth—carried the Creeks up the Mississippi on the fateful night of October 27, 1837. Monmouth, a small steamer, bore the weight of about 700 Creeks, overcrowded without regard for comfort or safety.
The Tragic Collision
The voyage proceeded smoothly until the fatal collision occurred at Prophet Island Bend, now known as Profit Island Bend. Monmouth was struck by the sailboat Trenton, which was being towed by the steamboat Warren. The impact sent hundreds of unsuspecting Creek Indians into the treacherous waters.
The exact number of casualties remains uncertain, with estimates ranging from 240 to over 400. The most widely cited figure of 311 Creek Indians drowning comes from Grant Foreman’s book “Indian Removal.” Tragically, two non-Indians, the Monmouth’s barkeeper and a fireman, also lost their lives in the disaster.
Seeking Answers and Accountability
In the aftermath of the collision, Mr. Eastman, the owner of Monmouth, staunchly defended his steamboat’s condition, asserting that it was in good shape and well-manned. He attributed the accident to the combination of darkness, rain, and the alleged negligence of Warren’s officers, who failed to display lights on their tow. Yet, historical accounts of Trenton’s lighting remain sparse.
The disaster might have garnered more attention had it unfolded in a less remote area or if more non-Indigenous people had perished. Nonetheless, some writers expressed their concern for the Creeks who lost their lives during this tragic voyage. The New Orleans True American decried the Indians’ unfortunate fate in the face of civilization’s supposed blessings, while other writers pondered the nation’s moral reckoning for such calamities.
Understanding the Perils of River Navigation
Louis C. Hunter, in his work “Steamboats of the Western Rivers,” sheds light on the hazards of river navigation during this era. He explains that even on a vast river like the Mississippi, passing steamboats often struggled to avoid collisions due to factors like island chutes, sandbars, rapids, and low water levels. The absence of regulatory lights and signals on steamboats further exacerbated the risks.
It was only in the late 19th century that regulations, markers, buoys, and signal lights were introduced on the Western rivers to enhance navigation safety. The perilous conditions faced by pioneering river pilots, operating without modern aids, highlight their remarkable courage.
Overcrowding as a Deadly Factor
While the collision and navigational challenges played a significant role in the Monmouth disaster, overcrowding was an undeniable contributing factor. The boat’s overcrowded condition, with passengers crammed aboard without regard for safety, significantly amplified the loss of life when the collision occurred. Questions were raised about the legality of such overcrowding on steamboats compared to ships, which had stricter passenger limits.
A Quest for Answers and Closure
In recent years, researchers have revisited the Monmouth steamboat disaster, shedding new light on the tragic events of that October night. Yvonne Lewis Day, a historian and vice president of the Baton Rouge Genealogical and Historical Society, has pieced together various accounts and uncovered additional factors that may have played a role in the disaster.
Day’s research suggests that not only were weather conditions and overcrowding at fault, but the Monmouth’s crew may have been intoxicated, having consumed whiskey from barrels intended for sale in Oklahoma. This startling revelation raises questions about the steamboat’s reckless operation and its impact on the lives of the Creek Indians.
A Legacy Remembered
The Monmouth steamboat disaster remains a chapter of history that merits remembrance and further exploration. As researchers like Yvonne Lewis Day continue to delve into the details and seek answers, there is a growing recognition of the need to acknowledge and memorialize the lives lost in this tragic event.
The legacy of the Monmouth disaster serves as a reminder of the challenges and perils faced during the early days of steamboat travel on the Mississippi River. It also calls attention to the importance of safety regulations and the human cost of progress. As we reflect on this forgotten tragedy, we honor the memory of those who perished on that dark October night in 1837, seeking to ensure that their story is not lost to the mists of time.
In the shadows of history, the Monmouth steamboat disaster of 1837 remains a poignant reminder of the perils of early Mississippi River travel. Collisions, overcrowding, and treacherous conditions combined to claim the lives of Creek Indians on that ill-fated night. Recent research, led by dedicated historians like Yvonne Lewis Day, has unveiled new layers to this tragic tale. It exposes the potential role of crew intoxication, adding complexity to the narrative. As we contemplate this forgotten tragedy, we honor the memory of those who perished and seek to ensure that their story endures. The Monmouth disaster serves as both a somber reflection and a call to preserve the lessons of the past.
The main causes of the Monmouth steamboat disaster in 1837 were a collision with another boat, overcrowding, and adverse weather conditions, including darkness and rain.
The exact number of Creek Indian casualties in the Monmouth steamboat disaster remains uncertain, with estimates ranging from 240 to over 400. The most commonly cited estimate is 311 Creek Indians who drowned.
Overcrowding was a significant contributing factor to the high loss of life in the Monmouth steamboat disaster. Passengers were crammed aboard without regard for safety, exacerbating the tragedy when the collision occurred.
In the early 19th century, steamboats on the Mississippi River operated with minimal safety regulations. The absence of regulatory lights, signals, and safety measures posed significant risks to navigation.
Recent research by historians like Yvonne Lewis Day has unearthed additional factors that may have contributed to the disaster, including the possibility that the Monmouth’s crew was intoxicated from consuming whiskey onboard. This research aims to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the tragedy.