|This Week in History
Lafayette Reaches America's Western Settlements and Survives a Shipwreck on the Ohio River
As Gilbert de Lafayette continued his daunting 1825 tour through all of the states of America, he and his party survived a rough trip across the Gulf of Mexico from Mobil, and reached New Orleans during the second week of April. The city provided him with a week of lavish spectacles, balls, and banquets, but Lafayette was disturbed at the existence of black slavery in the country whose freedom he had helped to win. Therefore, he went out of his way to greet a delegation of Negroes who had fought under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. He also received a delegation of 100 Choctaws, who had come from their savannahs to greet "the Great Warrior, brother of the Great Father Washington."
On April 15 Lafayette boarded the steamboat Natchez and set off up the Mississippi River, stopping for receptions at Baton Rouge and Natchez. Then, for ten days, the passengers saw only wilderness, broken occasionally by a settler's log cabin. When the steamboat required wood for fuel, the captain would steer to shore and send out a woodcutting party. He would sign a paper which told how many cords he had taken, the name of the boat and the captain's place of residence and affix it to a tree. Then, at some point, the owner of the land could send a bill to the captain. This was how the refueling of all the river steamboats was conducted.
At last, on April 28, the mouth of the Ohio River came into view, and the steamboat anchored at the village of Carondelet. The French settlers on this part of the Mississippi had come from France in the time of Louis XIV, and had become American citizens during the Revolutionary War. The backwoods area was poor, and so the settlers brought tame geese, a young doe, shells and petrified wood as their gifts to Lafayette.
The next day, the governors of Missouri and Illinois came aboard the steamer, and the party proceeded up the Mississippi to St. Louis. Lafayette dined with Auguste Chouteau, the founder of the city, and had the great pleasure of greeting the son of Alexander Hamilton, his old Continental Army comrade. That evening, a ball was held that was called "the most brilliant social event that had ever been seen upon the western shore of the Mississippi." Lafayette's secretary, Auguste Levasseur, wrote in his journal that "the splendid decorations of the room and the beauty of the ladies made us completely forget that we were on the confines of a wilderness which the savages themselves consider as insufficient for the supply of simple wants, since they only frequent it occasionally."
Leaving St. Louis, the steamer dropped down the Mississippi and entered the Ohio, where Lafayette had to transfer to another steamboat. This was the Mechanic, a much narrower boat which had been built to navigate the waters of the comparatively shallow Cumberland River. On the Cumberland, progress was slow, as the steamer stopped to allow people who had come down to its banks to board the ship and pay their respects to Lafayette. Finally, the pealing of bells was heard, the signal to Nashville that Lafayette's boat had been sighted.
Lafayette was greeted by General Andrew Jackson, who later conducted him to his home, the Hermitage. There, Lafayette was astounded to find the pistols which he himself had presented to George Washington during the Revolution. It was never explained how Jackson had obtained them, but with his usual courtesy, Lafayette said that he was delighted that they were now in the hands of so worthy a soldier.
When the steamboat Mechanic again reached the Ohio River, Lafayette spent a day in Shawneetown, Illinois, a busy river port and commercial center that had only been laid out in 1808. It contained the first bank founded in Illinois, and that bank's directors were busy planning for the construction of the City of Chicago far to the north on Lake Michigan. Here, Lafayette also received more mailbringing his total to around 500 lettersfrom Americans congratulating him and inviting him to visit their towns. During the day of May 8, he and Levasseur tried desperately to answer some of the correspondence.
Then, that night, after Lafayette had gone to bed, disaster struck.
At midnight the steamboat jolted violently as it hit a snag of submerged branches in the river. A large hole in the hull was filling with water, and the boat started tipping to the side. Levasseur and Lafayette's son George grabbed Lafayette's arms and dragged him from the cabin. Lafayette insisted on going back for a snuffbox, which was ornamented with a picture of George Washington, and Levasseur retrieved it. The captain's lifeboat had been held for Lafayette and he was lowered into it. Later, Levasseur recalled that the people on deck were crying out for Lafayette as if they could not think of saving themselves until the Revolutionary War veteran was safely off the boat.
Fortunately, the boat rolled on its side but did not sink, and all aboard were saved. However, Lafayette's dog, a present given to him in Washington, D.C., went down to the cabin to find his master and was drowned. The passengers, marooned on the Kentucky side of the river with no habitations in sight, made the best of it by lighting large bonfires and eating food saved from the wreck. The next day, two steamboats were spotted on the river. By luck, the owner of one of the boats was one of the shipwrecked passengers. He signaled his boat, the Paragon, and ordered it to abandon its trip to New Orleans in order to carry Lafayette and the other passengers eastward.
By this time, Lafayette began to worry that he would not make the June 17 dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, so he cut back the number of days he spent in any one city. He shortened the celebrations in Louisville, Lexington, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, but there was one town in upstate New York where he could not ignore the entreaties of its citizens.
Lafayette had visited Erie, Pennsylvania, and had dined outdoors under the sails captured from British frigates on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812. He set out that night for Dunkirk, where a Lake Erie steamboat was waiting to take him to Buffalo. He and his party fell asleep in the speeding carriage, but at two in the morning they were suddenly awakened by artillery fire. Looking out, they saw thousands of small lights suspended from the surrounding houses and trees. It was Fredonia, New York, and its residents had been standing outside in the chilly air since early evening waiting for him to come.
Opening the carriage door, Lafayette saw the young mothers holding their sleeping babies, and the entire population forming a double line for him to walk between. He couldn't resist such a scene, so he shook hands with everyone down the long lines and only demurred when they led him to a large platform, lighted by barrels of burning rosin, where yet another orator was to extol his virtues. Saying that the ceremonies should be abridged because of the coolness of the evening and the necessity to get the children to bed, Lafayette reentered his coach and set off again, still trying to keep his schedule for the dedication at Bunker Hill.