We know that the men who labored to pole Marshall's batteau up river were black, as were most batteaumen. Yesterday, we heard about a group of Virginians who built a bateau of their own to retrace Marshall’s 1812 journey. In this installment of a 3-part series, “The River Road of Sand,” producer Catherine Moore talks to one Hinton native with a deep and personal interest in the history of bateau, and in the process learns more about the labor realities that made these boats run.
bateau up river goes something like this: Walk to the front of the boat. Stick
a long wooden pole down into the water until it hits bottom. Brace the pole
against your leather chest harness and walk backwards along the boat rail,
heaving the boat forward. Sound like a lot of work? It was.
American history, the toughest labor was often relegated to blacks by a white
culture that directly benefitted from racist beliefs.
And so it
became a tradition for batteumen to be black…
CRAWFORD: These men knew the river, the lived the river…
because slavery forced them into it, or because it was just one of those few
professions open to black people at the time.
RC: I can
remember her talking about the importance of the transportation but she also
talked about how tough it was…
a lot in the historical record about it--some travelogues here, a few photos
there, and, as it turns out, some census records.
you brought something today to show me—what are we looking at?
At Batteau Beach in Hinton, West
Virginia, man named Robin Crawford pulls out
a huge binder brimming with records.
CRAWFORD: This is my historical research of my family and who I am.
who are you?
the first known descendent of the bateau people in the country.
researching his family’s history, Robin made a surprising discovery. In the
1880 census, he found his great grandfather’s brothers listed as batteaumen.
HAVE NAMES PLAYING]
Allen Pack, black, batteumen. James Johnston married my great grandfather’s
sister, who was Amanda.
Jane. I knew Amanda’s daughter. When I started the segregated schools she was
still one of the teachers there. She told me, ‘Son, your people worked The
Rivahhhhh.’ That’s how she put it.
understands his family largely through oral history. Growing up, it was a tradition
for each child to spend a week individually with their grandparents so stories
could be passed down from generation to generation.
Pack actually settled near where I was born and my mother knew lots of stories
about him. He was the only Pack slave that was ever whipped. And it was because
he was sort of drafted by the Confederacy during the Civil War. He refused to
maneuver one of the bateaux the way the Confederates wanted him to, so…
his descent to a white Revolutionary War scout, Samuel Pack, who settled on
land in Monroe County given to
him by the government after the war. His vast holdings required many hands, and
he owned slaves. The story in Robin’s family goes that, in order to grow his
labor pool, Samuel had a relationship with an Indian woman that produced a
whole other family, including Thomas Pack, Robin’s great-great grandfather. And
so it came to be that Tom was owned by his own father, and later his own
half-brother, Anderson Pack.
RC: I also
give and bequeath to my son Anderson my two Negro men called Tom and Abram ,
Jr. Also my Negro boy Shed to him and his heirs forever.
among the Packs of Monroe County—the lines between slavery, freedom, and family
were blurry at best.
were probably free people of color, but because Virginia law said you could
only be free one year, they were considered slaves but they were treated as
though they were in the family. So you didn’t run the risk of being captured
and taken back so you just played the role. That’s one of things grandmother
told me, how horrible it was, and she also told me they had to play the role
even though they weren’t.
role, Robin’s family lived under the control of a master. They couldn’t just leave.
But Robin says they didn’t experience the rigid and brutal institution we
usually associate with slavery in the Deep South.
amazing is that these men were piloting batteau to places as far away as Charleston. The boats
held valuable goods, and money. Perhaps because of their place “in the family,”
their honesty and obedience weren’t questioned. Robin even found evidence
suggesting that some were entrusted with guns.
Robin took tourists out on a recreation bateau, told them stories, sang…
RC: Left a
good job in the city…
in period costumes.
for the man every night and day…
the help of others in Hinton’s black community.
RC: Some of
them were hesitant to wear that slave shirt. It took several years to get them
to wear it.
I ask Robin
what it was like to reenact this difficult history, and his answer surprises
look at the slavery aspect of it because when you’re told as a child that your
family was treated better because they could take these boats a distance and
whatever funds they were trusted with the funds, allowed to buy horses and get
back and all that, I just don’t see that as being that bad, or I don’t see that
as a story that shouldn’t be told.
We should be
careful to point out that this story does not represent how enslaved people
lived and interacted with white folks in all parts of western Virginia. There
were, no doubt, relationships that involved abuse and all the ugliness we
associate with slavery. There were, no doubt, relationships that involved abuse
and all the ugliness we associate with slavery.
were painful moments for Robin during his family research too, like the time he
came across an artist rendering of a slave coffle gathered on the banks of the New River, waiting to
cross. There were boats in the background, and a mountain, which he says he
recognizes exactly, because it’s near his ancestral home. He even went there,
just to be sure. This all led him to contemplate a shocking possibility.
slaves were being transported in boats that my family were running.
moly. What does that feel like?
feels horrible. But that’s where the Underground Railroad came in. My uncle
would tell me that people would fall out of the boats and men would go down and
hold them under and drag them off. Another story about this…the teacher, Gertie
Anderson, who was the old woman who told me about your people worked on the
river. She told us about when slaves were able to get in the river and away
from whatever they were dealing with, they were told, Follow the drinking
gourd. And she told us traditionally the drinking gourd was the Big Dipper, but
through this area, it’s the New River.
that, Robin gets in his truck and takes off, I’m left wondering—what must it
have been like to live and work on a river that symbolize both your freedom and
your enslavement. That reminded you every day that there was something beyond
where you were, where you were forbidden to go. And every day, you worked on a
boat that could literally take you there. And you went home to a family that
both created and owned you. It must have been a tangled up world.