Bedbugs swum ashore, poor boatman nearly got drowned (x2)
Sleepin’ in the open, got the ague again (x2)
Devil take the black fly ‘bout the last week in May (x2)
Her face is in the fire-light, the river sings her part (x2)
Sweetest sight some thirsty frontier maid ever saw (x2)
I still fancy I see shadows movin’ time after time (x2)
Shoulder to your settin’ pole, you push off and go (x2)
© George Ward 1991, 2008
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This song was originally published on George Ward’s album ‘Pea Soup and Port: A Batteau Salute’ recorded to celebrate the launching of a replica of Gen. Philip Schuyler’s 1792 batteau.
On Tuesday, August 21, 1792, General Philip Schuyler and two other Albany, NY businessmen [ Goldsbrow Banyar, a banker and Elkanah Watson, a ‘business venturer’] began a westward journey by batteau to survey the Mohawk River – Wood Creek water route as far west as Rome, NY. The objective was to propose improvements to the route, to be constructed by the recently chartered Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. With them in the batteau traveled a surveyor [ Moses DeWitt], a carpenter [Abraham Lighthall] and a millwright [Archibald Nisbet]. Canal engineers did not yet exist in the new republic. A crew of three batteaumen [William Culbertson, Andrew Bearup and John House] completed the party. The entire expedition consumed all of two weeks. Yet because the improvement projects to which it led reflected the first measurable stirrings of that great ambition that would shortly lead to the building of the Erie Canal, its consequences for New York and for the nation were enormous.
[Bateaux had been ferrying cargo and passengers along this ancient water route for well over a hundred years before the Schuyler expedition. Many were built in Schenectady, the western terminus of the overland route from Albany that bypassed the great Cohoes Falls at the mouth of the Mohawk River. ]
The Boatman’s Cure: One cannot (at least this one cannot) read accounts of eighteenth century life in upstate New York without remarking on the repeated mention of alcohol as an essential part of daily life. In his account of Philip Schuyler’s 1792 expedition…Philip Lord, Jr. lists the following items as part of the batteau’s provisions: “[T]wo five-gallon kegs of Madeira wine (with glasses), a three-gallon keg of brandy and miscellaneous kegs of ‘rum and spirits.’ He goes on to observe that, “…fragmentary accounts of field expenses indicate liberal quantities of spirits purchased at taverns en route.” This for nine men, for fourteen days !
© George Ward 1991
- Ague: An old term for fever and chills.
- “Fifty-nine” 1759, during the French and Indian War.
- Forwarder: Someone whose business was warehousing and shipping goods,
a businessman whose success depended partly on the boatmen he hired.
- Quay (pronounced “key”): Reinforced riverbank where boats were loaded and unloaded.
- Rift (also riff): A shallow place in the river, perhaps a rapid, perhaps just aggravation.
- Setting pole: Going west along the Mohawk, a much shallower waterway than the
“canalized” river of today, meant poling the boat much of the way.
Boatmen acquired heavy calluses on hands and shoulders from such work.
- Three-Hand(ed) boat: Bateaux were of different sizes and so were their crews.
A three-handed boat had two crewmen forward to pole or row and one at the stern
using a powerful steering oar instead of a rudder to swing the boat clear of obstacles.