Stories of American Life and Adventure - Edward Eggleston

The River Pirates

A hundred years ago the country near the great rivers in the interior of the United States was a wilderness. It contained only a few people, and these lived in settlements which were widely separated from one another. Hardly any of the great trees had been cut down.

There were no roads, except Indian trails through the woods. Nearly all travelers had to follow the rivers. Steamboats had not yet been invented. Travelers made journeys on flatboats, keel boats, and barges. It was easy enough to go down the Ohio and the Mississippi in this way, but it was hard to come up again. It took about fifty men to work a boat against the stream, and many months were spent in going up the river.

Boats were pushed up the river by means of poles. The boatmen pushed these against the bottom of the river. When the water was deep or the current very swift, a rope was taken out ahead of the boat, and tied to a tree on the bank. The line was then slowly drawn in by means of a capstan, and this drew the boat forward.

Sometimes the boat was "cordelled," or towed by the men walking on the shore and drawing the barge by a rope held on their shoulders. But when there chanced to be a strong wind blowing upstream, the boatmen would hoist sail, and joyfully make headway against the current without so much toil.

These slow-going boats were in danger from Indians. They were in even greater danger from robbers, who hid themselves along the shore. Some of these robbers lived in caves. Some kept boats hidden in the mouths of streams that flowed into the large rivers.

In 1787 all the country west of the Mississippi still belonged to France. The French territory stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to what is now Minnesota. It was all called Louisiana. New Orleans and St. Louis were then French towns, and the travel between them was carried on by means of boats, which floated down the stream, and were then brought back by poles, ropes, and sails.

The trip was as long as a voyage to China is nowadays. The boats or barges set out from St. Louis in the spring, carrying furs. They got back again in the fall with goods purchased in New Orleans.

In this year, 1787, a barge belonging to a Mr. Beausoleil (bo-so-lay) started from New Orleans to make the voyage to St. Louis. The goods with which it was loaded were very valuable. Slowly the men toiled up against the stream day after day. At length the little vessel came near to the mouth of Cottonwood Creek. A well-known robber band lurked at this place. With joy the boatmen saw a favorable wind spring up. They spread their sails, and the driving gale carried the barge in safety past the mouth of the creek.

But the pirates of Cottonwood Creek were unwilling to lose so rich a treasure. They sent a company of men by a short cut overland to head off the barge at a place farther up the river. Two days after passing Cottonwood Creek the bargemen brought the boat to land. They felt themselves beyond danger. But the robbers came suddenly out of the woods, took possession of the boat, and ordered the crew to return down the river to Cottonwood Creek.

When they turned back toward the robbers' den, Beausoleil was in despair. His whole fortune was on the barge. He did not know whether the robbers would kill him and his men, or not. The only man of the crew who showed no regret was the cook. This cook was a fine-looking and very intelligent mulatto slave named Cacasotte. Instead of repining, he fell to dancing and laughing.

"I am glad the boat was taken," he cried. "I have been beaten and abused long enough. Now I am freed from a hard master."

Cacasotte devoted himself to his new masters, the robbers. In a little while he had won their confidence. He was permitted to go wherever he pleased, without any watch upon his movements.

He found a chance to talk with Beausoleil, and to lay before him a plan for retaking the boat from the villains. Beausoleil thought the undertaking too dangerous, but at length he gave his consent. Cacasotte then whispered his plan to two others of the crew.

Dinner was served to the pirates on deck. Cacasotte took his place by the bow of the boat, so as to be near the most dangerous of the robbers. This robber was a powerful man, well armed. When Cacasotte saw that the others had taken their places as he had directed, he gave the signal, and then pushed the huge robber at his side into the water. In three minutes the powerful Cacasotte had thrown fourteen of the robbers into the waves. The other men had also done their best. The deck was cleared of the pirates, who had to swim for their lives. The robbers who remained in the boat were too few to resist. Beausoleil found himself again master of his barge, thanks to the coolness and courage of Cacasotte.

But the bargemen dared not go on up the river. Against the stream they would have to go slowly, and there would be danger from the robbers remaining at Cottonwood Creek: so they kept on down the river to New Orleans.

The next year ten boats left New Orleans in company. These barges carried small cannons, and their crew were all armed. When they reached Cottonwood Creek, men were seen on shore; but when an armed force was landed, the robbers had fled. The long, low hut which had been their dwelling remained. There were also several flatboats loaded with valuable goods taken from captured barges. This plunder was carried to St. Louis, and restored to the rightful owners. For fifty years afterwards this was known as "The Year of the Ten Boats." Cacasotte's brave victory was not soon forgotten.