A Boatman’s Horn

Andrew Washburn
Andrew Washburn, Curator

As part of the process of getting acquainted with the collection and research tools at KHS, I have been spending some time searching the collection database for objects that speak to my interests. Some of my chief interests, personally and professionally, are boats and navigation.

In searching for the keyword “steamboat,” I was a little surprised at the lack of three-dimensional objects related to steamboats in the collection. One of the objects (1990.15.8) I was intrigued by was labeled “Boat horn.”  It is over three and a half feet long and four inches wide at its maximum and made of tin. As I read the record, the lack of information on its origin and use left me disappointed.

But there was enough information to follow some clues. The donor, Elizabeth Ann M. Moore of Mt. Sterling, had received the horn along with vernacular carpentry, cobbling, and weaving tools from the early to mid-19th century from her father, Dr. Frederick A. Millard (1887-1975). These tools were used by Millard’s family in their home in Bloomington, Kentucky—a small community on the Licking River in Magoffin County. Dr. Milliard had four siblings. His parents were farmers. According to our records the marking gauge (1990.15.1), compass (1990.15.2), and weaving shuttles (1990.15.5) were made by his father John Burgett Millard. Two forms for making or mending footwear or shoe lasts, while manufactured, show signs of modification and heavy use. These objects illustrate the necessity of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. These days it is easy to take for granted the ability to purchase footwear or tools rather than be prepared to fashion one’s own.

The boat horn’s origins differ from the rest of the collection. A note claimed that the horn had been given to Millard by a “Capt. Freese” of Louisa. Dr. Frederick “Fred” Millard moved to Louisa, in Lawrence County, in the late 1910s and began a dentistry practice. He lived there until around 1954 when he moved to Mt. Sterling.

Louisa is located at the confluence of the Tug and Levisa Forks of the Big Sandy River. The town was founded around 1815 after several unsuccessful attempts at settlement. With its location at the forks, Louisa became an important river port for far eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia.

The notes refer to a “Capt. Freese.” This likely refers to Captain Frank F. Freese (1849-1931), who was a steamboat captain throughout the 1870s and 1880s. By 1900, Freese is listed as a passenger agent. While it is likely that Frank Freese gave the boat horn to Millard, several aspects lead one to think that the horn’s origins are much older than the twilight of steamboat navigation in Kentucky. For example, why would a steamboat need a mouth operated horn? Whistles and bells would have provided all the signal power a steamboat would need. Furthermore, the construction of the horn seems to suggest an earlier time period. I shared an image of the horn with a renowned river man and columnist for the Northern Kentucky Tribune, Capt. Don Sanders. Without hesitation, Sanders confirmed that it was an instrument from an earlier era.

The horn, it seems, may have been handed down from another Capt. Freese—Frank’s father—Milton. Capt. Milton Freese was born in Medina, Ohio, in 1819. After several years of partnership, including a tomato-based patent medicine, with his somewhat shady brother-in-law, Archibald Miles, the elder Freese settled in Prestonburg, Floyd County, on the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy. There he engaged in unsuccessful coal mines, a somewhat successful tavern, and other endeavors. During the Civil War, Milton Freese became a vocal supporter of the Confederacy. He also engaged in commerce raiding on behalf of the rebel army, robbing neighbors who supported the Union. For these actions, Milton was arrested and imprisoned for nine months. After taking a Union oath of allegiance, authorities released him.  Freese then relocated to Louisa and entered into the steamboat business. He owned and operated at least three packet steamboats during the latter half of the 19th century, the Fannie Freese, Sallie Freese, and Fleetwood. He eventually established a large grain mill, the Louisa Roller Flouring Mill—later shortened to the Louisa Supply Company. Certainly, Milton Freese’s earlier entry into river commerce might point in the direction of the horn’s origins, but I am afraid any direct connection is lost.

Capt. Don Sanders confirmed my suspicions regarding the horn. Without hesitation, he suggested that the horn might best be described as a flatboatman’s horn. The horn bears some resemblance to another horn in KHS’s collection (1996.1.11) that is referred to as a “coach horn” or “coaching horn.” It was used on a stagecoach route between Louisville and Nashville in the mid-19th century. While our “steamboat horn” could also be a stagecoach horn, its association with a noted family of boatmen seems to preclude this. Or, perhaps the two types of horn were the same. One big difference is that the boatman’s horn does not have a mouthpiece but the coaching horn does. It could be possible, however, that the piece is missing.

Flatboats were raft-like barges designed for one-way transportation. Upriver farmers, merchants, and enslavers would load the flatboats and allow the river’s current to carry the cargo downstream. Flatboatmen would use large oars or sweeps to steer the boat along the way. These large oars gave the boat a bovine like appearance that gave them the nickname “Broadhorn.”  The journey downriver from the upper Ohio Valley to Louisville, Natchez, or New Orleans would take months. Once arrived at their destination and having sold their cargos of salt, bourbon, farm products, or enslaved men and women, the boats would be taken apart and the lumber sold. In the early days, the boatmen would walk back to their homes in western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, or Indiana. Later, flatboatmen would return upriver on steamboats or railroads, cutting the journey down to a matter of days.

Flatboats were a ubiquitous part of the early settler and colonizer experience on the Ohio River and its tributaries in Kentucky. From the 1780s to the late 1850s the flatboat, and their cousin the keelboat, were part of the backbone of commerce on the Ohio and Mississippi river systems. The sentimental reminiscing for the era spawned cultural works, too, from fiction to the legends of Mike Fink to poetry.

In several poems, horns are put forth as defining features of the flatboat. In “The Boatman’s Horn,” published in the Western Review in 1821, Kentuckian William O. Butler opens:

 

O, boatman! Wind that horn again

        For never did the listening air,

Upon its lambent bosom bear

        So wild, so soft, so sweet a strain!

 

As the poem continues, the writer longs for the sound of the horn and equates it to his lost youth.

We will return to Butler in a moment, but first another poem from a later era—long after flatboats disappeared. This work engages sentimentality in the service of reinforcing manifest destiny and white supremacy. “The Ohio Boat Horn” by Donn Piatt, a renowned, outspoken politician, army officer, and multitalented literati, appeared on the cover of The Continent of Philadelphia in September 1883. Accompanying the poem is a visual depiction of a flatboatman winding his horn. The horn bears a remarkable resemblance to KHS’s horn.

Piatt draws language directly from Butler, but his message goes beyond mere reminiscing for lost youth and simplicity. Instead, Piatt’s horn is a harbinger of domination:

 

That note smote on tower and town

          Its winding challenge, clear and high,

When battling hosts for land and crown

          Were summoned out to do or die;

And so it challenged empire then

          O’er wilds that stretched from sea to sea.

Wild music to the tramp of men

          That told of millions yet to be.

 

Piatt’s horn is the instrument of conquest of indigenous people as well as a tool to challenge “empire.” These lines speak to the near-constant state of war during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the Ohio River Valley region. They are not-so-hidden references to conflict between indigenous residents of the region—the Shawnee, Lenape, Miami, and Wyandot–as well as combatants drawn from outside the region such as the Illinois, Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwa. Between the 1780s and up to 1814, there were successive waves of violence perpetrated upon native people and American and Canadian settlers alike. This culminated in the Battle of the Thames in which American regular forces and Kentucky militiamen fought and defeated British Army regulars and Wyandot and Shawnee forces under Tecumseh. This battle secured Ohio and the rest of the present Midwest for the United States. Although much of the major fighting during these decades occurred in Indiana, Ohio, Ontario, and Michigan, Kentuckians were central to the conflicts.

The connection between Kentucky signal horns and the violence of the latter half of the 18th and early 19th centuries may not be a purely literary one conjured by Piatt. In the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society are three signal horns. According to our records, Kentucky militia used two of these long, cone-shaped horns during the War of 1812. A third may have been used by a Confederate Army captain during the Civil War.

It seems more than a coincidence that these peculiar wooden horns factored into the northwestern theater of the War of 1812 and William O Butler—poet of “The Boatman’s Horn”–served in the Army of the Northwest during that conflict. Whether the sound and use of these wooden signal horns were similar to the boatman’s “enchanted echo” remains to be studied, but it seems that Butler—who would go on to receive copious military honors during the Mexican-American War—would have been quite familiar with both types of horns. KHS also has two presentation swords that were given to Butler in our collection (see here and here).

While our records highlight the military application of these horns, oral tradition and scholarship indicate a broader use of the long signaling horn in Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. The Frazier Kentucky History Museum in Louisville also possesses a horn of this type. Their records indicate it was a device used by enslavers to signal the commencement of a work day to enslaved men and women. See a video of the Frazier’s horn here. In fact, the use of winding horns as well as bells to communicate in the system of plantation slave labor camps is well documented across the south. For example, the tin horn in the KHS collection strongly resembles this horn pictured in a Library of Congress photograph. But its riverine provenance from the heart of Appalachia argues against a similar function.

Whether there is a direct relationship between the long tin signal horn and these wooden signal horns is unknown. Were the wooden horns vernacular versions of tin horns? Or, were the wood horns expressions of cultural roots in the mountainous regions of Europe or elsewhere? What is certain is that the historic and material record indicates that signal horns were an important means of communication in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Even Lewis and Clark make mention of procuring and using tin signal horns during their voyage.

While we may never know the origins of this horn, its place and date of manufacture and use, by delving into the early history and culture of communication in Kentucky we see that large horns were a critical tool in transportation, combat, and communication.

 

Cited

Perkins,  Marlitta H.  “The Life and Times of Milton Freese,” blog post: Eastern Kentucky and the Civil War. Monday, August 8, 2011. http://eakycivilwar.blogspot.com/2011/08/life-and-times-of-milton-freese.html accessed 8/4/2020

Rolph, Daniel N. “Wooden Signal Horns of Southern Appalachia: Provenance & Function” in Material Culture. Fall 1989. Vol. 21, No. 3 Pp 9-25.

Discovering Lewis and Clark. “The Sounding Horn” https://www.lewis-clark.org/article/580. accessed 8/5/2020

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