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Steamboat Travel

The Mississippi River Highway

Right:Steamboat Landing, New Orleans, USA; Library of Congress; Digital Id cph 3a18393 http: //; Library of Congress Control Number 2015645063

a vintage photo of a factory

In the early 19th century travel changed dramatically along the Mississippi River. New, steam-powered vessels called steamboats became popular, ranging from basic hulls transporting freight to luxurious travel boats, equipped with the latest amenities. Steamboats, both freight and passenger, played a huge role in the development of river plantations, including Oak Alley.

All plantations relied heavily on freight deliveries. Oak Alley deliveries included dried fish, pharmaceuticals, clothing, seeds, ice, building materials, oil, equipment for the sugar mill, oysters, paint, horse brushes, saddles, nails, lead, cement, brandy, whiskey, and flour. Shipments arrived on a monthly, sometimes weekly, basis.

While steamboats had designated wharves in New Orleans, landing locations were much less formal often docking in front of the plantation or nearby. What constituted a ‘landing’ could be little more than wherever the steamboat could dock against the shore or a levee, with planks or walkways provided for the enslaved workers to unload the freight. Once the boat docked, enslaved men and women were sent to retrieve the packages and cart them back to the Oak Alley.

In addition to freight, steamboats were the primary source of transportation to and from New Orleans. Steamboats listed in Oak Alley bills include the Belle CreoleEliskaMary FoleyLunaGipseySt. CloudHard Times, and Music. Sometimes the passenger was a single person, such as Jacques Roman or an enslaved messenger, but traveling parties could be quite large. On December 12, 1848, a rather large Oak Alley group traveled on the Belle Creole. Led by Celina Roman, it included one of her sisters, the children’s tutor Harriet Anable, and Celina’s children, Louise, Octavie, Henri, and Marie. Traveling with them were six “servants” and three “little servants” (enslaved children expected to attend to the Roman children) bringing the total to sixteen people and luggage. The Romans, Celina’s sister and their tutor traveled in comfort, listening to bands or dining until they reached New Orleans. Attending slaves were expected to do just that: attend.