Winner, Illinois State Historical Society Superior Achievement, 2016
Flatboats were the most prolific type of vessel on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during the early 1800s. Thousands of these boats descended the two rivers each year, carrying not only valuable cargo to New Orleans but also western-bound emigrants to newly opened territories. By the late 1800s, flatboats had completely disappeared, and no intact examples were known to exist. Our knowledge of these historic vessels had been limited to illustrations, memoirs, and traveler accounts.
That changed in 2000 after local residents found a wreck on the Ohio River shoreline in Illinois. Archaeologist Mark J. Wagner and his colleagues from Southern Illinois University Carbondale investigated extensively and established that the wreck was a pre–Civil War flatboat, which they named America, after a nearby town.
In The Wreck of the America in Southern Illinois: A Flatboat on the Ohio River, Wagner provides a brief description and general history of flatboats and the various reasons they wrecked—such as poor workmanship and encounters with pirates, storms, rocks, and floating trees. Wagner describes the remains of the America, how it was constructed, the artifacts found nearby and inside—including pewter spoons, utensils with bone handles, metal buttons, and an iron felling axe—and the probable cause of its sinking. Wagner concludes with a history of the America since its discovery in 2000 and a plea that the boat be removed from the riverbank and preserved before the Ohio washes it away.