By Jared Olar
Last month we learned the name of the riverboat whose deckhands went on a drunken spree through the streets of Pekin on July 4, 1851 – the Lucy Bertram. This week we’ll take a closer look at the history of the Lucy Bertram, which plied the waters of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers during the heyday of the American steamboat.
As a matter of fact, there were two steamboats christened with the name “Lucy Bertram.” It was the first Lucy Bertram whose deckhands entered Pekin’s history. According to William J. Petersen’s “Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi” (1968), page 320, the Lucy Bertram was a 268-ton sidewheeler that was launched at St. Louis, Mo., in 1847.
The Lucy Bertram was one of the first three packet steamers of the St. Louis and Keokuk Packet Company, whose owners were apparently great fans of the famed Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott. The Lucy Bertram was named for one of the characters in Scott’s novel “Guy Mannering.” (Incidentally, Scott’s novels seemed to be popular not only with steamboat sailor but with trans-Atlantic seamen also, as there was an English trans-Atlantic ship named the “S.S. Guy Mannering” that brought English immigrants to the U.S. about this same period of time.) The St. Louis and Keokuk Packet Company’s first steamboat, launched in 1842, was the 211-ton Die Vernon, named for a character in Scott’s “Rob Roy.” The Lucy Bertram’s two companions were the Rob Roy, title character of Scott’s novel, and the Jeannie Deans, a character of Scott’s “The Heart of Midlothian.”
Retired steamboat Capt. F. A. Whitney of Centerville, Iowa, later shared some of his memories of steamboating during these years in a series of articles in “The Saturday Evening Post.” In his first installment, Whitney wrote (emphasis added):
“During the Civil War in the sixties, there was a packet line of steamers running between St. Louis and Keokuk. These were named the Hannibal City, Warsaw, Rob Roy, Lucy Bertram, Die Vernon, Hardy Johnson, and Andy Johnson. These were all splendid side wheel steamers. The crews were noted for their skill and popularity, their stewards and chefs were the best money could hire. Many a passenger made the trip on one of these boats to enjoy the accommodation, music and meals, for traveling at that time was indeed a pleasure. These boats being larger and drawing too much water could not go above the lower rapids at Keokuk, so there was another line of boats called the Northern Packet Company which ran its boats between St. Louis and St. Paul . . . .
“As these boats carried colored deck hands, some of them were always ready to entertain the passengers when at leisure by dancing, singing, diving in a pan of water for nickels, etc., and when the boat left the wharf at St. Louis for its up river trip at 4 p. m. the deck hands would sing as they hauled in the head line, ‘I roistered on the Rob Roy, I roistered on the Lee, I roistered on the Belle La Cross, she got away with me. The Libby is a good boat, and so am the Lee, but the Old Diamond Jo, she’s too much for me. Get on board, get on board, we’s goin’ up the river, get on board . . .,’ making up the words to fit the song as they hauled in the lines. Oh, those were the happy days.”
Pekin old-timer Emil Schilling said the deckhands of the boat we now know was the Lucy Bertram who were involved in the 1851 riot in Pekin were African-American, as was common on steamboats during this era.
Although Whitney mentions the Lucy Bertram in his recollections, that wasn’t the same steamboat as was involved in the Pekin riot. That was in fact the second Lucy Bertram, which according to Petersen (page 320) was a 698-ton steamboat built in 1863 for the St. Louis and Keokuk Packet Company which cruised up and down the Mississippi River until 1878. It was the second Lucy Bertram who plied the Mississippi’s waters during the Civil War, and in fact Petersen on pages 188 and 320 says she even assisted with troop transport for the Union Army:
“By 1864 the movement of steamboats was again in full swing up and downstream. On April 18 th more than one hundred soldiers from the Keokuk hospitals left on the steamboat Lucy Bertram to rejoin their regiments. Nine days later the Die Vernon took the Fifteenth Iowa to the front; and a month later the Lucy Bertram took the Forty-fifth Iowa Regiment downstream. . . .”
In her book, “Seeing the Elephant: The Many Voices of the Oregon Trail” (2003), pages 198-199, Joyce Badgley Hunsaker includes passages from a diary or memoir of Fincelius Gray Burnett (Finn Burnett of Wyoming, frontiersman, 1844-1934) in which Finn Burnett says his uncle David was a captain of the second Lucy Bertram. Hunsaker reports Burnett as saying:
“Uncle David’s second clerk, Sam Clemens, used to count the sacks as the deck hands loaded them onto the boat. Then he’d count the barrels of lard as they’d come aboard. That’s right, Samuel Clemens. Mr. Mark Twain, himself. Of course, that’s before he was famous. I remember him being a rather spare-made man, quick-motioned, and spry. And in those days he was young. History made him out a river pilot, but I never knew him as such. To me, he was just Uncle David’s clerk.”
However, Hunsaker’s book includes both actual historical sources as well as fictionalized or imagined diary entries, and it’s not clear whether the Finn Burnett diary/memoir is real or imagined. In Hunsaker’s book, Burnett speculates that Twain’s character Huckleberry Finn may have been inspired by Burnett’s own childhood experiences growing up on the Mississippi River and traveling with his Uncle David on the Lucy Bertram.