Jennings had got his start in manually moving rafts of logs or of squared-off logs for lumber from the north and had later been responsible for overseeing the towing of cribs and strings of lumber by steamboat in the 1850s to meet the demand for building, from the ever-increasing population, even down to as far as St. Louis.
After some years of that, he had seen the value of trading along the river, and had put his savings into a large store boat of some forty tons (when loaded) in partnership with a man, Irving Judson, twenty years older than himself, and his multitudinous family who lived on the river most of the year, in a small cabin at the back of boat. The man had injured himself moving farming implements and had been obliged either to sell out or take on a younger, fitter, and stronger partner. Jennings had been that man. Jennings had taken an immediate interest in the oldest girl, Madeleine, of that family and she, in him, so it was not hard to persuade him, though he had needed no persuading. They had been married, according to simple custom, in the presence of her mother and father and their numerous children, even as he was welcomed aboard to join their family. Few men were privileged to have such a wife, where love blossomed even as they had looked at each other, and he knew it.
They loaded with stores in St. Louis in October or November, and then drifted downriver, trading as they went and hoping to avoid truly cold weather or being frozen in the river. Apart from their initial investment, all it cost a man was time and his labor. The river was an open and free route from north to south most of the time and was both larder, classroom, home, and life for hundreds if not thousands of such traders who hauled their entire families with them. They did not need horses, or all the attention and expense that they demanded. They lived on the river and would die on the river when their time came, if that was where they were. It was a rewarding lifestyle. They could even hunt as well as fish, shooting game in the water or on the bank and then dashing in with a small rowboat to retrieve it before some other animal or an alligator (if they were far enough south) made off with it. What they could not eat of it, they could trade at the next landing. They had no need to worry about floods in their own little arc, containing all they, or anyone else, would ever need to survive.
They mostly bartered. They set out with guns (rifles and pistols), gunpowder, ammunition, woodworking tools, nails, farm implements, flour, whiskey, as well as a store of high-value goods, like bolts of fine cloth, women’s jewelry (necklaces, rings, cameo broaches) and fancy combs, pocket watches, telescopes, compasses, medical salves, herbs, and scientific and medical instruments. They ended up in New Orleans three or four or even six months later, loaded with pelts, which brought a big price in Europe, and agricultural produce for sale. Along the way downriver, that family had tied up for sometimes days at a stretch and had dropped off one or more of their children to trusted families to work for their board and lodging and a small wage, promising to pick them up again when they returned upriver in the spring after selling everything, intending to get back up to St. Louis or Pittsburgh and to start again. The steamboat made that return journey easy.
Samuel Johnson, a famous Englishman who must have seen the river but had been blind to its value had said, presumably in an attempt to be humorous, “It is strange to see how humans value a stream of mud merely because it is big and boats float on it. I would not give two guineas for the Mississippi River—no, not unless it came with chips, ale, and a saucy maid.” Jennings had his own saucy maid to make it all worthwhile. She was all he needed.
He had made that trip repeatedly over five years with that same family and loved the life, the freedom, and his adoptive family. Then his wife had died in childbirth along with his newborn son, and he had lost interest in that venture about then, even as Mr. Judson’s older boys had matured into it. He had struck out on his own after that, determined to one day own his own steamboat just as other boys and men yearned to be a river pilot. He had called many women, 'wife', after that time and consorted with many others, but they could not make up for that first loss, which he never told anyone about. His life seemed to have ended, the day she had died.
When the steamboats came along, starting with the New Orleans in 1811, a side paddle wheeler, they had changed the character of life on the river; but it took many years before anyone thought to use them in earnest to move rafts in the lower stretches of the river, though they had been used to move rafts of logs across one of the lakes in 1851. There had been a serious attempt to push rafts on the Mississippi with one of those hitched to them in about 1863 more than fifty years after the first steamboats on the river. The experience had been an unpleasant learning moment for the captain involved, as he had not thought enough about it or persisted for long enough to learn the trick of doing it.
Jennings, older and wiser by then, had been on that boat, and had learned by what he had seen and experienced. He had seen how it could be done. What seemed to be lacking was a secure buffer between the rafts and the steamboat so that it could adjust its position. There were already men on the lead rafts with large sweeps to adjust their heading, but the difficulty was with the boat behind. Jennings had also seen that an alternative was to fasten the two of them securely together so that they formed but the one single entity, with the boat being pushed deep between the rafts for almost its entire length and then with them both being fastened securely together with heavy ropes or chains. The captain at that time had been an impatient and irascible man who did not take kindly to being told anything, by anyone, so Jennings had held his tongue, but had stored away in his mind what he had learned. The boat had also been a side-wheeler, as well as too small, and with insufficient power for the job at hand.
Then, Jennings had been temporarily conscripted into the Union army to command a steamboat, ferrying troops and supplies across the Mississippi to the northern army, as they dictated. Wars interfered damnably in the courses of everyone’s life that they touched, but there was no point in railing against it. He would learn from it, if he could. He began to bring into use what he had learned about putting rafts and steamboats together and had a special iron yoke and heavy chains made, to fasten a bigger boat, a sternwheeler, into the rafts. He had used what he learned to move rafts holding horses, men, cannons, limbers, and supply carriages across and up and down the river with considerable success and profit. He had been involved in the successful battle for Island Ten and had been caught up in the first Battle of Memphis, when the Union had foolishly not taken advantage of its victory, but he had been in New Orleans when the battle for Vicksburg took place. He disliked being used by the Union forces, who had briefly taken over his newly acquired second boat after the lessons they had learned at Memphis about not letting anyone not in the army, command a Union boat.
Shortly after the Battle of Island Ten, he had bought his first steamboat: the Pelican. He had pulled her off a mud bank after she had run aground under the guns of the defenders. Others had tried before him, but he was the only one who had planned it and prepared for it. Her pilothouse and funnels had been blown off, and she had been temporarily abandoned. She had been one of a new breed of steamboat, barely in service a month, with stouter oak timbers and of much better construction to withstand bombardment, and stout enough to have mortars and cannons on her deck. She was little damaged, but she was well and truly stuck.
Jennings had been in the right place at the right time. He had bought her for almost nothing from her dying owner who had been in the pilot house in that last action and, after some careful planning, had seen her pulled back into the river one dark night with no one to see or object, and hauled her off to New Orleans for major refit. On the way downriver, they moored out of sight between islands or under overhanging trees as far as they could during the day, moving silently and only at night. Once she was in New Orleans, she had been refitted.
Jennings added more decks above the solid hull and outfitted her for passengers as well as cargo. She was a sternwheeler, a workhorse, not the fastest or the most impressive boat on the river; but she was rugged, and one of the better-constructed boats. Jennings had great plans for her when she came back onto the river. She was outfitted to move rafts and had the power to do it, and he knew how it could be done after the war ended which it seemed likely to do with Union control of much of the river. The river would be the only way to move goods at first. He would seek to maximize his advantage before the railway came into use again, and others saw how easy it was to move rafts with a sternwheeler. He soon followed that purchase with others as the opportunity presented itself. When the war ended in ’65, he owned three riverboats and knew most of the river better than any man alive.
Wyatt listened as Mr. Jennings had told him of the first commercial venture upriver after the war had ended. Today, they could make the trip up as far as Cairo, or even to St. Louis, in about ten days—though others could do it in less than half that time—hauling cargo to drop off en route, or to pick cargo up. On that first trip, he had taken almost a month, learning about the new river as it then was, referring to the earlier river pilot charts, and making detailed notes about snags, wrecks, sandbars, and cross currents, and had traveled only during daylight. Going upriver meant that you encountered fewer surprises that you could not back away from, or that you could use the river current to push away from, before you came back up again in a different place. If you were coming downriver without that same knowledge, with the full push of the river’s force behind you, you could be aground before you knew it, and with the river’s current grinding you deeper into the sand. He had learned that lesson on the store barge, and had learned the value of pulleys and good anchors, as well as knowing how to use them. A few of the inexperienced pilots, fresh out on the river, still had to learn that lesson the hard way.
Wyatt proved to be intelligent, as well as a fast learner, and developed a close bond with Jennings.
Whenever they came by Helena, he would go ashore on the Mississippi State side of the river, if he could, with a letter or even two of them for just an hour or two. There was no other letter that he returned with, as he had on that first occasion, except for bringing one of his own back with him. The person or family he had intended it for, had not been there. He tried not to show his deep hurt and disappointment. It weighed heavily upon him, but he was young and would easily adapt to life’s many unexpected difficulties, as Jennings had. Nonetheless, Jennings felt his pain and knew what he was suffering.