When Aaron Burr left the office of vice president in March 1805, his future was clouded. President Jefferson had dropped him from the Republican ticket the year before, then Burr lost a race for governor of New York. Winning his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury, landed Burr under indictment for murder in both New Jersey and New York.
Despite these setbacks, the small, well-spoken politician still nursed large ambitions. He visited with the leading men of the West in 1805, starting with a visit to John Smith in Cincinnati and ending in New Orleans. To some, he touted prospects for a war with Spain. To others, the private conquest of the Spanish colonies of Mexico and Texas. And to still others, he predicted an insurrection in New Orleans and secession of the West from the Union.
Treason on the Ohio River
Burr returned to Ohio the next year, aiming to lead a thousand-man expedition down the river. He ordered fifteen boats from Colonel Barker’s yard in Marietta, another five from General Andrew Jackson in Nashville. Burr built a half-dozen more boats in Beaver, Pennsylvania, and yet more in Louisville and on the Wabash River.
The West buzzed over Burr and his still-secret plans. Hinting of government support for his venture, Burr spoke of the glory of liberating Spain’s colonies and the riches to be won.
In November 1806, the tide began to run against Burr. A Kentucky prosecutor accused him of treason, then Jefferson issued a proclamation warning against those who meant to make war on Spanish colonies.
In early December, six of Burr’s boats shoved off from Beaver with thirty men aboard. They stopped in Marietta, but the Ohio militia had seized Burr’s boats there and frightened away his recruits. Gathering boats and adventurers as it floated downriver, the flotilla finally came to grief above Natchez, Mississippi, where Burr was arrested for treason and his hundred or so men scattered. After six months of trials before Chief Justice John Marshall in Richmond, Virginia, in the summer of 1807, Burr defeated all charges against him.
Senator Smith’s path was almost as rocky. He followed Burr’s boats down the river with two of his own and also was arrested in Mississippi. Treason charges against Smith were dropped when Burr was acquitted, but a committee of the United States Senate demanded Smith’s expulsion from that body. When the resolution to expel him came within one vote of the required two-thirds majority, Smith resigned.
Though the construction of tall ships in the Ohio Valley did not long survive Burr’s expedition, its demise did not flow directly from his troubles.
In mid-April 1807, as Burr moldered in a Richmond prison, four of the largest ships built on the Ohio loitered above the falls at Louisville. Penrose, the largest, had waited more than a year for the river to rise enough for it to clear the rapids. The other three – John Atkinson, Rufus King, and Tuscarora – all were 300 tons or more, at least 100 feet long by 30 feet wide, with requiring a draft of 9 feet. Such ships required a crew of one hundred to ply the seas.
On April 20, the river dropped two inches. The news electrified the four ship crews. Because the river was not likely to rise again that year, they had to chance the falls immediately or waste another year at anchor.
John Atkinson slowly moved into the current, its stern downstream in the usual fashion. It bumped several rocks in the rapids but slid past them.
Tuscarora came next, followed by Rufus King. Anxious spectators crowded the riverbanks, their eyes riveted to the stately ships as they gained speed. The current reached twelve miles an hour through the rapids.
Tuscarora was first to crash, rolling from side to side and lodging on the rocks without breaking up. The crew of Rufus King heaved out every anchor in a desperate bid to avoid the same fate, but then crushed its hull on the same rocks, sheered off Tuscarora‘s bow and part of its railing. At that point, John Atkinson, which already had cleared the falls, broke free of its anchor and beached on a sandbar.
Penrose, the largest, stayed where she was, her owner resigned to another year of waiting for high water. Remarkably, no lives were lost in the spectacular catastrophes.
The only fatality of April 20, 1807, was the Ohio Valley shipbuilding industry. While Marietta and other ports produced riverboats for decades to come, the river had taught the expensive lesson that seagoing ships were too risky a gamble.