Zadok Cramer’s Navigator: 1812

In 1801, Zadok Cramer started publishing information for people interested in traveling down the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers and the interior of the United States. He constantly enlarged and corrected his original edition, of the Navigator going through 12 editions in 25 years. These editions were practical guilds about the rivers, building flatboats and piloting them. Descriptions of the towns and village help the travelers plan ahead.

The following is a paraphrased version of Cramer’s account of the Mississippi River as its passes along Southeast Missouri from the mouth of the Ohio River.  I am using the Eight Edition of the Navigator published in 1814. The islands are numbered from the mouth of the Ohio southward.

His information came from river travelers, mainly, flatboat pilots returning north. While not totally accurate, it was the best information available at the time. Many of these islands no longer exist being destroyed by the river, the 1811-1812 Earthquakes, or are now part of the mainland.

Five miles below the Ohio is Island Number 1. It lay close to the left shore; opposite it on the same side of the river, and just above Mayfield Creek, stands the abandoned Fort Jefferson. This island was about one mile long, and the channel cannot be mistaken, being at tll times on the right side of the island. Now it is behind the levee as part of the Kentucky floodplain.

Islands Nos. 2, 3, and 4 were all small islands that lie near the left shore just below other with the channel to the right. These islands start 11 miles from Island No 1. Now, they are behind the levee on the Missouri side of the river and considered part of Kentucky.

Twenty miles below the Ohio are the Iron Banks or Mine au Fer on the Kentucky side of the river. This is a bluff mixed with an iron colored earth of very find sand and clay. This bluff is 25 feet high and mile lone and constantly falling in the river. Flat boats were warned to avoid the eddy near it and watch for sandbars.

Wolf Island or Island No 5 was five miles below. This is just south of Belmont, the site of a Civil War battle. This large island is nearer the Missouri side splitting the current to both sides with the main channel on the left. Now Island 5 is part of Kentucky, the levee enclosing it west of the river, where the levee takes a 7.88 mile swing into Mississippi County Missouri.

A Mr. Hunter lived on Wolf Island which was six miles long on its left side and ten mils long on the Missouri side. It contained 1500 acres of first rate land, well timbered with a beautiful grassland covered Prairie rising high and dry in the middle and well suited for cattle. A proud gambler, also a farmer lived, was the island’s only resident.

Thirty-four mils below the Ohio is Island 6 which is still one the Missouri side of the channel. South of this is Island 7, which in now attached to and part of. Then a mile below is Island 8, instead of being four miles long as Cramer listed, it is in a curve and some 16 miles long and part of Fulton County Kentucky. Following three miles downstream is Island 9 It lies outside the levee in Kentucky. None of these have any features pertaining to the core of this volume.

Island Number 10 became the site of a Civil War battle in late March and into April that opened the Mississippi River into Memphis, after destroying Fort Pillow in Tennessee.

The river now comes from a northern direction to make a long loop back towards the north, called Hotchkiss Bend. In this bend between the two channels, as part of the farmland of New Madrid County is now Island Number 10. Hotchkiss Ben runs slight to the northeast for about 21 miles before turning a large slow curve back to the south and east. At this point, the channels are only about three-quarters of a mile apart.  At the top of this curve sets New Madrid. Before the earthquake, the town set to the east a couple of miles.

In 1814, according to the Two miles above Island Number 10 a bayou run out of the Missouri side and comes in again three miles below the island. Cramer expressed the view that in a few years the river may make this a safe passage and form another island. From the entrance of this pass or bayou, there was a fine view of New Madrid. New Madrid is now situated on the northern part of this bend, slightly to the southwest of center. Before the series of earthquakes it set east of that. However, at that time the land sunk about ten feet, making that location undesirable.

At New Madrid there was in 1814, a creek called Chepousa River. At the head of the creek about 25 miles behind the town is a lake. This creek empties into the Mississippi just above the town affording a good landing for river crafts. East of New Madrid, St. John’s Bayou empties into the Mississippi.

Between the channels of this large loop, you have Kentucky. However, to get to it, without crossing the Mississippi, you have to go through Tennessee.

Island No, 11 is also part of the landscape of New Madrid County. It is at the foot of the straight run just before the river turns south and slightly to the west.

In 1814, Island Number 12 set on the right side of the main channel. The bar was changed during the quakes. The eastern ended of this landmass is about seven miles from Reelfoot Lake. Blue clay had been thrown up along with mineral coal, with an open pit visible. Today, this Island is part of Tennessee on the other side of the river.

Island 13 is at river mile 865 from Head of Pass, Louisiana, east of Little Cypress Bend. It too is part of Tennessee.

In 1814, Island Number 14 was about three miles long and set in the middle of the river. Since then, parts of the island are on both side of the Mississippi.

About 10 miles east of Hayti is Little Prairie Bend. The town of Little Prairie set here on the river before the Earthquakes destroyed it.  At that time Island 15 set close to the Missouri side of the river. Now it is part of the Tennessee landscape.

Three miles below Caruthersville are Islands Number 16 and 17. Number 16 lay close to the Missouri side of the river. Opposite it was Number 17. The river has shifted enough to make both of them part of Pemiscot County.

At least one steamer has met a bad fate at Island Number 16. The Sunny Side, a side-wheeler burned here on November 13, 1863 with 1,130 bales of cotton along with a large loss of life.

Just a short ways downstream were Islands 18 and 19. Number 18 was a large, about three miles long along the Missouri bank, on the opposite side was Island 19. Cramer claimed this island was 115 miles below Cairo. Now they are part of Tennessee. The packet Colonel Dickinson was lost near Island Number 18 on September 13, 1853.

Ending at the Arkansas line was Island 20. According to Cramer it was a two mile long island in the middle of the river. Today, it is five miles long and shared and part of Pemiscot County Missouri and Mississippi County Arkansas.

        Thomas Nuttall: December 1818

Thomas Nuttall, F.L.S., Honorary Member of the American Philosophical Society and of the Academy of Natural Sciences, &c., started his adult life as a printer’s apprentice in Liverpool, England. Leaving school at age 14, he did not know Latin, Greek, and French, the languages essential to the science of botany. While working as a printer, he taught himself and gained mastery of these basic tools while printing the pioneer work of Alexander von Humboldt and his French colleague Aimè Bonpland.

He came to America in 1808 with the purpose of finding plants as yet undescribed or little known. His desire was to into the wilderness of the continental reached of North America. The Indians, he called Aborigines, knew these places that few white men did.

On his trip researching A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory During the Year 1819, he left Philadelphia on October 2, 1818 carrying few resources, personal items, but with his indispensable “Pocket Microscope” for examining botanical and paleontological specimen. On an earlier trip up the Missouri River with John Jacob Astor trappers in 1811, he had carried a gun which he found handy for digging plant specimens. The French Canadian boatmen though him fou (crazy). He was incapable of fear of the still savage and largely unexplored frontier of the American West.

Between 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon of November 17, 1818, Nuttall’s skiff, along with three others long thin roll boats, left the Ohio River to enter the Mississippi.  To their surprise they found the Mississippi River full of floating ice. Because of the spastic behavior of their boats, they headed to the Kentucky bank where they stayed overnight in the company of people making passage down river.

The bank were we landed was dominated by cane break, some of which measured upwards to 30 feet high. They grew so thick they were impenetrable, growing so close together they cut off the sunlight needed by other vegetations for growth. In the area a legumes grew seeds that produced coffee-bean what were eatable when parched a produced a substitute for coffee greatly inferior to chicory.

On both sides of the Mississippi and Ohio remains uninhabited because of the constant threat of flooding. Various kinds of game abound in the areas, particularly deer and bear, turkeys, geese, and swans with a host of aquatic fowls. With the exception of white pelicans, the other wild life is found in many parts of the America’s.

On our first night at the junction of the two major rivers, we were visited by a couple of Delaware Indians and joined later by a hunting party of Shawnees visiting the region from west of St. Louis. One of the visitors entered Nuttall’s cabin to join the Europeans for supper. A larger group of Shawnees joined last night’s guess for dinner the next day. They wanted to purchase gunpowder. Being well mannered, they were reluctant to drank spirits, however when they did, the night was full of yells and riot.

While the Delaware and Shawnee are adjoining neighbors and rivals, while they were in camp, they showed no jealousy. The Delaware did caution Nuttall against the Shawnee among whom they were continually hunting and maned them as rogues. Nuttall, however, found them all equally honest in their dealing with him. Never the less, the history of the Shawnee on many occasions had proved to be as the Delaware characterized them.   

After breakfast on the morning to the 19th, the entire party camped at the mouth of the Mississippi resumed our adventure by entering the floating ice and headed downstream. While there were dangerous ice floats to avoid, as well as many sunken trees, the river was less formidable than we feared. It quickly became apparent that negligence of incaution could sudden lead to a disaster which frequently happened in the fast moving current.

Shortly before sunset, we came to an island where other travelers were camping for the night. We tried to land close to the two boats; however, the swift current carried us some distance below them and placed us on a shallow and marshy sandbar. Nuttall entered the icy water and made efforts at dislodging their boats. He was not strong enough to refloat the boat, even using a pole for leverage. Two of the boatmen traveling with them offered to help for five dollars, which he paid. Soon they were again afloat. About 100 yards downstream, they make camp in the dark.

Daylight showed them the dropping river had left then again grounded on the bar. The boatmen, the night before had assured them the night before with false promise about with they were left. Without the strength and ingenuity to return they boats and supplies to the river, the boatmen floated pass them without an offer to help. They had been cheated out of five dollars.

Hoping that unloading the boat would allow them to move them closer to the water, they stay started. They were pretty far along in the task when the owner of another boat paid a visit. He offered false sympathy when he heard how we got in such a plight and express dislike for all boatmen.

They stopped for breakfast when they were about half finished unloading their craft. While they were still eating, to two Yankees returned. Again, they were very friendly. One suggested the only way off the Wolf Island was to wait for the river to rise. This turned out to be a way to offer a good price for his services. Now, the one that offered his services put a three dollar price on his help. After much haggling, Nuttall reluctantly pain eight dollars. The boats were unloaded and within 15 minutes the boats were in the water. The boatmen failed to live up to helping reload the boats.

That day, the 20th, was far advanced before Nuttall’s party left the island. Some ten mile downstream, they stopped for the night. This time care was taken to insure they had deep water.

The land on both sides of the Mississippi appeared low and uninhabited. Iron-Banks was the only exception. Located east of the river on the Kentucky side, the cliffs were called Mine au Fer by the French. The steep banks easily crumbled into power and good for making pottery. An upper layer an reddish-brown color of iron rust, then a layer about 12 inches thick of a pink clay, and below this was a white colored material commonly, but falsely, considered chalk.

As the farther downstream Nuttall traveled, the move common bald Cyprus became. He knew this to be a symbol to the presence of annual flooding and consequent swamps and lagoons. As of yet, Spanish moss was not present. This plant he associated with the prevalence of unhealthy humidity.

After starting their voyage at dawn they floated without stopping. Nuttall saw the river as truly magnificent while viewing the river banks as gloomy solitude with no visible traces of the present of man. They drifted pass any number of unnamed and uncounted islands he believed were during high water, submerged.

Nuttall had visited New Madrid in 1811 with John Bradbury, the English botanist and Henry Marie Brackenridge of Pittsburgh on his return for the upper Missouri Nuttall missed the December 16th earthquake, but Bradbury, being short of money had taken charge of a boat laden with lead headed to New Orleans witnessed it all, including the destruction on New Madrid.

Arriving at New Madrid the next day about noon, where they found what were exorbitant priced trade goods, which were in short supply. The people still lived in fear as it was not uncommon for two or three tremors daily. On to the 1811trip, he examined some prehistoric remains. These low mounds were still present along with broken pieces of pottery.  

On the 23rd, Nuttall arrived at Point Pleasant, another French village about ten river miles south of New Madrid. Here he noted and named an erect, fairly annual herb he called the Catalpa. This plant he believed to be indigenous to the forest of the area and a native to the area.

Evident here and below still showed great evidence of the earthquake. Visible evidence remained of the consequence of being abandoned. Nuttall viewed a large chasm, which he was told was made when an elevated column of river water rushed in.

The land was flat and he considered of superior quality. He recalled he had seen no high ground since they passed the Iron-Banks. In this area, islands and sand-bars were numerous and many connected with the land.

Nature here provided much; yet, the Canadian squatters here live in miserable circumstances. They raised no wheat, and scarcely enough maize for their support. Superfine flour sold here for $11 a barrel. The men dressed in blanket ponchos, buckskin pantaloons, and moccasins.

After leaving Point Pleasant on Christmas Day, Nuttall’s party floated along without encountering any obstacle except an enormous moving logs which, for a moment filled them with terror. These submerged trees became more and more numerous. Historical accounts of this region say this was once a thickly inhabited by natives, not so in 1818.

They arrived that evening at the remains of the settlement of Little Prairie. Here they found only a single house, the rest, together with their foundations, soon after the earthquake had been swept away by the river. Like at New Madrid, the land here had sunk ten feet below its formal level.

The day after Christmas, about ten river miles below Little Prairie, at storm stopped our progress as we settled in for the night. Towards evening, the storm increased in violence and continued so throughout the night. As the storm grew in intensity, Nuttall became fearful the cable anchoring their boat would break and be set afloat among the many snags and sawyers which obstructed the river.

On the 27, the storm broke about noon and the northwest wind moderated. The party continued as usual, then for about 12 miles downstream they dodged through a river filled with island and trucks of trees. No signs of habitation whatever since they left Little Prairie.  


Visitors Reports                  

Zadok Cramer’s Navigator

Thomas Nuttall: December, 1818


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    Having grown up on Little River, I have been fascinated with it. Over the past several years, as a local historian, this area has been a special interest. 

     These areas have been treated much like step-children by Jefferson City and Little Rock. They seem to believe nothing has ever happened here.  Our history has been long and varied. Hope you enjoy my trip.  

    Near Puxico is the swampy Mingo Wildlife Refuge. One hundred and fifty year ago, most of the Little River Valley appeared that way. This valley covering two million acres was part of the largest wetland in America.

    Floods frequently intimated the Valley. Between 1815 and 2011, 15 major floods covered or threatened the area.

    Timber companies came in at the end of the 19th Century to clean cut the forest. Louis Houck, a Cape Girardeau lawyer and railroad builder, envisioned a rail network that covered the wetlands.

    Little River Drainage District (LRDD) Corporation was established in 1907 by an act of the Butler County (MO) Circuit Court. 

    Between 1909 and 1928 the LRDD dug nearly 1000 miles of ditches and constructed 30 miles of levees to drain 1.2 million acres of swamp and overflow land in Southeast Missouri. More dirt was moved than in building the Panama Canal.

    One surprise I had was the number of settlements in the area before 1811-1812. Another was the water connection between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis and I had no idea that Little River had enough current to run a grist mill.

    Norman Vickers


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    Little River's Geographic Past