By Tyler Wilson, Lynchburg Museum Volunteer
Few things are more quintessentially “Lynchburg” than batteaux and packet boats. These vessels traveled up and down the James River, and later James River & Kanawha Canal, connecting Lynchburg to the wider world. African Americans played key roles in operating these boats, which drove Lynchburg’s economy until the advent of the railroad.
Batteaux (plural of “batteau”) were shallow, flat-bottomed wooden boats popular in the Colonial era. They were primarily used to transport goods such as flour, tobacco, salt, coffee and whiskey, rather than passengers. These boats were most commonly worked by a team of three enslaved men. Two of the slaves would use long iron poles to direct the boat on each side, while the third member would control the rudder in the stern.
The first appearance of passenger packet boats on the James River and Kanawha Canal was in 1841. During the middle of the 19th century, these boats were an integral part of transporting both travelers and freight throughout central Virginia. Packet boats were pulled by interchanging teams of horses or mules walking along the “towpaths” of the canal. Since traveling by packet boat was often an overnight affair, efforts were made to make the passengers as comfortable as possible, including providing meals that slaves would cook in the boat’s kitchen.
While the identities of most African American batteaumen and packet boatmen remain unknown, two are very well documented. Captain Richard “Dick” Parsons (c.1790–1868) was a free man of color who owned several packet boats, a small farm, and even as many as twenty slaves. An anonymous local newspaper contributor remembered in 1891 that Parsons “owned and ran a line of boats on the river and canal, …he gained the respect and confidence of the business men of the town, who gave him large credit and uninterrupted prosperity.”
Frank Padgett was a slave who worked on a batteau and was involved in a mishap on the James River near Glasgow in 1854. He was recruited to help rescue a passenger boat that had wrecked after heavy rains caused dangerous conditions on the water. Padgett and others were successful in saving several passengers, but tragically he himself drowned in the effort.
Packet boats and batteaux are just a small example of the African American impact on Central Virginia. They demonstrate how both those who were enslaved and those who were free played an integral part in shaping the history of Lynchburg.
Do you have more information about local batteaumen or packet boatmen? Are you are a descendant of one? Do you have any photographs of them or their families? If so, we want to know! Please contact the Lynchburg Museum at firstname.lastname@example.org or (434) 455-6226.
Parsons family file at Old City Cemetery