Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Rinker Buck, Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure (Simon & Schuster, 2022)

In an effort to be timely and topical, I thought about writing something about the coronation of the new titular leader of our closest ally, but—let’s face it—this subject is of limited interest except to the most devoted Anglophile. And, aside from commenting on the huge amount of capital that must have been expended in this exercise, there wasn’t much I could think of in relation to this event that has instructive or inspirational entrepreneurial overtones.

So I turn instead to a story of plain old American ingenuity. In the early days of the American republic, soon after we had overthrown the shackles of colonial status and our allegiance to this leader’s ancestor, the distance between nascent agricultural settlements and trade ports considerably hindered economic development. It didn’t take long, though, for those on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains to discover that they could use rivers as an economical way to float goods to market in New Orleans via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Even the flatboats used for this purpose themselves generated revenue: after arriving at market, they would be disassembled and the wood sold or repurposed.

Rinker Buck, in Life on the Mississippi, explores the entrepreneurial spirit that drove this trade in the early nineteenth century. Beyond the movement of goods, the age of the flatboat gave rise to whole new sectors of the economy aimed at providing services to those who were taking their goods downriver. Boomtowns developed along the way, as well as floating businesses from bars to blacksmiths.

To tell this story, like a good entrepreneurially minded individual, Buck builds his own flatboat and, dodging modern barges and tricky weather and currents all the way, takes it from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. His story reminds us that, although perhaps it might seem that river travel was an obvious solution to an economic bottleneck, it was by no means simple or easy.

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