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Return to Milestones Vol. 2 , No. 3



Or David Crockett in Western Pennsylvania

by Robert Palmquist

Milestones Vol 2 No 3--Summer 1976


The front door to Chambers McKibbin's Pittsburgh Hotel swung open, admitting the stranger, who entered with his hands full of packages and luggage. He was conventionally dressed; there was little about him to suggest that he was already - this night of July 8, 1834 - an American legend.

The new guest was concluding a trip across Pennsylvania, and one newspaper in the eastern part of the state said of his visit that -persons who expected to see a wild man of the woods, clothed in a hunting shirt and covered with hair" were "a good deal surprised at having viewed a respectable looking personage, dressed decently and wearing his locks much after the fashion of our plain German farmers." The visitor's hair was brown, his eyes dark blue, and when he grinned a glow came to what he called "my Red Rosy Cheeks." Contrary to all the tall stories, he was a man of only average height.

To sign Chambers McKibbin's register, he would have had to put down his bundles. His clothes he carried in a trunk. A second package held a large china pitcher, a present for the visitor's "old lady." Still another contained "half a dozen canisters" of fine gunpowder given by Philadelphia's "great powdermaker, Mr. Dupont." And the long, narrow case, of which the newcomer took special care, looked as if it might contain a rifle. (It did.)

McKibbin's other guests could watch the man, hands free, sign his name and address to the hotel book: "Hon. David Crockett, Weakley Co., Tenn."

Crockett, who in little more than a month would be 48 years old, was a Congressman from Tennessee. He was a bitter enemy to President Andrew Jackson, having voted in 1830 against the Indian Removal Bill Jackson favored, and having persistently championed a bill providing for a disposition of federal lands in Tennessee which the President opposed. But he was more. Perhaps more importantly as regards his lasting fame, Crockett embodied all that his contemporaries knew, or thought they knew, of their frontier experience. As a modern historian writes, Americans "didn't have to see Crockett's coonskin cap to know his background. When he talked they could sm6ll the bear blood and wood smoke." David Crockett in Western Pennsylvania in 1834 was less than two years from death, but before he died he had established himself - in legend and in fact - as the representative of a special breed of man, the "long hunter" of the eastern forests.

In 1831, a play called "The Lion Of The West" had been produced, featuring "Colonel Nimrod Wildfire," a thinly-veiled caricature of Crockett. In 1833 an anonymous book called "Sketches And Eccentricities Of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee" appeared. Crockett had supplied the author, Pennsylvania Congressman Matthew St. Clair Clarke, with a good deal of biographical material, but Clarke's embellishmentsthereon rendered the book "in many parts ridiculous, and altoqether laughable," according - to Beaver
WESTERN ARGUS editor William Henry. Henry's short review noted that Crockett, "thinking that injustice has been done him in the work, has given notice that he will shortly publish a true and unvarnished history of his life... The Colonel's true history will no doubt be interesting. " By the time of Crockett's Pittsburgh visit, the "true history," "A Narrative Of The Life Of David Crockett Of The State Of Tennessee," had been published, and was on sale in the Pittsburgh bookshops. William Henry's prediction was correct: the "Narrative" was "interesting." In fact, Crockett, dictating the book to a Congressman friend better versed in grammar than he was, produced, according to literary historian Vernon L. Parrington," the great classic of the Southern frontier ... an extraordinary document, done so skillfully from life that homespun be-
comes a noble fabric and the crudest materials achieve the dignity of an epic." As if the Colonel did not have enough to carry, when he arrived in Pittsburgh he found the copies of the "Narrative" he had requested from his publishers had been boxed and shipped there to await his arrival.

If the "Narrative" was, as Parrington suggests, "a striking bit of realism," the legend of "Davy" (Crockett himself always signed his name "David") persisted. The newspapers of Western Pennsylvania were full of Crockett stories, most of which, in the words of the WESTERN ARGUS, contained "more of humor than truth." Crockett had been commissioned by the President to wring the tail off Halley's Comet as it passedby; Crockett's grin was so powerful that he had only to grin at a raccoon to have him slide down the tree and surrender. Thomas D. Rice, one of America's earliest and most popular blackface comedians, did Crockett material as well. In late June, 1834 - shortly before the Tennessean's visit - Rice played Pittsburgh, where, the ADVOCATE AND ADVERTIZER promised its readers, "Mr. Rice will -discuss, in his Lyric style, Davy Crockett grinning down the stars." Naturally when Crockett arrived, Pittsburghers wanted to see the real article.

But first, Colonel Crockett had to make travel arrangements. "Early on the morning" of July 9, the Congressman, according to the account ascribed to him, "went down to the wharf to inquire for a steamboat. I soon found Captain Stone, who commanded the HUNTER. He said he had been waiting a day, thinking that I would like to go with him. That was true, and I found him all sorts of a clever man. We were to start at ten o'clock."

Having made Stephen Stone's acquaintance, and arranged for passage as far as Louisville, Colonel Crockett returned to McKibbin's hotel. He had been invited to, and had missed, the Pittsburgh Whigs' July 4th celebration. Replying to their invitation on June 26, he had initially hoped to come, after "perhaps ... one day" in Philadelphia: "I will then make my way to the West, and have a hope of meeting you on the 4th of July, if no accident occurs ' " The Philadelphians, however, had pressed him to stay with them for the Nation's Birthday, and Crockett had complied. Now "a great many gentlemen," Pittsburgh's leading Whigs and the merely curious, crowded into McKibbin's to say hello to Crockett. Young William G. Johnston, not yet six years old, was taken there by his father to see the frontiersman, and remembered the experience the rest of his life:

"Entering the large apartment used for the double purpose of barroom and gentleman's parlor, we found Crockett seated near a window conversing with a group of citizens, who either through curiosity, or from a desire to pay their respects to the renowned visitor, had called .

In the chimney-corner, near which he sat, stood a fine rifle, of which he was proud." Young Johnston was not the only one to notice the rifle. The reporter for the Pittsburgh STATESMAN found Crockett "in good health and spirits, and ... warm in his expressions of thankfulness for the kindness manifested towards him by the Philadelphians - particularly on the part of the young men of that city, who presented him with the most splendid Rifle we ever saw. The inscription on this Rifle was simple, but it was costly, being inlaid with gold - the motto Of Col. Crockett was very appropriately and neatly wrought on the barrel. The inscription reads thus - 'Presented to the HON. DAVID CROCKETT, by the young men of Philadelphia." And near the muzzle was the motto TO A-HEAD!" The STATESMAN's account closed with the notice that "the Col. left this city, with his Rifle, Hatchet, and hunting Knife, on the steam boat HUNTER."

William Johnston likewise remembered that Crockett "took passage with Captain Stone on board the steamer HUNTER." Of the Stone family, Johnston recalled "three brothers of this name - Stephen, Daniel, and Charles, - prominent among the pioneers in the navigation of Western waters." Joseph Bausman, in recounting the history of Beaver Borough, merely notes that "the rivermen of the town were the Stone brothers, Charles, Stephen and Daniel..." But the brothers are worthy of more notice than this. It was fitting that Stephen Stone, Jr, should carry David Crockett on his "way to the West," since the men who worked the rivers contributed greatly to the Westward expansion that Crockett symbolized.

Stone, waiting for Crockett aboard the HUNTER at the Pittsburgh wharf, was the eldest son of Stephen P. Stone, a native of Connecticut who for some years had captained a ship on salt water. Leaving the sea, the elder Stone had moved with a growing family to Beaver County, Pennsylvania in 1804. Four of his sons lived to manhood: Stephen, Jr., Dan, Charles and Sherlock. All but the last named were, as one sketch of the family explains, "very fond of the water"; Sherlock seems to have remained on shore. It is recorded that Dan Stone's "first day's work for himself" was "assisting to pole a boat 18 miles, working from sunrise to the first star of evening and then walking home, - his salary being fifty cents per day." Such was probably the case with Stephen, Jr. and Charles as well.

In time, they rose to higher positions on the steamboats plying the western rivers. In the 1830's steamboat . captains were paid $150 a month, as opposed to $140 to the pilot, $125 to the engineer, $50 to a clerk and $25 to firemen. Daniel Stone in 1834 was captain of the GAZELLE, which put in regularly at Pittsburgh's Monongehela Wharf. Charles commanded the BEAVER, which made daily runs from Pittsburgh to Beaver. The BEAVER, according to riverman Charles Batchelor, "was the first stern-wheel boat ever built, with two engines working like boats of our present day," that is, with two engines working "at opposite centers on the same shaft." The name of Captain Charles Stone, according to Batchelor, was "as familiar to old-time boatmen as that of Mike Fink. All who knew Charley Stone will remember him as a genial, kindhearted, jolly, elegant gentleman; a great ladies' man, and a thorough steamboat-man."

Earlier in 1834, Stephen Stone had left the boat NAPOLEON, which he had captained for some time. About a year before Crockett's trip, a Pittsburgh woman, Eliza Foster, described to her grown son William a journey she made with her two younger children:

" the first place, your Father conducted me with Henrietta and Stevan, on board the Napoleon and placed me under the care of Captain Stone ... we landed on the fourth night at Eleven o'clock in Augusta a beautiful village on the bank of the Ohio in Kentucky." After a short stay in Augusta and a trip aboard a packet boat to Cincinnati, Mrs. Foster and her children were "gallanted ... down to the water ... where Captain Stone again received me and we went to Louisville on the Napoleon." Mrs. Foster's son "Stevan" was, of course, Stephen Collins Foster, at age 7 making one of his few trips South to the "old Kentucky home" of friends. By April, 1834, Stephen Stone had left the NAPOLEON for the FAME.

Now he was changing boats again; the voyage with David Crockett would be Stone's first aboard HUNTER. Stone's new boat, so aptly named in light of Crockett's trip aboard her, had been built during the winter of 1833-34 by Peter Shouse ' at Shousetown. Her engines were constructed by John Arthur of Pittsburgh, and the finishing work done by A. Mason, also of that city. On January 29, 1834, HUNTER's owners, Riddle, Forsyth and Co., had announced that HUNTER would depart from Pittsburgh for Nashville "and intermediate ports, on the opening of the navigation," with "Crooks, master" in command. This was Nelson Crooks, "one of nature's noblemen," according to Charles Batchelor. HUNTER's maiden voyage began on February 16.

By July 5, Nelson Crooks had brought the boat into the port of Pittsburgh once again. Stephen Stone would be taking her out, with Colonel David Crockett aboard. Finally Congressman Crockett, as his account says, thought "I had better look up the captain," and hustled down to the wharf "truck, guncase, old lady's pitcher, and all." With Crockett aboard, HUNTER's stacks mingled their smoke with that of the iron foundries and glass and cotton mills on shore as the boat pulled away. "The steam boats on the western waters," says Lyford, "are all what is termed 'high pressure'...The cylinders are generally in a horizontal position. The lower deck, on which is the engine and machinery, all open, is appropriated for the freight, fuel, and deck passengers--but the bulk of the freight is carried in the hold. On the upper deck, extending nearly the whole length of the boat, except a small portion forward, is the upper and dining cabin, and berths-, a transverse passage dividing them from what is termed the hall, the latter corresponding in character with a forward cabin."

"How's the water, Captain Stone?" Crockett drawled.

"Why, colonel, the river is pretty considerable for a run, but the water is as cool as Presbyterian charity ...... Crockett perhaps thought of his sole encounter with the more obstreperous Mississippi in 1826. At home in Tennessee, he had hired some men to "build two large boats, and load them with pipe staves," intending to float downriver and sell the staves in New Orleans. Shoving off, Crockett said, "I got them out of the Obion River, in which I had loaded my boats, very well; but when I got into the Mississippi, I found all my hands were bad scarred, and in fact I believe I was scared a little worse of any; for I had never been down the river, and I soon discovered that my pilot was as ignorant of the business as myself." The boats, without effective direction, foundered in rough water and were lost, along with all the staves. Crockett and his crew had barely escaped drowning.

Stephen Stone broke out a jug as HUNTER passed the Point. "This old Monongehela," he said, "is a little of the remains of what Abigail, the wife of old Nabal, carried as a present to David." (Abigail, according to 1 Samuel 25:18, had brought refreshments to the Israelite David and his men: "two hundred loaves, and two bottles of wine, and five sheep ready dressed, and five measures of parched corn, and a hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs...")

"Clear off the coal-dust out of your wizzand," Stone invited, "and give us a yarn about your tour." Crockett, taking a drink, began talking about the political tour of New England, New York and Pennsylvania which he had just concluded. The Colonel couldn't "get through half of what I've seen," he said. Mimicking the New England twang, he told Stone that "I've been clean away amongst the Yankees, where they call your name 'Stunn."'

Perhaps Stephen Stone thought of his father's Connecticut accents. "Me, 'Stunn'!" he exclaimed. "Well, it's hard that as slick a fellow as me should go by such nicknames."

They passed Brunot's Island, and Stone described his own far travels. In one of his last trips with the NAPOLEON, he had gone to New Orleans, returning to Pittsburgh the past February 17. In Louisiana, Stone told Crockett, you could see men hunting wild steers with lances, and sometimes with a rope they called a "lasso. "

There was Neville Island, and Hog Island beyond it. You had to take care in passing the next one, Dead Man's Island, with the accompanying Dead Man's Ripple. "The Channel" along Dead Man's, one of Cramer's NAVIGATORS warned, "is somewhat difficult and serpentine in very low stages of the water." (in 1846 the steamboat WAVERLEY, hauling pig iron from Kentucky to Pittsburgh, had to jettison part of the iron on Dead Man " owing to the low stage of the water in the river." An enterprising soul carried the cargo away before it could be recovered, and the owners had to engage Beaver attorneys Nathaniel P. Fetterman and R. P. Roberts to sue for its value.)

In 1843, when Stephen Stone's brother Charles wrote his will, he began it "I Charles Stone ... being of sound mind but engaged in the business of navigating the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers a hazardous and dangerous occupation..." Aside from the vagaries of the rivers themselves, there were other perils connected with steamboating. Explosions, fires and drownings aboard the boats filled the columns of the newspapers, though the Pittsburgh DAILY GAZETTE did claim in 1830 that "an explosion on board of a PITTSBURGH boat would be something new and extraordinary... But such an accident has not yet occurred..."

Coming up on the right bank of the Ohio was the flourishing Harmonist settlement of Economy. Though Crockett's account does not mention it, no doubt Captain Stone pointed to starboard and told Crockett of the town and its strange history. The Harmonists were still in mourning as HUNTER steamed by, as witness this item in the Pittsburgh ADVOCATE AND ADVERTIZER of June 28:

"DIED', At Economy ... on Tuesday evening, 24 inst., after a lingering illness, FREDERICK RAPP, in the 60th year of his age." Frederick, adopted son of "Father" George Rapp, had been a superb business manager for the industrious German-Americans. He would be sorely missed.

There was Freedom, where the Phillips and Betz boatyard was located. FAME, the boat Stephen Stone had commanded earlier that year, had been built at Freedom. "Every house in the village," a Pittsburgh guidebook said, "may be distinctly seen from the river, rising step by step one above the other."

HUNTER steamed on. Advertisements for Charles Stone's BEAVER promised a three-hour trip from Pittsburgh to Beaver; whether HUNTER made such time is not known. There, where the Beaver met the Ohio, Stone told Crockett, was his father's establishment. People had lately taken to calling it "Stone's Point" instead of "Beaver Point" as before. Old Stephen had built a large brick home, a hotel and a wharf there. The February, 1832 flood had hit Stone's Point especially hard, costing Stephen, Sr. almost $10,000. But he had rebuilt, and his hotel afforded 11 entertainment for the humble and exalted as they journeyed along nature's great thoroughfare."

Phillipsburg faced the mouth of the Beaver. Phillips' and Graham's yards had been located there until the boat builders sold the site and moved to Freedom. The new owners were seceders from the Harmony Society at Economy.

As HUNTER continued on its way, Stephen Stone resumed his narration of his New Orleans journey, especially his difficulties in hurdling the language barrier that existed between strangers and the city's Frenchspeaking inhabitants.

"What d'ye suppose, Colonel, they call me in Orleans?"

"I dare say, some hard name," Crockett replied.

Some of the "parly vous," Stone said, "call me Mr. Pear, and some, by jingo, call me Mr. Peter; and you can't beat it out of them." ("Stone" in French is "Pierre.") Stone's fireman, Sam Gunn, had taken "a spree with some of them Charlies, in Orleans, and they began to call him Mounsheer Fusil." ("Fusil" - "Gun" in French.) This name-calling Gunn had borne "a good while," Stone continued, but finally he told Joe Head, NAPOLEON's engineer, "that the first fellow who miscalled his father's name, should have a tip of his daddle." Sure enough, Gunn and Head, running afoul of the language barrier once again, had gotten into a brawl with "a cabin full" of "the parlys." Gunn had escaped to the NAPOLEON, but Head had been arrested. Stone had gone to Joe's rescue only to be asked by a French-speaking officer "if I would go bail for Mounsheer Tate. 'No,' says I 'don't know him.' 'Yes, but you do, captain,' said some one inside; and when I went in, who should it be but Joe Head! tranmogrified into Mounsheer Tate." (Naturally, the French for "head" is "tete.") "Well, we got the matter explained," Stone said, "and they all laughed and drunk friends."

HUNTER churned past several islands, as Stone poured Crockett another drink.

"Well, Colonel, here's to you; I'm sure you didn't get anything better anywhere." Crockett drank. "Just tell me," the captain asked, referring to the Congressman's recent tour once again, "did you see the seasarpint" (seagoing passengers in New England waters had reported sighting a mysterious creature in the water. The passengers claimed it was "one hundred feet in length - with a head partly in the form of a snake and partly in the form of a pickerel." This phenomenon had been promptly dubbed "The Sea Serpent" by the nation's newspapers.)

Crockett shook his head. "No, indeed, I did not, although I spoke for him not to be out of the way." A "Dr. Scudder" had devised a means of putting the "Serpent" out of the way, according to the Boston MERCANTILE JOURNAL: "It contains the principles of the rocket, the torpedo, and the harpoon; and its greatest excellence consists in a peculiar quality by which his Snakship will be 'done for,' whether it hits him or not." But Stone had a better idea.

"Those Yankee fellows," he laughed, "are monstrous cute." But, "I think with me in the HUNTER here, you with your rifle, and one of those long shore Spaniards with his lasso" they would give the Serpent a little of the hurricane tipp'd with thunder."

"If we didn't catch him," David Crockett chuckled, we would scare him out of his skin, and that's all they want at the museum.

They passed Georgetown, the little river village whose inhabitants, Bausman later wrote, could completely man a steamboat all by themselves. HUNTER steamed from Pennsylvania waters, with Stone and Crockett laughing and telling stories. "So we passed our time," says Crockett's account, "till we arrived opposite Wheeling."

David Crockett traveled with Stone as far as Louisville. HUNTER returned from that city to Pittsburgh on July 21, laden with molasses, lime, sugar, "4 kegs mackerel," rice, "sundry lots way freight, 60 cabins, 43 deck passengers."

In 1835 David Crockett was defeated in his bid for reelection to Congress. In December of that year the Beaver WESTERN ARGUS reprinted a Tennessee newspaper's report that the "distinguished ex-legislator passed through Memphis .... on his way to Texas, where he was going to join the American forces against the Mexicans." Actually, Crockett only intended as he left Tennessee to explore Texas and then return, but on his arrival was soon swept up into the Texans' revolt against Santa Anna. On January 9, he wrote his daughter from Texas that "it is the garden spot of the world ... There is a world of country here to settle." And then, "I have taken the oath of government and have enrolled my name as a volunteer and will set out for the Rio Grand in a few days with the Volunteers from the United States." The frontiersman was back in his element: "I had rather be in my present situation than to be elected to a seat in Congress for life."

The Alamo at San Antonio fell to the Mexicans on March 6. Boat captains commonly relayed newspapers from downriver to the editors further north, and it was probably from a steamboater that the Pittsburgh DAILY GAZETTE received the following, which it published on April 14:

New Orleans, March 28 -

On the fall of the Alamo ... we regret to say that Colonel David Crockett ... is among the number slain -

"The Beaver WESTERN ARGUS ran the same dispatch on April 20, along with a New York paper's prediction that the deaths of Travis and Crockett would create "a feeling ... throughout the country ... which no power can repress, no authority can put down."

Stephen, Daniel and Charles Stone later acquired several boats of their own, which they operated between Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville and New Orleans. For a time they held a contract to carry the U. S. mails, "which yielded them large profits." Stephen in 1860 was the first of the brothers to die. Charles followed him in 1867. Daniel, who had left the river shortly before the Civil War, went into the lumber business on a piece of Stone family property in Marion Township. He died in 1879.

The Stones are largely forgotten now. But they spent their lives on the boats, "engaged in the business of navigating the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers a hazardous and dangerous occupation." They delivered the mails. And it would be interesting - if it were possible - to tally the number of passengers, the tons of freight, that Stephen, Daniel and Charles Stone transported on the river, the "way to the West."

Stone's Point, Bridgewater, as it appeared to Artist Emil Bott in 1850.

A NOTE TO THE READER: The dialogue between David Crockett and Captain Stephen Stone reported in this article comes from an 1835 book bearing Crockett's name, AN ACCOUNT OF COL. CROCKETT'S TOUR OF THE NORTH AND DOWN EAST. Crockett's best biographer, James A. Shackford, says "David did not, of course, write the TOUR,- but merely helped to collect materials for it, though Shackford adds that "a few portions bear his touch." Crockett himself, seeing the book attributed to him', wrote his publishers that he wished they "had Stated that it was written from notes furnished by my Self." Thus it is not clear how much, if any, of the conversation should be taken as a verbatim record of the Crockett-Stone encounter. It should be noted, however, that most of the conversation consists of a recital by Stone of recent adventures in New Orleans, and- independent evidence--in the Pittsburgh newspapers--shows that Stone had indeed made a trip to New Orleans earlier that year.