Catherine Venable Moore — Writer & Producer

Batteaumen on The New

In Appalachia, Audio, Black History, Fayette County, Past Projects, West Virginia History on July 26, 2012 at 4:59 pm

A batteau on the New

Thanks to some historians and hobbyists over in the Regular Virginia, we now have a pretty good picture of how the batteau system worked on rivers in and around the Richmond-Lynchburg area. But over here in the BEST VIRGINIA, we’re still learning more about the economies and cultures surrounding this tradition. (The National Parks Service has a nice summary here.)

I’m currently mad at work on a series of short pieces for WV Public Radio detailing some of this history, with the news peg being a recent project retracing the route of John Marshall’s survey expedition to find a viable waterway over the Alleghenies in 1812, as well as the 200th anniversary of that event this fall. It’s set to air in September.

Recently, I caught up with Robin Crawford, a Hinton native who traces his family genealogy to black batteaumen–both enslaved people and free–who plied the waters of the New in the mid- and late-19th century. In fact, he’s the first known descendent of batteaumen in the U.S.

Here’s a snippet from our interview, in which he talks about discovering his ancestors in census records:

R.C.: The first person I notice on there is James Jonston. James Johnston married my great grandfather’s sister, who was Amanda. Then it listed three other people, John Henry Pack, Amanda’s son. Allen Pack, my great grandfather’s brother. And Homer Smithers married Laura Pack.

Well I didn’t know what a batteuman, or a batteau was at the time. One came for the WV Water Festival and that particular year the water was too high for the boat to be on the river so it was in the park downtown all day. I knew it was going to be there and I went and hung out with the guy all day. I wanted to learn everything I could about it. At the end of the day he said, ‘What is your interest?’ I told him I had discovered that I had relatives that did that work on this river. He was amazed that he had actually met someone who knew these people.

I knew Amanda’s daughter, she was one of my teachers. She told me, ‘Son, your people worked The Rivahhhhh.’ That’s how she put it. I had no clue. She was an elderly woman when I started the segregated schools she was still one of the teachers there.

The batteaumen, I believe, were actually the boat captains. There were many other men who worked the boat with them.

Allen Pack actually settled near where I was born and my mother knew lots of stories about him. He was the only Pack slave that was ever whipped. And it was because he was sort of drafted by the Confederacy during the Civil War. He refused to maneuver one of the bateaux the way the Confederates wanted him to, so…

He also read a poem written by a white woman about the way the river looked before the Bluestone Dam, which mentions some of his ancestors. Here’s part of it:

Ah yes it’s covered over now with water cold and deep
But our memories are strong and warm
As o’er the years they keep

The old log house with the fireplace
And the river road of sand
Where we walked along 50 years ago just above Blue Stone Dam

The old log church called Blue Stone View
At the top of John Pence Hill
Folks for miles around in wagons came
Seems I can see them still

There was Blind Joe and Old Tom Pack
Aunt Sussy and Ground Hog Sam
They worshipped every Sunday there
Just above Blue Stone Dam

C.M.: What’s that like?

R.C.: Well, it just gave me chills. This is a white lady writing about her childhood and old Tom still came here and came to church.

C.M.: Can you see them still?

R.C.: No, no. But I can just imagine. I can just imagine the scene.

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