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|Riverman Mike Fink & Satan's demons at Natchez Under-the-Hill|
(4th in a series)
In 1814, the Rev. Thomas Griffin did what many would consider a foolish thing. He preached at Natchez Under-the-Hill to a congregation of rivermen. All had the same temperament and background as the famous riverman Mike Fink, a nasty-talking, hard-living brawler who loved women, gambling, whiskey and trouble.
Preacher Griffin was born in Virginia to a Baptist father who rarely attended church. Although his mother was a Methodist, she attended the Baptist church to keep the peace at home. The family moved to Georgia when Griffin was five and by 1814, at the age of 27, he had undergone a transformation.
He was no longer a backsliding Baptist sinner and had overcome a Baptist suspicion that Methodist circuit riders were false prophets. Now he was a circuit rider himself, practicing the faith of his mother and reining his horse to wilderness communities. He was filled with the spirit of the Lord and a rage against sin. In 1814, he saw under-the-hill as a true hell on earth and couldn't wait to take on Satan's demons at the earthly headquarters of Beelzebub.
The rivermen who moved in and out of the town below the bluff were crewmen on flatboats who delivered goods from the Northeast, the Ohio Valley, Kentucky or Tennessee. They sold their cargoes at Natchez or New Orleans and then walked home along the Natchez Trace. The common name for a riverman was "Kaintuck" (Kentuckian), a name made popular by Native Americans.
The flatboats, keelboats and barges delivered flour, bacon, whiskey, cider, pork, oats, corn, cheese, beans, lumber, livestock, butter, lard, onions, potatoes, hemp, dried fruit, shoes, thread, linen, beer, tobacco, peltries, saltpeter, bearskins, candles and more.
Rivermen, wrote Ben Casseday in his "History of Louisville," were "a distinct class of people...whose fearlessness of character, restlessness of habits and laxity of morals rendered them a marked people..." Navigation down the Ohio and Mississippi, particularly during the early days, was "dangerous, not only on account of the Indians whose hunting grounds bounded their track on either side, but also because the shores of both rivers were infested with organized banditti, who sought every occasion to rob and murder the owners of these boats." There were also the dangers on the rivers -- cave-ins, whirlpools, rapids, "'planters' and 'sawyers', meaning tree trunks imbedded more or less firmly in the river..." During free moments a fiddler entertained and the crew drank whiskey. Work and alcohol mixed. All these factors, says Casseday, led boatmen to develop a "recklessness of independent freedom..."
In his "History of Travel in America," Seymour Dunbar said the "physical makeup (of) the typical boatman was tall, thin and sinewy. His immobile face was tanned to a dark brown, and from above high cheekbones and a long nose two chill gray eyes gazed blankly. In his normal state he was silently waiting for something to happen, knowing quite well it certainly would. When the bomb of circumstances exploded the human creature was on the dot of time transformed into a combination of rubber ball, wildcat and shrieking maniac," while boredom was "endured by chewing tobacco and illustrating the marvelous accuracy with which he could propel a stream of its juice for any distance up to fifteen feet."
In May 1810, ornithologist Alexander Wilson, on his way to Natchez along the trace, observed "several parties of boatmen returning from Natchez and New Orleans...These were dirty...their dress a shirt and trousers of canvass, black greasy and sometimes in tatters; their skin burnt wherever exposed to the sun...their beards 18 days old add to the singularity of their appearances, which was altogether savage. These people came from various tributary streams of the Ohio, hired at forty or fifty dollars a trip..."
While there were many, no riverman was more infamous than Mike Fink, who lived his whole life along the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Cyrus Griffing, the editor of the Natchez Southern Galaxy newspaper, wrote in the March 26, 1829, edition that Fink was "but a common character among that lawless race, for whom a semi-barbourous life had charms..."
Fink's date of birth is uncertain, but he was born and reared on the frontier of Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. He was a giant of a man for the era -- about 6 ft., 180 lbs., muscular. He learned the woods and hunting as an Indian scout and became a renown marksman with a rifle, winning contests up and down the rivers. He was a practical joker and at heart a restless wanderer, a characteristic that marked the true riverman.
Fink found in the river transport business an avocation that made his pulse race. He loved the hard work, the camaraderie of men and saloons. He was known to drink a gallon of whiskey a day and afterward could speak without slurring a word. His fighting skills -- known as the "rough and tumble" -- were legendary.
This method contained no rules of engagement -- a man fought like a wild animal, gouging out eyes, biting off lips. The goal was simple -- reduce your opponent to a bloody, beaten, broken heap, a condition only slightly worse than your own. A riverman bragged of having the hide of a alligator, the bite of a lion and the venom of a cottonmouth. It was a ruthless, sadistic and hazardous way to live. Some were nothing less than outlaws and misfits who gave law enforcement fits and terrorized communities. At Natchez Under-the-Hill, they had a home.
Fink was renown for one act: he could shoot a tin cup of whiskey off of a man's head -- or off one of his girlfriend's -- at 60 yards. In 1822, he and two of his friends and proteges -- Carpenter and Talbot -- went fur-trading in the Missouri River Valley. At some point Fink and Carpenter became embroiled in a dispute, the origin of which remains unclear. They later patched things up and as proof of peace they agreed to play the tin cup game as a show of confidence and trust in one another.
They flipped a coin to see who would get the first shot. Fink won. According to accounts, at 60 yards Fink raised his rifle, drew a bead and fired at the tin cup of whiskey on Carpenter's head. The ball missed the cup and instead penetrated Carpenter's forehead, an inch and half above his eyes. Fink exclaimed: "Damn you, Carpenter, you spilt the whiskey!" Months later Fink told Talbot, who had seethed over the affair, that he intentionally killed Carpenter and was glad of it. Talbot snapped. He drew the pistol that had once been Carpenter's and shot Fink through the heart.
It was into this savage environment that the Rev. Thomas Griffin walked under-the-hill in 1814 to preach the word. Surrounded by the sounds of revelers, fiddles and "dancing and stamping," he sat on a sack of coffee waiting for a crowd to assemble. When the rivermen were asked to prepare for a sermon, Griffin heard a man say: "I'd be damned if I don't believe they will brick bat him."
After a hymn was sung, one inebriated man yelled: "Sir, I want you to explain the last verse..." An argument ensued and quickly, said Griffin, "a Kentuckian took hold of the drunkard, jerked him down, dragged him over the seats and hurled him into the streets."
Moments later, Griffin was allowed to deliver his sermon, the first preached under-the-hill. It was a place Methodist Bishop Charles B. Galloway said "was never an inviting field for religious effort."
|Frank Morris Murder Series|