A History of Riverboats in Mississippi

The mighty Mississippi river stretches from Northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The second-longest river in the United States, the Mississippi is integral to the history of America — particularly in the state of Mississippi. Riverboats facilitated travel, commerce, and cultural exchange within Mississippi and beyond. Learn more about the impact of Mississippi riverboats in this post from Visit Mississippi.

Riverboats: The Early Days

While people have navigated the waters of the Mississippi River for centuries, steamboat technology was not viable until the early 1800s. The first steamboat to travel the Mississippi was the New Orleans, whose October 1811 maiden voyage began in Pittsburgh, PA, and ended in New Orleans after traveling along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

The New Orleans stopped in Natchez in December 1811 before continuing to its final port in New Orleans. First established by French colonists and later ruled by the Spanish, Natchez was an important center of trade and cultural exchange.

The Golden Age of the Steamboat

By the 1830s, steamboats existed all along the Mississippi River and its major tributaries. The growth of Mississippi’s riverfront communities, such as Bolivar, Commerce, and Greenville, can largely be attributed to the riverboat trade. Riverboats also brought new settlers to the state, helping to speed up agricultural development in the fertile Mississippi Delta.

Propelled by steam-driven paddle wheels, steamboats could navigate the river more quickly and effectively than barges or flatboats. They carried goods such as cotton, timber, and livestock up and down the river, expanding trade throughout the growing U.S. However, steamboats could be dangerous — the boilers used to create steam could build up too much pressure and explode. Steamboats were also susceptible to hitting obstacles such as rocks or logs, which could cause them to sink. This created a growing industry for a smaller type of riverboat called a “snagboat.” Snagboats patrolled the Mississippi River looking for tree stumps, debris, or other hazards and removing them before they damaged larger steamboats.

Wealthy Mississippians could enjoy leisure travel on a showboat — a riverboat used for theater and musical performances. Showboats were ornately decorated and would announce their arrival at a port by playing music that could be heard for miles.

Riverboats During the Civil War

During the years after Mississippi’s secession from the Union, many steamboats were used to support the Confederate Army. Riverboats carried troops, provisions, and supplies along the Mississippi during the Civil War. Demand for ships was so high that both the Union and Confederate governments chartered steamboats. Riverboats also played a role in the defense of Vicksburg, an important Confederate stronghold that connected the South to the Western states.

Gaming on the River

Riverboat gambling became popular in the early 1900s due to legislation surrounding gaming. By keeping poker, roulette, and other games of chance restricted to a riverboat, business owners could evade the anti-gambling laws that were in effect on land in states along the Mississippi River. Riverboat gaming in Mississippi was legalized in 1993, but unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina destroyed many riverboat casinos. In response, Mississippi lawmakers allowed casinos to move 800 feet inland.

However, you can still find a few riverboat casinos throughout the U.S. In Mississippi, visitors can try their luck at the Ameristar Casino Hotel in Vicksburg, a riverboat-style casino and hotel located right on the water.

Mississippi Riverboats in the Present Day

According to National Geographic, by 1900, the growth of railroads across the U.S. significantly reduced the demand for transporting goods and people via steamboat. Many riverboats were retired, but a few showboats remained as a testament to this period in history.

The popularity of riverboats continues to thrive in the Magnolia State. Today, tourists can enjoy the relaxing and immersive experience of river cruising. These luxury expeditions offer a unique way to travel the Mississippi, where guests can admire the breathtaking scenery along the waterway. First-class accommodations, fine dining, and a variety of things to do can be expected on a luxury tour on the Mississippi. Companies such as American Cruise Line and Viking River Cruises offer a variety of cruises that vary in duration and cities visited, like Vicksburg and Natchez.

Plan Your Trip With Help From Visit Mississippi

If you’re planning a trip to one of our historic riverfront cities like Natchez, Vicksburg, or Greenville — or anywhere else in the Hospitality State — Visit Mississippi is here for assistance.

Plan your next trip to Mississippi using our complimentary trip planner tool that helps you map out all your must-see attractions, restaurants, and lodging options. Whether you’re here for a week or just passing through, you’ll find a wealth of information about Mississippi history and culture on the Visit Mississippi website. For more information, contact us today.