Realm of Happiness
A FLATBOATMAN made an unlikely storekeeper, especially a flatboatman like Reuben Kemper. Six feet tall, powerfully built, hazel eyes burning from a heavily tanned face beneath brown hair, he looked more like a backwoodsman, and he always felt most at home outdoors in the world of men of action and hard work. He was no roughneck carouser like so many who plied the Ohio and its tributaries on their keelboats and broadhorns, but the life suited him and he never backed down from a fight. Still, he had ambition, education, and enough good sense to know that a boatman’s life was nothing but toil with no tomorrow. He never intended to start a revolution.
He had deeply ingrained Christian values. The Kempers were all Presbyterians, and when his uncle James Kemper became the first minister of that denomination in the growing community of Cincinnati, on the Ohio River, Reuben’s father, Peter Kemper, left Fauquier County, Virginia, in 1793 to follow. His five sons, who came with him, were all on the verge of manhood—Reuben, Presley, Samuel, Nathan, and Stephen. Reuben, born February 21, 1773, was the eldest and the one the others looked to as an example all their lives.
The Kempers taught their sons well, and Reuben’s literacy was above the average for his time and place. Certainly he and his brothers were well versed in Presbyterian dogma, and they helped fund the building of James Kemper’s church. Reuben himself may have felt an inclination toward the ministry as a young man, but the pulpit was too confining for his nature. He had not lived long beside the Ohio before the river drew him, and at various times he worked as a flatboat hand or barge hand on the Monongahela, the Allegheny, and the Ohio. In time he had charge of a boat, but first he learned about bookkeeping and commerce from a friend who supplied military quartermasters.
Inevitably, his close association with both the church and the river trade brought Reuben into the orbit of a figure destined to be central to his life; the revolution grew in no small measure from their relationship. John Smith of Virginia was the first Baptist preacher in Ohio. In 1790 the fifty-five-year-old Smith ministered at the Forks of the Cheat River in Monongalia County, Virginia, and then he took a new congregation at Columbia at the mouth of Little Miami River, six miles upstream from Cincinnati. Behind the large man’s customarily grave expression, Smith was intelligent, bold, a born leader with intense ambition, and torn in loyalty between church and commerce. At first he worked hard to establish the Baptists in the vicinity, but in 1798 he left the ministry to manage grain mills and mercantile establishments in Cincinnati and nearby Port Royal. There he brought in European manufactures, proudly boasting profits of 100 percent on his investment. He dreamed of land speculations on the lower Mississippi, where he intended to make commercial links for his Cincinnati concerns. Meanwhile he pushed for Ohio’s statehood and sought a seat in the legislature of the Northwest Territory, a step to higher office. In 1797 a visitor marveled that Smith seemed to be merchant, farmer, and parson all in one. A year later Smith hired Kemper at fifteen dollars a month to work in Port Royal. It was the first step on the circuitous road to revolution.
At the time Reuben Kemper started keeping Smith’s ledgers and accounts, his employer was almost ready to take the bold step of starting a store eight hundred miles downriver, near the Spanish frontier post at Baton Rouge. Merchants in New Orleans faced considerable pains getting goods the one hundred miles upstream to Baton Rouge, but a barge coming from Cincinnati could let the river current do the work and cover sixty miles or more in a day. With Napoleon at war with almost everyone, European goods bound for New Orleans and upriver markets often fell prey to the privateers of several nations. That shortage could work to the advantage of a resourceful merchant like Smith. He planned to fill a flatboat with goods, sell them downriver at his usual 100 percent profit, and then return to Cincinnati in 1799 to take the seat he had won in the Northwest Territory legislature. He could not do it alone, and he decided that his Port Royal clerk Kemper was the man to help him.
That fall Smith prepared a list of goods he believed would sell quickly: linens for clothing; silks for fine gowns and shirts; cotton and silk stockings; buttons; handkerchiefs from India; high-topped shoes; watch chains; fine hats; riding boots and saddles; and ninety pounds of white wig powder for the men who still wore wigs. To furnish the planters’ homes, Smith wanted to bring striped chintz for draperies; parlor mirrors and framed pictures; blankets; windowpane glass; china and flatware; candelabra for their tables; and carpets for their floors. He even determined to sell doorbells, fishhooks, and field glasses for leisure, as well as tools for all manner of work and repair. Smith’s list essentially declared that rude settlers were not to be his market. His targets were affluent planters with ready cash and credit, and he meant to tempt them with everything they could want.
In January of 1799 Smith gave Kemper cash and credit up to $12,000—a sum equal to $150,000 two centuries later—and dispatched him to Philadelphia, the great emporium of the East. By February Reuben was filling Smith’s order. When he finished in March he had spent £3,555, 2 shillings, and 10 pence, or $9,500.38. Then he consigned the merchandise to a shipper to get it to Port Royal, which cost another $1,000. On his ride back to Cincinnati, Kemper stopped in Zanesville, Ohio, and bought a large flatboat to send ahead to meet him at Port Royal. By early May the flatboat was loaded, and Smith and Kemper commenced the downward passage. There were not many places to visit, and as well supplied as they were, Smith and Kemper had little need to stop. A few days after they entered the Mississippi they came to the boundary of the newly created Mississippi Territory, established just the year before, after Spain’s 1795 cession to the United States. No doubt they landed at Natchez, capital of the new territory and a major trade outpost. Even though Smith eyed the Baton Rouge market, he needed to know people in wealthy Natchez as well. He would be cut off from his country in Spanish territory, and his closest link with his home would be Natchez and Governor William C. C. Claiborne.
After Natchez, Kemper and Smith needed another two or three days to reach their destination. Forty land miles south of Natchez they passed Fort Adams, and then they crossed an invisible border at latitude 31° north, the southern boundary of the Mississippi Territory. Andrew Ellicott had recently finished the area’s survey, and some called the border by his name—the Ellicott line—but as Smith and Kemper soon learned, everyone who lived in the region knew it simply as “the line.” Beyond the line, they entered Spanish West Florida, and before the end of the month they pulled into the east bank and ran into the mouth of Bayou Sara. Smith had been there before, when he had first secured permission to open his business from Governor Carlos de Grand-Pré, commandant and chief magistrate in Baton Rouge. He had already rented a house to use as a temporary store in the little settlement called Bayou Sara.
This was a world very different from Cincinnati. Tiny Bayou Sara sat beside a leisurely stream once known as Bayou Gonorrhea, the origin of that name mercifully forgotten. It lay at the foot of a mile-long crest, atop which, about a mile inland, sat St. Francisville, which the Spaniards had first called New Valencia. Smith chose the location well, f...