The Mabee Farm Bateau

In the 18th century, the British colonies in America were spread out along the coast. The colonies were bounded on the west, both politically and physically, by the Appalachian Mountains. The physical boundary was only broken in a few spots where rivers passed through the chain of mountains. As roads were expensive to build and expensive to maintain, the rivers were the principal highways used for freight and military movement. The most significant of these waterways is formed by the Hudson River and its principal tributary, the Mohawk River, both in the colony (now state) of New York.

The Hudson River runs north from New York City up to Albany, then further north to a height of land where a portage of a few miles lead into Wood Creek and thence to Lake Champlain and Canada. Just above Albany, the Mohawk River tumbles down the mighty Cohoes Falls and into the Hudson. Above the Falls, the Mohawk breaks through the ridge formed by the Appalachian Mountains, winding its way upward and westward to the flats near what is now Rome, New York. A brief portage lead to a narrow and twisting creek, which could be followed down to Oneida Lake, and from thence into Lake Ontario and the west.

Map of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, taken from a map from between 1750 and 1768, Library of Congress, call number G3800 1750 .N2.

Despite the high traffic on the rivers, the upper Hudson River and Mohawk River were not encouraging to navigation. Both rivers had stretches of deep placid water, but they also had sand bars, gravel bars, rock ledges, shallows, and rapids. In a dry year, there were many places on the Mohawk that had only a foot of water. The upper Hudson was even worse - in some places the water was only six inches deep.

Since this was the principal transportation route, a substantial amount of cargo needed to be moved. Wheat, hops, and other produce travelled from the farms of Schoharie and the western lands downstream to the cities along the coast. Finished goods, shoes, textiles, and other necessities were carried back into the countryside. To travel on the rivers, a vessel that was both high in cargo capacity and shallow in draft was requisite. From the early 18th century to the mid 19th century, the preferred vessel was the bateau.

The bateau is a narrow flat-bottomed craft that is pointed at both ends. The term bateau comes from the French word for boat. It is spelled in a great variety of ways including bateau, batteau, batoe, and battoe. The plural is bateaux, batteaux, batoes, or battoes. There are undoubtedly other spellings. Bateaux ranged from 15 feet long and 3 wide with a cargo capacity of half a ton up to boats of 40 feet long and 7 feet abeam with a capacity of 6 tons. Down on the Delaware River, similar boats of 60 feet long routinely moved 12 tons at a time.

Regardless of the spelling or the size, there were several distinguishing characteristics of a bateau:

First, the bateau could be built by a carpenter, and didn't require the skilled craftsmanship of a shipwright. This meant that bateaux could be quickly built by the military. They were cheap enough to be easily replaced for merchant cargo vessels, and thus could be used relatively harshly in shallow waters. The materials were woods that were found locally - white pine, cedar, oak. The fastenings were typically soft iron nails - something that could be made by any local blacksmith. The boats were sealed with pine tar, and could be rigged with a minimum of rope.

Second, the bateau was designed to move on shallow rivers with rapids. This was done by constructing the boat with a flat bottom and pointed ends. The boat was steered with an oar rather than a rudder to allow it to be maneuvered even when it had no speed in relation to the water. In addition to thole pins to allow the boat to be rowed, it also could be poled in shallow water. Since in some rapids, the river might be so shallow that the boat couldn't even be poled, a bateau usually had iron rings on the stem and stern post to allow ropes to be fastened to help line the boat through the rapids from the shore.

Thirdly, the bateau was principally a cargo boat. This was reflected in the multiple means of propulsion and in the lack of any sort of deck. Since there were sections of the river with deep water, and the wind often came down or up the river, many bateaux also had a mast on which a square sail could be rigged. Since the bateaux had flat bottoms, they were not great sailors, but the addition of a sail could still greatly lessen the amount of work to move the boat.

Lastly, a bateau did not require experienced sailors for the crew. Any man with a strong back could be employed. In the military, this meant that there didn't have to be a special division of sailors, though there were often men devoted to the bateau service. In private trade, this meant that wages could be kept fairly low.

For more information on bateaux, see the New York State Museum's Durham Project and the New York State Military Museum site for additional information.


The bateau DeSager.

In 2003, the Schenectady County Historical Society obtained a replica of a 1792 bateau. The boat is 23 feet long and 5 feet of beam, with a rough cargo capacity of 1 ton. This would have been a common size of boat on the upper Hudson River. Although a bit smaller than the typical boat on the Mohawk River, such boats were used for small cargoes or for fast transport.

The bateau was beautifully built by the Capital District Maritime Academy by middle-school students under the direction of a master boatwright. The boat is made of mostly cedar and some oak, assembled with lapstrake construction and clenched copper rivets. It would have been more typical to use carvel construction (where the side planks don't overlap) and iron nails, the boat has been built to last. Both the Historical Society and the Maritime Academy wanted the boat to last more than a few years.

The bateau is cheerfully crewed by members of the 2nd Albany County Militia and of Schuyler's Company of New York Provincials. Since the basic bateau did not change much over its years of use, the boat has made appearances at reenactments for the French and Indian War of the late 1750s, for the Revolution War of the 1770s, and as a commercial boat of the early 1790s. Although it can be managed by two men, it is best crewed by three or more persons, with one man steering and the rest rowing. In addition to rowing, the boat can also be sailed. We have yet to try setting poles for propelling the boat.P

The bateau has been rowed for many events, ranging from an evening of pleasant rowing to a 13 mile-round trip to do a school program. The boat's longest trip to date was a three day journey from Rotterdam Junction where the boat normally docks, down the Mohawk River, and up the Hudson River, to Rogers Island at Fort Edward. This trip was approximately 62 miles, of which 17 were under sail with the rest under oars. In the upcoming year, a longer trip down to Kingston is planned.

For the crew and the curious

Pictures from the Big Row to Rogers Island.

A short list of period rowing commands.

A detailed list of period rowing commands.

For all of the New York State maritime laws that apply to the bateau see here.

All Done