"Mike Fink: the Last of the Boatmen" by Timothy Field (1829)

Every reader of the Western Souvenir, so undeservedly brushed, like a summer butterfly, from among its more fortunate sister butterflies, into the pool of oblivion, will remember the vivid and admirable portrait of Mike Fink, the last of the boatmen. People are so accustomed, in reading such tales, to think them all the mere fairy web fabric of fiction that, probably, not one in a hundred of the readers of that story imagined for a moment that it gave, as far as it went, a most exact and faithful likeness of an actual personage of flesh and blood, once well known on our waters, and now no more. We are obliged to omit some strange curses, and circumstances of profanity and atrocity, though they seemed necessary to a full development of character, which it cannot be supposed for a moment we exhibit with any other view than to show the monstrous anomalies of the human character under particular circumstances, as Dr. Mitchell would show a horned frog or a prairie dog in relation to the lower animals. The most eccentric and original trait in his whole character was the manner in which he subjected his chere amic, when he doubted her fidelity, to a rifle shot test similar to those hereafter described. We are compelled to omit the anecdote altogether. The following addenda to the sketch given in the Western Souvenir are furnished us by a valued correspondent at St. Louis. He has them, as he informs us, from an intelligent and respectable fur-trader who has frequently extended his peregrinations beyond the Rocky Mountains and who was to start, the day after our correspondent wrote, for Santa-Fe, in New-Mexico. Our correspondent assures us that he gives the account of this gentleman, touching the extraordinary Mike Fink, nearly in his own words. We only add that we have followed his example, in the subjoined, in relation to the narrative of our correspondent.

Mike Fink was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. where his brothers, &c. still reside. He had but little knowledge of letters, especially of their sounds and powers, as his orthography was very bad, and he usually spelled his name Miche Phirick, whilst his father spelled his with an F. When he was young, the witchery which is in the tone of a wooden trumpet called a river horn, formerly used by keel and flat boat navigators on the western water, entranced the soul of Mike, while yet a boy; and he longed to become a boatman. This soon became his ruling passion; and he served as a boatman on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and their tributary streams, which occupation he pursued until this sort of men were thrown out of employment by the general use of steam boats. When Mike first set foot on a keel boat, he could mimick all the tones of a trumpet, and he longed to go to New Orleans, where he heard the people spoke French and wore their Sunday clothes every day. He served out his pupilage with credit. When the Ohio was too low for navigation, Mike spent most of his time in the neighborhood of Pittsburgh, killing squirrels with his rifle, and shooting at a target for beef at the frequent Saturday shooting matches and company musters of the militia. He soon became famous as "the best shot in the country," and was called bang-all, and on that account was frequently excluded from participating in matches for beef; for which exclusion he claimed, and obtained the fifth quarter of the beef, as it is called (the hide and tallow) for his forbear ance. His usual practice was to sell his fifth quarter to the tavern or dram shop keeper for whiskey with which he "treated" every body present, partaking largely himself. He became fond of strong drink, but was never overpowered by its influence. He could drink a gallon of it in twenty-four hours without the effect being perceivable. His language was a perfect sample of the half horse and half-alligator dialect of the then race of boatmen. He was also a wit; and on that account he gained the admiration and excited the fears of all the fraternity of boatmen; for he usually enforced his wit with a sound drubbing, if any one dared to dissent by neglecting or refusing to laugh at his jokes; for as he used to say, he told his - jokes on purpose to be laughed at in a good humordd way, and that no man should "make light" of them. The consequence was Mike always had a chosen band of laughing philosophers about him. An eye bunged up and a di lapidated nose, or ear, was sure to win Mike's sympathy and favor, for Mike made proclamation-"I am a salt river roarer; and I love the wimming, and how I'm chock-full of fight," &c. So he was in truth, for he had a chere amie in every port which he visited, and always had a circle of worshippers around him who would fight their deaths (as they called it) for him. Amongst these were two men, Carpenter and Talbot, Mike's fast friends, and particular confidants. Each was a match for the other, in prowess, in fight, or skill in shooting, for Mike had diligently trained them to all these virtues and.mysteries. Car penter and Talbot figure hereafter. Mike's weight was about one hundred and eighty pounds; height about five feet nine inches; broad round face, pleasant features, brown skin, tanned by sun and rain; blue, but very expressive eyes, inclining to grey; broad white teeth, and square brawny form, well proportioned, and every muscle of the arms, thighs and legs, were fully developed, indicating the greatest strength and activity. His person, taken altogether, was a model for a Hercules, except as to size. He first visited St. Louis as a keel boat man in the year 1814 or 1815, and occasionally afterwards, till 1822, when he joined Henry and Ashley's company of Missouri trappers. Many shooting feats of Mike's are related here by persons who profess to have witnessed them. I will relate some of them, and you can make such use of them, as you please. In ascending the Mississippi above the mouth of the Ohio, he saw a sow with eight or nine pigs on the river bank; he declared in boatman phrase he wanted a pig, and took up his rifle to shoot one; but was requested not to do so. Mike, however, laid his rifle to his face and shot at each pig successively, as the boat glided up the river under easy sail, about forty or fifty yards from shore, and cut off their tails close to their rumps, without doing them any other harm. In 1821, a short time before he ascended the Missouri with Henry and Ashley's company, being on his boat at the landing in this port, he saw a negro lad standing on the river bank, heedlessly gaping in great wonderment at the show about him. This boy had a strange sort of foot and heel peculiar to some races of the Africans. His heel protruded several inches in the rear of the leg, so as to leave nearly as much of the foot behind as before it. This unshapely foot offended Mike's eye, and out raged his ideas of symmetry so much, that he determined to correct it. He took aim with his rifle, some thirty paces distant, at the boy's unfortunate heel, and actually shot it away. The boy fell, crying murder, and badly wounded. Mike was indicted in the circuit court of this county for the offence, and was found guilty by a jury. I have myself seen the record of the court. It appeared in evidence that Mike's justification of the offence was "that the fellow's long heel prevented him from wearing a genteel boot!' His particular friend, Carpenter, was, also, a great shot; and he and Mike used to fill a tin cup with whiskey, and place it on their heads by turns, and shoot at it with a rifle at the distance of seventy yards. It was always bored through, without injury to the one on whose head it was placed. This was often performed; and they liked the feat the better because it showed their confidence in each other.


In 1822, Mike and his two friends, Carpenter and Talbot. engaged in St. Louis with Henry and Ashley to go up the Missouri with them in the threefold capacity of boatmen, trappers and hunters. The first year a company of about sixty ascended as high as the mouth of the Yellow Stone river, where they built a fort for the purposes of trade and security. From this place, small detachments of men, ten or twelve in a company, were sent out to hunt and trap on the tributary streams of the Missouri and Yellow Stone. Mike and his two friends, and nine others were sent to the Muscle Shell river, a tributary of the Yellow Stone, when the winter set in. Mike and company returned to a place near the mouth of the Yellow Stone; and preferring to remain out of the fort, they dug a hole or cave in the bluff bank of the river for a winter house, in which they resided during the winter. This proved a warm and commodious habitation, protecting the inmates from winds and snow. Here Mike and his friend Carpenter quarrelled a deadly quarrel, the cause of which is not certainly known, but was thought to have been caused by a rivalry in the good graces of a squaw. The quarrel was smothered for the time by the interposition of mutual friends. On the return of spring, the party revisited the fort, where Mike and Carpenter, over a cup of whiskey, revived the recollection of their past quarrel; but made a treaty of peace which was to be solemnized by their usual trial of shooting the cup of whiskey from off each other's head, as their custom was. This was at once the test of mutual reconciliation and renewed confidence. A question remained to be settled; who should have the first shot? To determine this, Mike proposed to "sky a copper" with Carpenter; that is, to throw up a copper. This was done, and Mike won the first shot. Carpenter seemed to be fully aware of Mike's unforgiving temper and treacherous intent, for he declared that he was sure Mike would kill him. But Carpenter scorned life too much to purchase it by a breach of his solemn compact in refusing to stand the test. Accordingly, he prepared to die. He bequeathed his gun, shot pouch, and powder horn, his belt, pistols and wages to Talbot, in case he should be killed. They went to the fatal plain, and whilst Mike loaded his rifle and picked his flint, Carpenter filled his tin cup with whiskey to the brim, and without changing his features, he placed it on his devoted head as a target for Mike to shoot at. Mike levelled his rifle at the head of Carpenter, at the distance of sixty yards. After drawing a bead, he took down his rifle from his face, and smilingly said, "Hold your noddle steady, Carpenter, and don't spill the whiskey, as I shall want some presently!" He again raised, cocked his piece, and in an instant Carpenter fell, and expired without a groan.-Mike's ball had penetrated the forehead of Carpenter in the center, about an inch and a half above the eyes. He coolly set down his rifle, and applying the muzzle to his mouth blew the smoke out of the touch hole without saying a word-keeping his eye steadily on the fallen body of Carpenter. His first words were, "Carpenter! have you spilt the whiskey!" He was then told that he had killed Carpenter. "It is all an accident," said Mike, "for I took as fair a bead on the black spot on the cup as I ever took on a squirrel's eye. How did it happen!" He then cursed the gun, the powder, the bullet, and finally himself.

This catastrophe, (in a country where the strong arm of the law cannot reach) passed off for an accident; and Mike was permitted to go at large under the belief that Carpenter's death was the result of contingency. But Carpenter had a fast friend in Talbot, who only waited a fair opportunity to revenge his death. No opportunity offered for some months after, until one day, Mike in a fit of gasconading, declared to Talbot that he did kill Carpenter on purpose, and that he was glad of it. Talbot instantly drew from his belt a pistol (the same which had belonged to Carpenter), and shot Mike through the heart. Mike fell to the ground and expired without a word. Talbot, also, went unpunished, as no body had authority, or inclination to call him to account. Truth was, Talbot was as ferocious and dangerous as the grizly bear of the prairies. About three months after, Talbot was present in the battle with the Aurickarees in which Col. Leavenworth commanded, where he displayed a coolness which would have done honor to a better man. He came out of the battle unharmed. About ten days after, he was drowned in the Titan river, in attempting to swim it. Thus ended "the last of the boatmen."


There are several other strange characters who have spent most part of their lives beyond the verge of civilized society, among the savages. You have recorded the chronicles of Bte. Roy. But the story of Bte. Kiewa, a Frenchman, would surpass it. The history of Mike Shuck, a misanthropic trapper of the Missouri, would be still more strange. He holds communion with no man except to barter his furs and peltries for powder, lead, traps, &c. and then disappears for years, no body knows where. His story has been written after a sort, some years since, by Major Whitmore, of the United States Army.

The sufferings and almost incredible adventures and miraculous escapes of Glass, a Scotchman, would astonish and please all that have a taste for adventures. If my friend, to whom I am indebted for the story of Mike Fink, in part, were not about to depart so soon, I would procure the leading facts in relation to these several persons, as he is familiar with their true history and has frequently seen all of them.