Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Mike Fink - King of the Keelboaters by Susan Horsnell

This month I will profile Mike Fink - known as "King of the Keelboaters"

Drawing of Mike Fink on a Keelboat

Mike Fink  (c. 1770/1780 – c. 1823) was a semi-legendary brawler and river boatman who exemplified the tough and hard-drinking men who ran keelboats up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

He was born at Fort Pitt in present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and served as an Indian scout in his teens. Even as a teen, he was an unbeatable marksman, and he earned the name "Bangall" among militiamen at Fort Pitt. When the Indian wars of the region ended in the early 1790s, Fink, like many other scouts, spurned a sedentary life as a farmer. Instead, he drifted into the transport business on the Ohio and Mississippi—and quickly picked up a new nickname: "the Snapping Turtle."

When he began his career in navigation, he became notorious, both for his practical jokes, and for his willingness to fight anyone who was not amused. His 180-pound frame stretched 6'3″ in height, and the muscles required to force a keelboat upstream would have made him a formidable opponent to most. It was said that he could drink a gallon of whisky and still shoot the tail off a pig at 90 paces; and Fink himself proclaimed on every possible occasion that he could "out-run, out-hop, out-jump, throw-down, drag out, and lick any man in the country."

He and his friends were supposed to have amused themselves by shooting cups of whiskey from each other's heads. Other repeating episodes in Fink's legends include a tale where he shoots the scalp lock from the head of an Indian, and a story in which he shoots the protruding heel from the foot of an African-American slave with surgical precision. Hauled into court, he pointed out to a judge that his victim would never have been able to wear a fashionable boot if a good Samaritan, namely himself, had not intervened on the man's behalf.

Besides imagined feats making part of the legend of Mike Fink, it may have also been woven from two (or more) men with the same name. Mike Fink signed up as one of Ashley's Hundred and formed a part of the band that built Fort Henry. If this man had been the one born at Fort Pitt about 1770, he would have been at least 50 years old. Such an advanced age in that group of men just out of their teens would have been remarked on. (Hugh Glass was called Old Hugh for being in his early 40s.) No journal mentions Fink's advanced age, so it may have been a younger Mike Fink who joined Ashley's group.

Davy Crockett

Davy Crockett is supposed to have described him as "half horse and half alligator." Fink wore a red feather in his cap to signal his defeat of every strong man up and down the river.

Until next month, stay safe and happy reading.


Susan Horsnell
Western romance Author

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