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The Wreck of the "America" in Southern IllinoisThe Wreck of the "America" in Southern Illinois

A Flatboat on the Ohio River

Mark J. Wagner

Narrated by Robert Diepenbrock

Available from Audible

Book published by Southern Illinois University Press

Flatboats were the most prolific type of vessel on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during the early 1800s. Thousands of these boats descended the two rivers each year, carrying not only valuable cargo to New Orleans but also western-bound emigrants to newly opened territories. By the late 1800s, flatboats had completely disappeared, and no intact examples were known to exist. Our knowledge of these historic vessels had been limited to illustrations, memoirs, and traveler accounts.

That changed in 2000 after local residents found a wreck on the Ohio River shoreline in Illinois. Archaeologist Mark J. Wagner and his colleagues from Southern Illinois University Carbondale investigated extensively and established that the wreck was a pre–Civil War flatboat, which they named "America," after a nearby town.

In The Wreck of the "America" in Southern Illinois: A Flatboat on the Ohio River, Wagner provides a brief description and general history of flatboats and the various reasons they wrecked—such as poor workmanship and encounters with pirates, storms, rocks, and floating trees. Wagner describes the remains of the America, how it was constructed, the artifacts found nearby and inside—including pewter spoons, utensils with bone handles, metal buttons, and an iron felling axe—and the probable cause of its sinking. Wagner concludes with a history of the America since its discovery in 2000 and a plea that the boat be removed from the riverbank and preserved before the Ohio washes it away.

Mark J. Wagner is the director of the Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He is a former president of the Illinois Archaeological Survey and the author of The Rhoads Site: A Historic Kickapoo Village on the Illinois Prairie, as well as numerous essays, technical reports, and books.


“Of the thousands of flatboats used to carry families and goods downstream in the 1800s, not a single one survives today. Many were disassembled at their destination, and many others were tragically lost. Mark Wagner, having led a team to thoroughly document the remains of the first flatboat wreck ever recorded, has written the book that finally gives the flatboat its due. But it’s not just the story of the America, because Dr. Wagner has incorporated memoirs of actual flatboat builders and accounts of their numerous contemporaries on the rivers, and he disproves the myth that pirates or Native Americans were responsible for significant numbers of losses. This book will become the source for helping to record other flatboat wrecks that will certainly appear.”

—Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy, Station Archeologist, Arkansas Archeological Survey

“Archaeologist Mark J. Wagner, provides an informative history of flatboats, assessing their construction, purpose, and the many hazards faced by their crews. Wagner also offers a detailed account of the America excavation, a discussion of the recovered artifacts, and a description of the efforts to preserve the wreck.”

Missouri History Review

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