Mike Fink was an American folk hero like Davy Crockett or Johnny Appleseed, a larger-than-life figure with a basis in a real man. However, although the other two personalities became permanent fixtures in the American folk pantheon, Fink has largely been forgotten. Perhaps that's because in many of his stories he's a mean, dangerous bully. The real life Fink went west as a trapper after the War of 1812, but his career ended sometime in the 1820s when he tried to shoot a tin cup off a companions head--he missed, shot the man instead and in turn was shot by the man's friends. The mountain man life was rough indeed. By the time Henry Howe was writing in the 1840s, the keel boats were already a distant memory, replaced by steam boats and the canals (Note, he refers to canal boats as "modern"). In their time, keel boats were the long distance haulers par excellence--like semi-trucks on water.
From Henry Howe's Historical Collections of Ohio:
(Discussing Captain John Fink of Belmont County, Ohio) Mike Fink, the last and most famous of the now long extinct race of Ohio and Mississippi River boatmen, was a relative, and he knew Mike..."When I was a lad," he told me,"about ten years of age, our family lived four miles above Wheeling, on the river. Mike laid up his boat near us, though he generally had two boats. This was his last trip, and he went away to the farther West; the country here was getting too civilized, and he was disgusted. This was about 1815.
Mike Fink--In the management of his business Mike was a rigid disciplinarian; woe to the man who shirked. He always had his woman along with him, and would allow no other man to converse with her. She was sometimes a subject for his wonderful skill in marksmanship with the rifle. He would compel her to hold on the top of her head a tin cup full of whiskey, when he would put a bullet through it. Another of his feats was to make her hold it between her knees, as in a vice, and then shoot.
Habits of Keel-Boatmen.Claudius Cadot just after the War of 1812, went on the river to follow keel-boating to raise money to buy land. At that time keel-boating was about the only occupation at which money could be earned, and the wages were very low even there. Cadot hired himself to the celebrated Mike Fink, at fifty cents per day. The boats belonged to John Finch, one of a company that ran keel-boats from Pittsburgh to different points in the West. Cadot soon learned the art of keel-boating. It was the usual practice of boatmen at that time to get on a spree at each town, but Cadot did not choose to spend his money in that way, and soon saved a considerable sum. He asked Capt. Fink to put this money in his trunk for safe-keeping. Fink consented to do this, but insisted that Cadot should carry the key as he had the most money. Fink was a noted character in his day (see above), he placed great confidence in Cadot and at the end of his first year's service paid him at the rate of 62 1/2 cents per day, although the bargain only called for 50 cents per day.
How Keel-Boats were Manned.The hull of a keel-boat was much like that of a modern canal boat, but lighter and generally smaller. The larger keel boats were manned by about twenty hands. It was the custom to make a trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans each year. They went down "under oars" and with half dozen or so pairs worked by stout men they made good speed. They took down flour, pork, beef, beans, etc., and brought up cotton, hemp, tobacco, etc., to Pittsburgh. Many of these boats were manned by Canadians who seemed much to fancy their mode of life. As the boats went up they were pushed by poles on the shore side, while oars were worked on the outside. The average progress up stream was twelve miles per day--they lay up at night--but often when the wind was fair they would sail fifty miles.
It was the custom with the Canadians to sing hoosier songs and their yell was heard many miles. They also, since they were much exposed to the weather, made free use of liquors, the effect of which was plainly visible in their ruddy, full face. Much boating was also done from Charleston, VA, to Nashville and St. Louis.