Southern Illinois History Page

The Boat-Wreckers—Or Banditti of the West

(Rochester, N.Y.) Daily Advertiser
    (Jan. 29, 1830) — Subjoined is another of those vivid sketches by which the editor of the "Western (Cincinnati) Review" is illustrating the early history of the region in which he is located. We quote from the January number of the review-as follows:
    A northerner resident in the West sometimes feels his pride wounded, as he finds so few of the first famous residenters' to have been born north of the Hudson. I take pleasure in having it in my power, to redeem one memorable exception from oblivion. Traits of the horse, alligator and snapping turtle, are not exclusively western instincts, as I will make appear.
    Col. Fluger was born in the county of Rockingham, in New-Hampshire, and in a town, where they still call a kitchen a scullery. He had a slight at cards, and a knowing instinct in relation to watches and horses, almost from his babyhood. The boy, who wanted to be unburdened of his coppers, had only to play 'hustle,' or 'pitch-penny' with him. He was supposed to have a reverend dread of mortal hurts, but could 'lick' any boy of his size at fourteen. But being a youth of broad red cheeks, muscle and impudence, and withal, abundantly stored with small talk, from eighteen to twenty-one he was a decided favorite with the fair, and had had various love affairs, being reputed remarkably slippery in regard to the grace of perseverance. At twenty four he had mounted epaulettes, was a militia colonel, had a portentous red nose, and was in bad odour with all honest people. Soon afterwards, he went under lock and key for want of some one who would bail him for twenty dollars. The colonel, on his release, in a huff of unrequited patriotism, discovered, that the people had no taste for merit; and incontinently in his wrath abandoned his country, setting his face towards the western woods, which had just began to be a subject of discussion.
    Little is remembered of him on the upper waters of the Ohio; though it appears, that he attempted to 'lick' the contractor, who built a flat boat for him at Pittsburgh, because he insisted upon paying the man in rum, and other yankee notions, among which was a promissory slip of paper. Col. Fluger was soon made out to be remarkably 'cute,' even to a fault; and the people of that sharp dealing town were not unwilling to wash their hands of one, to whom it was both more agreeable, and more familiar, to bite, than be bitten.
    Flat boats had begun to descend the Ohio to New-Orleans in considerable numbers. But from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, was, for the most part, a vast, unpeopled wilderness. At Fort Massac, and thence to the Mississippi, on the north shore of the river, harbored a gang of those detestable villains, whose exploits were of such terrible notoriety in the early history of the navigation of this beautiful river. Numerous Kentucky broad-horns, generally with whiskey and provisions, and sometimes with cutlery and piece goods, were seen floating down the forests. They were manned by an unique people, tall, athletic, reckless, addicted to strange curses, and little afraid of thunder. Withal they loved a reasonable dram, were fond of playing cards, and were easily parted from their money. These honest fellows were the fowls, that he roues of Massac and Cash delighted to pluck. They would entice the broad horns to land, and play cards with the crew, and cheated them under the cotton wood shade. They would pilot their boats into a difficult place, or give them such directions from the shore, as would be sure to run them on a snag. Failing that, they would creep, like weasels, into the boats by night, while they were tied up to the willow, and bore a hole, or dig out the caulking on the bottom. When the crew found their boat sinking, these benevolent Cash boys were busily at hand, with their periougues and crafts, to snare the floating barrels and boxes. Rightly they named it 'plunder' in Kentucky parlance; for they rowed the saved goods up the Cash, and in the deep swamps next day no trace of them was to be seen. If one or two of the crew chanced to straggle away in pursuit of their lost cargo, they scrupled not to knock them in the head, shoot, of dirk them, and give them a nameless grave in the morasses. A volume of narratives of these boat-wreaking scoundrels might be collected. Nor will you ever float by Fort Massac, the House of Nature, or the mouth of Cash, with an old residenter for a companion, without learning hair-bristling stories of the knavery, cruelty, and murders of the villains of Cash.
    Col. Fluger floated to these wretches by the attraction of like to like. The faded scarlet and the tarnished yellow of his epaulettes, his red nose, his 'cuteness,' his strange curses, his utter recklessness, stood him instead of initiary 'grips.' He was one of them forthwith, in honor and trust; and in a month he was the Napoleon of the desperadoes of Cash. His slang-curses were ultra Kentuckian on a ground of yankee; and he had, says my informant, more of this 'than you could shake a stick at.' The fund of his real fighting courage was questionable; but he was improving in that hue; and for cunning and cruelty was an incarnate devil. Finding, that in that commonwealth, titles were not only not in demand, but matter of envy, he coifed his. To tall in with the laconic and forcible stile of his troop, who came over all appellatives by the shortest, he cut down his family name to Plug. Being, says my informant, of a delicate ear, and rich Booktionary lore, he undoubtedly thus condensed the name for its euphonic compactness. For night and secret work, Plug had a fleet of Bucksnatchers with chosen crews, to row up and down the river. Not a warehouse between Louisville and Cash had a lock, for which this gang had not a model key. The enormous bunch of black and rusty keys, shown at Dorfeuille's Museum, as having been found in the Ohio, near the House of Nature, undoubtedly belonged to the banditti of Col. Plug. We have no doubt, that they will here after be viewed with suitable reverence, as antique relic of no mean mystery and importance.
    Plug had his episode of love and marriage on this wise. A periougue load of French and Spanish traders were descending from St. Louis to New Madrid, where they resided. They landed on the point, nearly opposite the mouth of Cash, whether for hunting or divertissement, or for what object, does not appear. Plug, like his prototype, was roaming up and down, and to and fro, at the head of his gang. They came upon the camp-fire of the traders, as they had dined, drank their whiskey, and were taking their pipes, and reclining in the shade so paradisiacal reverie. These meek citizens cared as little to see Plug, as him of the deep sulphur domicile. They cleared out in their periougue in a twinkling. A Damsel of their number had wandered away some distance to gather pawpaws. The party intercepted, and made her prisoner. They found her a giantess in size, of varnished copper complexion, and evidently bearing the blood of at least three races mixed in her veins. But, though deserted by her friends, she neither wept, made verses, or betrayed fear, of surprise-not she. A real cosmopolite,
         Her march was o'er the fallen logs,
         Her home the forest shade.
    Her dialect was as fair a compound as Plug's though not very intelligible to him, being composed, in nearly equal proportions, of south of Europe, Negro and Indian. But love has its own language. She and the Colonel saw, loved and mutually conquered. The subordinates might envy; but who would contest the claims of Plug to the fair one? The sex and the relation of the quarteroon to her husband were designated by the same tact which cut down Fluger to Plug. She was thereafter known by the name Pluggy.
    Five miles up the Cash, on the verge of a vast swamp, surrounded by deep cane brakes, and inextricable tangle, was the log bower of these Arcadians. Some millions of unemployed musquetoes kept garrison in the swamp.-Bears, wolves and panthers were no strangers there; and moccasin snakes renewed their vernal skins at their leisure. But the inmates, as the Kentucky orator said, in this sublime state of retiracy among the abrogomes,' had their skins generally too full of the happifying water of life, to feel, other than an agreeable tickle, the nozzling of the proboscis of musquetoe; and had moccasin bitten them, it is a question, if the serpent had not been poisoned, instead of the bitten.
    Many a load of whiskey and flour, and many a box of piece goods had disappeared in this swamp, through which ran the Cash; and if fame be not egregiously a liar, many a boatman's body was disposed of, uncoffined, and in a nameless sepulchre; and here, no doubt, where deposited the avails of Dorfeuille's bunch of keys. Here bandit scenes transpired, which only needed Schiller's painting, to have been as famous as those of Venice or German.- In a few months Pluggy's renown rivaled that of her husband. Her height, fierceness and rough chin, and kind of long moss at the corners of her upper lip, not unlike mustachioes, often raised bantering questions among the banditti, in their cups, when the leader was absent, if he had not really taken a man, instead of a lady, tot he partnership of his abode. In fact, it had become a joke among them to affirm that Pluggy was a man in the dress of a squaw. In due time a little wailer Plug raised a lusty cry in the woods, being that the poor thing had not taken a musquetoe dose, and its skin had not yet acquired the habit of being bitten. Dr. Mitchell and others had not yet raised nice physiological distinctions; and this little one, in the rough cast reasonings of the gang, was deemed proof conclusive in regard to the sex.
    Their only domestic broil of public notoriety occurred some years afterwards. An intercourse, not altogether platonic, was suspected to be in progress between Pluggy and the second in command. The courage of the commander had waxed, by this time, to the sticking point. He called the lieutenant, known by the Sobriquet 'Nine-eyes,' to the field, or rather swamp of honor. 'Dern your soul.' Said he. 'do you think this sort of candlestick ammer (meaning, perhaps, clandestine amour) will pass" 'If you do, by gosh, I will put it to you or you shall to me.' They measured their ground, like two heroes, and there was no mistake in the affair, which was settled by rifles. Each carried in his flesh a round piece of lead, as a keepsake of the courage and close shooting of the other. Each became cool and even affectionate, admitting honorable satisfaction. 'You are grit,' aid be of Rockingham to Nine eyes. The other sore 'that his captain had deported, like a real Kentuck.' A little curly headed Plug attended, as a kind of bottle holder. He was directed to place a bottle of whiskey mid way between them. Each hopped, pari pasau, to the tune, one, two, three, &c. to the bottle. Over it they drank, embraced, and attested each other's honor. They must be by in dry dock awhile; but they comforted each other, that they were too well up to these things to be fazed by a little cold lead. It was understood, too, that Nine-eyes had been platonic and Pluggy immaculate; and the historian averreth, that his of undoubting opinion, that no duel hath been more creditable to the parties from that time to this. How many boats they robbed, how many murders committed, or abetted, it were bootless to think of compressing into our limits. The country began to settle. An officer, named a Sheriff, began to perambelate the country armed to the teeth, and bearing the sword not in vain. Boats, that stopped near Cash, were manned, and armed for resistance. Plug discerning the signs of the times, drew in his horns, mended the exterior of his manners, and saw the necessity of achieving by craft, what he had formerly carried, coup de main. The greatest success of the gang was in the line of gambling; and their main resource in piloting boats into dangerous places, and in general, acting the part of boat wreckers and moon cursers An occasional boat, feebly manned, sometimes feel into their power in a dark and stormy night. It went up the Cash; and in the morning neither plank, nor vestige nor crew was to be found.
    Ajax, Achilles and Napoleon had their reverse, and so had Plug. A Kentucky boat experienced some indignity, and was prepared for revenge, the next autumn. Five or six persons, well armed, landed above, and kept in sight of the boat, as they descended the woods with it. Their hands rowed the boat ashore at the mouth of Cash, where Plug and four associates were waiting, like spiders in ambush for flies. It was a sultry September afternoon, and the weather betokened an evening of storm and thunder. They were courteously invited to land; and were piloted up the Cash for the security of a harbor from the tempest. The three Kentuckians affected simplicity, and proposed a game of cards under the cotton wood shade. They were scarcely seated, and their money brought forth, before Plug whistled the signal for onset. But he reckoned this time without his host. The concealed reserve sprang to the aid of their friends, and the contest was soon decided. Three of Plug's company were thrown into the river, and at least one was drowned. All evaporated from their captain, as June clouds vanish before the sun.— Poor Col. Plug resisted to no purpose. They stripped him to his birthday suit, and thronged him so, that his arms, per force, embraced a sapling of the size of his body; and, for the rest, they fixed him as immovably, as if he had been in the stocks, as his epidermis was toughish, and parchment-like, they faithfully laid on the cowhide to mollify the leather of his back, to facilitate the operations of the musquetoes. These little musicians, by a spirit of concern, the secret of which is best known to themselves, issued forth, to the number of at least half a million, each emulous of reposing on some part of his flesh, and tasting his lymphatic. Not an arable spot of his body, of the size of a musquetoe, but bore one; and the industrious little leeches carried doubt and even triple, in the contest for precedence in experimenting his composition. As soon as one sped away with his sack sufficiently red, and distended, a hundred waited for his place. Plug chewed the cud of fancies altogether bitter, and wished himself lapping cream in his native scullery. He demed, and grunted, but could not move a muscle sufficiently to interrupt a single blood letter in his operations. They heeded his curses and writhing as little, as a sleeping parishioner is hay time does the fiery 'fifteenth' denunciation of his parson.
    Poor Pluggy in her lone bower knew, by the failure of the return party, that there was reason to snuff bad omens some where in the gale. She set forth to seek her beloved; one of the young Plugs in breeches and another in petticoats followed her steps. She trailed the party; and in half an hour came upon the vanquished one, running the christian race, steadfast and immovable. He embraced the tree, as in the most vehement affection, with is face towards it; and his naked body was one surface of musquetoes. She soon decyphered his position. But instead of incontinently cutting him loose, she clasped her hands theatrically, crying out, 'Yasu Chree! O mio carissiamo spese, what for, like one dem fool, you hug de tree, and let the marengoes suck up all your sweet blood!' If Plug cursed her unadvisedly let it be urged in extenuation, that his spirit was stirred in him, and any thing rather than complacent. Be that determined as it may, he cursed her most unconnubially, and bade her 'not to let on' any of her jaw, until she had cut him loose.
    Plug began him sons and daughters, and was in a fair way to have defrauded the gallows and die peaceably in his bower. But he was caught, eventually in a trap of his own springing. A boat had landed not far above Cash; and the crew were in the woods to shoot turkeys. A Mississippi squall was coming on. To equalize the danger, Plug was in the vacant boat, digging out the caulking at the bottom. While he was yet in the act, and the crew were running from the woods to get on board, the gale struck the boat from the shore, broke the fast, and drove it into the stream, with only Plug on board. The waves from above, lashed to fury, and the leak from below filled the boat, and it sunk. Plug had disengaged a barrel of whiskey, and too to his favorite resource, to enable him to gain the shore. But it rolled him off on one side, and then on the other. Plug drank water instead of whiskey, which he would have preferred. His sins came up in terrible array, and his heart beat quick and pantingly. In short he found a watery grave. Thus fell the last of the boat wreckers.
Mike, a storyteller from Rochester, found and passed on this article about Plug. Thank you. The House of Nature referred twice in the story is another name for Cave-in-Rock, another haunt for pirates. The spelling is as in the original.
Created May 1, 1999 by Jon Musgrave © 1999