Frank Padget: Hero Batteauman

Frank Padget: Hero Batteauman

This week, I’ve invited Sandi Esposito, a local historian and friend who’s been helping me with my “Big Idea,” to write a guest blog post. What follows is the story of Frank Padget, hero batteauman. (Note: Some people spell it “batteau” and others “bateau,” but for this blog entry, we’re going with the two-T version.)

The incident began on Jan. 21, 1854. A freshet, due to heavy rains, caused dangerous conditions on the James River. At the time, the canal boat Clinton was being towed in the open river at the mouth of the North — now Maury — River.

The mouth of the Maury and James rivers, where the ordeal began.

The Clinton was part of a fleet owned by A. S. Lee & Co. of Richmond. Its captain was A.C. Wood. The boat was carrying approximately 45 people, mostly African Americans who were possibly hired to work on the railroad at Covington, Va.

The towline broke and seven men jumped into the water. Three drowned, including two unnamed African Americans and Reuben Payne of Fredericksburg, Va. Four men survived: teenager Sydnor Royal of Lynchburg, Va.; E.F. Flagg of Caroline, Va.; and two unnamed African Americans.

With encouragement from those onshore, Capt. Wood got the boat over Balcony Falls dam, but after the boat went over the dam it rested near some rocks. The captain and four or five people jumped onto the rocks and became stranded in the middle of the river. Roughly 32 or 33 men remained on the Clinton.

Watercolor painting depicting African-American men, probably slaves, directing a batteau through the rapids of the James River at Richmond, circa 1798. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, An Essay on Landscape, 1798-1799, Accession 25060, Personal Papers Collection, Library of Virginia.

A rescue team was organized. It included enslaved African-American and skilled batteauman Frank Padget and two other African-American men, named Sam and Bob. Two white men, William Matthews and Matthew McColgan, also volunteered, for a total of five.

Although the rescuers were initially driven back to shore by a squall, they eventually saved the captain and the men on the rock.  At about the same time, the Clinton drifted again and an African-American man — possibly named Edmond — jumped on to a rock and was stranded. This left 31 or 32 men on board the Clinton.

The five-man rescue team ventured out to save the remaining people. They tried but were unable to get Edmond, but they reached the others on the Clinton after it became lodged on an island. They were taken to safety.

Again, the crew tried to reach Edmond. As they were preparing to go, two more men joined the rescue team, one unnamed African American and Thomas Oney. The team of seven headed toward Edmond. Unfortunately, just as Edmond jumped into the rescue boat it crashed into a rock.

Frank Padget and Edmond were washed down river and drowned. Sam grabbed a piece of the boat and floated to shore. The remaining five men jumped onto the rock.

Another effort to take a batteau out and rescue the men on the rock failed, when it was washed out of the hands of the man preparing the boat. The water was still rising and daylight was waning, so the men remained stranded on the rock until morning.

The next morning, another batteau, headed by Samuel Evans, ventured out with a crew. They found all five men alive but severely frostbitten. All told, five men were lost during the tragedy, including four passengers of the Clinton and Frank Padget.

The monument in Glasgow, Va.

A monument, honoring Padget and his sacrifice, was later commissioned and paid for by Capt. Edward Echols. Echols, a Lynchburg native, wrote the first published, eyewitness account of the tragedy.

Initially, the monument was placed near a lock in the Kanawha Canal, but in 1997 it was moved to the village of Glasgow, Va., where it remains.


Ad. “For Lynchburg-Boat Clinton.” Richmond Dispatch, Feb 27, 1854: 1. available from

“For Lynchburg-Boat Clinton, Captain A.C. Wood.” Richmond Dispatch, Mar 31, 1854: 3. available from

Boyle, Brian D. Embrace our Local History. May 27, 2003. (accessed Feb 8, 2017).

Correspondent of the Lexington Star, “Honor to Whom Honor,” Richmond Dispatch, Feb 6, 1854: 1. available from

Herbert, Paul N. Slave’s Heroism Recognized. May 3, 2008. (accessed Feb 8, 2017).

Kimball, Gregg D. “The African American Presence in Virginia Cavalcade, 1951-1996.” Virginia Cavalcade Vol 46, no. No 2 (Autumn 1996): 85-86.

Lynchbrg Virginian. “The freight boat Clinton,.” Richmond Dispatch, Feb 15, 1854: 1. available from

Lynchburg Virginian. “The Accident at the Mouth of North River.” The Richmond Mail, Jan 30, 1854: 2. available from

Miller, Lynda Mundy-Norris. Glasgow, Virginia: 100 Years of Dreams. 1990. (accessed Feb 8, 2017).

Morton, Oren Frederic. “Echols.” In A History of Rockbridge County, 251-252. 1920. available from

Richmond Dispatch . “The Canal Boat Clinton.” Jan 27, 1854: 1. available from

Richmond Dispatch. “The Accident at the Mouth of North River.” Jan 27, 1854: 3. available from

Richmond Dispatch. “The Accident on North River.” Jan 28, 1854: 1. available from

Robertson, Gary. A Hard Life on the Water/ Exhibit Recounts History of Blacks on State Rivers. Sept 26, 1999. (accessed Feb 8, 2017).

Scribner, Robert L. “In Memory of Frank Padget.” Virginia Cavalade Vol 3, no. No 3 (Winter 1953): 7-11.

Staunton (Va) Spectator. “Thrilling and Melancholy Casualty.” Poughkeepsie Journal, Feb 11, 1854: 2. available from (This version appears in several other papers in NC, NY and PA.

The Daily Express. “In the Circuit Court.” Dec 7, 1855. available from

Undersigned Owners and Captains of Canal Boats. “Notice.” Richmond Dispatch, Mar 1, 1854: 1. available from

W. E. Trout, III. The Upper James Atlas. Virginia Canals & Navigation Society, 2004., pp. 58-69.

A visit to the Virginia Historical Society (and doughnuts)

A visit to the Virginia Historical Society (and doughnuts)

Recently,  my good friend and fellow blogger Paula and I traveled to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. I needed to look at some letters for a project I’m working on, and Paula — lured by the prospect of going to Sugar Shack for doughnuts and just getting out of town in general — agreed to come along.

Prior to visiting the VHS, I had to buy a membership. Because I’m a researcher, I was able to get an annual academic membership, which costs $50. I could have paid less for a short-term membership, but figured this would not be my last trip to Richmond.

Before leaving home, I also filled out the forms required to research and take photos. Because research is so tedious and time-consuming, I wanted to be able to take photos of the documents, rather than make copious, handwritten notes. Filling out the forms in advance would save me valuable time for research once I got to the VHS.

After stopping at one of Sugar Shack’s locations on the outskirts of Richmond — the apple cake doughnut rocks, by the way — Paula and I went to the VHS. We found the parking to be free and plentiful, which was a big plus. I’m a freelance writer and researcher, but often not a paid one, so anything free is awesome.

Once inside, I ordered the records from one of the librarians and got to work.

For a couple of years now, off and on, I’ve been transcribing letters that Amherst County, Va., slave owner William Macon Waller wrote to his family and friends while taking a group of slaves to Mississippi. They traveled the overland route through Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi.

Waller and the slaves — India, Ellin, Henry, Sarah, Lucy, Louisa, Sarah Ann, Susan, Emily, McDonald, Nelson, Foster, Anderson and others — traveled more than 900 miles during the fall and winter of 1847 and 1848.

From what I’ve read in the letters, Waller rode a horse or mule most of the time, while the slaves — some young children — walked 20 to 30 miles a day.

This drawing, made in the mid-1800s by Lewis Miller, shows what the Waller party might have looked like. The original is in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.

One of my goals with this project is to find descendants of the slaves so I can tell them what an amazing and brave walk their ancestors made almost 170 years ago. I haven’t found any descendants yet, but I’m hopeful I will.

In transcribing the letters, of which I had only photocopies, there were words and in some cases big passages I couldn’t read. My hope was that seeing the originals I could fill in the blanks. With Paula’s help — “Does this word look like ‘murmuring’ to you? — we’d filled in all the blanks we could in a couple of hours.

It’s a good thing, too, because I find transcribing old handwriting somewhat exhausting, and didn’t know if I could hold out if it took six or eight hours.

One might say, “Exhausting? Seriously?” Sure, it’s not ditch digging, but staring at handwritten documents, trying to figure out, by looking at the letters or through the context — or both — what someone wrote (and meant by it) almost two centuries ago is quite tiring. At least it is to me. Maybe I’m wimpy, who knows?

Since we were done early, Paula and I had the opportunity to spend a little time exploring the collections of the VHS. In addition to the research library, there’s a museum that has lots of information and artifacts concerning Virginia history and material culture.

One thing we saw was the “Woodson musket,” a 7-foot-long musket that was supposedly used by a Lt. Col. Thomas Ligon to defend the Woodson home, in Prince George County, Va., from an Indian attack in 1644.

The Woodson musket, third from top. Virginia Historical Society.

Another story I’ve read is that while Ligon — who’s also been described as a “shoemaker” and “schoolmaster” — used the musket, Sara Woodson — some kind of great-great-great relative of mine — “brained” and threw boiling water on Indians that climbed down the chimney.

While Sara did this, one of her sons hid in a “potato hole” and the under a washtub. Because of this, Woodson descendants are known as either “potato hole” or “washtub” Woodsons. Right this second, I can’t remember which one I am. I’m thinking “potato hole” but could be wrong.

Sara’s husband Dr. John Woodson was killed during the uprising, reportedly within sight of his home.

The “Crown of Thorns” bureau or chest of drawers. Virginia Historical Society.

In another room at the VHS, there was a circa 1890 chest of drawers that’s been called the “Crown of Thorns.” This “tramp art” piece obviously got its name from its spiky appearance.

Here’s the VHS’s description of it:

A folk type popularized by African Americans “Tramp Art” took its name from its use of ordinary woods. This type embodied the ideals of this period: it was new and expressive with varied surfaces and materials and abundant decoration. This piece was owned by George G. Lander, a black physician in Lynchburg.

Paula, a much more avid housekeeper than I am, pointed out that it would be a nightmare to dust. Indeed, it would be.

Paula and I also visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It’s located next door to the VHS and has free admission. The VMFA currently has an exhibition of Faberge items, many of which belonged to the last Russian royal family, the Romanovs.

Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra, along with their children, were executed in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. Many of the Fabrege items owned by the Romanovs were later acquired by Lillian Thomas Pratt. In 1947, Pratt bequeathed hundreds of Fabrege items to the VMFA. If you’re a fan of Russian history or just opulent objects, it’s worth a look.