This Saturday, 1 PM – Black Batteaumen on the New River

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June 6, 2013 by DuboisOnMain

This Saturday’s History on Main event features Hinton native Robin Crawford & our first ever radio listening party! Here’s more on Robin and the event:

MOUNT HOPE — Back before the Civil War, enslaved black boatmen plied the New and Greenbrier rivers in long, skinny wooden boats called batteau. On Saturday, a Hinton man who traces his ancestry back to some of those men will talk about how he uncovered the history of river work in his family.

Robin Crawford’s story was recently featured in a three-part radio documentary about the history of batteaumen on the New River, which aired on WV Public Radio in the fall of 2012.

DuBois on Main, an African-American museum in Mt. Hope, hosts a listening party and Q & A with Crawford on Saturday at 1 p.m. Refreshments will be served.

After airing the documentary, the producer, Catherine Moore, will interview Crawford about his family’s intriguing legacy.

“I had to leave a lot of fascinating tape on the cutting room floor when I made this documentary, and I look forward to asking Robin to share some of those stories with our guests on Saturday,” said Moore, a Fayetteville resident.

“The importance of black laborers, both free and enslaved, to the history of the New River region is tragically under-recognized. We hope to change that, one story at a time.”

The batteumen who worked in the Hinton area before the Civil War carried goods like tobacco, liquor, and barrel staves to markets as far away as Charleston, or as close by as neighboring creek settlements. At the time, roads were poor, if they even existed, and railroads were a thing of the future.

The men were owned by their masters, but were given considerable freedom to travel the rivers.

“That’s part of what makes this story so complicated and interesting,” said Moore. “It’s impossible not to wonder how these men negotiated the lines between freedom and captivity, and how they felt about it. Actually, part of the radio piece looks at the role these boats and their captains may have played in the Underground Railroad.”

Poling up the river with long wooden sticks and leather chest harnesses was hard work. But after Emancipation, some of the men stayed in the Hinton area and continued doing the job for pay. That’s when they showed up in the census records, which led Crawford to his discovery.

As a boy, Crawford’s grandmother told him stories about racial tension and violence between these black laborers and poor, often Irish, “Paddy Rollers,” who came to help build the railroad through the New River Gorge. The white men saw the African-Americans as competition, and racism was a convenient way to try and gain the upper hand.

In addition to building the railroads, African-Americans delivered construction supplies by batteau to extremely remote areas of the Gorge where the lines were being constructed. It was dangerous work to run those rapids, and some died in the process.

Crawford plans to bring some of his primary source research to the event, such as census records, photos, and an old will that transfers ownership of one of his ancestors from the enslaved man’s father to his brother.

Once he learned of his history, Crawford began taking locals and tourists out on the New River in a recreation batteau, which only deepened his connection to his past.

Moore also plans to play another short radio piece about white reenactors in Virginia who organize a yearly Batteau Festival.

DuBois on Main is located at 116 Main Street in Mount Hope. More information on the museum can be found at

To listen to the radio documentary, visit


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