During the Colonial era and early nationhood of the United States, water transportation was essential for moving goods and transporting people from place to place. In Virginia, one of the most popular vessels for completing these tasks was called a Batteau, a name that means “boat” in French. This watercraft was a cross between a raft and a cargo barge, wide in the middle and pointed at the ends. What really set it apart, though, was its flat-bottomed design, which enabled it to navigate both the deep and shallow waterways of Virginia and pass over shoals and sandbars with ease. At one time, many Batteaux could be seen floating along Virginia rivers. This vessel was especially important to Lynchburg because it was specifically developed for the purpose of transporting tobacco stock from Lynchburg’s tobacco warehouses to the city of Richmond, a journey that took about eight days. Batteaux may not be used anymore, but they are still an important part of Lynchburg and Virginia history, which is why for the past 35 years local history lovers and craftspeople have built and launched Batteaux for a commemorative eight-day journey to Richmond during the Lynchburg Batteau Festival.
Batteaux: A Beginning
The invention and development of the James River Batteau is credited to two brothers from Amherst County, Anthony and Benjamin Rucker, who were influential individuals in the Amherst and Nelson County communities during the mid-1700s. Both Anthony and Benjamin also served as captains in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
Unlike most boats of its time, this craft had no keel or rudder and was propelled and steered by poles and oars. Batteaux varied in size between 12 and 84 feet long, 6 and 8 feet wide and one to two feet deep. Their versatile size made them capable of transporting large amounts of tobacco in wooden barrels and up to 40 people at once, depending on if the craft was meant for cargo or passengers.
The first Batteau was launched in April 1775, with planter and founding father Thomas Jefferson providing the first historic documentation of the occasion in an account book on the 19th of that month—the same day that the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts.
Batteaux meant a great deal to the early United States. They became an often-used watercraft during the Revolutionary War to move soldiers and supplies along inland waterways, and would be built by professional boat builders or ship carpenters. They could even be loaded onto a carriage, which made transporting them easy. Batteaux became so valuable that they were deemed a significant loss if they were captured by the enemy.
The Rucker brothers received a patent for the Batteau in 1821. Only 19 years afterwards, however, Batteaux began to see a sharp decline in use as the James and Kanawha River Canal reached the Lynchburg area. The packet boat and railways of later years then began to slowly take its place as a main transportation method.
In the 1980s, historians began to once again recognize the Batteau as a tangible and historic piece of American history. While no original Batteaux exist, archaeological evidence and the resurgence of information about this vessel has led craftspeople to build new ones for the sake of stepping into the past for a living history experience. The Lynchburg Batteau Festival further commemorates this piece of the past by celebrating the launching of custom-built Batteaux for an eight-day voyage down the James River to Richmond, beginning at Percival’s Island, a short distance from where John Lynch’s ferry originally docked. While this event will not occur this year, we look forward to next year’s festival and its ongoing annual celebration, which is a testament to the living and enduring historic legacy of Lynchburg. To learn more about Batteaux and their place in Lynchburg’s past, visit the Lynchburg Museum.