A STORY ABOUT BANVARD [1]

Every one, or, at least every American, has heard of Banvard, and many have read his adventures, as published in the descriptive pamphlets of his great Picture of the Mississippi. But he is the hero of an adventure which is not published, and which is rather too good to be lost. It is generally known that he speculated in a variety of ways on the treacherous Mississippi, to get money to help him through his object.

One of these speculations consisted in fitting up a flat-boat as a museum of paintings, which he floated from town to town, exhibiting these paintings to the inhabitants thereof. He stopped ‘for one night only’ at the little, and almost deserted town of Commerce, Mississippi, and which can be seen in the panorama, a short distance below Memphis. During the exhibition, there was one man who appeared very consequential, and wanted to know if the proprietor had a license for exhibiting his paintings? He also said as the ‘Squire’ was out of town, he would assume the responsibility, and collect the license-money himself. Mr. Banvard observed that the exhibition was not in the town, out on the river, and that he had a State license, which gave him the privilege of exhibiting where he pleased within the jurisdiction of the State.

‘I can’t help that,’ said the self-appointed magistrate, with all the consequence of a ‘real genuine squire.’ ‘We calculate to have a large town here some of these days, and we want money in our treasury, and you is making a small sprinklin’ off the place, you might as well leave a little on [sic] it behind; so fork over the license money.’

Banvard found he had an ugly customer to deal with, and was so well acquainted with the people of the wild region, that he knew it was best to get off as easy as possible; for, at a word, this fellow could have the whole town at his back, who would be delighted with the ‘spree’ of ‘dornicking’ the boat, and the fellow appeared to be the leader amongst them.

‘How much is your license?’ said the exhibitor.

‘I don’t zackly know, but I suppose I will make it ten dollars.’

‘Ten dollars! Why, my dear sir, I have only taken in about six or eight dollars.’

‘Can’t help that; I want the ten dollars, or we good citizens will ‘odfisticate’ this boat for you’

‘But some other ‘good citizen’ may demand another ten dollars on the same plea,’ observed Banvard.

‘I will ‘sume the responsibilities of my fellow citizens, as I am the only responsible person in the town of Commerce.’

‘Well, sir, since you assume the responsibility, just sit down and view the painting, and after the exhibition is over, I will pay your demand; my business calls me at present.’

Mr. Consequence then walked into the large room where the exhibition was going on, and Mr. Banvard turned to his hands, and giving them directions to have all the lines on board, except the ‘bow line,’ and to unswing the oars, with poles set ready for starting at a moment’s warning, suspecting the fellow would raise a row. After the exhibition was over, and the good citizens began to make tracks for home, the ‘collector’ remained behind and demanded his money.

‘Certainly,’ said proprietor; ‘just step back into the cabin with me, and you shall have it;’ and back he walked as one of the hands was extinguishing the light used for the paintings. Just as he and Banvard reached the little cabin, by some accident Mr. B contrived to extinguish the only remaining light, and both were shut in utter darkness. In the meantime all the spectators had left the boat, and she swung back and forth, being held only by the one line at the bow, and the current was rushing furiously by her. It was the intention of Banvard to cast the line loose as soon as the last spectator got on shore. But this last spectator saved him the trouble, for seeing the situation of the boat he thought it would be a fine joke to tell that he cut her loose. This fellow not aware that the would-be magistrate was on board, out with his bowie knife, severed the line and ran off. The hands on the bow perceiving the boat dropping astern, suspected what was done, and taking hold of the line found it cut. They immediately drew what remained of it on board, poled the boat off noiselessly into the current, and all on board were rapidly floating off on the dark bosom of the Mississippi, at the rate of six miles an hour.

‘Come, make haste,’ said Consequence, after Mr. B. had succeeded in re-lighting the lamp,—‘I want them are ten dollars in a hurry.’

‘Certainly, sir, as soon as I find the key of my trunk. You see, sir, my receipts are only eight dollars to night, and I must get from my trunk the balance of the money. Can you change a twenty-dollar bill?’

‘Well, I can hoss. I got to go to court to-morrow, and I just put that sum into my pocket—hand over your bill.’

‘Yes, sir as soon as I find the key to my trunk.’

‘Hang it, have I got to wait here till morning for the money?’ said Consequence, who began to smell a little of the rat.

‘Certainly, unless I find the key before that time.’

‘Never mind the key; just hand me over the eight dollars you have, and let the balance go, we will not quarrel about trifles. Do you hear? or I will have the town about your ears.’

‘Yes, I hear,’ said Banvard, as he reached over the head of his berth, and coolly took down a pair of revolving pistols. The fellow seeing this retreated towards the door, shouting out, ‘Hullo, ashore there!’

‘You’ll have to call a little louder than that to be heard at town,’ responded one of Mr. B.’s men, on the bow of the boat, ‘for, as I take it, we are now about one and a half miles below.’

‘Why didn’t you let me know you were going?’ said Consequence, his ardour a little cooled, when he found the boat afloat, and himself trapped.

‘Why didn’t we let you know? why, for a very good reason–we didn’t know ourselves. One of your good citizens, as you call them, cut our line loose before we knew it," replied the man.

"What line?" inquired Banvard–"the new one I bought in Memphis last week?"

"Yes, sir," replied several of the hands at once.

"Put me ashore," shouted the would-be dignitary.

‘Not until you pay me damages for my line, which some of your good citizens cut for me,’ answered Banvard. ‘You said you would be responsible for their acts, and you were the only responsible person in the town. My line cost me fifteen dollars; you say I owe you ten; now pay me five, and we will be even; and then I will have you put ashore.’

‘But, sir,’ rejoined the man, do not take me off! I have a suit pending, and I will lose it if I am not there to see to it. Put me ashore, and I’ll say nothing about the license.’

‘Not until you pay me five dollars damages, for having my line cut; and if you do not, I will take you to Vicksburg, and have you committed to prison, for endeavoring to rob a man under false pretences.’

‘Well, sir, step towards the light, and get the five dollars;’ and taking out his pocket-book, Consequence stepped to the light, and handed over the five, whereupon Mr. B. gave orders to have him set ashore. The hands then told him they would not risk themselves in a small boat at night, among the snags, without being well paid for it; and Mr. Consequence was forced to give them each a dollar, for which they set him ashore in a thick canebrake, on the opposite side of the river, about three miles below the town. How he got home that night is best known to himself. We venture to say he never meddled with business that didn’t concern him after passing that night among the musquitoes [sic] and alligators.

Boston Bee.


Notes:

Source: Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner 25 September 1849: 4 (Library of Virginia Archives)

Students Mark Bell and Erin Bartels, UR English Department, prepared and proofread this typescript.

[1] John Banvard (1815-1891), American landscape painter best known for his vast "moving panorama" paintings of the Mississippi River, the Middle East, and Civil War scenes. Banvard was probably the earliest and best known painter of panoramic scenes in America and "the sole a American artist of international renown around 1850"; in the same year this story appeared, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert viewed the 12-foot-high, 1300-foot-long Mississippi panorama during a command performance at Windsor Castle.

Writers including Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens saw Banvard's work or acknowledged his orginality as a designer of panoramas. The incident desribed here probably occured during Banvard's first journey down the Mississippi in 1836 ("Banvard, John," 120-121). Paul Collins explores Banvard's career and later reputation in the first chapter of Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck. New York: Picador USA, 2001 (note by Joe Essid, UR English Department).

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Works Cited:

"Banvard, John." American National Biography. Ed. Garraty, J. and Carnes, M. 24 Vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999: 119-121.
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