“Are you men of sense or dogs, or what are you? I’m nothing but a poor raftsman. If you are men, you will surely do something for this.”
Raftsmen brought from Wisconsin and Minnesota rafts of logs or occasionally grain to Iowa, Illinois, and all the way to New Orleans on rare occasions. In the 1800s, river towns along the Upper Mississippi complained about how the raftsman, “rough in dress and fluent in profanity,” polluted the rivers, got too drunk, and wreaked general mayhem. On July 29, 1869, the “general lawlessness” that became celebrated in lore broke out on the river between Davenport and Clinton and belied a division in the America that still exists.
Davenport became the transportation hub for raftsmen to catch a steamboat back north. On July 29, 125 to 150 raftsmen boarded the Dubuque steamer to head back north. The raftsmen would spend the trip on the open deck with horses. Around 30 deck hands, or porters, were tasked with keeping order. Most of the deckhands were African-Americans.
One deckhand, Moses Davis, was tasked with making sure none of the 150 raftsmen went to the cabins on the upper deck. An Irishman named “pock-marked Lynch” attempted to bull his way to the upper deck. Lynch fit the image of a movie villain: 5 feet, 8 inches, 180 pounds, weathered complexion, and short brown hair. He wore a faded gray shirt, dark pants, dark brown coat, and broad brimmed black hat. When Moses impeded his progress, Lynch felt his honor was impugned. Moses was black.
Civil War brought new challenges for a nation. Abolitionists were not necessarily for equal rights, and black workers were now competition. Moses was now part of free labor competition. Moses was not only denying Lynch access to the upper class upper deck. In Lynch’s mind, Moses was also a threat to his livelihood. By events that followed, it is clear that Lynch had many supporters who shared his fears and anger.
Understanding this dynamic helps set in motion what occurred after Moses tried to stop Lynch. Lynch, drunk, and wanting more booze which was available in the cabins, attempted to fight Moses. Some stories have Moses winning, some have it being broken up before anything happened, and some have Moses doing nothing. Regardless, it seems the “boat” wanted Lynch and Moses to finish it in “the ring.” While a ring formed around the two, the ring was actually a battering ram. Twentyfive or so of Lynch’s supporters charged Moses.
More raftsmen joined in and attacked their nearest black porter. This caused the other black porters to mobilize. At Hagy’s Landing at Hampton, the boat went aground, and the rioters grabbed coal, rocks, and wood and beat the black workers. Of the nearly 30 black porters, 16 escaped to the islands. Four drowned either jumping or falling into the water to escape the mob. Others, like Moses, went into hiding. Moses was subsequently found. He jumped into the river. In the water, Moses was pelted by coal, and his body washed up in Muscatine days later. The raftsmen now controlled the Dubuque.
As the boat passed Camanche, it was clear the law was ready to take control of the mutinied ship. The passengers who escaped at Hampton had telegraphed Rock Island sheriff about the insurrection. Sixty men in a posse reached Clinton 15 minutes before the Dubuque did. Lynch, realizing this, escaped in Camanche and disappeared into Iowa. The posse took control of the boat on the other side of Clinton’s levee and bridge.
The posse returned the boat to a crowd in Rock Island. The crowd, rumored to be above 5,000, was so large they had to rope off the levee. Most of the men, except Lynch, were arrested. While most went unpunished, nine were tried with seven being found guilty of manslaughter. Lynch was arrested in a sawmill in Arkansas in April of the following year. Lynch was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in Joliet.
What did the Riot of the Dubuque mean? Twentyeight black men left Davenport. Only 22 were accounted once it returned to Rock Island. The following black men lost their lives: Frank Gibbs, William Gray, Abraham Daniels, Moses Davis, Lee Williams, and William Armstead. The local paper summed up the event by highlighting the “unprovoked nature of the assault and wanton murder of six human beings.”
The Dubuque got some national coverage as it struck many that if the deckhands were white, there would have been no riot. However, nationally, the Dubuque was overshadowed by events in the South like the 1866 riots of Memphis and New Orleans and the 1873 Colfax Massacre. This event was a blip on the radar, as President Grant presented a report of 5,000 cases of Southern white terrorism to Congress in 1870.
Racial strife reared its head in Clinton a few weeks after the Dubuque. A black man, Chester Taylor, was verbally accosted and then physically assaulted by a group of white men at 2nd Street and 5th Avenue. The paper blamed the tensions of the steamboat riot, as the attackers were common laborers. The white men left Taylor for dead in a stable.
The local paper, and other papers, seemingly put the blame of the Riot, and even the attack of Taylor, on raftsmen. The paper commented on how this behavior by raftsmen was becoming a source of annoyance.
While a New York article mentioned if it wasn’t for race, the raftsmen would have been more reserved, it seems that most contemporary accounts focus on the raftsmen being of bad character and hint that the cause is more the competition between blacks and whites for key jobs.
As should evident by now, the Riot of the Dubuque is an important look at intersection of race, gender, and class. In this case, race was the spark. Without race, it would have been just another case of raftsmen being rough raftsmen. It also shows the importance of the lumber industry locally and that economically it became very important to be employed in the logging and lumber industry. Finally, this story shows that Clinton and the lumber industry were influenced by national forces. As such, Clinton was not immune to issues of class and race brought about by the changes the nation experienced as it transitioned from Civil War to Reconstruction to Jim Crow North and Jim Crow South.
Matt Parbs is the director of the Clinton Sawmill Museum.