The Jon Boat

What’s in a Name, like Jon boat

by Lynn Morrow

The specific origin in time and space of the term Jon boat, as in the term Ozark, is unknown. However, like the term hillbilly, jonboat entered selected areas of Ozark oral tradition in the early twentieth century. Although there is no direct relationship between the two terms, they came to share common origins in journalistic vernacular as a result of urban visitors who came into regions of the Southern Mountains to observe, write, and enjoy recreation. Hillbilly was an import from the East, a stereotype for people in Southern Appalachia imposed upon Ozarkers, but john boat probably came from the lower Mississippi River Valley, diffused northward into the Ozarks along the lower White River and its tributary riverways. From about 1915 to 1940 “jonboat” was applied to several types of watercraft having different lengths, widths, degrees of rake and sheer, and function. The term thus became a generic one. “Ozark jonboat,” however, became the craft specifically associated with commercial tourism in the Ozarks. The following survey suggests many knotty problems associated with the term jonboat and an outline of its unique history.

The Industrial Age brought many possibilities to the Ozarks, including new forms of watercraft or boats. While the railroads created avenues for accelerated sport and market hunting, and fishing, they also became the vehicle for the import of “camping outfits” transported on rails by urban sportsmen. In addition to guns, tents, fishing gear, and canned foods, the railroads hauled sportsmen’s boats for use in regional waters. Merchants along railroad towns even exhibited boats in their windows when they found one worth emulation.’

Railroad corridors through the Missouri Ozarks created several gateways. Sportsmen transported various types of boats by rail to sites up the Meramec River Valley and to Arlington and the waters of the Gasconade and Piney rivers from the 1870s;  Poplar Bluff up the Black River to northern Butler and Wayne counties in the 1880s and beyond;  a spur line from the St. Louis, Iron Mountain Railroad into Doniphan in 1883;  across the Kansas City, Ft. Scott, and Gulf (Memphis) Railroad to Willow Springs and along the Current River Railroad into Carter County in 1888; and  after 1905, from Carthage to Galena for float trips to Branson and soon to Cotter, Arkansas. How many varieties or types of boats came in on these routes and others is not known. Nor do we know to what degree local builders used aspects of national, or extra regional boat styles in developing their own local forms. Local guides, hired by the urban sportsmen, piloted the imported boats and were exposed to the sporting literature and conversation of their clients. Forest and Stream and the many Rod and Gun newspaper columns discussed the manufacture of boats. Guides may have recovered some sunken boats and probably received an occasional boat as a gift. These influences impacted local boat builders who developed their own regional traditions, and in as-yet-unchronicled ways, Ozark builders experimented with forms of boats just as they did with forms of vernacular architecture.

The johnboat became, perhaps, the Ozarks most famous folk product and was constructed throughout the entire region. The locally crafted jonboat was and is revered by fishermen and folklorists alike. Its historic role as the watercraft which introduced tourists, journalists, artists, and businessmen to pristine Ozarks streams is significant. The jonboat and associated float fishing became a fundamental part of the experience sought by the new people coming into the region—an urban clientele in search of health, pleasure, and sport in the outdoors. Many of these floaters, with the hire of skilled guides, were carried into a landscape filled with romantic legends, and spectacular scenery; the more enterprising of this new breed of visitor saw the Ozarks region as an arena with opportunity for economic investments and the founding of institutions such as W. H. Johnson Timber and Realty, The School of the Ozarks, the Cliff House resort, and Rockaway Beach. Entrepreneurs and Ozark float trips became a common thread of experience for outside investors. These men who came to the Ozark outdoors advocated Ozark waters for their crystal clearness, gushing springs, and long, clean gravel bars for camping. The romantic images in the press owed their origin to floaters in flat-bottomed boats who placed their testimonials in print. As in prior generations, various types of river craft on the Western waters had been key to economic developments, so, too, the jonboat and its associated commercial float fishing became an historic foundation upon which modern Ozark tourism was built. While the floats themselves never generated great amounts of money, the float experience and the way it was advertised provided a potent theme for Ozarks tourism that all promoters embraced. Float fishing became part of a social landscape for conviviality and recreation, whether floaters were visiting sportsmen or native fishermen.

So, what’s in a name, like Jonboat? A basic problem lies in a definition of the term. We all agree that jonboats are flat-bottomed boats, but are all flat-bottomed boats jonboats? Unfortunately, some have equated a flat-bottomed boat and a jonboat as the same thing. True, the jonboat is a flat-bottomed boat, but in the twentieth-century Ozarks, jonboat became a new term associated with a fashionable economy—small-scale commercial tourism based on float fishing. And that business spawned a new boat, a boat distinct among the multifarious crafts known by the familiar rubric of “flat-bottomed boat.”

A leading dictionary says that the word john boat, “a light, square-ended, flat-bottomed skiff,” is an Americanism that came into being c. 1900-1905. While the dictionary provides no documentary evidence for this assertion, I suspect it is an educated guess based upon subsequent journalism about the beginnings of commercial float fishing. Curiously, print culture seemed not to use the term John boat, and it remained out of Ozark published communication for an extraordinarily long time.

The jonboat does have a significant historical affinity with other commercial watercraft that attempted to ply shallow waters in the Mississippi Valley. Indeed, settlers in the Trans-Mississippi West had faced the challenge of transporting goods and people through shallow water for generations. Other terms for boats, such as bateau or skiff, were applied indiscriminately to many kinds of floating craft designed to fill this need (like jonboat, bateau and skiff included flat-bottomed, square-nosed boats of plank construction with a variety of lengths and drafts). Common watercraft of the nineteenth century included rafts, keel boats, flatboats, barges, canoes, piroques, dugouts, and more. In 1826 Timothy Flint commented on the enormous variety of regional craft: “There are monstrous anomalies, reducible to no specific class of boats, and only illustrating the whimsical archetypes of things that have previously existed in the brain of inventive men, who reject the slavery of being obliged to build in any received form. Could there be a stronger statement that describes the construction of folk boats?

Charles Hallock, famous editor of Field and Stream during the late nineteenth century, produced widely admired Sportsman’s Gazetteers. He included chapters on “Sporting Boats and Canoes.” In the 1877 edition Hallock said that there were “so many different kinds of boats” because the services desired were so varied. His overview of sporting boats included flat-bottomed boats, built for shallow waters, which would accommodate sportsmen, dogs, and gear. Many of his descriptions, however, were of crafts of some sophistication fabricated for Victorian hunters and fishermen that would not be found along a backwoods stream.

Commentators have ascribed the term jonboat to a wide variety of sizes in flat-bottomed boats. This generic classification, often applied to very primitive creations, does an injustice to the craft that became known as an Ozark jonboat. There were, for example, primitive craft with squared ends, side planking (that sometimes did not have the bark peeled oft), and a flat bottom that rode atop a tie raft for a single trip. Such productions can hardly be credited as true Ozark jonboats.

Builders constructed a boat to accommodate its load, thus different forms appeared for a variety of freight, including tobacco, cotton, cattle, lumber, immigrants, and more. Some boats were of durable oak, but pine was lighter and cheaper, an important choice since flat-bottomed boats, like the larger flat boats, were often built for one voyage downstream and disposed of at the end of the journey. Urban sportsmen by 1900 brought light-draft flat-bottomed boats built of Oregon fir to Ozark waters; their builders were master craftsmen in St. Louis.

In the Ozarks of the late nineteenth century, natives used flat-bottomed boats for duck hunting, gigging, pearling (the mussel industry), trapping, running trot lines and fish traps, working timber, and in carrying themselves or others on river outings. Men skilled in boat-building and river commerce were sometimes in court to adjudicate economic disagreements that included the difficulty of naming the different forms of a boat, described in judicial documents as a “skiff, boat or water craft. Researchers interested in specific form regularly encounter these cryptic references. For example, in the summer sun of 1890 “J. C. Barns and Newt Farmer have been building them a boat to run in Swan Creek,” said the editor in Forsyth, Missouri. Was this a dugout, canoe, gig boat, or a flat-bottom boat? A St. Louis outdoors journalist in 1897 encouraged his audience to chase the bass on regional waters “where anglers leave the railroad, and the boats are fearful and wonderful specimens of backwoods handicraft.” The mixing of terms, as in the judicial cases, continues to confuse the descriptions of the boats. Guide Ike Sturgeon, the “Natty Bumpo of the Osage” River, took St. Louisans for weeks on the river. He built “a canoe, not of the common order. It was in three sections, about 25 feet long and 3 feet wide, made of sassafras timber, as buoyant and easily guided as any craft ever built, that would run the rapids of the Osage with a small tent and camping outfit. Was this a “canoe” or a flat-bottomed boat?

Tie rafters across the Ozarks took primitive flat-bottomed boats downriver for occasional fishing. However, in Back woodsmen, the longest known narrative of Ozark tie rafting, author George Clinton Arthur, on the eve of World War II, does not mention the term johnboat. He does use an old vernacular term to describe flat-bottomed river craft, a skiftferry (a corruption of skiff-ferry), part of the widely understood terminolgy for flat-bottomed watercraft. More important in Arthur’s narrative of tie rafting is his observation that workers, after completing their section of the tie drive to Arlington, walked back home, some thirty miles; he did not mention anything about poling a boat toward home.

By 1880 Springfieldians launched floats on Finley and James rivers heading for Forsyth. Passengers, seeking day and overnight trips, took the railroad to Ozark for prearranged trips downstream. Photographs of these early outings were reproduced in the Springfield papers. Charley Barnes, in an interview in 1955, remembered seeing “float boats” on James River as an eight-year-old child in 1887, soon after the Barnes family moved to Stone County. But by this time, Midwesterners anywhere could read in the Sportsman’s Guide of New York a summary of sporting opportunities near railroad corridors that gave local accounts of “sporting prospects, topography of the country, and the accommodations and facilities offered.” For example, outdoorsmen in southwest Missouri reported all the advantages along the Kansas City, Ft. Scott, and Gulf railroad. In the southeast Missouri Ozarks at one of the premier sporting clubs in the Ozarks, the Current River Fishing and Hunting Club, whose members included railroad employees from the Kansas City, Ft. Scott, and Gulf, the Missouri Pacific, and the St. Louis Iron Mountain, a boatswain had charge of preserving and maintaining boats for river recreation.” By 1900 sporting clubmen and club-women had access to float boats maintained in boat houses on the Gasconade, Current, James, and other waterways.

Sportsmen on the railroads included those in the lumber business. Henry Cordz of Cordz-Fisher Lumber Company of Birch Tree was one of the members of the Current River Fishing and Hunting Club. Corporate lumbermen had a variety of mills in the woods and along the major southeast Ozark waterways. It was common for sportsmen to acquire flatbottom boats at the mills, assembled as the tourist sportsmen waited—a convenience not available in southwest Missouri.

In 1898 St. Louisans took five of these mill-sawn boats upriver on the Eleven Point River, but the heavy, green boats were clumsy and difficult to maneuver over the shoals. After one trip Judge William C. Jones, the leader of the outing, announced in St. Louis that he was having “buoyant boats” constructed in order to return to the Ozarks for a proper float in negotiating the river. What form of boat the urban craftsman built is unknown.’2 What is certain though is that sportsmen differentiated in boats destined for the Ozarks waterways. Urban businessmen did not want to be “handicapped by a water-soaked, old shapeless flatboat. Of course, there are some excellent and well-made flatboats for sporting purposes, and they will be the standard boat for the great majority.  Friends of Judge Jones ordered “roomy boats suited to run any of our streams. Oregon fir I found to be the best lumber to build a boat. ..the boat must be built on lines laid down by rules of scientific boatmaking. ..Oregon fir makes the lightest boat.. .a flat boat for fishing and running the rapid streams has got to have the strength, or she will go to pieces.” In southwest Missouri Henry Rodgers at Galena accommodated St. Louis sportsmen who left the Frisco at Aurora and took wagons for twenty-five miles to the James River. Rodgers moved his cabin boat around near James River bluffs as a camp for urban sportsmen. But the trip downriver from Galena was made in a “light, clinker-built skiff’ to negotiate the currents “too gay for a clumsy old flat boat to flirt with.  The Aurora Hunting and Fishing Club, established near Virgin Bluff, became celebrated in the St. Louis press and was the first significant club grounds on the James.

As more tourists and sportsmen sought a float experience, builders in any area (which often included the floaters themselves) experimented with length, width, rake, ribbing, and other basic elements of the flat-bottomed boat. Such experimentation was boosted by the expectation of repeat floaters, and once it became cost-effective to haul these boats on wagons, and later trains, boat builders began to refine their watercraft for repeated use. These boats were constructed out of green lumber, and thus their joints were not tight. Although various caulking materials were sometimes used, more often local owners submerged their flat-bottomed boats when not in use; the waterlogged planks would maintain tight joints during the off season. Mandatory attention to details is precisely what created the jonboat. The jonboat evolved into such a sophisticated craft that it would float easily and remain stable while carrying several hundred pounds of gear, expensive guns, and several passengers.

By the 1890s durable flat-bottomed boats were on Ozark waterways. The “Warrensburg Nimrods” had them built in Van Buren for use on the Current River, Perry Andres supplied them at Arlington for floaters on the Big Piney and Gasconade rivers, Jeff Scott in Galena was using them on James and White rivers, and St. Louisans hired builders in Forsyth to craft such boats for use on the White River. In a Globe-Democrat report of 1899, W. F. Saunders, the assistant postmaster of St. Louis, and Charles Kinyon of Forsyth took a two-week trip on the White River to Batesville, Arkansas. Their craft was described as a skiff, but it was likely a durable flat-bottomed boat.

By 1900 the Frisco railroad had placed sportsmen in Ozark rivers from Meramec Highlands and Arlington, Missouri, to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Their pamphlet, “Feathers and Fins on the Frisco,” described a host of guides and river depots for float fishing and hunting. The booklet concluded with a commentary on the boats used by the locals. The journalist wrote that they were constructed “for use, not show. They are never graceful and trim. They are not pretty. The outlines thereof resemble the cartoonist’s study of a typical old maid—angular and built for long life.” The writer asked the reader to imagine a flat-bottomed affair, oblong, shallow, two capacious end seats flush with the top rail and two broad intermediate boards, on one of which the pilot-rower sits. Besides the abnormal width, these seats are of course uncushioned.” The writer said that the craft was one of evolution and far exceeded the ability of rowboats for travel on the waterways. It did not tip over and resembled a “floating piano-box. The flat-bottom acts as if greased.” And, as important, overland transportation had to be overcome. “This unique product of the ancient mariners’ skill is lifted bodily from the water, placed on wheels, hitched to a pair of mules—and presto, is transformed into a wagon, conveying overland to starting point.”  Early commercial float fishing had arrived.

The Ozark jonboat, a reusable flat-bottomed, square ended craft, evolved according to the predilections of local builders. Like skiff and flat-bottomed boat, jonboat became a generic term in a general taxonomy that included widely varying lengths, widths, rakes, sheer, rib placement, and other details required of a stable water craft capable of negotiating shallow water while carrying considerable weight in the cargo. These craft, with square ends, could be as large as 6 feet wide and 32 feet long (a near barge!) and could carry several passengers and a great amount of camping gear. Lengths 28 to 30 feet were common, but, in general, a classic jonboat for commercial Ozarks float fishing tended to be 4 feet wide and 18 to 24 feet long; occupants poled and paddled the boat. For some reason green was the preferred color. Shorter johnboats resembling row boats were used for ponds, lakes, swamps, caves, and short-distance river recreation.

Owens Boat Lines

Charley Barnes, one of many Ozark jonboat builders, began his float-fishing career about 1905 in Galena. He bought a few boats from others for inspiration and practiced building his own. He soon rejected the traditional long, narrow gigging boat as not suitable for a commercial enterprise. Such long, narrow boats, 2 to 3 feet wide and 20 to 26 feet long, were fine for gigging on short river trips, but were not ideal for bass fishing. When gigging, the locals would float the gig boat sideways, with spear fishermen in each end and at night a pine-knot fire in the center of the boat lit an expanse of the river. The long, narrow gig boat lacked sufficient space for the storage of gear, and was not stable enough to be utilized on float fishing trips that could last several days and many miles of river travel.

Barnes began to improve the design of the traditional gig boat of his area, (commonly referred to as a jack boat, possibly named from the use of jack-pine knot torches for night gigging), into a float boat. These float boats were shorter and wider to accommodate more people and overnight outdoors gear. Barnes continued to refer to this craft as a float boat or flat-bottomed boat for the next forty years of his career on the James and White rivers. Vance Randolph even termed this boat a gigger’s skiff in writing about the sport in 1934, and used the term john boat to describe the same craft—the name changed with the different use of the boat. Barnes became a principal owner in the Barnes Boating Company (later Galena Boating Company), by 1910 the largest early twentieth-century commercial outfitter in the Ozarks.

The emergence of Branson as a new railroad town in 1906 created the opportunity for another significant float boat enterprise. In the spring of 1906 St. Louisan, Vernon Todd, a businessman who invested and speculated in numerous ventures in Taney County and the new railroad town of Branson, began a commercial float service. S. W. Haymes, a contractor/builder from Greene County, invested in the business, and built many float boats for the White River trip to Cotter, Arkansas. By this time, outfitters offered guided float fishing to sportsmen for some 125 miles of river from Galena to Branson and another 250 miles from Branson to Cotter. Branson quickly became a center for a variety of regionally made float boats and imported manufactured crafts. By 1907 the Branson Echo boasted that there were over a hundred “light boats and skiffs for fishing parties” in addition to gasoline-powered boats for scenic touring.22

Today, it seems curious that the term jonboat does not appear in early twentieth-century print in southwest Missouri, given the fact that the jonboat was so widely used and widely appreciated in the Ozarks float fishing industry. However, in the tourist advertisements for the White River and Lake Taneycomo, the term flat-bottomed boat remained the preferred usage. Twenty years ago, Dan Saults recognized the existence of varied Ozark float boats when he wrote about a float trip of 1900, launched from Forsyth on White River. The boat that was used for this trip was built by a local carpenter, “straightsided, 12 or 14 feet long and over four feet wide,” but “certainly not a jonboat.”23 This craft, without a rake or flared sides, more resembled a crude row boat.

Charles Phelps Cushing, an urban journalist and photographer, highlighted the Galena-to-Branson float in 1911 for Outing Magazine. He remembered his experience on the river in a flat-bottomed boat that was a “cross between a log raft and a canoe.” His pictures showed both square-end and pointed bow canoe-like boats some 20 feet in length. He enjoyed being in his “crude old boat,” and apparently not hearing any other indigenous term, referred to it as an “Ozark splinter.” Clearly, Cushing did not hear anything about jonboats on his trip.

The Ozark Magazine in 1915 printed a long notice for the Galena Boating Company, operated by the Barnes Brothers, advertising the Galena-toBranson float. The Barnes folks declared, “The boats we furnish are flat bottom float boats and will carry from 1000 to 1500 pounds.” That same year Kansas Citian R. W. Wilson incorporated his Cliff House Company to develop a clubhouse overlookingPowersite Dam at Lake Taneycomo (an impoundment of White River). He included in the assets a “motor boat, four row boats, ten float boats,” but nothing termed as jonboats.

Lake Taneycomo, however, became the centerpiece on a floater’s map. One drifted 125 miles from Galena to Branson and another 250 miles on to Cotter, Arkansas. The lake became a stage in a theater of sportsmen—the lake made all watercraft float in a much larger public view. Cumbersome, primitive flat-bottomed boats became uncommon while better crafted, painted boats, sometimes named, tightly jointed with sheer and rake, carried float fishermen and fisherwomen in their beloved sport. A goal in commercial float fishing was achieved—a reusable, sophisticated boat could be rented for any river outing—called a flat-bottomed boat at the time, what became the Ozark jonboat had arrived on White River. At about the same time, that is after 1910, boats with a noticeable rake, distinguished from the square-end flat-bottom boats, appeared on Current River, too. This benchmark change in boat design was the symbol of a general trend in boat building on Ozarks waterways.

It is not until 1919 that this survey found the term jonboat in print, in this instance in a federal report on the mussel industry that was associated, in part, with the Ozarks. In this report, the author, Robert Coker, discussed the costs of serviceable john-boats in Arkansas in the year 1914. His study covered the Ohio and Mississippi river basins, and included the nationally significant mussel propagation and extraction industry on the Black and White rivers in Arkansas. The mussel industry had begun in earnest in Arkansas during the 1890s and required wide, stable, shallow draft boats similar to those that had been developed for commercial float fishing. As with the float boat, experimentation led to improvements in boats that would accommodate new mussel extractive technology in 1897. Coker described a variety of these watercraft, referring to them generically as john boats.28 This report by a federal employee may be the oldest known document to use the term jonboat. As the writer has not yet encountered the term jonboat in any Ozark regional print prior to this publication, jonboat, (like the term Ozark Mountains), may owe its origin in print culture to the federal government of professional outdoors writers, the jonboat term was a novelty He concluded that “Float boats are an Ozark invention, as much a part of the region as Ozark folklore itself.”

In Lincoln’s Black Bass Fishing, published in 1952, he continued to mistakenly credit Charley Barnes as the originator of the jonboat and commercial float fishing. He took the opportunity to criticize Ozark Ripley’s boast that he (Ripley) had introduced the jonboat and float fishing to the Ozarks. While Lincoln acknowledged that Ripley’s claim may have been true for the Current River country, it was not true for the Ozarks as a whole.

Lincoln also recorded part of a conversation with Charley Barnes concerning the term jonboat. Lincoln asked Barnes “if the name ‘jonboat’ was familiar to him and if his boat was known by this name in his days when he was operating out of Galena.” Barnes replied “that he had never known the name in the White River country and did not know how it originated.” Barnes, who had taken commercial floats on Current River, said that he had heard jonboat applied to boats in the Current River country, but “we have never used that name here.” Barnes went on to say that an operator in Branson claimed to have invented “the float trip boat,” but in fact “started making them long after we did.” Lincoln closed his chapter on float fishing by saying that “this manner of fishing” was not pursued anywhere else in the country and that the “float trip craft” was unique to the Ozarks. Regional publications in the Ozarks during the post-World War II years credited Lincoln with “naming the jonboat.” A more likely explanation, however, is that Lincoln took an old vernacular term, common in various locales in the Mississippi Valley, including use on Current River, and made it familiar in Ozark outdoors literature.

During the 1950s, as the work on Table Rock Dam progressed and spelled the end of the Galena to Branson float, a Springfield newspaper reporter sought out Charley Barnes in Branson. Reporter Don Payton said, “As for the jonboat, he’s no doubt the world’s number one authority, all he did was introduce it to the Ozarks some 50 years ago.” Interviewed in his workshop, Barnes said he began the business in 1904 and recalled that it was very difficult to get the boats back from Branson prior to the completion of the railroad. As entrepreneurs began to enjoy commercial success in the float fishing business in Galena, Barnes “started doing some serious thinkin’ about a new kind of boat… .the boats available weren’t big enough to accommodate occupants for much longer than a day.” Barnes quickly came to the realization that greater cargo space was needed for tents, food, equipment, and other gear. The result was that Barnes, still working in Branson, fabricated a boat “about 20 feet long and a yard wide with a snub nose and flat bottom.” The article included the comment that the recently deceased Robert Page Lincoln christened these craft “jonboats,” but, why, or how he came up with this term, Barnes did not profess to know.

In one of the last highly publicized articles in 1955 about the soon to vanish Galena-to-Branson float trips, Rufus Jarman floated with sportsmen on the Current, James, and White rivers in “long, lean skiffs called jonboats.” He met with the David Bales family in Shannon County and the famed Jim Owen in Branson. He interviewed other Missouri sporting authorities including Charley Barnes, Dan Saults of the Missouri Department of Conservation, Z. Lee Stokely in Poplar Bluff, and Roy McSpadden and Dwight Terry, guides and boat builders in Van Buren. Jarman had to conclude that “nobody seems to know how it [the jonboat] got its name.” After only fifty years of commercial float fishing in the Ozarks, primary leaders in the outfitting business and professional outdoor writers could not determine the origin of the name of the most famous of all Ozark craft.

Folks have floated upon Ozark waters for generations and perfected the local craft of boat building over time to suit the needs and changing nature of float fishing. The mature “Ozark Jonboat”, that was the end product of this process, was a sophisticated marriage of local craft traditions influenced by urban sportsmen and adapted to meet the demands of Ozark commercial tourism. The earliest references to watercraft on Ozark streams appeared in the writing of adventurers, like Henry R. Schoolcraft, and were documented from accounts of market hunters interviewed by writers like Silas Turnbo and Theodore Pease Russell. Such accounts document merchants and natives who used canoes, keelboats, and flat-bottomed boats for travel. These boats were used in commerce, especially barge traffic or flatboat freight, in rafting ties, in extracting freshwater mussels, and in marketing and exploiting resources in general. Drift hunts, or jack lighting (slow floating at night with an artificial light in the boat to spot deer for a shooter), were popular in the nineteenth century from Virginia to the Ozarks to Texas.  Later, flat-bottomed boats with squared-off ends, famous for their stability, were used in activities as diverse as flood relief and archaeological surveys on Ozark waters during the Depression.

The old tradition of flat-bottomed boats evolved into a new tradition of float boats—wider, shorter, capable of carrying large cargos, and having varying degrees of rake and sheer—as a direct consequence of the advent of Ozarks tourism. The tourists were a new critical mass of travelers who had cash money to spend. The promise of cash profits, combined with folk wisdom, created a new kind of boat perfectly suited to the pursuit of float fishing in the Ozarks. Ozark builders of flat-bottomed boats devised varying boat designs, some derived from boat forms that had once been cheaply made, quickly used, and disposed of at the end of an Ozark float. They ended up with boats that were stable, reusable, and perfectly adapted to a new and burgeoning tourist industry. By 1920 these jonboats, a new form pictured in postcards, photographs, and books like Ozark Ripley’s Jist Huntin’, had become the preferred craft for float fishing.

The railroad, that great engine of capitalist economies, brought thousands of tourists and sportsmen to the White River Hills and made possible the highiy advertised float trip industry that championed the flat-bottomed float boats. By this process the unique craft we now call the jonboat became a part of the history and material culture of the Ozarks. The pattern of name diffusion observed in this survey of Ozarks regional literature suggests an introduction of the term jonboat into the Ozarks from the Arkansas mussel industry; whether it was indigenous to that region or imported from the Lower South is unknown. Larry Dablemont’s survey for jonboats in Forest and Stream concluded with a similar impression that the name came from the Lower South. The term apparently diffused northward and was applied to flat-bottomed boats on the White and Black rivers of Arkansas, showing up in Missouri first in the Current and Eleven Point watersheds of southeast Missouri, and later in the James and White river valleys of southwest Missouri. In the latter watershed, it took forty years for the term jonboat to pass into common usage. Now, another half-century later, there are dozens of jonboat designs, usually manufactured in metal instead of wood, all serving a diverse sporting and tourist clientele.

Revered by many, the Ozark jonboat will continue as a central theme in the romance of the Ozarks. The specific origin of the term jonboat and a detailed definition of the craft awaits intensive research. Questions about the import of the name and the evolution of flat-bottomed boats into the mature Ozark jonboat represent a significant challenge for Ozark folklorists. How much did the forms of flat-bottomed boats, imported on railroads for a generation prior to the commercial float trip of the twentieth century, influence local builders? After all, the urban sportsmen initiated long distance float trips, not local boat builders. How many local builders purchased patterns or boats from Sears and Roebuck catalogs or from sporting magazines? Newspapers, serials, and print ephemera published in several waterways need to be examined for the introduction of the term jonboat and to identiify a larger arena of Ozark boat builders; the work must include literature reviews in the Lower South, and surveys of photographs taken at flood time may be instructive. In the Ozarks the term jonboat emerged in print from the parallel field work of first generation conservationists like Ozark Ripley and Keith McCanse and outdoors writers like Robert Page Lincoln. Meanwhile, a handful of Ozarkers are learning to build wooden jonboats in the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks again, and occasionally natives and tourists may encounter one at a local museum.

Readers are encouraged to send additional documentary copies of the use of the term jonboat, ones that pre-date 1919, to the Editor. Updates in a future issue may follow and future issues will contain articles and photographs of the historic float fishing era.


1 See L. B. Smith’s “fine boat on exhibition at his store” in the Lamar Democrat, May 27, 1886.

2 The urban boat designs may have inspired local builders just as quilt patterns in local newspapers served quiltmakers. Or, as Thad Snow wrote, “There was a saying in the bottoms that you can make a boat out of a picket fence, if that is all you’ve got.” See


Snow’s From Missouri (Boston: Houghton Muffin Co., 1954), 99.

See W. K McNeil’s award-winning Ozark Country (Jackson,

Ms.: University of Mississippi Press, 1995), xiii and 71-72. Johnboat rides are central to the Big Spring Historic District, National Park Service, Carter County, Missouri.

4 These floaters were commonly Yankee Midwesterners in background. E.g., they included Harold Bell Wright, Thomas Hart Benton, Rev. John Forsythe (School of the Ozarks), Keith McCanse (Missouri Game and Fish Commissioner), Willard Merriam (Rockaway Beach), and more. W H. Johnson, from Springfield, tried many ventures before successfully developing the town of Hollister.

5 Random House Dictionary of the English Language, second edition, unabridged, 1987. The earliest reference in the Tamony Collection, a nationally significant one for the use and pattern of popular Americanisms, is 1931. It was in the Baltimore Sun, December 21, 1931, Tamony Collection, WHMC-Columbia. Several sources equate the term joeboat with johnboat, and Larry Dablemont in “The History of Float Fishing,” Part I, Fishing and Hunting Journal (April 1986), 68, suggested that the Cajun term jump-boat may be connected.

6 The Flint quote is in Malcolm L. Comeaux, ‘Origins and

Evolution of Mississippi River Fishing Craft,” Pioneer America 10

(June 1, 1978), 75-76. Construction techniques of modern john-

boats are in Larry Dablemont, The Authentic American Johnboat,

How to Build It, How to Use It (New York: David McKay Company,

Inc., 1978), Bittersweet Country, ed. Ellen Gray Massey (Norman,

Ok.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 286-98, and Laurie

Peach, ‘Lost Souls of the Ozark Rivers,” Missouri Conservationist

(July 1993), 8-12.

Charles Hallock, The Sportsman’s Gazetteer and General Guide (New York: ‘Forest and Stream” Publishing Company, 1877), 611-36. Hallock also described the well-known arts of gigging and jack-lighting, or ‘fire-hunting,” deer on American waterways.

8 See, e.g., State of Missouri v. John Decker, October 1874, and William H. Parott v. Thomas Galbraith, September 1877, both in Carter County circuit court case files, Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City.

Thney County Republican, July 3, 1890, and ‘Fishing and Hunting,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 15 and September 19, 1897.

10 See George Clinton Arthur, Backwoodsmen, Daring Men of the Orarks (Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1940), 47, for walking home after rafting. Arthur mentions a commissary boat that accompanied sportsmen on p. 48, the shift-ferry on p. 55, taking gigs on tie rafts on p. 59, and having simply “a boat” at a winter camp in the early twentieth century. Tie rafters, when above a market town, fished and sold their catch in town. See Stone County News-Oracle, May 29 and July 10, 1907.

Interview of Charley Barnes by Townsend Godsey, 1955, typescript, Townsend Godsey Papers, College of the Ozarks, Point Lookout, Mo., ‘The Sportsman’s Paradise,” Lamar Democrat, December 10, 1885, and Current River Fishing and Hunting Club, Corporations files, MSA. The urban elites hired skilled outdoorsmen in the Ozarks to manage their clubhouses and grounds. Capt. J. G. Haskell made his reputation on the Piney and Gasconade rivers and was hired for the Current River Fishing and Hunting Club by 1889; ‘old man Craddock” had formerly guided out of Crocker on the Gasconade and was hired by Moses Wetmore for his


St. Louis Game Park in Taney County. Rolla Weekly Herald, August 1, 1889, and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 15, 1897.

12 St. Louis Globe-Democrat, November 20 and 27, 1898.

13 Comments by Brainard Allison of the Missouri Pacific Railroad in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 28, 1899

14 St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 28, 1899.

15 Ibid., January 8, 1899.

16 For a summary of watercraft, see Loland D. Baldwin, The Keelboat Age on Western Waters (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1941), 39-55. Baldwin notes that names for boats were eclectic including simple terms such as boxes and sheds. For surveys of boats and their names, see Archer Butler Hulbert, Waterways of Westward Expansion (Cleveland, Ohio: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1903), 100-151, and N. M. Miller Surrey described an array of long, narrow boats in The Commerce of Louisiana During the French Regime, 1699-1763 (New York: Columbia University, 1916), 55-81.

17 St. Louis Globe.Democrat, November 18, 1899.

18 St. Louis and San Francisco Railway, ‘Feathers and Fins on the Frisco,” (St. Louis, Mo., 1898), n.p. The wagon box was removed, the distance front to back axle was lengthened, and the boat set on top of the wagon frame.

19 Interview of Charley Barnes by Townsend Godsey, p. 5. At this time, Barnes and others built boats for other float-trip promoters in Galena. The most prominent was Charles C. McCord and his network of local businessmen and railroad officials.

20 Further north in the Ozarks during World War I, Fred Dablemont spent two years experimenting with boat design as he tried ideas for commercial float fishing on the Big Piney and Gasconade rivers. See Larry Dablemont, The Authentic American John boat, How to Build It, How to Use It (New York: David McKay Company, 1975), 2-3. Dablemont’s experience suggests that although urban sportsmen had been vacationing on those rivers since the 1870s, there had been no commonly accepted float-boat craft tradition established in that area of the Ozarks. This is somewhat surprising considering the brisk trade of Perry Andres, a substantial outfitter at Arlington. The gigger’s skiff and johnboat terms with sketches are in Vance Randolph, The Camp on Wildcat Creek (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934), 28 and 164.

21 Branson Echo, April 13, 1906. According to Barnes, Todd later hired him to build boats for the Branson fleet.

22 Branson Echo, October 25, 1907. The first passenger and freight boat was W. D. Troutman’s Moark.

23 Dan Saults, ‘Float Fishing,” Ozarks Mountaineer (April 1978), 22.


24 Charles Phelps Cushmg, “Floating Through the Ozarks,” Outing Magazine (vol. 58, August 1911), pp. 537-46.

25 “Galena, Missouri,’ The Ozark Magazine (JanuaryFebruary 1915), 50.

26 Cliff House Club, Corporation Files, MSA.

27 For Current River see Bill Royce, “The Jonboat, An Ozark Creation,” August 1974 and “Jonboat or Johnboat, Which is Correct?,” September 1974, both in Ozark Graphic. The term jon-boat, spelled without an “h,” came into use during the Depression.

28 Robert E. Coker, Fresh-Water Mussels and Mussel Industries of the United States (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1919), 50-52. The new technology was a crowfoot bar that had to be lowered into the river and dragged over mussel beds to extract the catch. Ozark folklorist W K. McNeil has not yet been able to document the use of the johnboat term prior to 1919. W. K. McNeil, letter to Lynn Morrow, August 12, 1997.

29 See Lynn Morrow, “Ozark/Ozarka: Establishing a Regional Term,” White River Valley Historical Quarterly (Fall 1996), 6.

30 McClane’s New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, A. J. McClane, ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1974), 503-4. The boat described was 20’ long and 18″ wide, a very narrow craft and one that would not support commercial float-fishing tourism. Steve Wright continued this assertion in his excellent Ozark Trout Tales (Arkansas City, Ks.: Gilliland Printing, Inc., 1994), 16.

31 See Ozark Ripley, Jist Huntin’ (Cincinnati: Steward Kidd Company, 1921), 154a. James B. Thompson, resident of Doniphan, Mo., and a Missouri game warden, chose an apt pen name in Ozark Ripley.

32 Missouri Game and Fish News (February 1930), 12, gave the term as “John” boat. See also “Fishing Trips,” brochure, c. 1926, Robert Wiley Papers, WHMC-Rolla.

33 Otto Rayburn, “White River Float Trip,” Rayburn’s Ozark Guide (Summer 1948), 29-30.

34 See Otto Rayburn, Ozark Country (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941).

35 Vance Randolph and Guy W. Von Schriltz, Ozark Outdoors, Hunting and Fishing Stories of the Ozarks (New York: Vanguard Press, 1934), 267-75, and Guy W. Von Schriltz, “SmallMouth of the James River,” Outdoor Life (November 1927), 32. Years later when Randolph compiled his great work on tall tales, We Always Lie to Strangers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951), 214, he used “john-boat” in writing about giggers.

36 Robert Page Lincoln, “Float Trip in the Ozarks,” Arkansas Gazette, June 15, 1941. Lincoln had similar things to say in “Trailways Takes a Float Trip,” Trailways Magazine (Fall 1946), featuring Charley Barnes and a Jim Owen float trip.

37 Robert Page Lincoln, ‘Ozark Float Trip,” in Black Bass Fishing, Theory and Practice (Harrisburg, Pa.: The Stackpole Company, 1952), 341-54. The publisher was a major outlet for outdoors/conservation writers. An example of essays that began using the term johnboat in a prominent way after Lincoln’s use was Harry Bruton, “Mecca of Float Fishermen,” Missouri Conservationist (May 1948).

38 Charley Barnes probably worked in the float fishing trade at this time for other businessmen, e.g., C. C. McCord, who was the primary outfitter with merchants in Galena. Barnes’ main business at the time was a small restaurant in Galena.

39 Don Payton, ‘Johaboat No Thing of Beauty But Performs Its Task Well,” Springfield News-Leader, February 19, 1956. Payton later spent many years as an Information Officer for Southwest Missouri State University.

40 Rufus Jarman, Saturday Evening Post, June 25, 1955, 37 and 89.

41 For drift hunting see Charles Hallock, The Sportsman’s Gazetteer and General Guide (New York: Forest and Stream Publishing Company, 1877), 83, The White River Chronicles of S.C.Turnbo: Man and Wildlife on the Ozarks Frontier, ed. James Keefe and Lynn Morrow, (Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press, 1994), 117 and 308, n. 112; and Thad Sitton, Backwoodsmen, Stockmen and Hunters along a Big Thicket River Valley (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 142. Hallock described numerous flatbottom and roundbottom boats for sport, including “A Common Gunning Boat” and “The Gunning Skiff,” in his chapter “Sporting Boats and Canoes,” 611-36. He also cautioned readers on p. 94 to be sure to take their own boats on the railroad to the upper Gasconade River at Arlington to ensure floating on the river.

42 Larry Dablemont, ‘The History of Float Fishing,” Fishing and Hunting Journal (May 1986), 62. Dablemont surveyed the pages of Forest and Stream, 1912-1922, looking for the term johnboat before finally seeing it in a 1922 letter.


3 Responses to “The Jon Boat”

  1. Dave Barnes September 23, 2011 at 12:57 am #

    What a great article on the history of the johnboat! I enjoyed reading it.
    David Barnes (Charley Barnes grandson)

    • Staff Writer September 25, 2011 at 8:24 am #

      Thanks David, glad you dropped by and visited the site.


  1. Aluminum Fishing Jon Boat Boats-Row Your Catch Ashore - Line & Sight - December 11, 2017

    […] out of the Missouri Ozark region, though the exact origin of the name remains a mystery. You could spend some time reading the history of jon boats and learn quite a bit. One thing that stands out is that jon boats are quite different today than […]

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