Old West Vice

The River

The Mississippi River is the second-longest river in North America, extending 2,320 miles in length.  Its watershed drains all or part of 32 states (and two Canadian provinces), its drainage basin encompassing 1.1 million square miles.  It runs from Lake Itasca in Northern Minnesota to New Orleans.

River systems have always been highways of travel and trade.  What changed over time was the frequency of river travel, the number of people engaging in it, the kind and quantity of goods, the method of propulsion, and the size of river craft.  River transportation increased with increases in European explorers, trappers, traders, and settlers.

Wisconsin History Association

The Boats

At first, settlers tried to imitate the Indian canoe, but while it did accommodate the moving of people, the canoe was unsuitable for cargo or more than a few passengers.  Additionally, the canoes had a short lifespan because of manufacture, mostly fastened logs, deerskin, and birch bark.  Rafts were similarly fashioned.  River travel by canoe or raft was something to avoid during flood seasons or in rapids, and passengers may have found exciting the collision with sub-surface impediments.

Later, as the number of river settlements increased, more sophisticated boats began to appear —many of which mimicked lake or ocean-going craft, albeit with much shallower drafts.  The first craft to depart from the Indian style canoe was the pirogue, introduced by French traders/trappers.  This boat was heavy, hard to control, unreliable, and short-lived, but this basic design led to the batteau.  The batteau was much like the pirogue, only with tapered bow and stern, a wider middle, and made from lighter wood.  The batteau was much easier to handle in rough water.

Some of these boats required a crew of 18 men, most about half that, but smaller versions were suitable for two men.  With an increase in settlements and river travel came the river pirates who operated in gangs and often employed several boats to overtake batteau’s and overwhelm the crew.  River pirates not only hijacked the cargo, they more often than not murdered the entire crew.  Hostile Indians were also a problem; they had an interest in the shipments, of course, but they killed mainly for the fun of it and made no distinction between passengers or crew.

The addition of sails on batteau came in handy when traveling upstream, depending on wind direction, of course. Still, they were particularly useful in the lower Mississippi when winds were prevalent for most of the day.  The next innovation was developing river barges, which were essentially rafts constructed over two pirogues’ hulls, the over deck forming a wide platform for cargo.  River barges going downstream with the current were more challenging to control, particularly given their length (up to 60 feet) and a width of about 20’.  But high demand for riverboats created an industry within river settlements among those skilled in the craft of boat-building, particularly near sawmills.  The lumber trade was particularly profitable for this reason.  In the upper Mississippi, flatboat operations faced seasonal restrictions.  They could float down the river only during high water periods, and upon arrival, they were broken up and sold as lumber scrap.

The years following the Revolutionary War was a period of exceptional growth in the southeastern United States.  Several factors prompted such developments: the Louisiana Purchas (1803), its subsequent exploration by Merriweather Lewis and John Rogers Clark (1803-1806), the invention of the steam engine and its application to river travel, and by the network of southern rivers, which included the Mississippi, Alabama, Apalachicola, and Chattahoochee.  Rivers, river settlements, and riverboats boosted trade and western migration.  John Fitch’s experiment with steam-powered boats was unsuccessful in the late 1780s, but Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston’s steamboat in 1807 proved that such vessels were useful in moving cargo and profitable in moving people.

Most steamboats were paddlewheel boats.  They all shared a standard design: wooden hulls, paddlewheels placed to port and starboard or abaft the stern, coal or woodburning furnaces and boilers, and copper tubes to channel the steam.  While these steamboats shared a typical design, they had different purposes.  For example, tow-boats moved barges, ferries carried people, wagons, livestock, snag-boats cleared the rivers of navigational hazards, packets took goods, mail, passengers, and fuelers resupplied steamboats with wood, coal, or coal oil.  There was also the so-called showboat.

Showboats were floating palaces, with theaters, galleries, ballrooms, and saloons.  They provided isolated river settlements with excitement and entertainment, but showboats were rare compared to other steamboats.  Of all steamboats, packets were the most numerous because they were cargo boats and passenger’s vessels.  Most packets had an upper deck reserved for first-class passengers, although traveling by packet was far from luxurious because of their crowded and somewhat cramped conditions.  The lower deck of packets was reserved for transporting livestock and people who could not afford a first-class ticket.

Steamboats reduced the travel time on America’s rivers, but river travel was still dangerous.  Indian attacks, although infrequent, resulted in the loss of cargo and human life, but an even greater danger was boiler explosions —which were often spectacular[1].  Steamboats thrived until the arrival of railroads.  In 1823, the United States had 23 miles of track; by 1880, there were over 93,000 miles of track. 

The Gamblers

Human beings are risk-takers (i.e., gamblers)[2].  According to archaeologists, gambling in ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, Japan, China, and North and South America dates back to around 2,000 years before the common era.  They also claim that weighted dice provides evidence of cheating.  Scientists also say that dice is the oldest gambling implement, often carved from sheep bones and human knucklebones.  More recently (between 500-1500 A.D.), gambling was an accepted pastime in England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.  In the 1200s, France outlawed gambling, but it continued to exist unlawfully between 1215-1270.

During the crusades, Christian knights were permitted to gamble, but men of the lower classes received punishments, often whippings, for engaging in similar activities.  One consequence of the crusades was that British knights returned to England with long-legged Arabian horses, bred with sturdy mares to produce racehorses.  From this, betting on horse races became a popular pastime in the British Isles.

Scientists also note that long before the arrival of Europeans in America, native populations were heavy gamblers —which in many cases included betting on the outcome of sports contests.  A modern-day analyst might point to similarities between Indian ishtaboli and football, hockey, soccer, and lacrosse.  Indians would often bet everything they owned on a particular outcome.

Gambling in America took on new forms after the arrival of Europeans.  When people migrate to new lands, they take all they know —including their cultural traditions and social norms.  French settlers were famous for betting on checkers, playing cards and billiards.  British settlements tended to gamble on horse racing, cockfighting, and bull baiting[3].  In 1612, King James I created a lottery to help fund the settlement in Jamestown.  In America, British colonies used lotteries to raise funds to finance the building of towns and roadways.  None of this suggests that all colonists favored or approved of gambling.  Pilgrims and Puritans fled to North America in the 1620s to escape religious prosecution; they generally disapproved of gambling as sinful.

Is gambling sinful, or is it merely a pastime for fools?  British-American aristocrats gambled away all their belongings (estates, banks, and titles) so often that it became a significant problem.  According to C. W. Johnson in The Law of Bills of Exchange, Promissory Notes, Checks, etc. (1839), massive transfers of lands and titles so disrupted the British and Colonial economies that Queen Anne issued a proclamation in 1710 that made large gambling debts “void and of no effect.” In other words, gambling debts could not be collected or legally enforced[4].

Gambling, whether sinful, has psychological implications.  People who gamble compulsively, who risk their fortunes and that of their heirs, are believed to harbor severe character defects.  Famed American golfer Bobby Jones never turned professional because his mother emphasized to him her belief that “true gentlemen” do not golf for money —so he never did.

In the mid-to-late 1700s, a surge of evangelical Christianity swept through England, Scotland, and the North American colonies —a period often referred to as the “Great Awakening.” Gambling was pronounced “sinful” and dangerous to society; it was up to religious leaders to help stamp it out.  In 1774, the Continental Congress sought to encourage frugality, economy, and industry by issuing the “Articles of Association,” which urged colonists “[to] discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse racing, and all kinds of games, cockfighting, exhibitions of shows, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”

Of course, the foregoing was “official policy.”  In reality, colonial officials tolerated gambling as long as it did not upset the social order, even though Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia incorporated Queen Anne’s Statute to prevent gambling from getting out of hand.  In the mid-1800s, after the Third Great Awakening[5], moralists pressured state legislatures to restrict sinful behavior.  State legislatures passed laws that restricted gambling, drinking, and strumpets.  State lawmakers made some exceptions for “respectable gentlemen,” which, given how we define “gentleman,” seems incongruent.  So-called Blue Laws[6] even restricted certain secular activities on the Sabbath.  Such laws never inhibited anyone’s appetite for sinful pleasure; they only drove immoral behavior underground.  Conversely, everyone knew that the city of New Orleans was hell’s gateway and the people living there were proud of it.  In 1823, Louisiana attempted to harness Satan by legalizing several forms of gambling, which was very profitable for gamblers and the state.

On the surface, mainstream society shunned these sinners, but if polite society couldn’t see it, there was no reason to complain.  Many gambling establishments (and their wicked companions) disappeared into side streets, alley-ways, in mostly ethnic minority sections of town, or shantytowns, where polite society never went anyway.  Since there was never any polite society in New Orleans, city residents embraced their wickedness (and still do) and made it part of its tourist industry.

There is a natural association of sinful pursuits.  People tend to gamble more freely (recklessly) while consuming alcohol, so it was (and still is) a practice to offer cheap liquor to gamblers.  And, along with the gambling and the booze came harlots seeking their share of the market.  Gambling houses/saloons and the dancehall girls produced tawdry establishments in the riverbank towns.  In turn, they created unacceptable conditions with men shooting and stabbing one another over card games and strumpets.  Waterfront conditions were intolerable and objectionable to the townspeople.

Andrew Jackson’s presidency (1829-1837) focused on social issues and social morality.  It was a time when gambling scandals were so prevalent that Jackson championed an end to most legal gambling in the United States.  Private and public lotteries were prone to fraud and scandal.  Many southern legislators objected to lotteries on moral grounds, and by 1840, banned in the southern states.  By 1862, only two states had legal lotteries: Missouri and Kentucky.  Many, however, were reinstated after the Civil War to raise revenues.

When towns along the Mississippi River began passing ordinances that outlawed gambling and prostitution in the mid-1830s, creative sin merchants decided to move their operations to riverboats, which was incredibly resourceful considering the tens of thousands of miles of water highways upon which no one had jurisdiction.  Despite the public’s clamor for a more righteous society, however, there seemed to be no lack of interest in reading the menu.

The sin peddlers reasoned that given the fact that riverboats were efficient methods for transporting goods and centers for trade, because trade centers attract people with money, and because water travel was often tedious, why not entertain passengers with the wickedness of their own choosing?  Gamblers flocked to the riverboats, some of whom were excellent gamblers, many more who were card sharps and cheats.  The existence of scam artists was well known to everyone, but it never prevented the separation of money from foolish men.  Another motivating factor for moving gambling establishments offshore was that in 1835, the good folks of Mississippi lynched five-card sharks caught in the act of cheating.

Not every river town denounced the sin industries.  Some river towns embraced them.  New Orleans was probably the pièce de résistance from open cities, but there were others: Biloxi, Natchez, and Vicksburg stand out as for their depravities.  Initially, saloons, brothels, and gambling halls were little more than lantern-lit tentage, dirt floors, and a bar consisting of a complete board resting on two or three whiskey barrels.  Brothels were small cots in a wagon bed, and gambling tables were rickety tables, a few chairs, and dirty, dog-eared playing cards.  Eventually, these were replaced by wooden buildings with false fronts to make them seem grander than they were, and brick buildings replaced these with ornate bars, wall mirrors, and chandeliers.  Brothels became elegantly appointed parlor houses professionally managed by experienced tarts, some of whom augmented their “cut of the take” by gambling with their clients.

Over time, with fewer riverboats operating on the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Columbia, and Sacramento rivers, enterprising investors began creating “resorts” along the coastal Gulf of Mexico.  These were rather up-scale establishments where wealthy clients (and their ladies) could find entertainment, where they could enjoy mild weather, luxuriate in posh hotels, and enjoy gorgeous gardens.  In such places as these, managers kept the cardsharps away, and the stakes were much higher.  During the day, “gentlemen” and their ladies could participate in lawn bowling, billiards, sailing, and hunting.  After dusk, there was fine dining and dancing.  After escorting his lady back to their room, a gentleman could return to gamble and, perhaps, engage a pricey call girl for some post-gambling relaxation.  In Biloxi, Natchez, and Vicksburg, professional gamblers made a ton of money from vacationing bankers and captains of industry.  There was no limit to the decadence a respectable banker from New York Topeka could pursue —as long as the cost was never an issue.

After civil war reconstruction —when southern society reemerged from the shadows when railroad service made overland travel less dangerous, people abandoned the riverboats. They flocked in droves to Mobile and New Orleans.  Respectable New Orleans businessmen began investing in communities such as Covington, Slidell, and Mandeville.

American gambling surged in the post-Civil War period.  People gambled on everything imaginable, from things that moved —including how fast it could go and how high it could jump— to boxing, flea and frog jumping, bull and bear fighting, dog fights, and rodeo[7] contests.  Leading gamblers included such notable personalities as Bat Masterson, Luke Short, who promoted horse racing and boxing, perhaps the greatest gambler/swindler of them all, George Devol.

George Hildreth Devol (1829-1903) was born in Marietta, Ohio.  At age ten, he ran away from home and became a riverboat cabin boy.  We remember him as a gambling cheat, con artist, and a street fighter who plied his trade on riverboats and railroad lines that traveled between Kansas City and Cheyenne.  He was an associate of Canada Bill Jones, an Englishman who arrived in the United States already an accomplished scam artist.  Jones perfected “Three Card Monte,[8]” from which he made as much as $200,000 in one Kansas City sitting (about a week).  Some claim that Devol made over two million dollars in forty years of gambling along the Mississippi River, a tidy sum for the mid-to-late 1800s.

Jefferson Randolph (Soapy) Smith (1860-1898) was a gambler, con artist, and racketeer who made his money by fleecing the gullible out of their cash from Texas to Alaska —born in Georgia to a wealthy family that met with financial ruin after the American Civil War.  In 1876, the family moved to Round Rock, Texas, for a fresh start and where Jeff began his career as a confidence man.  After Smith’s mother died in 1877, the 17-year-old left home—but not before witnessing the death of Texas outlaw Sam Bass in 1878.  Smith found his way to Fort Worth, where he formed a close-knit gang of shills and thieves to do his bidding.  He quickly gained a reputation as a crime boss.  Smith became known as “Soapy” from his method of swindling people out of their money.  Gang members included such men as Texas Jack Vermillion and “Big Ed” Burns.

Soapy’s forté was the so-called “short game,” where swindles were quick or needed little setup or assistance.  The short game included the shell game, three-card monte, and the “big mitt,” which was their term for a rigged poker game. Smith’s nickname came from the short con where he sold bars of soap.  He wrapped some of these in money (ranging from a single dollar to a crisp $100 bill).  People would buy the soap for a dollar, thinking that they had a realistic opportunity to win the big prize.  Someone always won the $100 purse, but that someone was still one of Smith’s shills.

Part of Smith’s success in running con games and criminal gangs was his ability to make friends with politicians and key officials in the city hall.  In 1887, Smith had his fingers in most illegal activity in Denver, Colorado—including gambling and prostitution.  He made a lot more money than the bribes he paid to city hall officials and corrupt police officers.  Smith met his end in Skagway, Alaska, shot to death by vigilantes.

Gambling wasn’t confined solely to gunslingers and con artists, either.  Several women were prominent gamblers, including Lottie Deno[9], Poker Alice, and Dona Maria Gertrudis Barcelo.

Lottie Deno (Carlotta J. Thompkins) (1844-1934) was famous for her gambling skills and pluck in Texas and New Mexico.  She was born in Kentucky and traveled extensively before migrating to Texas.  Notably, when her well-off family lost their wealth during the Civil War, Lottie learned to gamble out of necessity.  Historians argue about her early life, but there is no question about her gambling skill.  Lottie arrived in San Antonio, Texas, in 1865, initially a house employee at the University Club.

When her lover, Frank Thurmond, fled the city accused of murder, Lottie soon followed, and the pair traveled throughout the western frontier, moving from one gambling house to another in such places as Fort Concho, Jacksboro, San Angelo, Fort Worth, and Fort Griffin.  It was at Fort Griffin that Lottie’s reputation took off, where Lottie helped grizzled buffalo hunter’s part with their hard-earned gold.  It was also where Lottie became associated with John “Doc” Holliday.  In addition to her gambling, she operated saloons and brothels.  After marrying Frank Thurmond, the couple settled in Deming, New Mexico, where they invested in real estate, mine ventures, ranching, streetcar business, and banking.  By the time of her death in 1934, she was a very wealthy woman.

New Mexico Historical Women Organization

Dona Maria Gertrudis Barcelo (1800-1852) was born in Sonora, Mexico—some say from French stock—who moved with her parents from central to northern Mexico, known as the Province of New Mexico.  In 1823, “Tules” married Manuel Sisneros, with whom she had two sons.  Despite her marital status, Tules retained her own name.  In 1825, Tules was fined by Mexican authorities for operating a gambling salon for miners in the Ortiz Mountains.  Eventually relocating to Santa Fe, she opened another gambling saloon.  From this central New Mexico location, her saloon entertained many Americans traveling along the Santa Fe Trail.  Some lauded Tules for being someone who ran a house where open gambling, drinking, and smoking were available to anyone.  Others criticized her and a drunk with loose morals—she was alleged to have had a long-term affair with New Mexico’s governor, Manuel Armijo.  Some claimed that she was physically gorgeous; others said that she was haggish.  One thing everyone agreed on is that she excelled at three-card monte.

Despite tales told about her by others, Tules jealously guarded her name in Santa Fe.  On two occasions, she sued people for slander.  She may not have been too bad, though.  The U.S. Army borrowed money from Tules in 1846 to help pay the salaries of invading troops.  She also exposed a conspiracy aimed at the U.S. Army that, in all likelihood, prevented a massacre of American soldiers.  When Tules passed away on 17 January 1852, she had a massive fortune of $10,000.  Her funeral was elaborate and criticized for being too much fanfare for a whore.  Thinking about Tules and her critics, it makes one wonder who is the worst sort of person.

Riverboat gambling ended when trains replaced the often dangerous steam-powered boats navigating America’s largest rivers.  Old west gambling ended with closing the frontier and the rise of anti-saloon temperance movements in the early 1900s.  Following prohibition, state after state passed legislation outlawing casino gambling; Nevada stood alone bucking federal pressure.  Today, gambling remains with us on cable television, in Nevada, Mississippi, aboard ocean-going passenger liners, in New Jersey, and off the coast of Texas.  Lotteries are back, as well —many tied to raising money to support our failed education system.  We haven’t outgrown prostitution, either (which remains unlawful in most locations), and drinking alcoholic beverages (although regulated in some states) is as popular today as it ever was in the mid-1800s.  Psychologists tell us that gambling and drinking isn’t a problem until humans begin doing these things excessively.  In any case, we know that human beings have yet to outgrow their preferred vices.


  1. Blevins, D. From Angels to Hellcats: Legendary Texas Women, 1836-1880.  Mountain Press, 2007.
  2. Chavez, F. A. Dona Tules: Her Fame and Her Funeral.  El Palacio Press, Vol.
  3. Crump, T. Abraham Lincoln’s World: How Riverboats, Railroads, and Republicans Transformed America.  New York, Continuum Press, 2009.
  4. Devereaux, J. Pistols, Petticoats, and Poker: The Real Lottie Deno, No Lies or Alibis.  High Lonesome Books, 2009.
  5. Twain, M. Life on the Mississippi.  Bantam Books, 1883.


[1] The steamboat General Slocum explosion killed 958 people and injured 175 more.  Between 1811-1851, 21% of river accidents were caused by exploding boilers.  The lifespan of the average steamboat was five years.  Between 1830-1839, 272 steamboats were destroyed after less than three years of service.  Added to this danger was irresponsible captains, who risked their boats and their passengers’ lives by racing one another down the waterways.

[2] According to some psychological studies, risk-taking is a consistent personality trait suggesting that certain individuals will take similar risks across a wide range of situations.  Risk-taking, however, is not confined to gamblers alone.  Farmers take risks every year when they plant their fields in the spring with the expectation of a marketable crop at the end of the growing season.  Modern people take risks every time they get into an automobile or board a plane.  The issue is “acceptable risk,” taken in most cases without much thought of possible consequences.  In seeking to decrease their risk of loss, professional gamblers developed methods of cheating, generally referred to in this post as scams, cons, or swindles.  See also: Personality and Risk-Taking, Bernd Figner, Columbia University, and Elke Weber, Columbia University, 2015.

[3] Bull baiting was a blood sport in which a bull was tethered in a ring or pit into which dogs were thrown.  The dogs were trained to torment the bull, which responded in its defense by goring the dogs.  Spectators would bet on how many dogs the bull would kill.  Great fun, apparently.

[4] Incorporated in English Common Law, this prohibition prevails even today in American law.  Queen Anne, however, was also known for her enjoyment of horse racing (and boxing).

[5] There were “three” great awakenings in US history.  The first between 1720-1770; the second between 1790-1820; the third between 1850-1900.  In the first, a renewal of religious devotion mirrored the broader movements taking place in Germany, England, and Scotland.  In the second, primarily movements initiated by Baptist and Methodist leaders. The third was marked by religious and social activism.

[6] In 1781, Samuel A. Peters’s Connecticut history listed restrictive Sabbath rules in New Haven, printed on blue paper.  The blue color represented “rigidly moral” pronouncements.

[7] American rodeo evolved from a Spanish tradition that dates to the 1500s when vaqueros competed in wrangling events and bullfighting.

[8] Known by several names (3-Card Marney, 3-Card shuffle, Follow the lady, Find the Bee), three-card monte is a con game in which the victim (mark) is tricked into betting a sum of money that they can find the “money card.”  It is a short con in which the outside man pretends to conspire with the mark to cheat the inside man while conspiring with the inside man to cheat the mark.  John N. Maskelyne explained the game in his book, Sharps and Flats —the sharps being the cheaters and the flats being cheated.

[9] The character Miss Kitty Russell in the long-running radio and television program Gunsmoke was based on Lottie Deno.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in FRONTIER, HISTORY, NATIVES. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Old West Vice

  1. Andy says:

    The bio’s of the vice lords and ladies were fascinating. The discussion of the boats and river transportation was interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kidme37 says:

    Really interesting. I imagine the lure of easy money was even more enticing given the alternatives of seriously hard work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      You know, I’ve never met a farmer in his 50s who didn’t look as though he was in his 80s. It’s tough work, it never stops, and in the best-case scenario, it’s a crapshoot. Many, if a disease doesn’t kill your crop, then the weather will. But I also never a farmer who wasn’t the sharpest knife in the draw. Those guys can do anything. They’re scientists and mechanics, carpenters, and veterinarians. I was always in awe of the fact that farmers raised so many kids. By the end of the day, which starts at 4 a.m., and ends when the sun goes down, who’s in the mood for making babies?

      As for gamblers, I guess they all took to heart what Shakespeare said about fools and money — and that there’s one born every minute.

      Thanks for stopping by, Kid.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. kidme37 says:

    One of my lunch pals grew up on his Dad’s farm in Indiana. He never has any stories about how easy it was. He is one of three, so I guess his Mom was very appealing. Or maybe it’s the off season?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was stationed in Biloxi, and never imagined it had that background.
    I was amused when they got a “floating” casino there a few years ago, not realizing that it hearkened to their history.

    Liked by 1 person

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