Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 118 / Number 4
The Shenandoah River Gundalow: Reusable Boats in Virginia's Nineteenth-Century River Trade
- Seth C. Bruggeman, pp. 314–49
Amid a burgeoning wheat economy, entrepreneurial Virginians organized the New Shenandoah Company in 1814 to ensure a reliable river trade throughout the Shenandoah River Valley. Farmers and boatmen risked dangerous journeys along the turbulent Shenandoah for an opportunity to access the wealth of eastern markets. At the center of this system was a cheap, disposable boat known locally as a "gundalow." Thousands of gundalows traveled from such towns as Port Republic to Harpers Ferry, where they were broken down and sold as scrap lumber. Consequently, gundalow lumber found its way into buildings along the river, including some that still stand today. Although the gundalow's impermanence has long obscured its place in Valley history, this essay suggests that historians stand to benefit from reconstructing the unusual life of this unassuming boat. Specifically, the gundalow's story promises to shed light on the development of the Valley's mixed economy during the early nineteenth century and particularly on the role of slavery therein. Moreover, recalling the gundalow encourages us to appreciate the value of unconventional evidence and the work of historians who toil beyond the university.