Featured image: Lugger captain and his crew docked on the Mississippi Sound, ca 1890. Photograph by Lewis Hines.
Captain Anatole McKan stood at the helm of his 59-foot double-masted freight schooner and ordered his crew to make way in the Pearl River delta forming the boundary between Louisiana and Mississippi. Pushing away from the docks of the sprawling Poitevent & Favre Lumber Company, the 37-year old former slave used the slow, dark current of the East Pearl River to turn his schooner, Ella C. Andrews, south towards the open waters of the Mississippi Sound in 1877.
Heavy in the water with 35,000-square feet of freshly milled long leaf yellow pine stacked on board, Captain McKan’s crew of four black watermen raised sails for their 45-nautical mile run to New Orleans’ West End. It would take some time for the Ella C. Andrews to labor up and gain momentum, but once the heavy canvas sails were aloft and her lines cleated off and stowed, his men could relax until their turn to the west.
McKan, a native of Covington, was under sail on their twice weekly lumber run to his home waters in Louisiana, a place that has completely forgotten his name and others like him even though they achieved something conventional wisdom deems improbable – to stand as former slaves turned Captains in command of schooners and crew in commerce on the post-Civil War Gulf Coast.
In fact, in action and by law, while underway and no matter the color of one’s skin, the Captain of a vessel is considered the “master” and responsible party for all that occurs on a vessel under their command, barring an “Act of God.” As McKan navigated through the oyster shoals of the Mississippi Sound and into the windings of the Rigolets in the Louisiana marsh to reach Lake Pontchartrain, the difference between his life the minute he stepped off the schooner versus standing at the helm with the salt wind on his face, sails trimmed and fully in control would have been vast and stark.
In a region reeling from the Civil War and slavery, McKan wasn’t the first nor would he be the last “Negro Captain” to accomplish this on the waters of the post-war Northern Gulf Coast. In fact it was incredibly common, and he was but one in a long line of Gulf Coast black watermen and captains lost to time.
With roads scarce and railroad bridges over the miles of marsh and waterways non-existent, coastal Louisiana and Mississippi’s harbors and ports on the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico were growing as lumber, fishing and resort towns serving New Orleans and Mobile – and it was nearly all sail powered. Schooners, oyster luggers, and flashy new steamers made way along the coast and through the muddle of shallow lakes and bays interconnected by narrow passes through the marsh to deliver cargo, mail, and people, and before the first Mississippi River bridge was completed in Louisiana in 1930, even railcars hopped onto steam powered ferries to cross the river.
Wooden boatbuilders and shipyards peppered the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain, and it wasn’t uncommon to see mastless wooden sloops lowered from the upper floors of downtown New Orleans office buildings as wealthy businessmen built small sailboats on empty upper floors for their personal means of transportation.
Boats of all types were an inescapable way of life on the Gulf Coast, so it was inevitable that before the Civil War, slaves were trained to crew many of these freight schooners, especially in the “lake trade” running between New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast.
In the 1930 pamphlet “The Progress of the Races,” Etienne William Maxson wrote one of the only detailed glimpses into the extent of these black watermen, ship’s masters, and captains involved in the Gulf Coast lake trade from the 19th Century. Maxson, a black man who worked most of his life for the federal government and was at one time a Commissioner of Elections and a postmaster in Hancock County, Mississippi, states, “It is true that colored men ran their master’s vessels in slave time on Pearl River and Lake Pontchartrain, carrying commodities into New Orleans, but they were mere sailing masters and not full fledged captains, because a white man had to be on board to clear the law.”
On any given day, nearly twenty schooners, several steamships, and untold “gayly painted” oyster luggers with their canvas sails stained red were arriving and disembarking at New Orleans West End, then known as New Lake End, and at the mouth of Bayou St. John. In sheer dockage numbers for these smaller vessels and their cargo tonnage landing along the New and Old Basin Canals running south from the lake through the cypress swamps to the city, these manmade canals were every bit as busy as the Port of New Orleans on the Mississippi River.
These lake trade schooners, many manned by slaves, would have been a common sight on the canals and their turning basins with the Old Basin’s terminus adjacent to “Place des Nègres” now known as Congo Square and the New Basin finishing alongside what would eventually be known as Storyville. However, these sailors would have been less common along the docks at the port on the river in New Orleans, but still significant with slave crews running schooners from upriver plantations or hired out as maritime “temp” workers to steamship captains desperate for hands.
In the decades leading to the Civil War, Northern free men of color took to the seas in growing numbers as hands, carpenters, cooks and stewards onboard great sailing ships where skills were paramount and pay was generally equal between the races. In the Journal of American History in March of 1990, Professor W. Jeffrey Bolster states, “For a black man then, the ship provided a unique workplace where his color might be less a determinant of his daily life and duties than elsewhere.”
Sailing the oceans as the United States established itself as a maritime nation and power, these black merchant crewmen called on all manner of foreign ports – they also called on ports in the slaveholding Southern states. Tossing lines onto the docks in Charleston, Savannah, or New Orleans, these sailors would have tied up alongside slave ships offloading their terrible, enchained cargoes. The thoughts of these disparate groups of men seeing each other on the southern wharves and resigned to vastly different fates will never be known or perhaps even understood.
But what is known is that these free sailors of color were considered a threat.
Even in New Orleans, a city accustomed to a large population of free blacks and Creoles, many of whom enjoyed near equal societal status with whites and some themselves slaveholders, these worldly free black sailors clambering high up in a ship’s rigging for all to see or casually walking the streets of the French Quarter with wages in their pockets were a perceived direct threat to the institution of slavery.
Whether it was simply their revolutionary existence in the romantic lifestyle and freedom offered up by the seas or the idea of these men speaking with local slaves and spreading “curious notions” of freedom, either way, it led to coastal and river towns and cities throughout the South to enact various laws allowing local authorities to temporarily jail these sailors while docked in their ports.
On March 30, 1850, the Daily Picayune reported on the intense and growing argument between Northern and Southern senators in Congress regarding the constitutionality of jailing these men, “This is the revival of the old question which the North has disputed so long, and the South invariably asserted – whether the slaveholding States have the constitutional power to prohibit the access to their population of free negro sailors, who arrive by sea in Northern vessels.” Further, “The right of every community to take measures for self preservation, and as a precautionary measure, to put under restraint or to exclude entirely from their waters and their shores, such persons as they have reason to know to be dangerous to their social peace, is inseparable from their existence as a State.”
Reports of worse outcomes other than temporary imprisonment for these free sailors of color exist, including particularly nightmarish scenarios of getting sold into slavery by monstrous captains upon their docking in Southern ports.
A war would have to be fought to resolve these existential questions and to end slavery, and during the conflict, the Union Navy was unique in that it was racially integrated, unlike the Union Army. In the U.S. National Archives’ Prologue Magazine in the Fall of 2001, Professor Joseph P. Reidy states, “Nearly eighteen thousand men of African descent (and eleven women) who served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War have been identified by name. At 20 percent of the navy’s total enlisted force, black sailors constituted a significant segment of naval manpower and nearly double the proportion of black soldiers who served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War.”
Reidy further concludes that 7,800 of these men who enlisted in the Union Navy were either fugitive slaves or slaves freed along Southern coastlines after their capture and occupation by Union forces.
Not long after New Orleans fell to the Union on May 1, 1862, Anatole McKan enlisted with the 91st U.S. Colored Infantry and served at Fort Pike in the Rigolets and on the Pearl River. While not serving in the U.S. Navy, his unit did occupy and patrol these same waterways that he likely sailed as a slave and that certainly would become familiar to him as a schooner captain after the war.
Slaves and free men of color along the Northern Gulf Coast had long developed an inseparable connection to and tradition with the water in the shipbuilding, transportation and seafood industries, and Etienne William Maxson wrote of McKan and nearly 40 other “Negro Captains” sailing the lake trade from the Pearl River lumber mills during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow Eras.
“The Poitevent & Favre Lumber Company were the first on the Pearl River to employ colored captains and engineers on their schooners and boats, first to have colored sawyers, and as contractors and stevedores,” Maxson explains. “As early as 1869 they began to favor colored employees in this way, and the precedent set by this company has been followed by all of the lumbermen on the Pearl River, and by some on the coast of Mississippi and in Louisiana.”
By 1869 and only four years removed from the cessation of the Civil War, the first direct evidence of a black schooner captain sailing the lake trade on the waters of the Gulf Coast without a white master onboard appears with Captain Gilbert Burton.
Professor Neil R. McMillen author of Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow states, “Along the Gulf Coast, the race numbered importantly in the naval trades, as master boat and shipbuilders, caulkers, and steamboat engineers. Beginning with Gilbert Burton, who in 1869 became the first ‘colored captain’ on the Mississippi Coast, blacks also commanded schooners and barges on the Pearl River, the Gulf sound and Lake Pontchartrain – sometimes apparently, with racially mixed crews.”
The embrace of black workers, captains and crews in Mississippi’s timber industry, especially on the Pearl River, appears to be the direct opposite of the attitude of the state’s commercial seafood industry. In the midst of explosive growth around 1890 with oyster canneries opening in many of the coastal towns, but centered in Biloxi, the Mississippi seafood industry took a page from canneries in Baltimore, Maryland and imported seasonal labor via train. Known as “Bohemians,” these mostly Polish workers initially worked many of the canneries in deplorable conditions, but were quickly replaced by Croatian immigrants, some as young as six years old, with deep ties to the fishing and oyster trades on the Adriatic Sea and who had previously settled into the oyster industry in Louisiana, especially in Plaquemines Parish some fifty years earlier.
While hiring these “Slavonians” may not directly point towards a racist motivation, Charles Dyer in a series of travelogues written in 1895 titled “Along the Gulf” reports on several seafood processors on the Mississippi Coast including the E. C. Joullian Packing Company of Biloxi. “Mr. Jouillian who is a native of Alabama first started his plant in Scranton, Miss., but only stayed at that place until 1888 when he built the factory which he at present occupies,” Dyer states. “He believes in the use of white labor exclusively, and not a black face can be seen inside of his establishment.” Dyer then adds, “He also has from 25 to 30 schooners engaged in handling the raw material.”
It is doubtful that any owner or manager of an oyster cannery would reject a freelance schooner-full of freshly tonged oysters from a black captain simply due to their race, and there are reports of Mississippi’s lumber schooners sailing to harvest oysters from Louisiana’s waters east of the Mississippi River when the prices were high. However, one can easily extrapolate that if a cannery refused to hire blacks to work their shucking and canning operations, this practice would have certainly followed over to their hiring of captains and crew on their company owned schooners.
With newspaper reports of “negro captains” throughout the Northern Gulf Coast incredibly rare except when one was involved with a crime or a sinking, it’s difficult to get a handle on exact numbers of African American captains and crews, but federal government reports in 1884 list nearly a fifth of all individuals employed in the seafood trade in Louisiana and Mississippi as “colored,” although these numbers were recorded several years before the heyday of oyster operations on the Mississippi Coast.
During this same time period in the oystering waters of the Chesapeake Bay, black oyster lugger crews and captains in Virginia outnumbered their white counterparts by nearly four to one.
Captain Anatole McKan would have certainly known Captain Burton with the two sailing for the Poitevent & Favre Lumber Company on the Pearl River and it’s possible that he was trained by Burton, although it’s more likely that McKan and Burton both worked as slaves in the lake trade in the years leading to the war. It’s inconceivable that the owner of a schooner would put their major investment into the hands of a captain with only a few years of experience, which only lends credence to these men having worked and been master’s of schooners while slaves.
In 1879, the Poitevent & Favre Lumber Company employed 18 lumber schooners, and with evidence of nearly 40 black captains sailing from the Pearl River during this time, it’s safe to make the assumption that these men and their crews sailing for the lumber mills located on the Pearl River were not an aberration, and more so the norm.
Captains with seniority and greater experience would regularly graduate up to newer and faster vessels and this was commonplace, no matter one’s race. While McKan’s first command as a free man was on the schooner Emma Jane, he would later take the helm of at least five other schooners including the Alice McGuigan which was used as a training vessel by the Poitevent & Favre Lumber Company. While her captain, McKan would have trained scores of future black sailors including his two brothers in law and his sons.
These freed men built a career and eventually entrepreneurial businesses for themselves and their families in a maritime industry on the Gulf Coast generally understood to be completely controlled by white men, and their stories should stand alongside any slave to middle class history of America. When McKan retired from the helm of schooners, his two sons, Captain Standford McKan and Captain Nicholas McKan, plied the lake trade under his management and he reportedly owned several of these vessels running lumber, including the largest and the fastest.
He died on April 20, 1937.
Maxson’s pamphlet, written in 1930, offers up a rare glimpse into an important aspect of Gulf Coast maritime and cultural history almost completely lost to time, as well as the stories of these captains who were once so common on Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. He states, “The colored captains on Pearl River were said to be the best sailors in these waters and carried the best crews. They ran some of the fastest vessels. Their cargoes were chiefly lumber. To say that a man was from Pearl River was all the recommendation he needed to get a job to handle lumber anywhere.”
Other than being born a slave in Covington, LA in 1840 (as was his mother – although his father was listed as Irish), Captain Anatole McKan next appears in historic records as master of the 64’ schooner Lillie Schmidt in 1873 which was owned by the Poitevent and Favre Lumber Company.
The Lillie Schmidt was constructed by Lucien Pichon in 1873 at Bayou Bonfouca in Slidell, LA with a figurehead on the bow. In 1877, McKan was the master of the 59’ Ella C. Andrews. In 1894, he shows up as the master of the schooner Axel. McKan also shows up as master of the Julia Rickert, the Emma Jane, and the Alice McGuigan at various times.
In the 1890 census, he lived in Pearlington, Mississippi and married Malinda on March 30, 1884 in Hancock County. In the 1900 census, they still resided in Pearlington with a son Nicholas living with them aged 19.
In 1932, McKan lived at 2326 Bienville St. in New Orleans. He died in New Orleans on April 20, 1937 and was survived by two sons, Captain Standford McKan and Captain Nicholas McKan as well as 11 grandchildren.