1806 – Accident at the New River Ferry

Site of ferry with U.S. Highway 52 bridge just upstream to the left

Site of ferry with U.S. Highway 52 bridge just upstream to the left

In February 1806, a ferry boat owned by Jesse Evans sank while carrying a loaded wagon and two horses across the New River. Based on available documents found in David Pierce v. Jesse Evans, Case folder 1813-07, Superior Court of Chancery, Wythe County, Va., and transcribed below, here is what happened.

In mid-afternoon, David Pierce arrived on horseback at the north landing of the ferry along with a four-horse wagon driven by a wagoneer, Brooks Blass. The two lead horses were unhitched from the wagon and were sent across the river along with Pierce’s riding horse. Pierce went up to see William Carter, who lived in a house about 200 feet away. The two of them sat by the fire, then walked back to the river after the boat returned for the second trip.

The ferry boat was being manned by two of Jesse Evans’s sons, Jesse Jr. and Joseph, and a slave between 15 and 20 years old. There was some risk perceived in taking the wagon, perhaps because it was heavily loaded. Pierce asked if the ferrymen thought there was any danger. Jesse Jr. replied, “If you will venture the wagon, we will venture the boat.” Pierce responded, “Gentlemen, judge for yourselves,” and turned away.

The wagon was pulled onto the boat by the two remaining horses, although it wasn’t centered in the boat. Some difficulty was encountered, perhaps because the boat didn’t have planks affixed to the top of the ribs that would have created an even deck surface. The boat was pushed away from the bank, but it didn’t float level, so it was pulled back. The wagon was repositioned in the boat, but not sufficiently, and when the boat was pushed off again, it continued to float at a tilt.

The ferrymen proceeded to cross the river and passed an island that is no longer in existence. At that point, there were noticeable waves in the river, whether due to the current or the wind. In passing the island, the ferrymen became concerned and one shouted, “Drive the wagon forward.” The wagoneer tried to get his horses to do so, but in the attempt one of the horses placed one hoof outside of the boat and then fell into the water. This, in turn, caused the boat to tip further, water ran in, and the boat sank. The wagoneer and both horses, who remained hitched to the wagon, were eventually drowned.

Pierce and Carter took a canoe and went out to the submerged wagon, where one horse appeared to still be alive. Pierce tried to cut the harness with a knife in order to free the horse, but was unsuccessful.

Petition of David Pierce against Jesse Evans (Chancery case file 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

Petition of David Pierce against Jesse Evans (Chancery case folder 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

Petition (undated)

Wythe County, to wit,

David Pierce plaintiff complains of Jesse Evans defendant in custody of a plea of trespass on the case. For this that the said defendant on the [blank] day of February in the year 1806 at the said county kept a ferry boat on New River at the place where the public road crossed the said River leading from North Carolina to Kentucky and Tennessee.

And the said defendant having his said ferry established by law received toll for conveying traveller and others in his said boat over the said river and in manner aforesaid undertook to carry a loaded waggon and two horses of the value of 100$ each the property of the said plaintiff in the said boat from the north bank of the said river to the opposite shore and in doing so suffered one the said boat to sink and the two said horses to be drowned and the sd waggon and load to be [ ] injured.

And the said plaintiff in fact avers that he lost his said horses and his waggon and load was injured by the negligence of the said defendant in not keeping a good and sufficient boat and not keeping good and sufficient horses or ferry men to toe the said boat over the said river to the damage of the plaintiff three hundred dollars and therefore he brings his suit

A McHenry
Att. for Pltff

Excerpt of Nov. 17, 1812 deposition of William Carter (Chancery case file 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

Excerpt of Nov. 17, 1812 deposition of William Carter (Chancery case folder 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

William Carter Deposition – Nov. 17, 1812

Pursuant to a Commission from the County Court of Wythe to us directed We have by consent of parties proceeded this 17th day of Novembr 1812 at the house of James Johnstons in Evansham to take the deposition of Wm Carter, intended to be read as Evidence in a Suit depending in sd Court between David Pierce pltf and Jesse Evans Sr. defdt and the sd William Carter of lawfull age being first sworn deposeth & saith:

That the pltf in company with this deponent walked down to the boat landing; the first word which there attracted the attention of this depnt was; when Jesse Evans Jr spoke, “If you will venture the waggon we will the boat.” The waggon was drove into the boat by Brooks Blass, the waggoner, and stood nearer the lower side of the boat with the hindpart, and the horses and forepart of the waggon stood nearer the upper end of the boat.

The boat was pushed off from the bank, and it was immediately discovered, that the lower corner of the boat sunk deeper in the water than the rest. The boat was pushed up to the bank again, the waggon was attempted to be put more in the middle of the boat by the ferrymen but was not put far enough so as to make the boat swim level.

They proceeded to go across and when they came beyond the iseland, an alarm was given by the ferrymen, I am not positive whether one or more of the ferrymen spoke at the time, “Drive the waggon forward.” The waggoner attempted to drive the waggon [forward], and I believe the first, second or third step, the aftbeast steped out of the boat with one foot, and fell out, which caused the water to run in, and the boat to sink, and the waggoner and the two horse beasts were drowned, which were in the boat.

Q by plaintiff: What was my answer, when Jesse Evans Jr said “If you will risk the waggon, we will risk the boat?”

A: “Gentlemen judge for yourselves.” The plaintiff then turned short about, and I don’t remember what particular conversation passed afterwards.

Q: Was there anything said about the boat afterwards, except what you have already mentioned.

A: I don’t recollect that there was.

Q: What do you know as to the sufficiency of the boat?

A: I am at a loss to describe the boat. I do not know the length nor the weadth of the boat. It was about a middle sise boat, I think, such as I believe would have taken the waggon and horses over safe, had the waggon been rightly balanced, so as it would make the boat swim level.

Q: Was the boat a new or an old one, and was she likkey [leaky] or not?

A: She was not a new one, I believe she was sound and [ ] enough, except the ends, which were generally out of the water. But when havelly loaded, it would leek at the ends, if the load was heavier on one end that on the other.

Q: Was not this the situation then, that one end of the boat was sunk deeper in the water than the other; when the ferrymen directed the waggoner to drive the waggon on?

A: That corner was, that was then on the upper side, as it appeared to me.

Q: Was that boat of a sufficient sise, to carry a waggon and team at once?

A: I believe I have seen them take in a waggon and four horses at once but it was not generally their custom, but I do not know whether she was loaded.

Q: How was the bottom of that boat, was it smoot[h] or uneven?

A: It was uneven by means of the crossbars, which the planks were spiked to on the underside, but there were no planks on the upperside of the crossbars, at that time, as I can remember.

Question by Joseph Evans, who in consequence of a promise to the defdt Jesse attended to crossexamine: At what time did this accident take place?

A: It is too hard a question for me to solve, I do not even recollect the year.

Q: Was not the waggon badly driven in, and was not every exertion used to balance the load properly by the ferryman and yourself?

A: The waggon was not drove in strait to the middle of the boat. There were exertions made by the ferrymen and by myself I believe, but was not properly effected.

Q: Could the ferrymen have discovered, that the boat was not properly trimmed from their position? Or could they do it as well as you could from the bank?

A: I believe they could discover it, but not so perceivable as we could from the bank.

Q: How many persons were at that time managing the boat?

A: There were three appeared in the position of ferrymen, to wit: Joseph Evans, Jesse Evans Jr, and a negro boy, which from it sise appeared to be between fifteen and twenty years of age.

Q: Did not the boatsmen use considerable caution in taking in the waggon?

A: I do not know that they used any more particlar caution except what I have already described.

Q: How far was it in the river when the boat sunk?

A: I suppose it was about the middle in the river.

Q: How wide is the river?

A: I suppose about 130 or 140 yards.

Q: Could you see from your position on the bank the forepart of the boat, if so, state, whether the waves were not braking over the side of the end of the boat?

A: When the boat turned round so that the hind end was towards me, it prevented me from seeing the waves roll in the boat, if they did.

Q: From your situation on the bank could you see the waves at the place where the boat sunk?

A: I could see from where I stood the waves, but not so as to ascertain the exact hight that they rolled.

Q: Is there not an isleland on the side you stood, which measurably broke the wind?

A: There is an isleland, which measurably breaks the wind.

Q by plaintiff: Was there an experienced ferryman present? Or were these the men that generally conducted the boat?

A: They were not the persons who generally carried the people across. When there was high water or high wind, there were generally hands sent from Major Evans to assist the ferryman.

Q: Were these the hands who generally assisted the ferryman?

A: I do not know that they were more than some of the rest of Major Evans’s hands.

Q: Were not these men who then acted as ferrymen cautioned to move the boat before the waggon was drove in?

A: I do not know whether they were or not.

Q: When the boat was turned round was not the end next to shore cockd up very high and the other end sunk very deep in the water?

A: It appeared to be higher then the other, which caused me not to see if the water run in at the far end, if it run in at all.

Q: Was not the end next to shore two feet higher than the other?

A: I don’t think it was, I hardely think it was.

Q: Was not the upper corner of the foreend more than six inches above the water? when they started?

A: I think it was more than six inches, but am not positive.

Q: Did the wind blow up or down the river?

A: The wind blew down the river at the time, but not violently.

Q: Had I any agency in the loss of the horses?

A: I saw no forcible means used by nery side.

Further this depnt saith not.
[signed] William Carter

Taken before us
[signed] John Stanger
John [Johnston]

Excerpt of Nov. 23, 1812 deposition of Libny Coffin (Chancery case file 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

Excerpt of Nov. 23, 1812 deposition of Libny Coffin (Chancery case folder 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

Libney Coffin and William Carter Depositions – Nov. 23, 1812

In complyance with Commitions from the County court of Wythe to us directed we Nath. Frisbie & [blank] have this twenty third day of Nov. 1812 met at the house of David Pierce in said County of Wythe for the purpose of taking the deposition of Libny Coffin & William Carter which is to be read as evidence in a suit now depending in said County Court wherein David Pierce is Plaintiff & Jesse Evans Sen. Defnt.

Liby Coffin of lawful age being first duly sworn deposeth as follows.

Question by Plaintiff David Pierce: Did you not cross the river in Majr Jesse Evans boat a fue days after my horses were drownd—if so please state what you know about the godness & sufficiency of the boat.

A: I recollect I suppose a fue days after sd horses were said to be drownded it was said they lay there on the shore but I did not see them. I got into the boat & David Pierce was present. He appeard as tho he did not like to get into the boat he appeart to be affraid but he got into the boat after I did, we had not got over the river before the water began to git into the hind end of the boat which appeard dangerous to me. I hollow loud to the people to pull hard for we had no time to spare.

Q: Did not the water come in at the joints of the boat which caused it to leake.

A: It appeard so to me.

Q: Was it not very difficult to git a wagone into the boat by reason of having no plank on the ribs.

A: It appeard difficult on account of there being no plank on the ribs of the boat. The wheals of a wagone that drove into the boat at that time [ ] against the ribs if I recollect rite & the saddle horse appeared to pull the hardest. The off horse got his foot out of the boat & it was got in again but I do not recollect how & I recollect at that time David Pierce saw that was the way he lost his horses or somehow that way.

Q: Was the whole of the team hichd to the wagone.

A: I think there was but two horses.

Q: What was the reason there were but two horses.

A: I cannot tell.

Q: Was the boat sufficient in sise & goodness to have taken over the whole team.

A: I do not think it was at that time.

Q: Did it not take great exertions besides what the two horses could pull to get the wagone into the boat.

A: I do not recollect about that point.

Q: Had you not some conversation the same day with Majr Evans about the boat.

A: I saw Majr Evans the same day after I got over the river & I recollect for fully well that spoke to him. I told him if he did not have that boat in better order I would not recommend travelers here any more & he said he would.

Q: Do you recollect what year & what time of the year this hapened.

A: I do not recollect what year but I believe it was in the spring of the year & I know it was about the time the horses was drownded.

& further saith not
[signed] Libni Coffin

Subscribd & swoern to this day and date above written before me
[signed] Nath. Frisbie

Excerpt of Nov. 23, 1812 deposition of William Carter (Chancery case file 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

Excerpt of Nov. 23, 1812 deposition of William Carter (Chancery case folder 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

[ next page]

William Carter of lawful age being first duly sworn deposeth as follows.

Question by Plantiff David Pierce: Was you present at Majr Evans ferry when I had two horses drownded.

A: I was.

Q: How far was your dweliing house from the ferry landing.

A: I suppose about sixty or seventy yards.

Q: Was not you, myself & two traveling gentlemen siting by your fire when notice was given that the boat had come over.

A: Mr. Pierce & myself was but whether the traveling gentleman was at the fire or at the wagon on the bank of the river I cannot say.

Q: Did not you & myself walk down to the river together.

A: We did till we got near to the river. I made a stope near the waiting wagon which was about ten or fifteen steps from the boat I suppose.

Q: Did you hear me ask Jesse Evans Junr whether he apprehended any danger in taking the wagon over.

A: I do not recollect that I did. The first words that I recollect to hear was, Jesse Evans said if you will venture the wagone we will risque or venture the Boat which is all the words I remember having the ferryman say at that present time.

Q: What was my reply.

A: Mr. Pierce reply was Gentlemen judge for yourselves & turned his back towards them.

Q: Were not the two fore horses & my riding horse already taken over.

A: They were.

Q: Did not the ferryman direct my wagone to be driven into the boat immediately after the above conversation took place.

A: I do not recollect who ordered the wagone driven into the boat but so it was. The wagon was drove in & badly drove in.

Q: Did I use any force or persuasion to toward giting my wagone put into the boat.

A: There was no forcable means usd on either side & I don’t recollect of any persuasion.

Q: Was it as much as we all could do who stood about the boat together with the two horses to get the wagone into the boat by reason of there being no plank on the ribs of the boat.

A: Several of us assisted at the wheals in gitting the wagone into the boat. I cannot say it was altogether by means of there not being plank on the ribs. The wheals sunk into the sand, I believe the body of the wagone was a Cole body & coupled longer than a common road wagon.

Q: Was the wagoner very attentive to do what he was directed to do by the ferryman.

A: I do not recollect that he appeard any way obstinate.

Q: Was it not discoverd immediately after the boat movd from the shore that the boat was badly ballancd on trimd.

A: Yes it was & the boat was brot to shore again & the hind part of the wagone was movd up the river across the boat to git her more in the middle of the boat, but was not movd enough so as to make the boat swim leavel on the water. That corner which was at my left hand down the river on the shore when turnd in order to cross the river was then on the upperside they then proceeded to go across & when they got about midway of the river ther was an alarm given by the ferryman to drive the wagone forward. The wagoner attempted to drive the wagone forward. The saddle horse appeared to start quicker than the other & the first second or third step the off beast stept her foot out & fell into the river. The crest [ ] came across the gunnel of the boat which causd the boat to dip water the horses being nigh the end of the boat that was then toard the shore where I stood, which causd the boat to dip water & sink & the wagoner & both the horse  beasts were drownded.

Q : Was not sd boat badly trimd end ways as well as side ways was not one end of the boat much higher out of water than the other.

A: One end was higher out of the water than the other, that end toard me after the boat turned round was so much higher than the other that I could not see whether the water run in or not if it did run in.

Q: Did not the end of the boat lecke very much when she crossd with a loaded wagone in her.

A: When one end sunk lower than [ ] it leakd by means of the seams of the boat not being tight.

Q: Was not one end of the boat sunk much lower than the other at the above mentioned time when the horses was drownded that is when the boat started from the shore.

A: It was perceivable lower.

Q: Would it not in that situation leak enough to make it dangerous to cross.

A: I believe it sunk deapen enough to leak but wheather it leakd enough to make it dangerous I do not know & whether it was the leaking or the waves washing over or what made the ferriman hollor I do not know.

Q: Was there at the time of the above mentioned boats crossing such high winds as to make it dangerous to cross.

A: The wind blowd but I did not think it blew hard enough to make it dangerous. It had blew harder but it had much abated it then being nearly sunset.

Q: Which way did the wind blow.

A: It blew down the river.

Q: Did the wind appear to blow the boat out of its course when crossing.

A: I do not think it did.

Q: Did I not use all reasonable exertions to save the horses from drowning.

A: There was one which did not appear to be dead & Mr. Pierce & myself went with a canoo to try to save it & Mr. Pierce tryd to cut the hamstrings but said the horse was so deep in the water & his knife not sufficient & I persuaided him to quit any further trial.

Q: Do you know whether the wagon movd forward any when the wagoner attempted to drive it forward.

A: The wagon stood a Ca[ ] in the boat & I believe the fore which movd but whether the whole wagon movd forward I do not know.

Question by Jesse Evans: Did you heare Mr. Pierce acknowledge this 23 November that he [ ] of the boat the time his horses got drownded and put the pile [pole] in the water and jump out.

A: I do not recollect.

Q: Did you hear of a dispute or quarrel between David Pierce and myself about the time his horses got drownd.

A: I have heard of your disputes but I do not know it of my own knowledge.

Q: Did you not hear Mr. Pierce after say he would reather the Evans kid got drownded then Blass.

A: Yes I have heard him say so.

Question by David Pierce: Would it not been easy for the ferrymen to have brought the boat on shore after I jumpt out.

A: They could have came to shore without much inconvenience.

Q: Did you see any backwardness in any of the cumpany or bystanders to assist the ferrymen in writing the wagons in the boat.

A: I don’t recollect that I did.

Q: Was not that end of the boat that the hind part of the wagone was in sunk much the deapest in the water than the other end.

A: It was sunk lower & one corner lower than the other.

Q: Could it not have been then movd forward in the boat with as much care as it could been moved into the boat in the first instance.

A: I believe it could.

& further saith not.
[signed] William Carter

The foregoing Depositions of Libny Coffin & William Carter was by consent of both parties taken before [ ] Justice of the Peace
Subscribd & sworn to before me this 23rd of Nov 1812
[signed] Nath Frisbie

Excerpt of Nov. 25, 1812 deposition of William Carter (Chancery case file 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

Excerpt of Nov. 25, 1812 deposition of William Carter (Chancery case folder 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

William Carter Deposition – Nov. 25, 1812

Wythe Cty 25th Nov 1812

The following is the affidavit of William Carter taken at the House of James Bill by consent of both parties which is to be read as evidence in a suit now depending in the County court of Wythe, David Pierce Plaintiff & Jesse Evans Senr Deft.

William Carter of lawfull age being first duly sworn deposeth as follows.

Question by Jesse Evans: Did you heare Jesse Evans Junr tel David Pierce if you well venture your waggon we will venter the boat.

A: I did.

Q: What was Mr. Pierce answer.

A: Gentlemen judge for yourselves. He appeard angry & turned off.

Q: Was the wind blowing very hard & the waves high.

A: The wind blowd tollerably high but the waves did not run high on the side where I was for there is an Iland that brakes the wind.

Q: Did not the waves apear hier after the boat [passed] the Iland & role over the upper side of the boate.

A: The waves appeard to role much hier after the boat got past the point of the Iland. I did not se the water role over the boat but I am convincd it [ ] in by the cry I heard from the boat.

Q: Was not the boate sufficient to have taken the waggon over if the wind had been calm.

A: I believe it was if the wagone had been rightly fixt in the boat.

Q: Who drove the waggon in the boate.

A: Brooks Blass the waggoner.

Q: Who ordered the waggon to be drove in the back.

A: I do not know.

Q: After the waggon was drove in the boate and the ferreman tu[r]ned the boate, was it not discovered then that the waggon was on one side and not in the middle of the boate.

A: It was discovered that the wagone was not in the middle of the boat before she turned round, the hind wheels was nigher one side of the boat than the other.

Q: Did not the negroe draugh the boate up to the shore after it was discovered that the waggon was not right.

A: The negro or somebody did.

Q: Did not David Pierce and the waggonner [ ] waggon in the boate or how [who] did.

A: I do not know who did it but perhaps they all had a hand in it but it was not done so as to make the boat swim leavel.

Q: Did not David Pierce take up a pole that lay in the boate & push his off.

A: I do not know. I know he was in the boat & jumpt out of her.

Q: Did you hear David Pierce say he was sorrow for Blases giting drownded but would much rather it had been the Evans.

A: Yes I did & I think I heard him repeat it more than once.

Q: Had not Evans & Pierce [ ] some short time before the boat sunk.

A: I have heard of it but know nothing of it of my own knowledge.

& further saith not
[signed] William Carter

Subscribed & sworn to the day above written before me
[signed] Nath Frisbie