The J. M. White

While shanties are often filled with hyperbole and vainglorious boasts, sometimes they relate facts. In Rennie's song "Sugar In The Hold", there is a verse about the steamboat J.M. White:

"The J.M. White is a brand new boat
Stem to stern she's mighty fine
She can beat any boat on the Orleans line
Below below below."

The J. M White was an actual steamboat plying the Mississippi River during the heyday of steamboating. For nine years, she held the record for the fastest transit of the river from New Orleans, Louisiana to Cairo, Illinois. She is mentioned in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi in the chapter called "Racing Days."

"Something over a generation ago╣, a boat called the J. M. White went from New Orleans to Cairo in three days, six hours, and forty-four minutes. In 1853, the Eclipse made the same trip in three days, three hours, and twenty minutes. In 1870, the R.E. Lee did it in three days and one hour. This last is called the fastest trip on record. I will try to show that it was not. For this reason: the distance between New Orleans and Cairo, when the J.M. White ran it, was about eleven hundred and six miles; consequently her average speed was a trifle over fourteen miles per hour. In the Eclipse's day, the distance between the two ports had become reduced to one thousand and eighty miles; consequently her speed was a shade under fourteen and three-eighths miles per hour. In the R.E.Lee's time, the distance had diminished to about one thousand and thirty miles; consequently her average was about fourteen and one-eighth miles per hour. Therefore, the Eclipse was conspicuously the fastest time that has ever been made."

The universe was not shrinking in some pre-Einsteinian mode. The river distance became shorter as the necks of meandering bends on the river washed out making the old route of several miles between two points just a matter of a few hundred yards. Sometimes oxbow lakes were formed. Some riverfront towns found themselves landlocked and five miles from the river after some of these flood season changes in the river's course. Other towns were washed away entirely.

According to Captain Frederick Way's account, there were three boats named J.M White. Shanties being what they are, there is no way to determine which boat is referred to in the song. The first, built about 1842, sank soon after launching. The second, (probably the one Mark Twain refers to--Life on the Mississippi was published in 1883) ran from 1844 to circa 1850.

The third, built by the Howard Steamboat Company in Jeffersonville, IN in 1878 was one of the grandest and most luxurious packet steamboats ever built. It was named for Captain James M. White, a legendary riverboat man who captained a long list of boats including the Glendy Burke immortalized by Stephen Foster.
Captain White's house in Cloverport, KY is still standing and his gravestone is built to resemble steamboat stacks. Legend has it, he was buried standing up, ready to take the helm if needed, and facing the bend in the river. No one who was at his funeral in 1880 has come forward to confirm or deny that claim.