He was the most famous of the keelboatmen, who plied the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for two decades until they and their watercraft were displaced by steamboats.
Born near Pittsburgh, PA (at the headwaters of the Ohio River), around 1770, Mike Fink —‘Miche Phinck,’ as he learned to spell it from his French Canadian parents—gained notoriety as a marksman and an Indian scout in the Ohio River Valley before settling into keelboating.
He took up boating around 1785 and rose in the trade. Fink mastered the difficult business of keelboating—poling, rowing, sailing, and cordelling (pulling via a rope winch) keelboats upstream for hundreds of miles against strong river currents.
By the early 1800s, he owned and captained two boats headquartered at Wheeling, WV. Working his way west, Fink’s career paralleled that of American expansion into the Mississippi Valley.
Fink’s trickster exploits captured the American imagination, and provided plenty of fodder for tall tales that took on a colorful life of their own. A typical example is “Mike Fink and the Sheep,” penned in 1852 (roughly 29 years after Fink’s death) by Ben Casseday, a Louisville, KY journalist and newspaper editor:
“His practical jokes, for so he and his associates called their predations on the inhabitants of the shores along which they passed, were always characterized by a boldness of design and a sagacity of execution that showed no mean talent on Mike’s part. One of the most ingenious of these tricks, and one which affords a fair idea of the spirit of them all, is told as follows:
“-Passing slowly down the river, Mike observed a very large and beautiful flock of sheep grazing on the shore, and being in want of fresh provisions, but scorning to buy them, Mike hit upon the following expedient. He noticed that there was an eddy near to the shore, and, as it was about dusk, he landed his boat in the eddy and tied her fast. In his cargo there were sonic bladders of scotch-snuff.
“Mike opened one of these and taking out a handful of the contents, he went ashore and, catching five or six of the sheep, rubbed their faces very thoroughly with the snuff. He then returned to his boat and sent one of his men in a great hurry to the sheep-owner’s house to tell him that he ‘had better come down and see what was the matter with his sheep.’
“Upon coming down hastily in answer to Mike’s summons the gentleman saw a portion of his flock very singularly affected; leaping, bleating, rubbing their noses against the ground and against each other, and performing all manner of undignified and unsheeplike antics. The gentleman was sorely puzzled and demanded of Mike ‘if he knew what was the matter with the sheep.’
“YOU don’t know?” answered Mike very gravely.
“I do not,” replied the gentleman.
“Did you ever hear of the black murrain?” asked Mike in a confidential whisper.
“Yes,” said the sheep owner in a terrified reply.
“Well, that’s it” said Mike. “All the sheep upriver’s got it dreadful. Dyin’ like rotten dogs- hundreds a day.”
“You don’t say so,” answered the victim, “and is there no cure for it?”
“Only one as I knows on,” was the reply. “You see the murrain’s dreadful catchin’, and ef you don’t git them away as is got it, they’ll kill the whole flock. Better shoot ‘em right-off; they’ve got to die anyway.”
“But no man could single out the infected sheep and shoot them from among the flock,” said the gentleman.
“My name’s Mike Fink!” was the curt reply. And it was answer enough. The gentleman begged Mike to shoot the infected sheep and throw them into the river. This was exactly what Mike wanted, but he pretended to resist.
“It mought be a mistake,” he said; “they’ll may be git well. He didn’t like to shoot manny’s sheep on his own say so. He’d better go an’ ask some of the neighbors ef it was the murrain sure ‘nuf.”
“The gentleman insisted, and Mike modestly resisted, until finally he was promised a couple of gallons of old Peach Brandy if be would comply. His scruples thus finally overcome, Mike shot the sheep, threw them into the eddy and got the brandy. After dark, the men jumped into the water, hauled the sheep aboard, and by daylight had them neatly packed away and were gliding merrily down the stream.”