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Rolling on the River

Grade Level: 5–6

Students will explore how westward expansion increased the number of jobs available in the nineteenth-century, including being a flatboatman through a painting by George Caleb Bingham. Working in pairs, students will write a letter to their partner from the standpoint of a person moving westward. Then they will construct a poem in the guise of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” about a modern-day job.


George Caleb Bingham
American, 1811–1879
The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846
oil on canvas, 38 1/8 x 48 1/2 in. (96.8 x 123.2 cm)
Manoogian Collection

Curriculum Connections

  • History/Social Studies
  • Language Arts


  • Computers with internet access for student research
  • Writing materials

Warm-Up Questions

What do you think a flatboatman does? What objects in this painting make you think so?


I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it
          should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank
          or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work,
          or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his
          boat, the deck-hand singing on the
          steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the
          hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his
          way in the morning, or at noon intermission
          or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the
          young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to
          none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the
          party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious

Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Hear America Singing,” from Leaves of Grass (1855)

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 ended the American Revolution and set the Mississippi River as the new nation’s western border. With the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States acquired an additional eight hundred thousand square miles of land from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains and from New Orleans north to Canada. The way was open for settlers to move even farther west.

In 1819, artist George Caleb Bingham’s family, like many others, moved west of the Mississippi. They settled in the wilderness town of Franklin in the Missouri Territory, which would become a state two years later. Farmers in the area shipped crops and animals in flatboats down the nearby Missouri River to the Mississippi, and on to the port of New Orleans. From there, goods were shipped to markets on the east coast of the United States.


George Caleb Bingham
American, 1811–1879
Mississippi Boatman, 1850
oil on canvas, 61.3 x 43.7 cm (24 1/8 x 17 3/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, John Wilmerding Collection

Bingham was a self-trained painter who lived most of his life in Missouri. Working before America’s vastness was made accessible by roads and railways, Bingham found his subjects in the boatmen and trappers who populated his state’s great rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi. Through these subjects, he captured a taste of life in the West. Bingham may well have witnessed a scene such as the one he recorded in The Jolly Flatboatmen as a child sitting on the banks of the Missouri River.

Flatboats, used to haul freight in the sometimes-shallow inland waterways, were a dying breed when Bingham painted this one in 1846. By then, the Industrial Revolution was well underway, necessitating faster, bigger, and more powerful modes of transportation. Steamboats were seen with increased frequency on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers after the 1820s. Trips that once took months by flatboat now took only a few days. By the 1840s, manpowered flatboats had all but disappeared in favor of technologically advanced, steam-powered boats. Pictured here are eight men taking a break from the labor of navigating their flatboat on the river.

The boat is empty of freight; only a caged fowl, bedrolls, and a raccoon skin are visible. By most accounts, nineteenth-century Missouri boatmen were boisterous and vulgar. This group plays music, dances, and relaxes while their laundry dries. This genre painting, or scene from everyday life, celebrates the common men who lived their lives on the river.

Guided Practice

  • Both “I Hear America Singing” and the Jolly Flatboatmen depict sounds. The poem speaks of various people singing. In what ways is a poem like a song? (Rhyme, rhythm, arrangement in verses, stanzas.) The painting illustrates men playing music and dancing. What sounds might you hear if you were one of the boatmen in the painting? (Boy beating on a tin plate, country fiddle, snap of dancer’s fingers and tapping of his shoes.)
  • The genre painting illustrates a flatboat that was used to transport goods in the nineteenth century. What does the need for a shallow flat-bottomed boat tell you about the geography of the Missouri River?
  • Flatboats were man-powered, so journeys were slow and long. Why were steamboats a better means of transportation? What means of transportation are used today to move goods? (Planes, trains, trucks, ships, barges.)
  • Is there something new this painting and poem have taught you about the nineteenth century?


Ask students to imagine they are part of the westward movement in the nineteenth century:

  1. Working in pairs, have them write a letter to each other from the point of view of a person, for example, riding in a train for the first time, working on a flatboat, or migrating across the country with his/her family. Prior to composing the letter have students consider: What are the character traits of the person writing the letter? What is the setting? What issue or event will the letter be about?
  2. After exchanging letters with their partners and reading them, have students write second letters in response.
  3. Ask each pair of students to dress as their characters, using simple props or costumes, and read aloud their letters and replies.


Like Bingham, the poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) took as his subjects laborers and people performing daily routines. He was intrigued by the humblest and most ordinary of moments. Whitman was born and worked in New York, then took a job in New Orleans, returning home by way of St. Louis, Chicago, the Great Lakes, Niagara Falls, Albany, and the Hudson. Like other nineteenth-century explorers, Walt Whitman traveled around America studying the world around him. In “I Hear America Singing”, he wrote about the jobs he saw performed everyday. What nineteenth-century occupations are mentioned in the poem? Have students use a dictionary or research online any jobs that are unfamiliar. Then students will write a poem about a modern-day job that Walt Whitman and George Caleb Bingham could have never dreamed existed.

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cn11.1.5 Identify how art is used to inform or change beliefs, values, or behaviors of an individual or society.

VA:Re7.1.6 Identify and interpret works of art or design that reveal how people live around the world and what they value. 

VA:Re7.2.5 Identify and analyze cultural associations suggested by visual imagery.

VA:Re8.1.5 Interpret art by analyzing characteristics of form and structure, contextual information, subject matter, visual elements, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.

Borrow the teaching packet Art&

Borrow the DVD American Art, 1785-1926: Seven Artist Profiles

Download or borrow the teaching packet The Inquiring Eye: American Painting

Add primary sources from the Library of Congress’s “American Memory” project