The phrase "rowed up Salt River" was used early in American history to describe something that happened to a politician who was defeated in a political race. Long after its use became commonplace, its origin seemed lost to most who used it.
A newspaper article1 printed in the Salem Gazette of Salem, Massachusetts on 27 Jan 1835, quotes a description first published in the Louisville Advertiser.
The Louisville (Ky.) Advertiser gives the following description of Salt River:
"Salt river is a small stream in this State, which empties into the Ohio river about twenty miles below this city. In the neighborhood of Shepherdsville, where the phrase of 'rowing up Salt river' originated, it is filled with rapids, snags, rocks, sandbars, &c. Of course, the navigation is extremely difficult, and rowing up Salt river is a matter not to be sneezed at. The labor attending it was so well known to those residing in the vicinity, that it became common among them, whenever any one spoke of some very arduous undertaking, to tell him that he would find it harder than trying to row up Salt river. When some bully had received a sound whipping, it also became common to say that he had been 'rowed up Salt river,' and the same remark was likewise applied to a defeated political party. If the defeat was overwhelming, they were said to be 'rowed very far up Salt river.'"
1 Salem Gazette, Salem, Massachusetts, 27 Jan 1835, vol XIII, issue 8, page 2, Provider: NewsBank/Readex, Database: America's Historical Newspapers, SQN: 10C5EA01F2715868
Later, Bayard Taylor, in his book, At Home and Abroad: A Sketch-book of the Life, Scenery, and Men, which was published in 1860 by G. P. Putnam of New York (pages 181-2), had this to say:
"Where it debouches into the Ohio, Salt River is not more than fifty or sixty yards in breadth, but very deep. It is never fordable even in the dryest season; and, being navigable for fourteen miles above its mouth, has not been bridged at this point. We descended its steep and difficult banks, embarked our carriages on a flat ferry-boat, and were conveyed across. The view, looking up the river, was very beautiful. Tall elms and sycamores clothed the bank, dropping their boughs almost to the water, and forming a vista of foliage through which the stream curved out of sight between wooded hills. I longed to be rowed up it. While on the spot, I took occasion to inquire the derivation of the slang political phrase, 'Rowed up Salt River,' and succeeded in discovering it. Formerly there were extensive salt-works on the river, a short distance from its mouth. The laborers employed in them were a set of athletic, belligerent fellows, who soon became noted far and wide for their achievements in the pugilistic line. Hence it became a common thing among the boatmen on the Ohio, when one of their number became refractory, to say to him, 'We'll row you up Salt River,' -- when of course the bully saltmen would have the handling of him. By a natural figure of speech the expression was applied to political candidates, first, I believe, in the Presidental campaign of 1840, and is now extensively used wherever the Native-American language is spoken."
Still later, William Shepard Walsh published his Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, which was published in 1892 by J. B. Lippincott Company and digitized by Google Books on 22 Jun 2007. In it he gave the following description in which he quotes part of Taylor's work, but adds two additional possible origins for the expression.
Salt River, geographically, is a tributary of the Ohio, and its course is in Kentucky. The slang political phrase "rowed up Salt River," to express the condition of a defeated candidate for office, is thus explained by Bayard Taylor: "Formerly there were extensive salt-works on the river, a short distance from its mouth. The laborers employed in them were a set of athletic, belligerent fellows, who soon became noted far and wide for their achievements in the pugilistic line. Hence it became a common thing among the boatmen on the Ohio, when one of their number became refractory, to say to him, 'We'll row you up Salt River,' -- when of course the bully saltmen would have the handling of him. By a natural figure of speech the expression was applied to political candidates, first, I believe, in the Presidental campaign of 1840." But a better explanation seems to be that in the early days the river, being crooked and difficult of navigation, was a favorite stronghold for river pirates, who preyed on the commerce of the Ohio and rowed their plunder up Salt River. Hence it came to be said of anything that was irrevocably lost, "It's rowed up Salt River." A third derivation makes the phrase originate in 1832, when Henry Clay, as candidate for the Presidency, had an engagement to speak in Louisville, Kentucky, and employed a boatman to row up up the Ohio. The boatman, who was a Jackson Democrat, pretended to miss his way, and rowed Clay up Salt River instead, so that he did not reach his destination until the day after the election, just in time to hear of his defeat.
As interesting as the story about Henry Clay is, it cannot be accurate, for the expression was commonplace before 1832, as witnessed in a letter that Franklin Pierce wrote that is dated 8 Oct 1831. In it on the third page, Pierce said, "the plotters need not now struggle to change the direction of their squadron, they are politically 'rowed up Salt river.'" The letter is available for viewing on the Maine Memory Network sponsored by the Maine Historical Society.
Phrase "rowed up Salt river" in Franklin Pierce's letter.
Since this page was originally created, we have found another explanation of the meaning of this expression. In the journal, The American Teacher, on page 268 of the March 1891 issue, we find this explanation.
"Salt River" is a small stream in the north central part of Kentucky, flowing north into the Ohio some miles west of Louisville. At "Pitts Point" it receives the waters of "Rolling Branch." Many years ago, so goes the story, in the administration of General Jackson, the Postmaster General desiring some accurate information as to the point where "Salt River" flows into the Ohio, wrote to the postmaster of "Pitts Point," and in his letter asked, "Where does Salt River run up?" The Pitts Point postmaster, being a wag, seeing an opportunity to perpetrate a joke upon his superior, replied in a curt note, "Salt River does not run up; it runs down." The next mail from Washington, brought a letter from the postmaster general to the postmaster at Pitts Point, which contained only the following laconic sentence: "Sir, the U. S. Government has no further use for your services." A facetious fellow, being asked what had become of Mr. Blank, the postmaster, replied that Old Hickory had sent him up Salt River. Since then, the expression, "Up Salt River," has been applied to a person who has occupied an office or place under government, and has been displaced either by the appointment of a new occupant or failed to succeed in a reelection. But it does not apply to the defeat of a new candidate.
Since Andrew Jackson was first elected president in 1828, it is possible that Franklin Pierce could have heard the expression by 1831 when he used it in his letter. It sounds like a story that would quickly make the rounds. However, Pitts Point didn't have a post office until about 1850, if our information is correct.
We started this article in 2008, and it is now a decade later. We recently discovered an article in The National Gazette, dated 7 Feb 1828, that concludes with the expression "as they say in Kentucky, 'row him up salt river.'" Since the article does not explain the reference, it assumes that the reader is familiar with the allusion.
The explanation that seems most likely, at least to me, was shared in The Frankfort Yeoman and reprinted on 2 May 1872 in the Mower County Transcript in Lansing, Minnesota. Here it is.
"The Frankfort Yeoman explains the slang phrase "rowed up Salt river" as having originated in the lynching of a till thief in Shepherdsville, Ky., on that classic stream. The detected thief, a broken down shoemaker, was "rowed up" the river to a small island at the junction of Jefferson and Nelson counties, before Bullitt was formed and which, by popular fiction, was believed exempt from State or local jurisdiction. Here the poor devil was whipped by each of the lynchers in turn with the injunction never to return. And "for many a day and year, when a man committed an act esteemed unworthy of himself or the community, the cry was "row him up Salt river."
This places the initial event sometime between 1793 when Shepherdsville was established, and 1797 when Bullitt became a county. And there just happens to be a small island in the river upstream from Floyd's Fork, just where Cedar Creek empties into Salt River. With Salt River being the dividing line between Jefferson and Nelson counties at that time, it's just possible that some folks believed that the island was in neither county.
We leave it to you to decide which of these options is the true origin of the phrase.
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