16 June 2018

James R. Butts and Steamboat Navigation on the Ocmulgee

butts2656nphJames Rogers Butts was born August 1802 in Connecticut, a son of Elijah Butts. A biography of James's son-in-law, W. H. Atwood, in Memoirs of Georgia (Southern Historical Association, 1895) states James "was the great-grandson of Josiah and Elizabeth Butts, who were the parents of fourteen children. At one period of the revolutionary war they had seven sons and eight grandsons in the patriot army."

By the late 1830s, James was settled in Macon, Bibb County, Georgia. He remained there until his death – due to "congestion of the brain" – in 1869. James was buried at Rose Hill Cemetery, in a family lot he purchased in 1855.

[For more detailed information about James's wife and their seven children, go to >> Louisa Polhill Butts (d. 1892).]

While researching the life of James, I uncovered a short item in the 19 March 1839 Macon Weekly Telegraph. It was referencing an informal dinner –

…given by the citizens of Macon in honor of their enterprising fellow-citizen JAMES R. BUTTS, proprietor of the new Steamboat Sam Jones, which had just arrived. No one individual, perhaps, has contributed more to advance the prosperity of this city than Mr. B. He may almost be said to be the father of Steamboat Navigation on the Ocmulgee. The class of Boats, with stern wheels, were invented and first put into successful operation on our River by him…

For a little background, I offer this excerpt from an article about the Ocmulgee River by Keith Hulett for the New Georgia Encyclopedia

…Because the river was frequently narrow and winding, and unnavigably shallow in the dry months, however, it had never been particularly well suited to commercial boat traffic. The best that steamboats could do in the 1820s was to make the trip partway from the coast and transfer their goods to poleboats, which could be pushed the rest of the way to Macon by slaves. The first steamboat reached Macon in 1829, and the first commercial steamboat to make the full Darien-to-Macon run arrived in 1833. In late 1835 three steamboat companies operated on the river, and by the end of the decade there was a steady flow of traffic transporting cotton and lumber to the markets of Savannah and Darien from the wharves of Macon, Hawkinsville, Abbeville, Jacksonville, and Lumber City, and from the river landings of prosperous Ocmulgee River plantations.

DailyConstitutionalist28Jul1869-ButtsWhen James died, several Georgia newspapers printed death notices. He was described as being involved "with the commerce and business enterprise of Macon" for more than thirty years. It was also noted, "He was a man of very active, original mind and considerable inventive power." Full obituary follows:

Macon Weekly Telegraph (Georgia)
Friday, 30 July 1869 - pg. 4 [via GenealogyBank]

JAMES R. BUTTS, ESQ. -- The memory of this old and prominent citizen of Macon, demands more at our hands than the brief announcement of his death. His public services to the State, his exemplary life, his indomitable energy and perseverance in all his undertakings, would furnish the material for a most interesting biography; but we must leave that work for some one more familiar with the subject, and confine ourselves to a brief review of some of the leading features of his career.

James R. Butts was born in the State of Connecticut, on the 22d day of August, 1802, and died in Macon on the 26th day of July, 1869 -- aged sixty-six years, eleven months and four days. He was the oldest son of Dr. Elijah Butts, of Connecticut, and when quite a young man he left the State of his birth and became a citizen of Twiggs county, Ga., where he soon afterwards entered into the mercantile and boating business -- running his boats to Macon, where he soon after located.

About the year 1830, he conceived the idea of adapting steamboats to the navigation of the Ocmulgee river, and constructed the steamer "Pioneer" -- the forerunner of a line of steamers called the "Pioneer Line," extending from Macon to Darien, Savannah and Charleston. To the success of this enterprise Macon owes much of its prosperity. During this interval he was associated in business, first with Mr. Coats, and son afterwards with our esteemed citizen, Mr. Charles Day.

The building of the Central Railroad from Savannah to Macon, changed the route of trade from the river, when Mr. Butts extended his enterprise to the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers.

In 1850, Mr. Butts was elected Surveyor General of the State, which office he filled with marked distinction during Gov. Town's administration. In 1856 he returned to Macon, and in 1857 compiled an authentic map of the State, which to this day is an admirable and accurate work for reference to the geographical student.

In 1862 he was captured at St. Mark's, Florida -- whither he had gone to establish Salt Works -- by a party of Federal cruisers, and was incarcerated for nine months in the prison at Fort  Lafayette, with the distinguished Dr. Ould, of Ohio, and others. On being released from his long imprisonment, he immediately returned to his adopted State and family, and was known as a most zealous and undeviating friend of the South and her brave defenders in the field.

Since the war he was the senior partner in the real estate firm of Butts & Brother, of this city, and whilst conducting the business of the office he conceived the plan of throwing into the markets of the world, by means of floating saw-mills, the magnificent timber resources of the State which line the banks of the Ocmulgee River.  Through his efforts, the Georgia White Oak Lumber Company was organized, of which he was the President, and during last year he built at our city wharf the "Tallulah," a substantial and admirably constructed boat, for getting out ship-knees, pipe and barrel staves; but which, for some cause not yet clearly defined, met with a disaster soon after it arrived at the field of operations, which checked and stopped the further prosecution of an enterprise which will yet be carried out, and confirm the views of Mr. Butts, as often expressed to the writer, that from the timber along the banks of the Ocmulgee, vast fortunes would some day be hewed out, by public spirited and enterprising men.

Up to within a short time of his death, Mr. Butts was in the enjoyment of good health, for one of his years; but when disease, at last, came, his enfeebled frame could not withstand the shock, and it broke suddenly as the dried reed. He was seized about 9 o'clock, on Saturday night last, with an attack of bilious cholic, which terminated in congestion of the bowels, and he expired on Monday afternoon, at 5 P.M., calmly and quietly, "like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams."


  1. The Macon Daily Telegraph of 1860 has numerous advertisements relating to the sale of slaves which reference applying to a James R Butts. Is this the same James R Butts and was he a slave trader?

    1. I suggest they are the same. He was, at minimum, a proponent of slavery. For the 1860 census, his real estate was valued at $90,000. The slave schedule for the same year attribute at least 15 and as many as 33 slaves to his ownership in the state of Georgia. As for heading some sort of slave trading organization, I cannot say for sure, but haven't seen evidence of it.


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