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John Mansker and the Great Salt Expedition of 1800


In late spring of the year 1800, John Mansker, the son of George Mansker, left Sumner County with a couple of companions, Robert Moore and James Hannah, for an area known as "The Saline", west of the Mississippi near the old French settlement of Ste. Genevieve, now in the state of Missouri. John and his partners were on a quest for a now-common chemical compound, sodium chloride, or what we know better as "salt".

Although we tend to take it for granted today, when it is readily available for a modest cost in every grocery store, and we use it basically as a taste-enhancing garnish on food, salt in earlier times was difficult to come by, which increased its value. Phrases that have come down to us such as "salt of the earth" and "not worth his salt" testifiy to its previous importance, as does the fact that our word "salary" comes to us from the Latin word for salt, sal, which is what the Roman Legions received instead of money in payment for their services.

People also used salt for more than a garnish: in the days before refrigeration: salt was used as a preservative for meat and fish and to pickle vegetables which would otherwise go bad in a short period of time. It was also used to cure animal hides and in the manufacture of lye soap.

Although there were salt licks in the Cumberland (Kasper Mansker founded his station at Mansker's Lick), they apparently were insufficient to provide for the needs of the people, so journeys to such places as The Saline were necessary.

The Saline was a large salt spring on Saline Creek near St. Genevieve. It was discovered in 1677 by a French priest, Father Allouez, and in 1687 a man named Joutel, who was one of La Salle's party, wrote about the springs.

By 1703 a permanent settlement had sprung up in the area, and by 1766 the springs started producing a commercially viable amount of salt, no doubt in response to the increasing number of settlers in the area driving up the demand and therefore the cost. At its peak, The Saline produced 12,000 bushels of salt a year, employing 17 men working 150 kettles to boil the salty water and reduce it to its mineral base. Gradually the steamboat spelled the end of the The Saline, since it became more cost-effective to ship salt up the Mississippi from the Gulf Coast than it was to produce it locally.

In July 1800 John Mansker and his partners loaded their salt on a boat and began the journey back down the Mississippi to the Tennessee and then up to the Cumberland and home. However, when they reached the mouth of the Cumberland, near the Kentucky town of Eddyville, the water was too low for them to navigate any further.

At that point they had no choice but to offload the salt and store it until the water rose to the point that they could continue their trip. The barrels of salt were rolled from the boat up the bank of the river and left on the property of a man named Pounds, who was to be responsible for the later delivery of the salt. Later on that winter, when the water rose again, Moore came back to Eddyville and collected the salt, including the barrels that belonged to John Mansker. Apparently he "forgot" to share the salt with John, since in June of 1804 John filed a lawsuit against Moore.

On 9 June 1804, a document was recorded in the Livingston County, Kentucky, court house:

"'By virtue of adidinus potestatum, to me directed from the County Court of Gallatin, I have caused John Pounds to come before me, John Mercer, one of the Magistrates assigned to keep the peace for the county aforesaid, who being duly sworn, deposeth & saith that about the year one thousand eight hundred, Robert Moore & John Mansker came in company in a boat to Eddyville, with a load of salt, an their passage up Cumberland River, and by reason of the water being low, they concluded to land their Barrels of Salt at Eddyville & wait the rise of the River which was accordingly done, and further saith that the said Robert Moore afterwards came with a boat and carried away the salt aforesaid, and further saith that during the time the salt remained at Eddyville, there a part of the salt contained in two common sized salt barrels that got destroyed, but knew of no other waste during the time it remained at the place aforesaid & also saith he was living at Eddyville during the whole time the salt remained at Eddyville and further saith that amongst the barrels of Salt aforesaid, there was some of a larger size than those two, that were injured, and further saith that at the time of the said Robert Moore carrying the salt from Eddyville, he did not hear him mention any other waste of the salt then [than] the two barrels aforesaid, and further saith not.' Signed, John Pound. Sworn and subscribed before me this 9th day of June 1804, John Mercer, JP"
(Note that the previous quotation is one long sentence. Apparently they were pretty long-winded in court in those days...)

On the 22nd of June, 1804, in Sumner County, Tennessee:

"'John Mansker maketh oath that James Hannah is a material witness for him in the trial of said cause that he has been summoned, and is about to leave the State on Tuesday, the 26th of June instant, that he prays a dedionus notes [?] to take his deposition on giving three days notice. That said defendant lives about half a mile from this deponent with whom said Hannah now lives.' Signed, John Mansker. Sworn to in open Court, the 22nd day of June 1804, D. Shelby, Clerk."

James Hannah was duly deposed and swore the following deposition:

"Deposition of James Hamah taken at the house of Colonel William Henderson on Tuesday, the 26th day of June, 1804 in the County of Sumner to be read in evidence in the [?] at issue in Sumner County Court wherein John Mansker is Plaintiff and Robert Moore, Defendant.

"This deponent, being of lawful age and first sworn deposeth and saith that in July 1800, John Mansker, Robert Moore and this Deponent went from Cumberland to the Saline in the Spanish Country beyond Mississippi, that John Mansker procured there a barrel of salt which formerly was a whiskey barrel or was larger than the size of a common salt barrel, near the size of double barrel and according to the best of his knowledge contained eight bushels and a half of salt, that this Deponent was present and helped John Mansker to roll it into the boat and saw part of it filled and came with said Mansker and said Moore to Eddyville, where this Deponent helped to unload the boat and then they roll out this barrel belonging to Mansker along with a number of other barrels of salt belonging to said Robert Moore which salt was then put into the possession of a Mr. Pounds who then lived in Eddyville, that the reason of unloading the salt at Eddyville was that the Cumberland River was so low the boats could not proceed farther. That at the time said salt was left there, Pounds said he would be answerable for the safe redelivery of the salt if they would roll the barrels up the bank to his lot, if not he would not be answerable that the salt was not rolled up the bank. Pounds promised that if the river rose, he would roll the barrels up to the upper bank at the expense of Moore.

"This Deponent saith that some time in the winter following, Moore as he informed him brought this cargo of salt up to this deponents landing where this Deponent saw Moore's salt, & thought he saw said Mansker's barrel of salt in the boat and mentioned it to Moore who replied, 'By God, it is not, it belongs to Lane,' but this Deponent did not pay such particular attention to it as to be able to say positively it was said Mansker's barrel.

"This Deponent saith that when the said boat was unloaded at Eddyville, part of the heads flew out of two common salt barrels and some salt was lost. This Deponent saith that he heard said Moore acknowledge that Richard Waller, Junr and Isaac Pierce were in partnership with said Moore in said voyage for salt. This Deponent saith that he was in the boat the next morning after it landed and inquired of Moore if everything was safe, and Moore replied that all was safe. And further this deponent saith not.' Signed, James Hamah, his mark. Sworn and subscribed this 26th day of June 1804 before me, Isaac Patton, JP."

Unfortunately for history, the resolution of the case remains a mystery.

John Mansker was a member of the West Tennessee Militia during the War of 1812 (see Manskers at War). After the war, he moved his family to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where, on 12 December 1822, he wrote his will. In it he specified that a slave, Isaac, be sold to pay his debts (see the The African-American Manskers Page).

John died in Wayne Co, Missouri, in December 1822. His wife, Mary, appears in the 1830 census of Cape Girardeau; available facts indicate she was the "Granny Mansker" referred to several family records and memoirs as the woman who took in and raised a number of Mansker nieces and nephews after the deaths of their parents.