Salt River Cartoons


Digital image via Library of Congress.

[H. Bucholzer]. Matty Taking His Second Bath In Salt RiverNew York, 1844. Political Cartoon Collection.

This lithograph was published just before the 1844 Democratic convention, predicting would-be nominee Martin (“Matty”) Van Burren’s second “bath in Salt River”—his first being his unsuccessful bid for reelection in 1840. The term “Salt River” was a nineteenth-century colloquialism for political failure or misfortune.

Whigs Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and others pull a fox with Van Buren’s head from the opposite bank into “Salt River.” Van Buren was often referred to as the “Red Fox of Kinderhook.”) Van Buren is supported—left to right—by incumbent President John Tyler, Tyler’s son Robert, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and another man. Tyler holds the fox’s tail, which has just come off in his hands. Andrew Jackson stands apart, waving his cane. His comment distills the cartoon’s message: that the Van Buren’s campaign suffers from erosion of traditional Democratic support and by internal divisions within his party ranks.

Clay: “Walk up, Matty this is only the sober second thought of the people.”

Sober second thoughts” was a catch-phrase in the 1840 campaign, referring to Van Buren’s desertion by working-class voters.

Van Buren: “Hold on, hard, Tyler: for I have been so deep in Salt River once that I shiver at the thought of another sousing.”

Tyler: “Oh! cursed luck! There is nothing left me but your tail! Is this the way you reward your devoted friends? I wish I had kept it!”

Robert Tyler: “No matter, father, I’ll use them up in a poem of 50 Cantos.”

Robert Tyler was a published poet.

Benton, brandishing a quill: “If I must fall, preserve this sacred pen which expunged the villainous Clause.”

The expunging quill was a memento of Benton’s successful campaign to strike the Senate’s 1834 censure of Andrew Jackson from the congressional record.

Jackson: “By the Eternal! They have forsaken Matty in his extremity. I always prophesied that Tyler would to stick to him in the end!”

Digital image via Library of Congress.

A Correct Chart of Salt River. Philadelphia, 1848. Political Cartoon Collection.

This heavily-encoded lithograph satirizes the 1848 presidential election.

“Salt River” winds upward from Ohio River (a Democratic stronghold in 1848) to Lake of Oblivion with an island upon which sits the “Mansion of Despair.” The “Fast Sailing Steamer Free Trade,” captained by candidate Lewis Cass and piloted by Thomas “Father” Ritchie, editor and Polk administration spokesperson, sets out on the “Slough of Despond” (a landmark from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress).

At “Prince John’s Creek” John Van Buren exclaims: “Good bye Dad. We could not Gull the people.”

Van Buren responds, from a rowboat on the river: “Hard work this all; your fault ‘John,’ with your D—d Free Trade.”

John Van Buren, a Free Soil Party leader, encouraged his father to pursue the nomination.

The main branch of the river continues to “Pillow’s Cemetery,” named after General Gideon Pillow, who conspired against Winfield Scott, the popular Mexican War commander and friend of James Polk. Notably, “St. Anna Pass” is named after the Mexican commander Santa Anna, whom the Polk administration returned from exile only to have him lead the war against the Americans.

At the top of the cartoon, a ferry boat heads toward the shore of “Lake Oblivion” to connect with a train named “Tariff [of 18]42,” bound for Washington. On the left is a funerary monument “In Memory of Dallas,” a memorial to vice president and former Pennsylvania senator George Dallas. (Many of Dallas’s constituents viewed him as a traitor to the state’s interests after he supported the Tariff of 1846.)

Digital image via Library Company of Philadelphia.

[John Cameron]. Col. Fremont’s Last Grand Exploring Expedition. New York, 1856. Political Cartoon Collection.

This lithograph ridicules Fremont and his abolitionist supporters, especially his alliance with the New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley and Henry Ward Beecher, during the Bleeding Kansas.

John Fremont, the 1856 Republican presidential candidate (and former explorer) rides a scrawny “Abolitionist nag” with the head of Horace Greeley. The horse is led toward the “Salt River” by prominent New York politician William Seward. The radical abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher follows, laden with rifles, while a frontiersman comments on the scene.

Freemont: “This is pretty hard riding but if he only carries me to the White house in safety I will forgive my friends for putting me astride of such a crazy Old Hack.”

Greeley: “Seward it seems to me we are going the same Road we did in ‘fifty two’ but as long as you lead I’ll follow if I go it blind.”

Seward: “Which ever road I travel always brings me to this confounded river, I thought we had a sure thing this time on the Bleeding Kansas dodge.”

Beecher: “Be heavenly minded my brethren all / But if you call out at trifles; / Settle the matter with powder and ball / And I will furnish the rifles.”

Beecher had furnished antislavery emigrants with arms to participate in the struggle between proslavery and antislavery settlers in Kansas.

Frontiersman: “Ah! Colonel!—you’ve got into a bad crowd—you’ll find that dead Horse on the prairie, is better for the Constitution, than Abolition Soup or Wooly head stew in the White House.”

Digital image via Library Company of Philadelphia.

Salt River Ephemera Collection, 1852-1872. John A. McAllister Collection.

The Salt River genre was especially popular in Philadelphia, though it is not clear how widespread its was elsewhere. References to the term appear in print as early as the 1830s, and “A Correct Chart of Salt River” (also on display) shows the course of the river flowing from Lake Oblivion to the Ohio River. There is, in fact, a Salt River which rises in Kentucky and joins the Ohio River at West Point, Kentucky, twenty miles south of Louisville.

One theory of the term’s origin comes from a legend of a politician who was traveling up the Ohio on his way to deliver a campaign speech at Louisville, and was guided instead up the Salt River by a river pilot working for the opposing party, thereby missing his appointment.

The Salt River Ephemera Collection contains a range of printed materials, including small tickets, handbills, and broadsheets, an assortment of which will be on display during the seminar.