During the period of exploration and settlement of the North American continent, the earliest means of transportation were the rivers, and the Savannah River was the major artery of the Southeast.
Most of the river trade was in deerskins and furs, and other products of the forest. Later, as farming became established in the region, agricultural commodities were transported downriver on "Petersburg boats," narrow flatboats designed to be maneuvered easily through the swift upriver rapids and named for an early north Georgia town now vanished.
As cotton rapidly replaced tobacco as the South's major crop in the nineteenth century, Augusta gained dominance as a regional market center. Loads of cotton from all directions in Georgia and South Carolina were sold and reloaded on rafts or flat-bottomed pole boats for shipment to the coast. William Longstreet, an Augusta inventor, demonstrated the first use of steam power on the river with a craft of his own design in 1808, ushering in the great era of the steamboat.
One veteran boatman remembered the Savannah as a lively highway through dangerous twisting banks with colorful names—Cut Finger Cut, Devil's Elbow, Head of Stingy Venus—a wild jumble conjured up by rivermen with humor and with fear. "It's the prettiest river in the world,"
he said, "and the meanest to navigate."