In the mid-19th century, the major western rivers of the United States served as interstate highways, with steamboats carrying both passengers and cargo. These steamboats were refueled on the river by "woodhawks," men in small flatboats loaded with chopped firewood. Missourian George Caleb Bingham presented these boatmen as links between nature, represented by the wooded riverbank in the background, and civilization, symbolized by the advancing steamboat.
Bingham�s images of boatmen, now associated with the American Midwest, originally were considered national subjects because of their association with the frontier of pioneer settlement. Like the New England Yankee or the Western cowboy, Bingham's Missouri boatmen were celebrated for their independence and helped to create both a regional and a national sense of identity. Bingham's idealized depictions of boatmen as free laborers may have reflected his opposition to slavery and its extension into the western states.