Family Stories

Was Captain J. M. White Buried Standing?

Captain J. M. White, born October 25, 1823, fell asleep, January 16, 1880.  Cloverport Cemetery, Breckinridge County, Kentucky.

The gravestone of Captain James Moorman White stands in Cloverport Cemetery in Breckinridge County.  At first glance I thought perhaps Captain White was in the Civil War, but he was a riverboat captain, sailing his vessels down the Mississippi to Vicksburg and New Orleans.  He was very famous during his day, and it is said he was buried standing, facing the bend of the Ohio River.

The Kentucky New Era

April 2, 1992

Captain’s gravesite headstone still stirs up debate

Cloverport, Ky. – One gravestone in the hilltop cemetery faces the Ohio River with its granite cut to resemble two steamboat smokestacks.

Buried beneath is James M. White, a riverboat captain, who was known around river communities during his lifetime, but gained even more notoriety after his death.

Stories passed down over the years say the captain was buried standing, ready to take the helm.

Searches through local historian’s papers turned up newspaper clippings that mention White and his unusual manner of burial, which he had requested.

Newspaper clippings in the Breckinridge County Archives say the captain, born in Joeville – which was renamed Cloverport in the early 1880s – died in January 1880 in New Orleans and his body was shipped back to Breckinridge County for burial.

Captain White’s grave is near the crest of a high hill, just a short distance from the Ohio River.  According to tradition, he was buried facing the west bend of the river.

‘Hands on the wheel, eyes on the bend,’ writes Margarete G. Smith, a Cloverport historian.

Smith, who is now in a nursing home, was acquainted with White’s son and two daughters, and her father was a friend of White.  She kept records on the river town for nearly 50 years, taking over for her father, who was the town historian for about 40 years.

Smith has said White was well liked and had a good personality.  In a 1973 interview, she said White is the only known riverboat captain to be buried in an upright position.

The large stone, designed to resemble two smokestacks from a steamboat, cost $375 at the time it was constructed.  Over the years, weather has grayed the once white stone, but White’s name is still easily legible.

The stone simply states ‘Captain James M. White, born October 23, 1823, died January 16, 1880.’

Not everyone is in agreement about just how the captain was buried.

An article in the S & D Reflector, a magazine for the Sons and Daughters of River Pioneers, calls the story that he was buried standing up as being in error but gives no reason for the statement.  And now, 112 years after the burial, no witnesses to the burial remain.

So, the believers and nonbelievers will probably continue the debate without coming to any real conclusion.

One thing is for sure though, and that is a riverboat, described as one of the most elaborate of the times, was named for White.

Dorothy Rees of Hawesville has many pictures and information about steamboats, including the J. M. White.  Rees’ husband, Arthur, was chief engineer on the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen.

Among Rees’ materials are writings by William H. Tippitt, an Ohio River buff, Dorothy Rees said.  In his writings, Tippitt describes Captain White as ‘a most able man when in command of someone else’s steamer but very poor manager of his own boats.’

White went to work for a Captain John Tobin after losing his own boat, the Katie, to the U.S. Marshall.  He turned what had been a low profit vessel to a success and made the money used to build the boat named for White.

The White was built in 1878 in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and was designed to carry 10,000 bales of cotton.  The cabin areas contained gilded chandeliers and were built with walnut, ash, mahogany, rosewood and ebony.  Stained glass was also used throughout.

The ship burned December 13, 1886 at St. Maurice Plantation Point, Louisiana, nearly seven years after the captain’s death.

His life was such that is inspired Will S. Hays to write a poem about him.

The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky

Friday, December 29, 1882

This poem was reproduced in The Richmond Climax in 1896 at the request of a lady, then in Richmond, who often traveled on Captain White’s boat.

What an exceptional extravagance to ride the waters in a ship like Captain White commanded.  The following are a few other websites with pictures of the captain’s home in Cloverport, a photograph of the captain, and a story about the burning of the J. M. White.

Captain J. M. White’s imposing gravestone.

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