Excerpts from the book "TRAMP PRINTERS"
by John Howells and Marion Dearman

(Discovery Press, copyright 1996, all rights reserved)

 Missouri River Pirates

John Edward Hicks (circa 1920)

The years between the Gold Rush and the closing decades of the century marked a glorious period for tramp printers. Those who worked after 1850 found solid sustenance in their journeymen travels. Every little county seat had at least two weeklies. Cities boasted half a dozen dailies and numerous job shops. Everywhere he went, the old-time hand-pegger found employment, adventures, and friends.

Many stories came to us about a celebrated group of travelers whose names were famous in the latter 1800s. For several decades, an almost legendary crew of itinerant printers known as the Missouri River Pirates who set type and drank whiskey in river towns on the banks of the Missouri and Mississippi. Stories concerning the Pirates are steeped in mystery, but enough has been established as fact to substantiate that such an aggregation truly existed in the mid-Victorian era of the last century.

It's probable that the group formed around 1860 when a Kansas City newspaper went nonunion and fired its typesetters, yet some believe that the Pirates were organized in Omaha in the 1880's. Although they held certain mock ceremonials when a number of the Pirates got together and did a little drinking (which was frequent activity) it was never a formally organized group. Pirates was just a name given those who tramped the Missouri River valley and lived off the country. Over the years many old-timers proudly laid claim to having been a member of the Missouri River Pirates.


For several years the Pirates could be found almost anywhere along the Missouri River from Sioux City to St. Louis, their numbers augmented by drifters from city and small-town print shops alike. They also toured Omaha, Kansas City, St. Joe, Joplin and Memphis, and some would occasionally find their way to towns on the upper Mississippi and in Chicago, even as far north as the Twin Cities.  They knew exactly which print shops to infiltrate for work. Back in those days, every little town had print shops in need of help, the larger towns had daily papers and the cities with publishing plants and large papers. This era was one of the golden ages for tramp printers.

 The Pirates were absolute masters of printing and "card-passing." That is, when there was no work to be had at a newspaper, the printer would pass his union card around to the printers who were working. Usually each working printer would put some money on the card and pass it on to another printer to contribute.

All Pirates may not have been top-notch printers. Many small-town compositors who joined the Pirates had what the old-timers called nice fingers, from setting nothing but the larger faces of type, and sometimes had difficulty setting the smaller nonpareil and brevier fonts. Many were eager to join their restless brethren for adventure. A few were exceptional in one way or another, and their names come down to us clear and strong.

One of the more colorful Missouri River Pirates "Judge" Grigsby. On my way to Sedalia, I ran across him near the little town of Knob Noster. He was dressed in a frock coat, white waistcoat, striped trousers, immaculate linen and patent-leather shoes -- all topped by a silk hat. He was one of the most picturesque of the old tourist printers, one who never rode in boxcars, but did his traveling either on the velvet cushions or on foot. I believe he preferred the latter mode as being more cognate with his philosophy of a leisurely and gracious manner of spending one's life.

As we walked along, he told me something of his theory of life: To live fully and richly, to acquire the greatest delight for the mind in the joys of intellectual curiosity. He would study, he said, the text of nature and the book of life, learning from things about him. He quoted Rousseau to the effect that the only way to travel was on foot while one reveled in the freshness and harmony beside the little streams. Railroads and steamboats, he said, had robbed the pilgrimages of journeymen workers of their poetry, thereby shortening the journey through life.

"A Race of Men" . . . a tramp's poem by Robert Service

Mark Twain and the Country weekly

Early Demise of the Tramp Printer

and a Battered Suitcase in Hand

The Duke who Came to Dinner

Saratoga Printing Museum

Some early printing offices

History of Tramp Printers

Pages by John Howells and Marion Dearman, authors of "Tramp Printers"
Copyright and all rights reserved.