Salt River | Sheaff : ephemera

Salt River

The nineteenth century political expression “Up Salt River” was generally used to mean what we today might express as “up the creek without a paddle”. More specifically, it referred to (or predicted) political defeat. In “Words and Phrases in American Politics: Fact and Fiction about Salt River” (American Speech, Vol. 26, No. 4, December 1951, pp. 241-247) Hans Sperber and James N. Tidwell wrote: “For more than a hundred years, to go up Salt River or to be rowed up Salt River were used as synonyms of to lose an election.” “The Dictionary of American History says that these phrases had their origin in an incident which occurred during Henry Clay’s campaign for President in 1832. Clay, who was opposed by Jackson, hired a boatman to row him up the Ohio to Louisville, where he was scheduled to make a speech. The boatman, so the story goes, was a Jackson man and intentionally or unintentionally rowed Clay up Salt River instead and thus caused him to miss his speaking engagement. Clay’s later defeat for the Presidency led to derisive references to this incident.” Sperber and Tidwell go on to discuss other possible origins of the term.

Liz Hutter, in an article in 2007 (“Ho for Salt River! / Politics, Loss and Satire”,, Vol. 7, No. 3, April 2007) says “Hyperbolic figures, irreverent caricatures, and crude engravings depicting a river voyage juxtaposed with verse, song, and prose paragraphs piqued my curiosity. I could not ignore the richness of a metaphor that represented loss as an experience akin to embarking on a thwarted river journey, the traveler's equivalent of a slow, gradual death. Similarly, I could not dismiss images that were humorous to nineteenth-century Americans, so accustomed to river travel for leisure, adventure, discovery, or renewal.”  . . . “Another version of the phrase’s origin story posits that pirates working along the Ohio River diverted vessels up Salt River to loot cargo and rob passengers.” . . .  “Up Salt River implied two unreasonable acts: first, traveling the wrong way up a tributary that by definition flowed down, and second, traveling up an inferior waterway to isolated and irrelevant headwaters."

The use of the Up Salt River phrase—occasionally To Salt Lake—in political satire became widespread, though its use seemed to predominate in the Pennsylvania area, especially Philadelphia. Long-time trade card collector Ron Schieber ( [email protected] ) . . . who, like most collectors, has been known to branch off onto other collecting tributaries . . . has long been fascinated with Salt River ephemera of all sorts, and has accumulated a number of examples, some of which are shown below.


( Collection of Ron Schieber )


( Collection of Ron Schieber )


( Collection of Ron Schieber )


From Ho for Salt River / Politics, Loss, and Satire, Liz Hutter,, Vol.7, No. 3, April 2007

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