Mike Fink – A Drunken Bully


Mike Fink

Mike Fink

Mike Fink, called “king of the keelboaters”, was a river boatman and drunken bully who ran keelboats up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

Fink was likely born at the frontier post of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in about 1770 and grew up to be a keelboatman on the flatboats of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  Before taking his place on the rivers he allegedly took part in the Indian Wars of the Ohio region and worked as a trapper. Once on the water, his reputation became notorious for his practical jokes and willingness to fight anyone who was not amused. In those days, these hard-working men, with the strength to pole and pull their boats upriver were seen as heroes. And, Fink was no exception, especially given his superior physique. He stood over six feet tall, weighed nearly 200 pounds, and claimed he could “outrun, outshoot, throw down, drag out and lick any man in the country.” What is not in doubt is that he was an excellent marksman.

In 1822, Fink joined William Ashley’s expedition up the Missouri River from St. Louis, Missouri and somewhere along the line, his shooting skills became deadly. In his “not so” practical joking manner, one of Fink’s favorite games was to shoot a mug of brew from the top of some fellow’s head. However, one night in 1823, when the Ashley group had stopped somewhere near the mouth of the Yellowstone River, his shooting skills would fail him. Having had much too much to drink, he missed and killed the guy who was wearing the mug on his head. In no time, the dead man’s friends retaliated by killing Fink.

For whatever reason, his legend was being told for decades along with the likes of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. The legend grew until some told of him riding a moose like a horse, wrestling alligators, and drowning wolves with his bare hands. These tales were further exaggerated in the dime novels that were so popular at the time —  to such a point that he became a folk hero. In actuality, however, Fink was a drunken bully who deserves his place on these Scoundrel pages.


©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.

Also See:

List of Old West Explorers, Trappers, Traders & Mountain Men

Outlaws & Scoundrels Photo Gallery

Scoundrels in American History

The Treachery of Mike Fink by Hiram Martin Chittenden