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Showboats, Songs, & Myths

April 29, 2013

Stacker Lee

We should all be so lucky to have a name like Stacker Lee. The name is often connected to the myths relating to the song “Stagger Lee” and to the original inspiration for Edna Ferber when she was writing her book and later Broadway play and movie, Showboat. However, when all is said and done, little if any of the myths are based in any fact. One thing is true: there was a Stacker Lee.

Stacker Lee was born Samuel Stacker Lee in Stewart County Tennessee. The year was 1845. He was the 3rd son of James Lee, Sr. 

James Lee, Sr. started out as an iron monger along the Cumberland River in Dover Stewart, Tennessee.   In order to avoid the middle-man in transporting his goods to market he started operating his own steamers.  Sometime after 1850 he and his family moved to Memphis and set up the offices of the Lee Steamer Line alongside the Mississippi River.

The eldest son, James Lee, Jr., did much to expand the family business. Through the years all of the officers of the Lee Steamer Line and many of its boats carried the name of Lee.

The Stacker Lee was built around 1902 and was named for Samuel “Stacker” Lee who had died 12 years previously. The boat operated until 1916.

One has to admit that from looking at the picture of the Stacker Lee it did look like the stereotypical picture we carry in our minds of what a Mississippi River steamboat looked like. The boat in North Carolina that Ms. Ferber was most familiar with, and most likely used as her inspiration, looked nothing like what we think the showboats looked like.

As for the song, let’s just say that the only thing that Stacker and Stagger had in common was the same last name.

Samuel Stacker Lee died April 3, 1890 of Gastritis at the age of 42. He is buried under the name of Stacker Lee in a plot purchased by his wife Lizzie in the Evergreen Section of Elmwood.

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