American developments in boatbuilding have always had considerable influence on Louisiana traditions. For instance, a considerable number of schooners, the two- or three-masted vessels with fore-and-aft sails developed in Massachusetts during the early 18 th century, were built in Louisiana. During the 19 th and into the twentieth century, specialized shallow draft center-board versions were common. There were specialized lumber, brick, charcoal, fishing, oyster, and produce schooners built by Louisiana boatbuilders. French speakers called them goelette , a term that yet exists in folk memory if not in common use. Like the lugger, the schooner survived into the motorized era and is still built for use in the oyster industry.
The book begins with a brief history of the river as reported by Europeans and Americans , beginning with the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1542.  It continues with anecdotes of Twain's training as a steamboat pilot, as the 'cub' (apprentice) of an experienced pilot, Horace E. Bixby . He describes, with great affection, the science of navigating the ever-changing Mississippi River in a section that was first published in 1876, entitled "Old Times on the Mississippi". Although Twain was actually 21 when he began his training, he uses artistic license to make himself seem somewhat younger, referring to himself as a "fledgling" and a "boy" who "ran away from home" to seek his fortune on the river, and playing up his own callowness and naïveté.