Green’s Dictionary of Slang

Salt River n.

[? Salt River roarer, a backwards, unsophisticated country dweller (poss. from Kentucky, where there is an actual Salt River); note J. Inman in Bartlett (1848): ‘To row up Salt River has its origin in the fact that there is a small stream of that name in Kentucky, the passage of which is made difficult and laborious as well by its tortuous course as by the abundance of shallows and bars. The real application of the phrase is to the unhappy wight who has the task of propelling the boat up the stream; but in political or slang usage it is to those who are rowed up – the passengers, not the oarsman’]

In phrases

row someone up Salt River (v.) (also row someone up Salt Creek, … up a salt creek)

(US) to defeat (a political opponent); to overcome, to send to oblivion; thus row someone up to the very head waters of Salt River, to defeat overwhelmingly.

[US]Spirit of the Times (N.Y.) 28 Apr. 3/1: He ‘rowed’ Stanberry ‘up a salt creek,’ and is now being tried by the House of Representatives for his unlucky propensity [DA].
[US]J.K. Paulding Banks of the Ohio i 133: See if I don’t row you up Salt River before you are many days older.
[US]R. Carlton New Purchase I 261: If I don’t row you up salt crick in less nor no time, my name’s not Sam Townsend.
[US]Bartlett Dict. Americanisms 279: […] The distance to which a party is rowed up Salt river depends entirely upon the magnitude of the majority against its candidates. If the defeat is particularly overwhelming, the unsuccessful party is rowed up to the very head waters of Salt river.
[US]T. Haliburton Nature and Human Nature I 27: We rowed him up to the very head waters of Salt River in no time.
[US] ‘A Kentucky Story’ in S.F. Call Dec. 9: Hang the scrimpton, I rowed him up Salt River, and he’s gone home a little lighter than he came.
[US]Schele De Vere Americanisms 346: It has become a universal cant phrase to say, that an unlucky wight, who has failed to be elected to some public office, was rowed up Salt River. If the candidate, or his party, should have been very grievously defeated, they were apt to be rowed up to the very headwaters of Salt River.
[UK]Brewer Dict. of Phrase and Fable (1894) II 1096/2: Salt River To row up Salt River. A defeated political party is said to be rowed up Salt River, and those who attempt to uphold the party have the task of rowing up this ungracious stream. J. Inman says the allusion is to a small stream in Kentucky, the passage of which is rendered both difficult and dangerous by shallows, bars, and an extremely tortuous channel.
[US]N.-Y. Eve. Post 1 Oct. n.p.: That imaginary stream called ‘Salt River,’ up which defeated candidates are supposed to be rowed, is one of the most felicitous of all our political Americanisms, although its authorship is unknown [DA].
row up Salt River (v.)

1. (US, also be (on one’s way) up Salt River, soak one’s head and shoulders in Salt River) to become drunk, i.e. to send oneself ‘to oblivion’.

[US]N.-Y. Eve. Post 18 May 2/2: The Augusta Courier contains a specimen of a ‘Cracker Dictionary,’ which makes us acquainted with some very curious terms in use among the Southern Cockneys. [...] ‘Ramsquaddled,’ for instance, is said to mean ‘Rowed up salt river’.
[UK] ‘Uncle Sam’s Peculiarities’ Bentley’s Misc. IV 588: ‘I can drink till the world gets too old to move. While another man rows up Salt River, I’m only putting the fire out in the forest.’ (footnote: Rowing up Salt River is a slang term for getting intoxicated; and putting the fire out in the forest signifies quenching the thirst, or internal fire, caused by previous sling drinking).
[US]D. Crockett in Meine Crockett Almanacks (1955) 107: I’ve soaked my head and shoulders in Salt River, so much that I’m always corned.
Uncle Sam Peculiarities I 89: When the Yorker was quite ‘up Salt River’—decidedly intoxicated—he went to sleep [DA].
Chicago Democrat 11 Nov. n.p.: One Thomas Holt, lately a clerk in the Chicago Post Office, when last seen, [...] was on his way up ‘Salt River’ with Gen. Scott [DA].
(con. late 19C) L.D. Baldwin The Keelboat Age on Western Waters 97: He was a good old hoss and split everything with his friends and even skyed a copper to see who’d get his last chaw o’ ’baccy; It’d shore be harder’n rowin’ up Salt River to find a cleverer parcel o’ fellers ’n them keelers.

2. to punish, to reprimand.

[US]Ely’s Hawk & Buzzard (NY) Sept. n.p.: Them ere chaps that sticks types [...] must look out how they handles Major Jones’s Harriet, or we may row them up salt river.

3. (US, also go to/up Salt River) to suffer a political defeat.

[US]Congressional Globe 25 Jan. 152: [Appendix] The Federal party have been in banishment for forty years. For forty years they have been rowing up ‘Salt river,’ bareheaded and barebacked, on half rations; and now they have a right to exult.
Ohio Democrat (Canal Dover, OH) 14 Nov. 3/3: The Whigs [...] they’re all rowing up Salt River.
[US]N.Y. Herald 5 Jan. 7/1: There must be compromise, or the whole confederacy must go to Salt river, and Hon. Massa Greeley with it [DA].
[US]Iola Register (KS) 6 Nov. 2/1: The Democratic [...] Party has been compelled to take a scow and row up Salt River.
[US]Dly Ardmoreite (Ardmore, OK) 27 May 7/5: ‘Salt River’ [...] refers to an imaginary river up which defeated politricians and political parties are to be sent to oblivion. The phrase ‘to row up Salt River’ [etc].
[US]Arizona Republican (Phoenix, AZ) 7 May 4/4: A politician who seems headed toward defeat is said to be rowing up Salt River.
[US]L.C. Wimberly ‘Amer. Political Cant’ in AS II:3 137: Any party which goes up Salt River is supposed never to return.