A BRIEF HISTORY OF STEAMBOATING ON THE MISSOURI RIVER WITH AN EMPHASIS ON THE BOONSLICK REGION

by Robert L. Dyer

Big Canoe Records
Page 2


From the
BOONE'S LICK HERITAGE
Volume 5, No. 2, June 1997
Boonslick Historical Society's Quarterly Magazine
Boonslick Historical Society
P.O. Box 324
Boonville, MO 65233


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By 1831 there were five regular packets on the lower Missouri– the Car of Commerce (which sank May 6, 1832), the Chieftain, the Globe, the Liberty and the Missouri. And Liberty Landing (near the present day town of Liberty) was opened. It soon became one of the principal early steamboat ports on the lower river.

It was in 1831, also, that the American Fur Company boat, the Yellowstone, began making annual trips to the upper Missouri River country. H.M. Chittenden, in his classic study of The American Fur Trade of the Far West, says, "in several respects the voyage of the Yellowstone in 1832 has been a landmark in the history of the West. It demonstrated the practicability of navigating the Missouri by steam as far as to the mouth of the Yellowstone with a strong probability that boats could go on to the Blackfoot country." Among the passengers on this voyage was the soon to be famous artist George Catlin who made a valuable written and artistic record of the Indian tribes living along the upper Missouri. An excellent book on the voyages of the Yellowstone is Donald Jackson’s Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985).

Two fur company boats went up the Missouri River in the spring of 1833, the Yellowstone and a new boat, the Assiniboine. On the Yellowstone was Prince Maximilian and his Swiss artist companion, Karl Bodmer, who made another one of the truly important early records, both in words and in images of the Missouri River and the people who lived along it. Also on this 1833 trip serving as clerk on the boat, was 18 year old Joseph LaBarge, destined to become one of the truly legendary Missouri River pilots.(More on LaBarge )

By 1834 there were 230 steamboats on western waters. By the close of 1835 there were 684 steamboats on the western waters (but only about 10 were operating on the Missouri River): 304 of these were built in the Pittsburgh district, 221 in the Cincinnati district and 103 in the Louisville district.

By 1836 the number of steamboats operating on the lower Missouri River had increased to fifteen or twenty which made at least 35 round trips to Boonville and Glasgow.

In 1838 there were at least 22 boats operating on the lower Missouri River, and the next year there were at least 39 boats. Between 1840 and 1844 the number of boats operating on the lower Missouri stabilized at about 26, but in 1845 the number of boats jumped to at least 37, and by 1849 there were some 58 steamboats operating on the Missouri River.

During the period from 1830 to 1840 the entire traffic on the lower river was confined to the towns, the Santa Fe trade at Westport Landing, now Kansas City, and the government trade at Fort Leavenworth.

Prior to about 1840 cabin facilities and other passenger amenities were somewhat limited, but the rapidly increasing population along the Missouri river after 1840 caused a corresponding demand for additional transportation facilities and a better class of steamboat was adopted. These boats had full-length cabins, double (as opposed to single) engines, and a battery of boilers instead of just one or two. Great improvements were also made to the hulls of the boats about this time. Rounded hulls gave way in the 1830's to flatter, more rectangular single framed hulls that drew less water but had about the same carrying capacity as the rounded hulls, and the keel virtually disappeared. By the 1840s many vessels contained three decks or more and boats were being built that were considerably larger than the earlier boats.

American Fur Company boats (generally smaller than the lower river boats) continued to make annual trips into the upper Missouri river country throughout the 1830s and 40s, with one particularly disastrous trip being made by the steamboat St. Peters in 1837. Several people on this boat came down with smallpox before the boat reached the Mandan country and the disease spread like wildfire among the Indians. The Mandan tribe was particularly hard hit; indeed the tribe was nearly annihilated by the disease to which they had no immunity. But the disease also took a heavy toll among the Aricaras, the Assiniboines, the Blackfeet and the Crows. Estimates of the number of Indians killed by this smallpox plague vary widely, but even the most conservative estimate puts the number killed at more than 15,000.

Another notable steamboat trip to the upper Missouri River country occurred in 1843 when Capt. Joseph LaBarge, as master of the steamboat Omega took the celebrated naturalist and artist, John James Audubon, up the river to Fort Union. This trip was perhaps one of the most completely documented of any of the early steamboat trips on the Missouri. LaBarge (1815-1899), whose career embraced nearly the whole history of steamboating on the river from 1831 to 1896, was the subject of a very interesting biography that also covers much of the river’s steamboating history entitled History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River (1903), by H.M. Chittenden. Another excellent source book for Missouri River steamboating is the biography of the other great Missouri River steamboat captain, Grant Marsh (1834-1916) who operated the classic upper river steamboat, the Far West and brought the news of the Custer defeat downriver in 1876. This biography, entitled The Conquest of the Missouri (1909), was written by J.M. Hanson and covers an approximately fifty-year period from the early 1850s to the early 1900s.

Between 1840 and 1850 much of the lower river steamboat traffic was involved with handling the migration of the Mormons to the west, the surge of settlers moving west on the Oregon Trail, and, by 1849, the great rush of treasure seekers to the California gold fields.

The real "Golden Era" of steamboating, was the period between 1850 and 1860. By the 1850's the larger lower Missouri river steamboats and the average Mississippi River steamboats were about 250 feet long with a 40 foot beam and carried 300 to 400 passengers as well as some 700 tons of freight. A steamboat this size could cost $50,000 to $75,000, but this amount could often be made back in one good season. Sometimes a boat could be paid for in a single trip. During 1858, the peak year of Missouri River steamboating, there were as many as 60 steam packets and 30 or 40 transient or tramp boats operating on the lower Missouri River. In 1859, more vessels left St. Louis for the Missouri River than for both the upper and lower Mississippi.

The outbreak of the Civil War retarded steamboat traffic on the lower Missouri River since most of the boats were used by the Union to transport men and material on the Mississippi, and steamboating on the Missouri River was a dangerous proposition because of the roving guerrilla bands that would regularly attack boats below Kansas City.

After the war steamboat traffic on the lower Missouri picked up once again, and among the most prominent steamboat men during the last half-century of Missouri River steamboating were the Heckmanns and Wohlts of Hermann and Capt. Joseph Kinney of Howard County. But by this time the expansion of railroads was beginning to have an increasingly significant effect on the economics of steamboating. Despite a brief resurgence of steamboat activity in the early 1870s it was becoming clear by the 1880s that the days of the steamboat were numbered, and by the 1890s there were very few steamboats operating successfully on either the lower or upper Missouri River.

To give you some idea of the mortality of steamboats, perhaps as many as 700 different boats operated on the Missouri River between 1819 and the final disappearance of the paddle wheelers in the first decade after 1900. About 300 of these boats were wrecked during this same period of time. A report prepared by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Captain H.W. Chittenden, secretary of the Missouri River Commission, in 1897, gives the names of 273 steamboats wrecked on the Missouri River from the beginning of navigation until 1897. About 100 of these boats were lost in the period between 1820 and 1860.

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With this overview of steamboating on the Missouri River, I want to conclude with a closer look at steamboating in the Boonslick region of central Missouri, especially that stretch of the river lying roughly between Rocheport (mile 186 on present river charts) and Glasgow (mile 226.5 on present river charts), a stretch of river that covers about 40 miles.

As was stated earlier, there was very little steamboating activity between 1819 and 1830 on the Missouri, and the primary landings in the Boonslick area during this period were at Franklin (until at least the late 1820s) and Chariton (just above present day Glasgow).

After 1830, however, Rocheport, Boonville, Arrow Rock and Glasgow were the primary ports of call in the Boonslick region for steamboat traffic.

Although Rocheport was not officially founded until 1825 and the town was not laid out until 1832, a ferry had been established there as early as 1819, and a warehouse was built there in 1820 at which time the mouth of the Moniteau (then known as Arnold's Landing) was recognized as a desirable landing place. By 1835, however, Rocheport was a town of considerable size and by the 1850s it had become a primary shipping point for hemp and tobacco.

Boonville was not officially laid out until 1819, but the first settlers had come into the area by 1810 and by 1816 there was a ferry operating between Franklin and the Boonville side of the river, and there was a full-fledged scheme to lay out a town on the site. For a number of years after the town was platted and the first simple businesses had been established Boonville languished in the shadow of Franklin, just across the river. But with the demise of Franklin in the late 1820s Boonville began to rapidly grow in importance and size. By 1839 when the town was officially incorporated it was a thriving steamboat port, and it continued to be an important shipping point down to the time of the Civil War.

One of the first known steamboats to be built in the Boonslick was a boat called the Far West, a small sidewheeler built by Justinian Williams of Boonville in 1834 about two miles above the mouth of the Bonne Femme Creek. She was a typical boat of that period, 130' long, 20' wide and with a 6' hold. Justinian Williams left Boonville in this same year, and his boat is listed as having sunk at St. Charles in 1836. Little else is known about it.

The next boat mentioned as being built in the Boonslick was a light draught steamboat called the Warsaw that, according to the Missouri Register, May 20, 1841, was the first boat to actually be built in Boonville. The boat was built under the superintendence of a Captain McCourtney and was meant for the Osage trade.

A ferry was established across the Missouri river near the present site of Arrow Rock as early as 1811 and the first expedition to Santa Fe crossed here in 1821, but the town was not platted until 1829 (by Santa Fe trader, and later Missouri governor, Meredith Miles Marmaduke), and at first it was called New Philadelphia, though this was changed to Arrow Rock in 1833. By the mid-1830s this town, too, had become a bustling steamboat port.

Glasgow was not laid out as a town until 1836, however, there had been settlements in the area since at least as early as 1817 when the town of Chariton was laid out near the mouth of the Chariton River just upriver from present day Glasgow. This town met its demise by the mid-1820s because of its proneness to flooding, and after several more abortive attempts to site a viable town in the area (Monticello, Thorntonsburg and Louisville-on-the-Missouri), the Glasgow site finally proved successful. By the time the town was officially incorporated in 1845 it, too, was a thriving steamboat port and became noted for its large shipments of tobacco.

Although the towns just mentioned were the ports of call for the regular St. Louis based packets, there were a number of smaller boats operating locally in the Boonslick throughout the years of the heaviest steamboat traffic, and these smaller boats often called at a number of intermediate landings on both sides of the river. Some of these intermediate landings were Hays’, Hobrecht’s, Elliott’s, Moore's, and Kinney's landings between Rocheport and Boonville; Haas, Lamine, and Chancellor's between Boonville and Arrow Rock; and Carson's, Lisbon, Griffith's and Bluffport between Arrow Rock and Glasgow. There was also considerable small boat traffic on the Lamine River.

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