by Robert L. Dyer

Big Canoe Records

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


Just because the Mississippi is the biggest river in the country, you mustn't get the idea that she's the best and the boats on her the finest and her boatmen the smartest. That ain't true. Son, real steamboatin' begins a few miles north there, where the Missouri and the Mississippi join up.

It takes a real man to be a Missouri River pilot, and that's why a good one draws down as high as a thousand dollars a month. If a Mississippi boat makes a good trip to New Orleans and back, its milk-fed crew think they've turned a trick.

Bah! That's creek navigatin'. But from St. Louis to Fort Benton and back–close on to five thousand miles, son, with cottonwood snags waitin' to rip a hole in your bottom and the fastest current there ever was on any river darin' your engines at every bend and with Injuns hidin' in the bushes at the woodyard landings ready to rip the scalp off your head–that's a hair-on-your-chest, he-man trip for you!

...And the Missouri has more history stored up in any one of her ten thousand bends than this puny Mississippi creek can boast from her source to the New Orleans delta. I know what I'm talkin' about, because I've seen navigatin' on the Missouri, beginnin' with the dugouts the Injuns hollowed out of tree trunks right down to those floatin' palaces you see tied up so pretty there....

Say, you didn't happen to know, did you, that I made the first trip ever made by a steamboat on the Missouri?

...Yes, siree-bob, that I did–on the steamboat Independence, Captain John Nelson, master, way back in 1819. The trip was from St. Louis to Franklin, Missouri, about [two hundred] miles. Some rich fellows in St. Louis financed the trip. It took us fifteen days to make it. Those rich fellows, bless their hearts, put up the money just to prove that boats could get up the Missouri.

I was standin' in the forecastle as she hove into sight of Franklin landing. We had a cannon mounted on the bow and fired a salute. A cannon answered from the bank. There was a big crowd on the bank, and they were cheerin' and wavin' their hats. A few minutes later our roustabouts were hustlin' ashore a cargo of sugar, whiskey, and flour–the first freight haul by steamboat up the Missouri.

Yes, siree, the Missouri River was right up to date. It was only two years before that the first steamboat had arrived at the St. Louis waterfront. She was the Zebulon M. Pike. She was such a freaky-lookin' craft that her master, who had an eye for business, made himself a tidy penny by chargin' curious folks a dollar to come aboard and look around.

From Old Man River: The Memories of Captain Louis Rosche, Pioneer Steamboatman, Robert A. Hereford (Caldwell, Idaho, Caxton Printers, 1942), pp. 97-100. Quote from an old steamboat man Rosche met on the St. Louis levee in 1866 when he was trying to get a job on a steamboat bound for the gold fields of Montana.

The history of steamboats in the United States began in the 1780s with experiments conducted by James Rumsey, John Fitch and Robert Fulton. Fulton is often credited with inventing the steamboat, but it is more accurate to say that he made one of the first successful demonstrations of a commercially feasible steamboat when he launched the Clermont (Fulton actually referred to it as simply The Steamboat or The North River Steamboat) on the lower Hudson River in 1807. One of Boonville's pioneer citizens, Nathaniel Mack, recalled having been among the first passengers on Fulton's steamboat (Boonville Weekly Eagle, February 17, 1871):

In the year 1807, while on my way to take charge of a school, and while passing through New York, my attention was attracted by some large posters being posted up throughout the city. The bills announced the trial trip of the steamer, and inviting all who wished to participate to be aboard the boat at a given time on the following day. Being young and fond of investigating anything of that character, I left the stage (stage coaches being the only means of conveyance) and stopped in the city over night, going aboard the boat in the morning.... There were about three hundred on board the boat when she left the landing...[and] people lined the banks along the river, most of them fearing to appear too near the water. The slaves, (New York then being a slave state, and containing more slaves than the State of Missouri at the commencement of the war) were terribly frightened and looked with amazement at the steam escaping from the boilers.... The engine when in motion made a rattling noise similar to half a dozen wagons.... But before running any great distance a part of the machinery gave way. The boat returning to the city for repairs, a great many left, fearing to return to resume the trip.

Mack also said that after their arrival at Albany, Fulton advertised the boat to run as a regular packet, and upon receiving the first passage money shed tears, remarking that he had spent all that he possessed, and that it was the first money he had received. An excellent source of information for Fulton’s first steamboat and for the whole early period of steamboat development is James Thomas Flexner’s Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action (New York, The Viking Press, 1944); see especially pp. 319-326 for an account of Fulton’s first steamboat trip.

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The beginning of steamboating on the Western rivers dates to 1811 when Nicholas Roosevelt, great granduncle of Theodore Roosevelt, piloted a Fulton built steamboat, the New Orleans, from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. The trip began on October 20, 1811, when the boat left Pittsburgh. It arrived at Louisville, Kentucky, on October 29, 1811, where Roosevelt’s wife, Lydia (Latrobe), gave birth to their son, Henry. Roosevelt remained in Louisville for the next five weeks then resumed his journey on December 8, passing over the Falls of the Ohio and continuing downstream to Shippingport, Kentucky, and Yellow Bank, Indiana (December 14). While at this latter place they experienced the first shocks of the New Madrid earthquake (December 16) and continued downstream to Henderson, Kentucky, to see John and Lucy Audubon and survey earthquake damage. The boat reached the Mississippi on December 18 and passed New Madrid, Point Pleasant and Little Prairie (the epicenter of the quakes) on December 19. On December 22 they spent the night near the mouth of the St. Francis where they learned about the disappearance of Big Prairie from John Bradbury’s party, which was also descending the river at this time. They arrived in Natchez, Mississippi on December 30, and New Orleans on January 10, 1812. The New Orleans continued in service on the lower Mississippi River between New Orleans and Natchez until 1814 when she was sunk by a snag.

The primary source for the journey of the New Orleans was written by John H.B. Latrobe, Lydia Roosevelt’s half-brother, who told the story as he heard it from her. This account was published as The First Steamboat Voyage on the Western Waters by the Maryland Historical Society (Fund Publication No. 6, Baltimore, 1871); but a more accessible account is Mr. Roosevelt’s Steamboat: The First Steamboat to Travel the Mississippi, by Mary Helen Dohan (New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1981).

In 1815 a steamboat called the Enterprise made the first successful trip upriver from New Orleans to Louisville; and on August 2, 1817, the Zebulon M. Pike arrived in St. Louis and became the first steamboat to make it up the Mississippi beyond the mouth of the Ohio.

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The source of the Missouri River is in Red Rock Creek, Montana, some 2,500 miles from where the Missouri empties into the Mississippi, but the river is not navigable above the Great Falls in Montana because the gradient above the falls is extremely steep. In fact, the actual head of navigation is at Fort Benton, Montana, about 37 miles below the falls. From Fort Benton to the Mississippi the distance is about 2,300 miles, though one should keep in mind that there are different methods of calculating river miles (some measure with the curves, others across the curves) and the river has been shortened significantly (especially in its lower reaches) over the past 100 years.

In terms of navigation history, the Missouri River is commonly divided into the Upper Missouri and the Lower Missouri, with the dividing point generally considered to be the mouth of the Big Sioux River near present day Sioux City, Iowa, about 850 miles from the Mississippi.

Before 1830 scarcely any steamboat business was done above the mouth of the Kansas River, and between 1830 and 1860 only a few boats had ventured up the river any farther than Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. The first boats to actually reach Fort Benton, which was, for all practical purposes the head of navigation on the Missouri, were the Chippewa and the Key West in 1860. But following the discovery of gold in Montana in 1863, there was an explosion of steamboat business to Fort Benton. In 1865 twenty packets set out from St. Louis for Fort Benton, and the following year almost sixty boats left for the gold fields, although not all of them arrived.

Most of the early steamboats on the Missouri river (as well as the other Western rivers) were built on the Ohio River, first at Pittsburgh, then at Wheeling, then at the area around the falls of the Ohio at Louisville, including Jeffersonville, Indiana, then at Cincinnati and other points on the Ohio.

The early steamers were mainly side-wheelers, though a few were sternwheelers. The preference for side-wheelers continued up to about 1850, but after that date, especially on the Missouri River, the preference switched to stern-wheelers, and it is a tradition in the Kinney family of Howard County that Capt. Joseph Kinney was one of the main people responsible for influencing the shift to stern-wheel boats on the Missouri River.

The early boats were relatively small, 75' to 150' long and 20' to 35' wide. They were characterized by deep, well-rounded, carvel built hulls with projecting keels and very marked sheer fore and aft. Double framed hulls housed engines, boilers, firebox and cargo; and some of these early boats retained masts and sails.

Early engines were of the low pressure, condensing, exhaust type featuring walking beams, a single vertical cylinder designed to produce maximum piston thrust on the vacuum stroke, though by the late teens or early twenties high pressure engines with horizontal cylinders and pitman arms driving counterweighted paddle wheels began to be used. Paired side wheel engines were introduced in the mid-1820's and the engine, firebox and boilers were moved to the main deck rather than being in the hold. Perhaps the best single book on the technological as well as the economic history of steamboating on the western rivers is Louis C. Hunter’s classic Steamboats on the Western Rivers, originally published in 1949, but republished in 1993 by Dover Publications, New York.

In terms of numbers, scarcely a dozen steamboats were built by 1817, but in the next two years over 60 were launched for traffic on the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Ohio.

Steamboating on the Missouri River began in May 1819, when the Independence, a boat commissioned by Elias Rector and captained by John Nelson, became the first steamboat to successfully navigate the Missouri River, making it to Franklin in thirteen days (seven days of actual running time). The boat left St. Louis on May 15 and arrived in Franklin May 28. After continuing up river a short distance to the old town of Chariton (just above present day Glasgow) the boat returned to St. Louis on June 5th. The Franklin Missouri Intelligencer (which also began in this year to become the first newspaper published west of St. Louis) noted in an article on June 4, 1819:

We may truly regard this event as highly important, not only to the commercial but [also to the] agricultural interests of the country. The practicability of steamboat navigation, being now clearly demonstrated by experiment, we shall be brought nearer to the Atlantic, West Indian and European markets, and the abundant resources of our fertile and extensive region will be quickly developed.

A little over two weeks after the return of the Independence to St. Louis, a government military and scientific expedition led by Col. Henry Atkinson and Major Stephen Long started up the Missouri River in four steamboats and 9 keelboats (there were actually 6 steamboats originally, but two of them never made it to St. Louis). The original goal of the expedition was to establish an American presence at the mouth of the Yellowstone River to discourage British incursions on American fur trading territory, but the scope of the expedition was later curtailed and the government fort was established at Council Bluffs (just above present day Omaha) rather than at the Yellowstone river.

This expedition, popularly known as the Yellowstone or Missouri Expedition, involved the transportation of 1,100 escort troops and their supplies under Col. Atkinson, as well as a scientific team headed by Major Long in his specially built steamboat, the Western Engineer, a small sternwheeler, 75 feet long with a 13 foot beam and drawing only 19 inches of water light, which came to be known as "Long's Dragon" because of its distinctively carved bowsprit in the shape of a serpent with exhaust pipes from the steam engine venting steam through its mouth and nostrils.

The other steamboats in the expedition were the R.M. Johnson (named for the 9th vice president of the United States and the brother of the man who had the government contract to supply the steamboats for the military portion of the expedition), the Expedition, and the Jefferson (named for Thomas Jefferson). This latter boat, the Jefferson, was grounded and disabled in the Osage chute (not far from present day Jefferson City). The other three boats also encountered difficulties, but all of them made it beyond Franklin and Chariton, passing these western-most Missouri River towns in mid-July and early August of 1819. The R.M. Johnson, however, gave out not far from the mouth of the Kaw or Kansas River (vicinity of present day Kansas City); and the Expedition made it only as far as Isle de Vache or Cow Island (above present day Leavenworth) where a temporary encampment had been established the year before by a vanguard of 350 troops and called Cantonment Martin.

The Western Engineer made it up to Manuel Lisa’s fur trading fort at the mouth of the Platte, and was forced to stop there for the winter where Cantonment Missouri, and, later, Ft. Atkinson was established.

The following spring, both the R.M. Johnson and the Expedition returned down river, passing Franklin in early April. About two months later the Western Engineer came back down river, passing Franklin on June 17. Despite the limited success of these three steamboats, the government experiment with steamboat exploration was considered a failure, and it was another ten years before regular steamboat trade on the Missouri River began.

The only other steamboats on the Missouri River in 1820 were the Missouri Packet, which arrived in Franklin on May 5, but was snagged and sunk shortly after leaving Franklin, and the Expedition, which passed Franklin in late May 1820. Both boats were carrying supplies for the troops at Cantonment Missouri.

The Missouri Packet, which sank near Hardeman's Island, just above the mouth of the Lamine River, was probably the boat referred to in a letter reprinted in the 1883 History of Howard and Cooper Counties indicating that during the summer of 1819 a boat with $250,000 in specie was sunk by a snag shortly after leaving Franklin and her valuable cargo was unable to be salvaged. The letter, which contains a number of confusing discrepancies when checked against other source materials (including the date of the mishap and the fact that it is highly unlikely that anything like $250,000 in specie was being carried upriver at this period of time), led to several efforts at locating and salvaging the "treasure" boat over the years, the most recent in 1987 by the Hawley family of Independence and others. Unfortunately the boat was seriously damaged in the futile search for lost treasure. The Hawleys did, however, manage to salvage the engine, two of the boilers and some other artifacts before the remains of the boat were reburied.

The Hawleys later performed a much more careful excavation near Parkville of the steamboat Arabia, which wrecked in 1856, and they have established the very interesting Arabia steamboat museum in the river market area of Kansas City where the numerous salvaged artifacts from the boat can be viewed.

The only other known successful excavation of a wrecked steamboat in recent years on the Missouri River was the excavation of the steamboat Bertrand (which sank in 1865) near Omaha, Nebraska, over the winter of 1968-69. Artifacts from this excavation are on display in the Visitors Center of the DeSoto Wildlife Refuge where the excavation took place. The National Park Service published an interesting book on this excavation in 1974 entitled The Steamboat Bertrand by Jerome E. Petsche.


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In the ten years following the Yellowstone Expedition, steamboat traffic on the Missouri River was limited and sporadic. One boat, Captain Shreve's Washington, went up the river as far as Franklin in the spring of 1821. She was also a supply boat carrying supplies for the troops at Ft. Atkinson. No known steamboats went up the river in 1822. One boat, the Pittsburgh and St. Louis Packet, went up river as far as Franklin in the spring of 1823. Two boats, the Gen. Neville and the Mandan, bound for Council Bluffs, went up the river in 1824. No known steamboats went up the river in 1825, though at least 9 keelboats equipped with manually operated paddles went up the river that year with General Atkinson and Major Benjamin O'Fallon to make treaties with the Indians. In 1826, the Muskingum, and possibly a steamboat called the George Washington, went up the river. The latter boat may have sunk near Hardeman's Island (the same approximate place where the Missouri Packet went down in 1820). No known steamboats went up the river in 1827; but in 1828, two boats, the Illinois and the Liberator, went up the river to Leavenworth in April. These were probably the only steamboats to go above the mouth of the Kansas River since 1824.

In 1829 the steamboat Diana went up to Leaven-worth in May and the steamboat Crusader went up to Leavenworth in August. In April, the Wm. D. Duncan left St. Louis for Franklin on the first of several trips she made to that place during the 1829 season. By 1830, both the Duncan and a steamboat called the Globe were making regular trips to Franklin and occasional trips to Leavenworth. Thus between 1819 and 1830 there were probably no more than 15 steamboats that operated on the Missouri River, and regular steamboat packet service on the lower Missouri River (below Ft. Leavenworth) did not begin in earnest until 1830.

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Comments from a site visitor
Upon review of the "...History of the Missouri River" I find a mistake repeated, again.
The INDEPENDENCE was NOT the first steamboat into the Missouri River as the history books tell us. I have found evidence that the first was the CONSTITUTION in October of 1817. This steamboat was only a couple of months behind the PIKE in arriving at St. Louis and the CONSTITUTION sold tickets for an excersion to Bellefontaine. Although Bellefontaine was only 8 miles above the mouth of the Missouri, I consider it far enough for the CONSTITUTION to claim to be the first steamboat into the Missouri River. This information can be verified via the Missouri Gazette of October 4, 1817.

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