River steamboats played an important role in the saga of the West.
There are few navigable rivers in the West, most run north-south, not east-west where traffic wanted to go.  But some like the wide Missouri were highways for little wooden boats, which were mostly stern-wheelers for good reason.  If they hit a sandbar, they turned about and dug their way through with the big wooden wheel, or “walked” over the bar – “grasshoppering” - with long heavy spars carried vertically on derricks near the bow.  The ends of the spars were dropped to the bottom, tops slanted forward, and with block, tackle, cable and capstan, lifted and pushed the boat forward as if on crutches, while the paddle wheel thrashed furiously.  After each splash down, the spars were reset for the next “hop”, until the boat was free.
Colonel Henry  Rosebud under full steam, 1880’s.

The little boats swarmed the Missouri, serving Fort Leavenworth, Independence, Kansas City, St. Joseph, and a hundred forgotten jump-offs for the West.  They steamed up to Fort Pierre in South Dakota; and even Fort Benton, clear up in Montana Territory, 2300 miles of dangerous water, 70 to 100 days up, 20 to 40 coming back.

Teddy Roosevelt’s entrepreneurial great granduncle Nicholas designed and built the first Mississippi steamboat in 1811.  He steamed down to New Orleans despite flood, comet, eclipse, and the epochal New Madrid earthquake, which changed the course of the river and caused a tidal wave.  Within a decade the little boats were venturing up the Missouri. 

 A steamer of the 1870’s cost $20,000 and up to build, $5,000 secondhand.  On bigger rivers they might be floating palaces worth a quarter million.  On the smaller rivers, they were rugged workboats for freight and immigrants.  Large or small, they were all similar in construction.

Western rivers produced a boat different from any other: a ramshackle, flat-bottomed, multi-tiered “wedding cake,” designed to slide over the water, rather than cut through it.  Builders favored lightweight construction, using pine and poplar, instead of sturdier oak, to draw as little water as possible. A boat might draft as little as 14 inches! Design sprang from a workman’s practicality, rather than engineering theory.  Most boat and engine builders were former carpenters, blacksmiths, and flatboat, water wheel, and moonshine still builders.

 Coming up the stageplank from the bank, you stepped onto the main deck, which resembled a large open shed.  Forward was housing for boilers and engines, and below deck, holds for extra freight entered by hatches.  Wagons, animals, cooped chickens, household goods, sacks, bales, boxes, barrels, stacked cordwood for the roaring fireboxes under the boilers (which averaged a cord an hour) – anything might be found.  Here was the cheapest passage. “Deck” passengers made the trip living in their own wagons, or sleeping on the planks. 

            The roof of this deck was the cabin deck, the second floor for fancier passengers and better accommodations, a long central saloon, and individual staterooms, so called because named for states before numbering was standard.  The front of the saloon was the Gentleman’s Cabin; the rearmost third – usually separated by a folding partition - was the Ladies’ Cabin.  The sexes never mixed, unless a preacher, married, or similarly closely related male might briefly be permitted to intrude on the women’s domain. Ladies generally didn’t go into the Gents’ section because it was a horridly masculine place for booze, sleazy gamblers, brass cuspidors and sand-filled spit boxes, billowing cigar smoke, rivers of tobacco juice, and juicier language.

The roof of the cabin deck was called the hurricane deck because it had no cover, although forward and center was the texas – cabins for officers, white deck hands, and Negro waiters serving passengers.  The texas was named after the Lone Star State because it was annexed to  staterooms, or because it had larger cabins (authorities differ).

 Atop the texas was the pilothouse, a small many windowed structure where the pilot – the boss of the boat – rode in lofty grandeur, attending a wheel as much as 12 feet in diameter, the bottom extending below the deck.  Bells with ropes, a whistle, and a speaking tube to the engine room provided communication.  A bench might be along the back wall for guests, but the pilothouse was usually bare – it wasn’t navigational gear that guided the vessel, it was the pilot’s phenomenal memory, and an uncanny sixth sense that kept the boat out of trouble.

Sometimes one, but usually two lofty flaring crowned chimneys (never called “stacks” or “funnels”) in front of the texas sent columns of wood smoke aloft.  Swung between them was gingerbread, the initials or insignia of the boat, or the company that owned it.  High on the chimneys were passing lights, big red and green lanterns; red always to the bank, green larboard to the river.  Steamers ran at night in deep water, but didn’t risk low or dangerous stretches in the dark.  Illumination was by fancy brass cabin lamps, square-sided deck and hold lanterns, and for loading, torch baskets, iron cages stuffed with blazing pine knots on the end of sharp-pointed iron staffs that were thrust into the bank. 

 A typical crew included captain, two pilots (lords of the boat after it sailed), three engineers, one clerk, a steward, a deck crew of 30, and a cabin crew of 20 “aristocrats” serving cabin passengers.  Pilots were top dogs, drawing $300-400 a month (the best, $2,000); mates, engineers and clerks earned half that.  A pilot might also have a “cub” paying up to $500 to be taught the trade.  Pilots alternated watches, four hours on, four off.  Midnight to four was the “after” watch, four to breakfast the “dog” watch. Firemen feeding the roaring fireboxes and roustabouts doing the heavy lifting were usually Negroes.  Unlike the cabin crew, they bunked on the main deck, or in the hold under the boilers, a favorite spot, because it was warm.

Boats had the most powerful, crudest, simplest, and most dangerous engines then known to man.  A pilot could easily blow up a boat, whether careful or not.  Boiler explosions were frequent.  Builders tried to correct this, but they embraced wastefulness as an overall philosophy, seeing forests along the rivers as vast, handy cheap energy.  They valued speed, power, and performance over safety, and burned wood as extravagantly as modern Americans burn gasoline, or electricity.  The flimsy boats were at risk from many sources: fire, ice, storm, flood, snags, high wind, and occasionally running into each other or something else.  If one was ever to venture to sea, a 19th Century wit remarked, “the ocean would take one playful slap at it and people would be picking up kindling on the beach for the next eleven years.”

 It wasn’t a speedy way to get anywhere, either, but it was more comfortable than most, and pretty cheap.  The little vessels could haul up to 200 tons in waist deep water, and double that with an extra foot of draft. The fare was usually 2 or 3 cents per mile, and up to 250 pounds of baggage went free.  It cost about $300 for the 2300-mile trip from St. Louis to the gold field excitement at Fort Benton, Montana. 

Fort Benton, Montana northernmost Missouri River steamboat levee, 150 miles from the mines in Last Chance Gulch.

Boat captains thought Indians were treacherous: grateful for freight one day, and bloodthirsty the next.  Indians called boats “fire canoes”, symbol of “friend and foe, truth and falsehood, honor and shame,” bringing useful goods and gaudy trinkets, but also illegal whiskey, and deadly disease, settlers, soldiers who crushed resistance, and took the defeated to reservations to be dependent on river borne government supplies, dishonest traders and corrupt agents.

 The Yellowstone River was key to military operations against the Sioux.  Its tributaries watered the heart of Indian hunting grounds.  But it presented a dilemma: despite generations of trappers, explorers, and surveyors: no one knew if it was navigable.  Lieutenant General Phil Sheridan, the Civil War hero now commanding the Army’s Division of the Missouri, chose Grant Marsh to explore it by steamboat: 460 miles to the mouth of the Powder River in 1873, and up its higher reaches in 1875.

  Grant Marsh was a famous captain, firmly grounded in fundamentals of paddle navigation.  He worked boats for twenty-two years before becoming captain in 1866 at 34.  Serving as mate on the John J. Roe supporting Grant at Shiloh, he formed an appreciation for and a sense of duty to good soldiers, and a personal belief in daring and resolution in times of danger.  He was the right man to mark chutes and channels through which troops would be ferried and supplied before, during, and after the disastrous Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. 

 Both of his earlier Yellowstone trips penetrated country marked “hostile” on Army maps, carrying deck loads of escorting infantrymen and artillery, but never heard an unfriendly shot.

Side-wheeler De Smet pauses at unscheduled stop to pick up fallen timber to get her to the next wood yard.

Marsh was soon convinced that the Yellowstone was navigable. Charming vistas opened as the steamer churned cautiously upstream: riverside willows turning green; vast herds of buffalo moving over prairies; elk and antelope herds wandering bottomland.  Eminent guide/hunter Luther S. “Yellowstone” Kelly (hired for the trip) easily provided fresh venison for dinner.  They named points along the stream for one another, wives, and friends. A lighthearted Custer and his 7th Cavalry, ostensibly escorting railroad surveyors (their work enabled the Black Hills gold rush, enraging the Indians), ran sharp little clashes with Indians, but acted as if on a grand sporting expedition.   He sent his regimental band to entertain Marsh, and went with his English guest Lord Clifford to follow three packs of hounds wearing little moccasins to protect their paws from prickly pear thorns as they bayed after jackrabbits. 

 Two summers later, Sheridan ordered Marsh farther, writing: “It may be necessary, at some time in the immediate future, to occupy by a military force the country in and about the mouths of the Tongue River and the Big Horn.”  Armed with Gatling gun and soldiers, the trip was a dreamy summer idyll.  They had splendid weather and water.  The Yellowstone was at peak spring flood and the Josephine passed serenely over sand bars, steaming to the Powder River without once setting spars or warping upstream with steam capstans.  The river led on through useful reef-bordered channels, its valley more beautiful with every day.  Draws and bottomlands were choked with wild plums, cherries, gooseberries, currants, and strawberries.  The prairie was alive with animals.  The party feasted on wild fruit and fresh meat, and a sense of timelessness – of “savoring Eden” – settled aboard as they “churned day after day up the dazzling sunlit reaches toward the retreating horizons of an untracked and smiling world.”

Missouri River 80 miles east of Fort Benton.  Captain’s Note: river has left main channel to form new shallower trough through sandbars.

Marsh kept painstaking records, which the Army judged the most valuable by-product of the expedition, and copied for other captains.  The steamer had gone 483 miles upstream to within 60 miles of modern Yellowstone National Park – a feat never equaled.  Marsh didn’t know that he had conducted a rehearsal for tragedy, time was closing in on his friend George Custer, or that sorrow, danger, and real fame still awaited Marsh on the river he now knew better than any man alive.

 Steamers were indispensable to the Indian-fighting Army.  During the long bloody struggle, the little boats carried supplies to established posts and troops on campaign.  It was the fastest way to move troops or communicate between units separated by deep water.  They did reconnaissance, hospital, and gunboat duty.  A principal factor in ultimate victory, they also served heroically in the Army’s most devastating disaster, the most famous Indian military campaign debacle of all: Custer’s last fight.

General Terry Lt. Col. Custer Col. Gibbon

Men stumble unaware into history, being awakened by crisis, “cast and costumed by the fates.”  The U.S. 7th Cavalry was no exception when it rode out to engage the Sioux.  Nothing in their experience prepared them for the massive Indian response.  No one could imagine a suicidal defeat that would demean the Army before the world, and launch Captain Grant Marsh on the wildest fastest steamboat ride in American history.

 General Phil Sheridan asked Marsh to select one steamer that could be “supply boat, hospital ship, mobile command post, and instrument of quick river crossings.”  No pilot in America understood the Yellowstone River so well, and no steamer was better suited than the Far West.

In the cabin of the Far West, tied up at the mouth of the Rosebud on the Yellowstone River, Captains Grant Marsh and Davie Campbell bid farewell to the fiery Custer as he strode out to his gory glory.

Marsh headed upstream with a good crew, 60 riflemen of the 6th Infantry, and Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry, using the boat as flagship.  They would meet Colonel John Gibbon and a force of infantry coming down river.  The Missouri runs east and west roughly parallel to the Canadian border across North Dakota and eastern Montana.  The Yellowstone enters from the southwest near the states’ border.  Four lesser streams run into it  – Powder River, Tongue River, Rosebud Creek, and Bighorn River - their mouths forming natural rendezvous points for the steamer and the 7th.  Far West met them at the mouth of the Powder on June 7.

It was the Army’s assumption that the Indians would run away – they always did.  Thus, they moved from several directions to force them into decisive battle.  Crazy Horse didn’t wait, but attacked, bloodied, and repulsed General Crook 100 miles west of the Yellowstone.  Then he turned to Custer, leading his men southwest up the long green valley of the Rosebud.  Gibbon was coming from the east, but had yet to cross the Yellowstone to “enclose” the foe.

 A sense of isolation claimed Marsh, crew, and the guard on Far West.  They’d followed the 7th, moored near their camps, unloaded their stores, eavesdropped on their councils, but were now alone in a silent wilderness.  Two days later, a dispatch rider from Terry (who’d gone with Gibbon) ordered them up the Bighorn, barely a hundred yards wide at its widest, full of islands, bends, and whitewater in summer flood.  No steamer had ever gone there before. It was a hot day, made ominous by the smoke of countless Indian fires on the southern horizon.  The stream led past steep cliffs and barren badland.  There was seldom a navigable stretch longer than 300 yards, and they were repeatedly forced to “grasshopper” and warp upstream.

Marsh arrived at Little Bighorn, 50 miles from the Yellowstone, on June 26, coming within 11 miles of Custer’s battleground at almost the minute that the 7th launched the ill-conceived downhill attack on thousands of angry waiting Indians.  However, the smoke of the Indian fires had vanished, and it was assumed that Custer and Terry had beaten the Sioux. The crew loafed in the sun, or wandered their island mooring with fishing poles to catch the pike and catfish hanging in the clear water over the Bighorn’s gravel bottom. 
Curly brings the news to Far West. Curly, Crow scout.
A tribesman on a lathered pony broke the bushes, halting at river’s edge, rifle raised in peace.  It was Crow scout Curly; he said Custer was dead with all his men.  Far West spent an uneasy night.  Trigger-happy sentries almost shot a scout from Gibbon’s column when he rode up.  Terry ordered Far West to carry 54 of Gibbon’s wounded cavalrymen, and news of the catastrophe to Ft. Abraham Lincoln.  They also boarded Captain Keogh’s much wounded mount, Comanche, sole survivor of the battle.  The horse paraded riderless with the 7th until he died much lamented at 28.
Comanche flees the battle. Comanche in 1877.
“Captain,” Terry said, “this is a bad river. You have the most precious cargo a boat ever carried.  Every soldier here is the victim of a terrible blunder. A sad and terrible blunder. I wish to ask you to use all the skill you possess.”
Grant Marsh, Star River Pilot. Far West’s dining room.
“I will give you my best,” Marsh said, but his nerve almost failed.  Pilots learned every river twice, once going up, once down. Traveling with a flood, every move of the wheel required split second decision based on instinct;  Far West’s speed now scared passengers.  But Marsh was proud of his reputation, honored by the responsibility, and invigorated by his dramatic role.  He made the last 700 miles in 54 hours, nonstop at full steam.  No boat had gone that fast since Nicholas Roosevelt had first steamed to New Orleans on a tidal wave in 1811.
Far West’s feat meant more than the ultimate triumph of steam power and human nerve.  History was changing as she tied up at Ft. Lincoln; she was already a symbol of the past.  The Sioux sealed their fate by defeating Custer.  The Army made an extraordinary response and broke Indian resistance to white exploitation of the Rocky Mountain West within a year.  Nothing now blocked the railroads from expansion.  The boats were doomed, but Far West’s record was never approached, and she was still queen of speed when the last boat vanished - plumed smoke, misted paddles, and mournful whistle - from the rivers of the West.

Historical Photograph Credits:  1 – David F. Berry, courtesy Montana Historical Society (MHS).  3 – E.E. Henry from the collection of David R. Phillips. 4 – MHS.  5 –  H.G. Klenze, MHS.  6 – MHS.  7 – MHS. 9 – MHS. 10 – Courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri; F. Jay Haynes, courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, N.D., and the Haynes Foundation. 


Color model photography, Tana Legry.


Additional Reading:
This article freely paraphrases the much more scholarly:

Rivermen, Paul O’Neil, Time-Life Books, 1975.

Look of the Old West, Foster-Harris, Bonanza Books, 1960.

Montana, the Magazine of Western History, “Special Custer Edition,” Spring 1966.


Web links:

www.steamboats.org - Steam boating the rivers yesterday and today.

www.montanahistoricalsociety.org - Consult also: Montana Historical Society,

                                         225 N. Roberts Street, Helena MT 59620; 1-800-243-9900

www.over-land.com  - Up-to-date web links. Western overland trails and history.


Students:  Create a historical preservation class project.  Choose a landmark in your hometown, and:

  1. Do research and write a report about it.  (Share it with the class and others).
  2. Draw a picture of it.  (Make an art gallery with your classmates). 
  3. Make a model of it.  (Use balsa wood, cardboard, or whatever works).
  4. Put up a web site about it.  (Share your discoveries with the wider world).
  5. Network with your local and state historical societies to learn and share your work.


Teachers: Civil society and community begin with a sense of place.  An historical preservation project stimulates a sense of community pride, and the common, shared good.  The kids help strengthen civil society, as well as create a public art that most hometown folks can appreciate.
Yellowstone River at Columbus, photo courtesy of Big Sky Fishing.Com Colonel Henry

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