Lesson Plan

1800s River Transportation

Steamboat Yellowstone arrived at Fort Union in 1832
Grade Level:
Fourth Grade-Eighth Grade
60 min
Group Size:
Up to 24
National/State Standards:
North Dakota Fourth Grade: 4.1.4, 4.1.5, 4.2.7, 4.6.2, North Dakota Eighth Grade: 8.1.2, 8.6.2


The Missouri River served as a highway that connected metropolises like St. Louis to fur trade forts like Fort Union Trading Post. Expeditions faced many hazards and took months to complete. This lesson identifies the different boats that made the dangerous and lengthy journey up the Missouri to Fort Union.


Students will:

Describe Mackinaw, Keelboat and Steamboat 
Explain the travel hazards of the Missouri River.  


This section goes into the various forms of transportation used on the Missouri River and the hazards faced during their journeys. The first part describes different types of vessels used for travel on the river. The second part discusses different hazards faced on their journeys. The third part is a vocabulary list of terms. The fourth part is an activity.


The Missouri River

The Missouri River borders seven states: Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska border the lower river. North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana border the upper river. The juncture of the Big Sioux and Missouri rivers served as an unofficial dividing point between the Upper Missouri River and the Lower. Steamboats traveling on the Upper Missouri came into “Indian Country” which referred to land where American Indian people resided. By the middle of the 19th century, the mouth of the Big Sioux River marked the boundary between “civilization” an area settled by Euro-Americans and “Indian Country.” In 1828, the American Fur Company established Fort Union on the Upper Missouri in “Indian Country” on the border of North Dakota and Montana. Only a few Plains Indian people lived year-round near the Missouri River in Montana such as the Assiniboin and the Blackfeet (Piegans).

Fort Union was located 2,200 river miles upriver from St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis gained fame as the “Gateway to the West” because its location at the confluence of the Mississippi River and Missouri River. The city represented access to tens of thousands of miles of western waters. “The Three Forks” mountain streams of the Rocky Mountains in Montana joined to form the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark named theses streams, the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin. Starting in 1831, the American Fur Company dispatched an annual steamboat expedition up the Missouri, and Yellowstone was the first steamboat to arrive at Fort Union in 1832.


Steamboats had three decks like a birthday cake. In ascending order from the water level the three decks were: the main, the boiler, and the hurricane. Most freight was stored on the main deck. The boiler deck contained the cabins. The pilot house jutted from the hurricane deck, sometimes on the top of a small cabin called a Texas. Tall smoke stacks carried away sparks from boilers. Steamboats, painted primarily white by tradition, had standard designs that applied to both stern-wheelers and side-wheelers. The largest steamboats carried 500 tons of cargo and generally ranged in length from 150 to 200 feet.

The first steamboat to arrive at Fort Union was called Yellow Stone, and steamboats like the Yellow Stone arrived during June rise. The June rise occurred when the river water levels’ rose because of the Rocky Mountain snow packed melted into the Missouri River via multiple tributaries. The broad-hulled steamboat Yellow Stone, was a 130 by 19 foot side-wheeler, had a 144 ton capacity. Almost all steams operating on western waters used wood for fuel. The standard measurement for wood was a cord: a stack equal to 128 cubic feet (4 by 4 by 8 feet). A steamboat could burn as many as twenty-five to thirty cords per day. Steamboats used paddle wheels, which reversed easily. Putting paddle wheels on the rear instead of the sides increased cargo space and enabled the negotiation of narrower channels. The drawback was stern-wheelers were somewhat difficult to steer in high winds.

The placing of spars, or “grass hopper poles,” on the bow of a steamboat improved the pilot’s ability to avoid sandbars through rapids. Driven into the river bottom, the poles raised the bow, allowing the current to remove sand from the front of the vessel so that it could escape the sandbar. Warping involved tying ropes to trees ahead of a steamboat and having deckhands pull the vessel along. Depending on the conditions, deckhands cordelled: (walked and pulled with tow ropes on the banks) pulling the boat forward. 

Mackinaws and keelboats functioned as the work-boats for transporting furs and supplies to and from Fort Union to Fort Benton. A chantier (boatyard) at Fort Union built mackinaws. The boatyard annually turned out keelboats, flatboats, pirogues, and rafts. The “mountain boats” or machinaw made of two-inch-wide cottonwood planks, were typically fifty feet long and nine feet wide, with three foot gunwales and thirty inch draft. A steerman and five other men controlled a mackinaw, which had the capability of transporting up to three hundred fur packs of one hundred pounds each. Mackinaws traveled down 100 miles per day down the Missouri River. Steamboats frequently carried mackinaws for use as lifeboats and for transporting cargo to shore.


Keelboats were larger than mackinaws and ran both up-and down-stream. The sharp-prowed boats, 18 feet wide and averaging 60 feet in length, had a deck cabin and carried a swivel gun for protection. A keelboat pilot of proven skill might earn $700 for the year. A “fur trade brigade” was a crew that numbered from 20 to 40 men on a keelboat. Using a cordelle (a rope three hundred yards or longer) attached to the boat’s mast, the crew pulled and poled the boat upstream. Basically the “fur trade brigade” played tug-of-war with a boat for approximately 15 miles a day. Sails were of limited use because of wind variations. Oars helped, but rowing upriver was difficult. Keelboats carried up to 40 tons of freight, and only very large mackinaws could hold that much weight. Whereas Mackinaws could only make one way trips. Keelboats moved up- and down-stream, but it was arduous work.

River Travel Hazards

Traveling up the Missouri against the swift current was never easy; going down river was not any easier. The average speed of the current was three miles an hour. Constant movement and shifting within the channel, sometimes overnight, created temporary sand bars and eroded banks. The depth in the navigable channel varied three to nine feet and shallowness was characteristic of the entire river. A spring thaw along the upper river caused an April rise, and the melting snow in June brought another rise. In the last half of July and on into August, the water lever of the entire river started to fall, sometimes rapidly. Trees and foliage that originally grew along banks, islands, in draws or ravines, in bottoms and on the floodplains were threats when the channel shifted. Sawyers and snags caused hazards to navigation along the entire length of the Missouri. Sawyers were whole trees overhanging the banks or partially submerged in the river bottom. Snags were trees embedded in the bottom of the river or floating tree limbs. Breaks (light ruffles on the surface of the water) usually indicated sawyers and snags.

The river was hard for even the most experienced pilot to read. Boats now and then followed a wrong channel or a false chute (a vertical passage that led nowhere). In the winter, giant ice blockages and general icy conditions obstructed traffic. Ice cascades, heavy rainfall or a rapid thaw (especially after a period of dry weather) caused flooding in the spring. Heavy rains, thunderstorms, and high winds caused problems throughout the summer months. Adding to the discomfort were the vexing swarms of insects (such as mosquitoes and flies) and high temperatures.


Breaks: light ruffles on the surface of the water
Channel: the deeper part of a river, harbor, or strait
Chantier: a lumber camp for building ships; boatyard
Cord: a stack equal to 128 cubic feet (4 by 4 by 8 feet)
Cordelle: a rope three hundred yards or longer
To Cordelle: to walk and pull tow ropes from a boat from the banks
Keelboat: a shallow covered riverboat that is usually rowed, poled, or towed and that is used for freight
Mackinaw: light, open sailboat used in the interior of North America during the fur trading era
Sawyers: whole trees overhanging the banks or partially submerged in the river bottom
Side-wheelers: of or being a steamer having a paddle wheel on each side
Snags: trees embedded in the bottom of the river or floating tree limbs.
Spars: “grass hopper poles” located on the bow of a steamboat used to navigate around sandbars or other hazards on the rivers.
Steamboat: a boat driven by steam power; a shallow-draft vessel used on inland waterways
Stern-wheelers: a steamboat driven by a single paddle wheel at the stern


Build model steamboats, using pictures as a guide for construction. Gather an assortment of building materials, such as recycled boxes, cardboard tubes, craft sticks, rubber bands, and cotton balls. One way to make the paddle-wheel base is to use scissors to cut a square from the bottom of a small recycled milk carton or tissue box. Cut two sides from the square piece to make it smaller. Attach a rubber band down the center of the square piece with a stapler so the ends of the rubber band are free. Staple the ends of the rubber band to the cardboard base so the square piece is centered in the hole from which it was cut. Or invent your own design for a working paddle wheel. Now be creative! Use the materials you gathered to build the rest of the steamboat. Connect pieces with glue. Design a boat with several stories, decks, steam pipes with cotton smoke, a captain, and flags blowing in the wind. Dry. Cover your work area with newspaper. Add color and a name for your boat with washable paints and paint brushes. Dry. Display boats and research items in a river of information. Arrange desks and tables in a long, meandering row. Cover with blue paper. Place steamboats, reports, and display boards along the river.

Park Connections

The natural resources, including navigable rivers, mature cottonwood forests, open grasslands, and abundant, fur-bearing mammals, helped make Fort Union one of the most successful trading posts on the Upper Missouri River

Additional Resources

Barbour, B. B. (2001). Fort Union and the Upper Missouri Fur Trade. University of Oklahoma Press.
Lawrence H. Larsen, B. J. (2010). Steamboats West: The 1859 American Fur Company Missouri River Expedition. Norman: The Arthur H. Clark Company. 


Breaks, Channel, stern-wheelers, Cord, Cordelle, Chantier, Keelboat, Mackinaw, Sawyers, side-wheelers, snags, spars, steamboat, To Cordelle