Life on the Missouri: Adventure, Excitement, & Romance?
It's 1877, and former steamboat officer John Nelson tells stories of the river, steamboats, and the people he has met in nearly 40 years on the Missouri. Nelson is a fictional character based on actual accounts of riverboat life. Some stories are of actual events; others are fictionalized accounts based on conditions and events of the era.
Life on the Missouri: Adventure, Excitement, & Romance?
John Nelson tells how he first started working on the riverboats and relates the true story of a terrible accident.
John: Well good day to all you folks. My name is John Nelson and I work for the Coulson Packet Company. That’s the steamboat line, right here in Yankton, Dakota territory. You know I’ve worked on this river for so long. Folks always seem to be asking me to talk about the adventure, excitement, and romance of life on the Missouri River and on the steamboats. Adventure, excitement, and romance [laughs] well I guess that’s what I expected when I signed on as a cabin boy back in 1840. That was over thirty-five years ago. I was almost sixteen, and well, it was every boy’s dream, in every river town to become a steamboat man. Ah, just being on that boat, steaming along, quietly watching the banks slip by. Well, what I found was a lot of hard work. Running up and down the stairs, bringing coffee to the officers, bringing firewood to the galley, dump the chamber pots, helping, helping whoever needed help. On the very first trip, the first mate bought a big load of red cedar wood. Now red cedar burns mighty hot, mighty fast. Makes a lot of steam, but it throws a terrible amount of sparks and hot embers. As the new fella on the boat I was honored with the task of manning the upper deck, with a wet rag and a bucket to extinguish any of these embers that landed on the deck before they could set the boat on fire. Now as far as watching banks quietly slip by, there was no time for that. There was no quiet either. There was smoke, dust, ash, and constant noise. The clang of boiler doors, the rattle of the pumps, the pounding of the engines, and behind it all, the roar of the paddlewheel like a waterfall following us up the river. [pause] And at the end of the first day I made yet another discovery. I discovered a cabin boy does not get a cabin. I had to find sleeping space on the deck, among the cargo, fuel wood, the deck passengers, and about a score of sweaty, snoring roustabouts, and about ten million mosquitoes.
Well pretty soon, I found out that the river was a dangerous place. Just full of things that could sink a boat, hurt you, even kill you. There’s snags, there’s big broken off tree stumps, just below the water line that could punch a hole in the bottom of a boat, stop her dead in her tracks. There’s sandbars, that can strand a boat, in falling water. These boats are all wood. They can, and they do, catch on fire. Boilers can explode. Even some of the people one meets can be dangerous. But I stayed on the boats, and I worked mostly on the Missouri. I decided some hard work wouldn’t hurt, well not overly much. And at that time, pay on the Missouri River was twice what it was on the Mississippi. I started as a cabin boy, but I’ve also worked as a cook, an assistant carpenter, and as a steersman, helping the Pilot turn the wheel. I’ve worked as an assistant engineer, and last one of those is the only job I’ve ever been fired from. That was on the Saluda, back in ’52. The captain there was Frank Belt and the chief engineer was Josiah Clancy. Captain Belt and the Pilot in the barge had been trying to get the boat around the bend above Lexington, Missouri for about two days. And they were running way behind schedule. You see, this was early April. The water was high and fast, chunks of ice floating in it, and the Saluda, well, she was a deep draft sidewheel boat. She was mighty heavy for her size and didn’t have a lot of engine power. Well, the evening of that second day, I overheard Captain Belt boasting to another captain, “I’ll round that bend in the morning or blow the boat to hell.” Now, this, this caused me no small amount of concern, considering the age and condition of the Saluda. She was six years old, her engines and boilers were even older, been snagged and sunk two years before, then raised and rebuilt. Now repairs notwithstanding, she was, well, she was a pig. And overloaded with hundreds of Mormon pioneers headed west.
So, the next morning, as we were preparing to cast off, I checked the boilers, as it was my duty as assistant. You can imagine how alarmed I was to find them overheated and nearly dry. I ran straight back to the engine room and I told Mr. Clancy about it. Well, that fool just grinned and said, “The captain wants more steam, I’ll give him steam. Soon as I let water into those boilers, he’ll have more steam than he knows what to do with.” I said, “Clancy, those boilers are over six years old and spent a year underwater. They’ll rip this boat to splinters.” Clancy says to me, “Is the assistant telling the Chief how to do his job?” And I say, “No, the assistant is telling the Chief he’s a damn fool.” Well, Clancy’s face gets a whole bunch redder than usual and he hollers, “You’re fired! Get off this boat!” I said, “Suits me just fine soon as I collect my pay.” So, I headed up to the purser’s office. I went in the purser’s office and I see the Captain’s dog there, chained up to the safe, ugly dog. Well, Mr. Brockman, the purser, he gave me $11.97 out of the safe, paid me for the nine days that I worked, and I got myself ashore just as fast as I could. I told some folks there they ought to get back from the landing, but they didn’t pay me no mind. Well, I was heading myself on up the hill when all of a sudden, I was knocked flat on my face by a tremendous explosion. When I turned over, I had to crawl under a porch to escape the hail of iron and wood fragments falling from the sky. From my shelter I looked out and I saw the Saluda, drifting down stream, sinking at the bow, with the forward two-thirds of her superstructure gone. When things stopped falling, I crawled out, walked back down the hill, into the most horrible sight a man can imagine.
Dead, broken people. Men, women, children. Pieces of people—scattered among their possessions. Even years later during the war between the states, I never saw anything, anything so heart wrenching. I saw Captain Belt’s mangled body lying on a street. Clancy and both Pilots were dead as well, along with about a hundred other folks. There were broken windows, shattered glass everywhere. One building was completely demolished by a twenty-foot section of a boiler that had landed on it. That six hundred pound safe that had been in the purser’s office, had landed up on the bluff and burst open. The dog’s chain was still attached to it. Well, I stayed there in Lexington a few days and helped out whatever way I could. But, but I just had to get away from the horror of it all. And I finally got a job on another boat headed upriver. First mate, he asked me if I was good with numbers and I said I thought so. He said “We need an assistant clerk. Go up to the purser’s office and show him what you can do.” Well, that was my first job as assistant clerk and I’ve been an assistant clerk or a purser, up until last year when I became head bookkeeper for Commodore Coulson and his partners. But ya know, every time I pass Lexington, [pause] I remember what I saw there. I get this feeling [pause] this feeling sorta, sorta like a rat gnawing at my guts. I don’t think I’d any, I don’t think I’d call any of that [pause] adventure, excitement, or romance, but I suppose it is life, and death, on the Missouri. Well, I have a lot more stories to tell and if you folks come back, I promise they all won’t be as sad as this one. Thanks for listening.
Life on the Missouri: Mountain Boats
Mountain boats, far different from Mississippi boats, were made for the treacherous Missouri, but still had to overcome many dangers and obstacles.
John: Good day folks. I’m John Nelson, head bookkeeper of the Coulson Packet Company. That’s the steamboat line, in Yankton, Dakota territory. I’ve worked on the Missouri River steamers for almost forty years. And as a result, folks always seem to be asking me about life on the Missouri. They’re talking about adventure, excitement, and romance. Well I haven’t really noticed much of that myself. What I have seen is a lot of danger and a lot of hard work in the name of making a profit. Now, I know a lot of folks have an idea in their heads about what a steamboat looks like. And often as not, they’re thinking about those prissy Mississippi River steamers, not our Missouri River mountain boats. What’s the difference? Well, you look at those Mississippi boats and you see a whole lot of fancy brass and wood trim, big chandeliers, decorative doodads. You don’t see that on a mountain boat. Here on the Missouri, a boat has to be as light as we can make her. We don’t always have a lot of water to float in and all those doodads just add weight. A boat can only carry so much cargo and still draw shallow enough to get up and down the river. We run our boats to make money. Cargo pays, doodads don’t. Now, you take the Far West—boat I was on last year with Captain Marsh, there’s a fine example of a mountain boat far as I’m concerned. Little bit on the long side at one hundred and ninety feet, but only about thirty wide. Now the main deck is completely open on the sides, except for the engine room. Above that, on the boiler deck, are the cabins. Cabins only run about a third of the boat’s length. There’s enough room there for the boat’s officers, Captain, the Pilots, first mate, purser and engineer, a few passengers. And last year, some of the Seventh Cavalry officers stayed in the cabins, time from time.
There’s a small dining room and of course a galley. On top of that is the Pilot house. No trim, no doodads, not even railings on the upper decks. Anyone with any business up there is just expected to watch their step. Now up forward on the bow there are the two spars for grasshoppering over sandbars and two steam-powered capstan winches to raise the boat on the spars or to pull it up stream. At the forward part of the main deck are the three boilers, twenty-two feet long, each. They can burn over a quart of wood, in just an hour. Steam pressure from those boilers run about one hundred-thirty pounds and the engines in the enclosed aft sections we call fifteen-by-fives. That means the pistons are fifteen inches in diameter and have a five-foot stroke. At the very stern of course is the paddlewheel. About eighteen feet in diameter. With all this, the Far West can float empty in about twenty inches of water, and fully loaded, with two hundred tons, she’ll draw maybe forty-two inches. Those Mississippi River boats, and what we call lower river boats on the Missouri, they’ll draw up to six feet, sometimes even more. [pause] Now, sidewheelers, you don’t see much up here, have a few maneuvering advantages, such as being able to turn the wheels in opposite directions or different speeds. But stern wheelers, like the Far West, are a lot less prone to wheel damage from floating logs and such. We’ve got a lot of those on the Missouri, floating logs and such. Now, things that are floating generally don’t cause too much damage, but the big boat killers are the snags. That’s those big broken off trees. The root bulb with the dirt and rocks hold ‘em down to the river bottom so the ragged end can point downstream, just waitin’ for a steamer headed upstream at full power.
‘Course, there’s no excuse for hitting an exposed snag, one that sticks up above the water. The real danger is from the snags just a foot or two under the surface. That’s where the Pilot has to read the water, to look for those disturbances that hint at the danger just below. Now, a few years back, I was working for Captain Marsh as assistant clerk but also helping out as a steersman for a few days while his regular steersman was suffering from some sort of digestive distress and spending most of his time in the head. Now we were a good ways upstream, approaching the Yellowstone, Captain to the right of the wheel and I on the left when suddenly Captain Marsh called out, “Pull her down hard to port!” We spun the wheel quickly then moments later back to starboard. Captain Marsh, gazed out the starboard window at the water and I asked him, “What was that for?” and he pointed at the water and said, “Snag.” I said, “Where?” He pointed again and said, “There.” Well, I figured he was pullin’ my leg, just wanted to see me jump, but I made a note of exactly where we were in relation to some trees on the bank. So, when we headed down downstream a week later, the water had dropped about a foot. And right where Captain Marsh had pointed, I saw that telltale ripple of a still submerged snag. This convinced me that Captain Marsh can smell a sandbar and hear a snag.
Now, fire, is always a concern on a wood boat. Where we have boilers, hot iron, heating stoves, oil lanterns. Now there was one boat that was lost to fire a few years back, well, the official report attributed the loss to fire. Uh, the fact that the Pilot got too close to an overhanging high bank and knocked the chimney down, didn’t quite make it into the official report. Now, other obstacles we have to overcome are the submerged sandbars, places where the river channel just flattens out and crosses the riverbed, too shallow even for a mountain boat. Now, there was one Pilot [pause] a few years ago said that any boat that can’t get up and walk when necessary has no business on the Missouri. Well, that’s exactly what we do. We call it sparring or grasshoppering. Now if you can picture a fella walking on crutches, you might be able to figure out how we do it. We use those spars, the stout poles mounted on the bow, along with the winches to lift the bow, the we push forward with the wheel or we winch forward, tie it off to a rock or tree. Then we reset the spars, and we keep doing it over and over again until we’re over the bar, or until the current around and under the hull has opened up a deeper channel. ‘Course there’s some fair amount of danger in all this. I’ve seen fingers crushed on the winches, seen a warp line snap and break a man’s leg, another fella, crippled for life when a spar fell. We can’t claim this is easy work, but the pay is good. Danger is just a part of life on the Missouri. Men have to know what they’re doing, have to put aside their differences and prejudices and be able to work together. But that’s something I’ll tell you about next time. Thanks for listening.
Life on the Missouri: Steamboatmen
On the river, men from many different backgrounds had to work together and look out for each other in dangerous circumstances.
John: Good day everyone. My name is John Nelson and I’m the head bookkeeper with the Coulson Packet Company. That’s the steamboat line in Yankton, Dakota territory. Now, I realize that doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting job, but before that, I worked on the Missouri River steamers for almost forty years. And folks are always asking me about life on the Missouri. They talk about adventure, excitement, and romance. Well I don’t know how much of that I’ve noticed myself, but I sure have seen a lot of danger and a lot of hard work in the name of making a profit. But as I’ve mentioned before, when I was growing up, it was every boy’s dream in our town to be a steamboatman. And I’m sure most of the other fellas were just as surprised as I was when they found out what life was on the Missouri is really like. Found a lot of hard work and a lot of boys quit, looking for something easier. You see, steamboatmen are a special breed and I reckon we’re kinda proud of it. Let me tell you about the folks on our boats. First, there’s the officers. The Captain, he’s in charge of the whole boat and he’s the business manager. A big part of his job is to see that the boat makes money for the company each season. And some of the times, he’s even part owner of the boat. Then there’s the Pilot. This is the man whose really in charge. The Captain may say, “We’re heading for Fort Benton,” but the boat doesn’t move, doesn’t even make steam, until the Pilot is sure the boat is ready, and the river is right. Now sometimes, like my friend Captain Marsh, well, now he’s always been both Captain and Pilot. Which I’m sure has saved a lot of arguments. We have the head clerk, called the purser, he’s the bookkeeper. That’s the job that I have most recently done. He figures and collects the freight charges, collects passenger fares, pays for firewood and supplies, and shares the Captain’s responsibility for profit as well as a percentage of that profit. And then we have the first mate, he’s the boss of the crew. He does the hiring and firing, gives the orders when we’re loading and unloading, grasshoppering and warping over sandbars, or loading on fuel. And of course, we have a lot of other important folks, engineer, real important folks like the cook, and sometimes a bartender. Now, a bad cook, lemme tell you, a bad cook can make a summer seem like a whole decade. But we get one of those colored ladies from down south to cook—well, I almost never get tired of catfish. Now there’s a lot of hard work to be done on a steamer. Particularly the loading and unloading of freight, cutting and loading firewood, stoking the boilers. Fellas that do that are the roustabouts or roosters. However, half the men that do that nowadays, they’re colored fellas. Big, strong boys, most of them born into slavery and come up from the south after the war. They’re making $50 a month on the boats now, $55 dollars for the stokers, firemen we call ‘em. ‘Course, it wasn’t that way before the war. Now, couple times, I took a job on a Mississippi River boat where the roustabouts were all colored and all slaves. And I’ll tell ya, it kinda tore at my soul to see how they were treated. And I supposed, I was mighty lucky that no one every noticed that every boat I was on seemed to lose a slave or two. But now, men have to work together, regardless of what they look like. Well, at least some of the time. Emancipation is one thing, equality, it’s a might harder idea to get into some folks’ head. This is something that happened up in Fort Benton one night, couple years after the war. I’d finished up my bookwork and went into a saloon in town. A little bit later, ‘bout dozen of our roosters came in, all of ‘em white boys, except one colored. They ordered drinks at the bar—the bartender, he was might surly, said to the colored fella, “I don’t care for your kind but ‘long as you got money and behave, you can stay.” Well, our crew sat down at a couple tables to enjoy their refreshments. But after a while, this feller at another table starts lookin’ dirty at the colored boy. This fella’s wearing a beat-up confederate cap and dirty gray uniform trousers and pretty soon he calls our colored boy something not too nice.
Well, our man he jumps up out of his chair and this Johnny Reb and his pals all jump up too. Then the rest of our crew stands up, real slow like. Its six of them and thirteen of us which doesn’t look like their lucky number because all of our crew are big strong fellas. One of our white boys steps up to this confederate and says as nice as can be, “Now see here Johnny Reb, that wasn’t very nice. ‘Course, there’s no need for somethin’ like that to spoil everyone’s evenin’. All you have to do is apologize to our friend.” So, Johnny Reb looks around and he see’s all his pals sorta slowly backin’ away while our boys are movin’ in even closer, getting’ downright cozy with this fella. And our white boy continues on and says, “Just apologize, take him up to the bar, buy him a drink, and drink with him.” Now, Johnny Reb glances around again and at this point he can’t even see his pals, they’ve backed off so far and he swallows hard and kinda croaks out, “Come on have a drink,” and he nods toward the bar. Bartender over there, he’s got a scowl on his face and he’s reachin’ under the bar like he’s gettin’ ready for trouble, but he straightens up and pours a couple drinks. And our boy Luther, he starts talkin’ to Reb and askin’ where he’s from, what’s he doin’ so far up the river and so on. Well, they finish their drinks and bartender pours two more and says to Luther, “This rounds on me. If all those boys’ll stand by you, I guess you’re alright in my book too.” Well, next morning, before we cast off, Reb showed up at the boat and asked the first mate for a job. He told the mate, “Luther said you were shorthanded.” He turned out to be a good hand. Never shirked or loafed and he’d work alongside pretty much anyone. I think his name was Marcus or something like that, but for the rest of that trip he was just Reb. ‘Course, things don’t always work that way and that’s kinda a shame. See, I’ve had dealings with all kinds of folks of all kinds of colors, and well, far as I can tell they’re all just folks. And out on the riverboats they’re all just trying to scratch out a life on the Missouri. Thanks for listening.
Fort Benton, Montana Territory, was a rough place in 1866. Vigilante "justice" ruled and a steamboat captain made money in whatever ways the market would bear. Based on an actual account of Captain Marsh's first voyage as Captain and Pilot.
John: Good day folks. My name is John Nelson and I’m the head bookkeeper of the Coulson Packet Company in Yankton, Dakota territory. Before that, I worked on Missouri River steamers for almost forty years, so folks are always asking me about life on the Missouri. And ya know, I’ve met a lot of interesting people in this life on the river, but 1866 was a particularly interesting year. This was Captain Grant Marsh’s first trip up the Missouri as Captain and Pilot. Now we’d crossed paths during the war between the states but had never worked on the same boat. This year we were on the Luella, a brand-new mountain boat and Captain Marsh had just gotten his pilot’s license after serving as a cub pilot during the war. I had signed on as assistant clerk. We left St. Louis, oh about the middle of May, and by late May, the head clerk, uh Mr. Melon, he had worked himself into a real frenzy. He convinced himself that he was gonna be killed in an Indian attack. So at the Milk River, he left the Luella and boarded the Rubicon that was headed back downstream. Now the Rubicon’s Pilot, Mr. Horace Bigsmy, he told me that our friend, Sam Clemons, had recently published a funny about a young fella and his frog. He wrote it under the name of Mark Twain, and by now you may have read some other things he wrote. Welp, this turn of events regarding Mr. Melon, advanced me to the rank of purser. More duties, double the pay, and a chance to earn a percentage of the profits. Now being heavily loaded with mining equipment, the Luella took two full months getting up to Fort Benton. That was a tough town.
Fort Benton was even rougher than twelve years ago than it is today. And populated by every type and condition of man the continent could possibly produce. All of them bent on the pursuit of wealth. The only law in town was the vigilance committee and this group was every bit as rough as the rest of the populace. Well in the course of unloading our cargo I noticed a box of patent medicine was missing. Probably stolen for its alcohol content. Well somehow, these vigilantes learned of the theft. They tracked down the culprit and beat him within an inch of his life. Now, I’ll grant you, to me that seemed a pretty stiff penalty for petty theft, but I will also grant you that nothing else was stolen from the Luella while we were up there in Benton. Now, there’s a lot of ways a good Captain can make money for his boat. While we were in Fort Benton, Captain Marsh contracted to move the last of the trade goods from Fort Union to the trading post at Fort Benton. Then he went into the salvage business. Buying the machinery from a deep draft lower river boat called the Marion, that was stranded and broken at Pablo’s rapids. He then sold the machinery at Fort Benton for a very nice little profit. Well despite the risk of low water and early freeze up, we stayed at Fort Benton late into the season. Finally, boarding two hundred and thirty passengers, most of them were gold miners returning from the diggings in the mountains. We charged a fare of $300 each for passage to St. Louis. One of them, a fella named McNeil, showed me how to weigh up the gold dust and how to detect cheaters. Sometimes some fella would try to slip some iron Pyrite in with his dust. Well, all that got for him was—got him thrown off the boat and quite possible stuck up there in Fort Benton for the winter. Now, if you can imagine two hundred and thirty men on a one-hundred-and-seventy-foot steamer, you’ve probably figured out it was might crowded. At night, they unrolled their blankets anywhere they found a flat spot on the decks, or on top of the cargo, on top of the firewood. Well one day we were working our way over the sandbar at the mouth of the Milk River when one of these miners, a fella by the name of McClellan fell overboard and he had his entire hoard of gold packed in the leather belt around his waist. Now the water was pretty shallow, but the current was fast and all that weight around his middle, he sank like a stone, swept away, never to be seen again. All those years diggin’ that gold out of the ground was his undoing. Poor fella. Well that’s a little sample of some of the men I met in just one interesting year. There’s one more character I’d like to tell you about but that’s a story all in itself. I’ll tell you next time. By the way, if you haven’t already figured it out from the fare we charged, the boat turned a nice profit for the season, for which Captain Marsh and I also earned nice percentages. Sometimes life on the Missouri is good. Or at least profitable. Thanks for listening.
Captain Marsh and the Bully
The true story of how Captain Grant Marsh dealt with a man who proved not as tough as he tried to appear.
John: Good day everyone. My name is John Nelson and I’m the head bookkeeper of the Coulson Packet Company, the steamboat line in Yankton, Dakota territory. Now that isn’t a particularly exciting job, but before that I worked on Missouri River steamers for almost forty years. So, folks always seem to be asking me about life on the Missouri. They think there’s some sort of adventure, excitement, and romance about life on the river. Truth is, I’ve seen men maimed, crippled, and killed out there. The river is dangerous, the boats are dangerous, and even some of the people are dangerous. I’d like to take you back to 1866. My first trip up the Missouri with Captain Grant Marsh on a new one-hundred-and-seventy-foot mountain boat called the Luella. From mid-June to the beginning of September we hogged local freight in the Fort Benton stretch of the river. When we finally left for St. Louis, we had aboard two hundred and thirty gold miners coming back from the mountains. Well, wouldn’t cha know, one of these fellas was a real bully. Fella named Gilmore. He was always swaggering about and boasting. One evening at supper he started a shouting and shoving match with another passenger over some minor matter. Captain Marsh threatened to put him ashore, right out in the middle of the prairie, see if he can push the Indians around. So, Gilmore, he swallows his resentment and quiets down for a while, but later, word got back to the Captain that Gilmore had been threatening to kill him. Couple of us insisted to the Captain that he start carrying a revolver. Well it was a little below Fort Randall, that we tied up to the bank to wait out a headwind and cut some firewood. Gilmore and his few rowdy followers had drawn a mark on the ground and were having a broad jumping contest. Captain walks past the wood cutting crew, Gilmore waves a revolver and says, “Watch me make that low-down dog of a Captain jump the mark.” Now the Captain had been pretty much ignoring Gilmore’s renewed swaggers, but that was more than he would stand. Captain Marsh drew his barred revolver, walked over to Gilmore, looked him square in the eyes and said, “Gilmore I heard that, and the times come for us to have a settlement. Come over here and fight.” Then he pointed to a clearing with room for a shootout. Well, Gilmore he turned pale and he started to shake. Captain Marsh stepped right up to him, slapped him full in the face, says, “Now will you fight you coward?” And Gilmore just whimpers and says, “I didn’t mean anything, I don’t’ want to fight.” Well, Captain was madder than I’ve ever seen him before or since. He said, “If you won’t fight, I’ll kill you right here on the spot.” Well this was the time that some of us decided, we needed to interfere. And Mr. Payne who had loaned Marsh the revolver, put a hand on the Captain’s shoulder and says, “Don’t kill a coward. You’d just dirty your hands and it’d be a waste of powder and lead.” So, Captain controlled himself and let Gilmore slink off. But it still wasn’t over, not until we reached Sioux City.
Captain Marsh came into the saloon where a number of us were seeking refreshment and entertainment. Captain ordered a round of drinks, invited everybody to join him. That’s the way Captain Marsh is. Well he [pause]—everyone steps up to the bar, accepted his offer, except Gilmore He just sat of his room, sulking, looking sour. Well the Captain felt Gilmore had suffered enough, and called out to him, “Come on up Gilmore, drink with me.” Well, Gilmore he just leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and said, “No sir I won’t drink with you.” Well, the Captain did not appreciate this rejection of his gesture of goodwill. He picked up a big heavy glass beer mug, stepped toward Gilmore and roared, “Gilmore, you come up here and drink or by the eternal I’ll break this glass over your skull.” Well the crowd is cheering and Gilmore once again, he has to swallow all his brag and bravado, and he slinks up to the bar and he drinks with the man he could not intimidate. And later that night he begged the Captain not to put him off the boat. Captain agreed, but Gilmore left us at Omaha even though he had booked and paid his passage all the way to St. Louis. ‘Course, no one aboard was sorry to see him go and none of us ever saw him again. Just goes to show you all the characters one meets up with on the river, some of ‘em are not what they seem. Just like the river itself, making ripples to make you think there’s a snag below when its really just bluffing. You have to figure out what’s real and what’s just meant to make a fool of you. And that, is a fact of life on the Missouri. Thanks for listening.
Plains Indians' attitudes toward steamboat traffic changed drastically from the 1840s to the 1860s.
John: Good day everyone. My name is John Nelson and I’m the head bookkeeper of the Coulson Packet Company. That’s the big steamboat line headquartered here in Yankton, Dakota territory. Now, I realize that that might not sounds like a particularly exciting job, but before that I worked on the Missouri River steamers for almost forty years. And as a result, folks always seem to be asking me about life on the Missouri. They think there’s some sort of adventure, excitement, and romance about life on the river. But the truth is, the river is a dangerous place and over the years the dangers have changed. Now, those snags I’ve talked about, the big tree stumps in the river, the Army Corps of Engineers has been pulling snags out of the river since the 1830s. Now, maybe that’s made a difference and maybe not. There’s a lot of boats sitting on the river bottom with snags through their hulls. Something that’s really changed over the years is the way the Indians’ feel about the boats coming up the river. Back in 1840, when I first started working on the river, most of the boats belonged to the American Fur Company out of St. Louis, and most times the Indians welcomed the boats. They knew we were bringing goods to the trading posts. And sometimes, we’d even see them breaking camp as we passed, trying to get to the posts to trade for the goods that we were carrying. For a while, the boats became a part of the Indians’ lives, bringing goods, buying fuel from the mixed blood wood hawks that were allowed to cut timber on Indian land. Now back in ’45, I was on the steamer Antelope, when a group of Yankton Sioux warriors hailed the boat. Well I’ll tell ya they sure looked fine. Their feathers and paint and their ponies all decorated too. Well, the Captain and the Purser did some sign talk and some trading with ‘em. We ended up taking them and their ponies aboard, steaming about a half day up the river then letting them off the side—on the other side to continue toward their objective which was to relieve the Pawnee of some horses. We generally got along pretty well with the Indians, as long as we were bringing goods to the trading posts. But then, the boats started bringing miners, and settlers, and worst of all as far as the Indians’ were concerned, soldiers. ‘Course you know, the miners and settlers wanted the land, and the soldiers came to make sure they got it. And that’s what changed the Indians from friendly to hostile. By ’66 when I made my first trip with Captain Marsh, things had already gotten bad enough that the boats were being built with iron plates around the Pilot house for protection. And a good thing too because things got a little hot on that trip. That was the time we were sparring over the sandbar at the White Earth River and a bunch of Sioux decided they didn’t like us there. Well, we didn’t particularly like being stuck there either and they’re shooting bullets and arrows at the deck hands who were manning the lines and spars, didn’t make things any easier. Now no one on the boat was hit, almost like the Indians just wanted to harass us. A lot of the passengers fired back with vengeance, but the Indians stayed pretty well covered, and I don’t think any of them were hurt either.
[pause] The next year, on the Ida Stockdale, we had a whole lot touchier situation. We were turning from an army charter with one of the officers remaining aboard, and we had just stopped at Fort Stevenson, well I should say where the soldiers were just starting to build Fort Stevenson. Well while we were there, a commotion arose and gun shots broke out, and amid all the confusion a group of Indians managed to run off several of the post’s horses and cattle. Well a few hours after we left the post we had just rounded a bend when suddenly the boat was peppered by gunfire from the left bank. And we saw several Indians swimming horses across the river. Now we saw these horses that led us to believe this was probably the same group of Indians that had attacked the fort. As we approached, a number of Indians positioned themselves on a high bluff, overlooking the main channel, to the right of a long, narrow island. And from there, if they wished, they could shoot straight down through the unprotected roof of the Pilot house and the upper decks. Well, Captain Marsh, and his brother Monroe, the chief engineer, held position by reversing the wheel. Captain Marsh confirmed with the owner of the Stockdale and with the army officer, Colonel Holberg, the right channel was totally impassible, being covered from above as it was. The left channel, which was also covered from a low level, had never been run, nor had there ever been any need to. There was no way to know how many sandbars or snags were waiting to trap or sink us, leaving us stranded for the convenience of our attackers. Now the Indians did also cover the left channel, but not from above so we had considerable protection behind the iron sheets, the cargo and the fuel wood.
Well Captain Marsh studied as well as he could the shape of the channel, the amount of current, and elected to run the untried left channel. He signaled the engine room and Monroe opened the throttles. As the boat swung toward the left channel, bullets again began crashing through the woodwork, sending splinters flying. Monroe dodged splinters as he crouched between the engines, desperately hoping that no bullet would strike a vulnerable mechanism or steam line. Everyone held their breath as the bottom scraped a sandbar, then scraped another. There was a long, low groaning sound as the Captain maneuvered between two snags, one of them scraping nearly the whole length of the hull. And then we were passed the island and putting distance between us and the Indians. That was a pretty close call. Now on one hand, I don’t plan on letting any Indian take my scalp while I’m just doing my job. On the other hand, [pause] I sort of understand why they’re becoming hostile. Ya see, the season I worked at the big trading post, Fort Union, I learned some sign talk and did a lot of business with the Indians. That was back in ’51. When Chief Crazy Bear was trying to marry off a daughter to that artist fella that was working there. But I learned a lot about Indians, and how they lived and came to the conclusion, well, they’re just folks, like anyone else. They look a little different from us, live different, pray different, but they’re just trying to live and raise their families in their own way. And even by ’51, that way of theirs was being changed by white folks who wanted land. Now I know a lot of white folks don’t see things the way I do, they figure the Indians are just a bunch of savages with no more title to the land than the jackrabbits and coyotes have. Well, to them I just say, take a good hard look at what white folks do to each other and see if you still think you’re still entitled to call anyone else a savage. Well, I hoped I haven’t rubbed too many of you the wrong way, but I’ve lived and worked on this river almost forty years and that’s the way I see things. Thanks for listening, hope you come back.
Wreck of the North Alabama
Attempting a late-season trip to forts and reservations, the North Alabama sinks just 60 miles from her home port of Sioux City, Iowa.
John: Good day everyone. My name is John Nelson, head bookkeeper of the Coulson Packet Company in Yankton, Dakota territory. Now being a bookkeeper for a steam line company might not sound like a very exciting job, but before that I worked on the Missouri River steamers for almost forty years. So, folks are always asking me about life on the Missouri. They think there’s some sort of adventure, excitement, and romance about life on the river. But truth is, the river is dangerous. And probably the most dangerous thing on the river is the snags. I’ll bet ya they’ve sunk more steamers than all other hazards combined. Now a snag is nothing more than a tree stump. But it’s a broken off stump of big cottonwood or some other tree that washed into the river during a flood. All the branches are gone and it’s just that jagged stump, maybe ten or twenty feet long. The roots are all packed with clay and rocks that sort of anchor it to the riverbed and the current has turned it around so it’s the nasty end that’s pointing downstream, ready to impale a steamer headed upstream under full power. Some snags, [pause] show above the surface of the river and there’s no excuse for hitting one of those. Some of them we call Sawyers, they’re not anchored real solid and they sorta bob up and down like a steam powered saw mill. The real dangerous ones are the ones we can’t see, just below the surface. That’s when the Pilot has to read the river, watch for that telltale ripple that says there’s something dangerous below. When the weathers calm, that’s usually not too hard, but when a wind kicks up, it can hide those ripples or even make ripples where there isn’t even a snag. Sometimes a snag is shallow enough to rip the bottom out of a boat, but deep enough to show no hint on the surface. Even the best of Pilots can be fooled sometimes. Back in 1870 I signed onto the North Alabama as head clerk for a late season trip with supplies for Army posts and Indian reservations upriver. It was late October and I knew there was a chance of getting iced in somewhere for the winter. And most years, I’d be heading for New Orleans ‘bout this time but I had an investment opportunity and needed some cash. Captain Abe Townshend was master of the North Alabama and Jim McGarrig was the Pilot. North Alabama was about six years old and had started off as the Virginia Barten, served the Union Army during the war between the states. But by 1870 she’d been renamed and owned by the Northwest Transportation Company of Sioux City. At that time Sioux City was the main railroad to river transfer point for freight headed west. Company planned on making a good profit on the government contract and promised the crew extra pay for the late trip. Well we set out from Sioux City on the morning of October 27th and the roosters, the deck hands, they were just getting the last of the cargo stowed as we got underway.
After supper I finished my book work. Finished logging, logging in the cargo, verifying the crew roster, I felt the boat turn to port, making a crossing. That means following the main channel as it zigs across the whole expanse of the river. I had just put my feet up on my desk and leaned back with a cup of coffee when suddenly there was a tremendous crash and I was thrown to the deck. My tin cup flew from my hand, hit the wall, and clattered to the deck, spattering coffee everywhere. The boat had come to a complete, and nearly instantaneous, stop. Well, I picked myself up and stepped out of my office with a pretty good idea of what had just happened. I walked forward on the boiler deck gang way and sure enough we’d hit a snag, and a big one. Done a mighty fine job of it too. The impact had lifted the snag and it now protruded several feet above the main deck, having ripped a hole about eight feet long and two feet wide through both the hull and the deck. Well there wasn’t much to do at that point but launch the skiffs and get ourselves ashore and get word back to Sioux City. In about a half hour the North Alabama was resting on the riverbed, main deck just awash, never to move again. In a couple days another boat showed up to salvage the cargo. Some of the flour, and some of the other goods had gotten a little wet and a couple whiskey barrels were busted but all of the deck and all the cargo was recovered. Company figured the boat to be worth about $12,000, which I think was a bit high for a boat that age. Company hadn’t insured the boat nor the cargo and they ended up having to stand the loss. The boilers and engines were salvaged, and the cargo continued on to the destinations. Well by the time the cargo had been transferred to the new boat, I decided I really didn’t need to make that trip nor the investment, and headed south, which probably would’ve been safer in the first place. Next spring when I passed the sight on the brand-new Nelly Peck, the wreck had changed the channel around the island. All that was left of the North Alabama was the main deck and hull. Whatever superstructure the scroungers hadn’t taken, the spring rise had swept away. And thinking back on it, I suppose we were all lucky. The company lost a boat and some money, but no one got hurt or killed like happens so many times on the river. The company men risk their money, but the steamboat men risk their lives. And I guess that’s just life on the Missouri. Thanks for listening.
Taking an unusual viewpoint for his time, Nelson tells the true story of the Far West's trip up the Bighorn River in support of the 7th Cavalry, and the wild 54 hour day-and-night dash to Ft Lincoln with the wounded of Captain Reno's command.
John: Well good day to all you fine folks. My name is John Nelson and I’m the head bookkeeper of the Coulson Packet Company in Yankton, Dakota territory. Now head bookkeeper for a steamboat line might not sound like a very exciting job but before that I worked on Missouri River steamers for almost forty years. And so, folks always seem to be asking me about life on the Missouri. They think there’s some sort of adventure, excitement, and romance about life on the river. [pause] Well, the story that they always seem to want to hear is the one about our trip last year up to Little Bighorn. Now, I didn’t see anything particularly adventurous or romantic about it and there was more excitement there then anyone should have in their life. It was General Sheridan himself that made the contract with Commodore Coulson and specifically requested that Captain Marsh be Master and Pilot. Captain had his choice of any of the company’s boats, and he chose the Far West. Now that’s a real mountain boat—shallow draft, hundred and ninety feet long, but light and fast, no frills or anything else unnecessary—not even railings on the upper decks. And she’s a powerful boat too—fifteen by five engines. That’s fifteen-inch pistons with five-foot stroke running on a hundred- and thirty-pounds pressure from three twenty-two foot boilers. Now, I’ll admit that I had some misgivings about this expedition but [pause] I trust Captain Marsh’s abilities as Pilot and so I signed on as Purser. I figured it would be an easy job since as an Army Charter there would be no passenger fares or freight fees to calculate. Well it was mid-May when we left Yankton and steamed up the Missouri to Fort Lincoln. And while we were unloading cargo for the fort and loading more supplies for the 7th Cavalry, the wives of the 7th Cavalry officers came aboard and asked Captain Marsh to take them up to the Yellowstone where the officers and troops were in camp. Well, Captain Marsh believed the whole area to be far too dangerous for the ladies and simply refused their request. And I believe it was about May 28th when we left Fort Lincoln, had a full load of fuel and about two hundred tons of cargo drawing just over thirty inches of water. We met the 7th Cavalry at the Yellowstone then steamed on up that river to the powder where we unloaded most of our cargo at the Army’s supply camp. Sometimes the officers would ride the boat and while we were moored at the camp, we were often visited by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Now, Captain Marsh and most other folks were considerably impressed by this gentleman, but the first time I saw him, well just something about him just seemed to rub me the wrong way. Maybe his swagger, maybe the touchy flashes he added to his uniform, or maybe his long hair, maybe it was all of that. Well, I talked to some of his fellow officers and learned that, well maybe my first impression was right. Now far be it for me to speak ill of the dead you understand, but this is what the other officers told me. Seems he graduated from the Military Academy, last in his class, with one of the worst demerit records in the Academy’s history, he then court marshaled for dereliction of duty and for being absent without leave, he broke a treaty by attacking a peaceful Indian village, and was out of favor in Washington because of some sort of dispute with President Grant and the Secretary of War. Nevertheless, General Terry put Custer in command of a considerable part of the force sent to find and defeat the Sioux and Cheyenne. [pause] It was June 22nd that Custer led the 7th Cavalry on that quest with his hair and red scarf flowing in the breeze. I just watched from the door of my office with sort of a bad feeling in my guts.
We were ordered to precede up the Bighorn River. This proved to be a mighty difficult task, often steaming a few hundred yards, then warping or grasshoppering over gravelbars, steaming a few hundred yards, grasshoppering again. Sometimes we ran lines to the shore from both capstan winches to and towed the boat over the shallows. And I think it was on the 26th, we noticed some columns of smoke off to the south. The next day, we finally tied up at the mouth of the Little Bighorn River. I joined several of the officers and crewman to walk up the shore and get in a little bit of fishing. And we had just settled down on the bank, when suddenly an Indian warrior burst out of the brush. We reached for our guns, but then, we realized this was Curly, one of Custer’s Crowe scouts. This young fellow, not even twenty years old probably, he was absolutely terrified, tears running down his face. He spoke very little English but from his words and signs it was clear to us that a disaster had occurred. We felt the need to do something, but our orders were to wait and that’s all we could do. The next day, an Army messenger brought word that about fifty wounded men of Major Reno’s command were being brought down the valley. We prepared most of the main deck as a hospital by making piles of prairie grass and placing blankets over them as beds. Two days later, General Terry arrived with fifty-two wounded men from Reno’s command. We took on as much fuel as we dared and prepared to head down the Bighorn. The General called Captain Marsh aside and said, “Captain, you have onboard, the most precious cargo a boat ever carried. Every soldier here who is suffering with wounds is the victim of a terrible blunder. A sad and terrible blunder.” General Terry’s words. Now, Captain Marsh is one of the strongest willed men I know. But when he returned to the Pilot house and stepped to the wheel, suddenly he lost his nerve. He said, “I can’t do it boys. We can’t make the speed we need on this kind of river. We’ll break her on a rock, and we’ll lose all those brave boys.” Well, the assistant Pilot, Dave Campbell, and Ben Thompson, the First Mate, they got him called down. They told him, “You can do it Captain. You’re the only one who can do it.” Well, Captain Marsh took a couple deep breathes, he stepped back up to the wheel, and rang the engineer for power. We were two days covering the forty-five miles of the Bighorn, reversing our upstream struggle of a few days earlier. The roustabouts worked the spars and lines as fast as they could, risking injury or even death should a line snap or a spar fall. We met Colonel Gibbens troops at the Yellowstone, replenished their supplies, and headed down toward the Missouri. Marsh and Campbell piloted in four-hour shifts, day and night. Ladies and gentlemen, one does not navigate the Missouri at night, much less the Yellowstone, but these two pilots did it. The firemen, the stokers, worked in shifts keeping the boiler fires blazing without stop. The entire boat vibrated with the pounding of the engines, the paddlewheel thundered, and the scape pipes screamed a pitch I’d never heard before. Dozens of times the hull struck protruding sandbars, skewing the boat off course, throwing men to the deck, but never stopping, except for fuel, a burial, and to drop a scout at Fort Buford. At times we were travelling over twenty miles an hour on a river that was impossible to memorize because it changed daily. After fifty-four hours, we arrived at Fort Lincoln, seven hundred and ten miles from the Bighorn. That’s averaging over thirteen miles an hour including our stops. [pause]
I’ve seen more than my share of death and destruction on the boats, along the river, and during the war between the states. And most of that is what I’d call not heroic, but horrific. I know a lot of folks think that battle was something brave and heroic, glorifying it as Custer’s last stand. [pause] As for me, I’ll just take my cue from General Terry himself, and call it Custer’s last blunder. Its just a shame he took so many good men with him. And not to take anything away from those who were wounded or who died in the battle, but I think of my fellow officers and crewman as heroes as well. For keeping the Far West running for fifty-four hours straight and bringing those wounded soldiers back. You might not agree with me, or maybe you do [pause] but based on fifty-three years walking this earth and almost forty years sailing its rivers, that’s the way I see it. Thanks for listening.