Dakota Datebook: Steamboating on the Big Muddy

November 14, 2014
“Steamboating on the Big Muddy”


Robert Fulton was born on this date in 1765 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, far from North Dakota and well before Lewis and Clark ventured west and even before the United States acquired what would become North Dakota in the Louisiana Purchase.

Nonetheless, Robert Fulton had a direct and important connection to North Dakota.  On August 17, 1806 Fulton made the first trip in America’s first steamboat.  He traveled up the Hudson River from New York to Albany at the blazing speed of five miles per hour.  It wouldn’t be long before steamboats transported settlers, soldiers, gold seekers, and supplies into Dakota Territory.

The first steamboat up the Missouri was the Independence, out of St. Louis.  The Independence traveled to Franklin, Missouri in 1819.  The steamboats that followed pushed farther into Dakota Territory.  The Western Engineer was the second steamboat to attempt the journey.  The Engineer got almost to the Yellowstone River.  The round trip took close to six months.

Most steamboat pilots considered the Missouri River a nightmare to navigate.  The water was often low, especially in the summer.  Pilots had to negotiate snags and sandbars.  But the Missouri was a vital route for settlers in the westward expansion.

Missouri River pilots felt that Mississippi River pilots had it easy.  They said the Mississippi boats might be bigger and fancier, but the Missouri pilots had to be smarter.  The trip up the Missouri was dangerous.  Some boats only made one trip, and over 400 wrecks have been documented.  Explosions, fire, wind, ice, collisions, and running aground all claimed a share of boats.  Many of the wrecks remain buried under sediment deposited by the river.

The big steamboats of the Mississippi were a luxurious mode of transportation.  Many of them featured imported carpets, velvet drapes, and French glass mirrors.  Cabins were furnished with imported walnut furniture and the ceilings were hand-painted.  Missouri River boats tended to be smaller and more functional.  They were intended for transporting supplies and settlers, not wealthy plantation owners.  They were also smaller to accommodate the difficult navigation.

The arrival of the railroad was the death knell for Missouri river steamboats.  The last working steamboat trip came in 1888.  But for the tourist who would like the experience, old-style riverboats operate out of many Missouri River cities, including Bismarck.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook, Prairie Public (2014). http://www.prairiepublic.org/radio/

Related Media

  1. Steamboats on the Red: The Turning Point in Red River Navigation
    Video: In 1878, the railroad crossing Minnesota reached Pembina—establishing a rail link between St. Paul and Winnipeg and opening up the way goods could be transported from one city to another. Ironically, the first steam train to arrive in western Canada arrived via a steamboat traveling along the Red River. After the railroad arrived, the steamboat industry never recovered.
  2. Steamboats on the Red: Steamboats Bring People and Businesses
    Video: With new, cheaper means of transportation come people—first workers, then settlers, then merchants. Communities began to develop on the banks of the Red River along the steamboats’ route.
  3. Steamboats on the Red: Piracy or Defending Their Land?
    Video: History is in the eye of the beholder, and Americans traditionally see their economic successes as progress. In the case of the steamboats, however, the Chippewa people saw the Americans as rude and in violation of international law. When the Native people attempted to enforce their land rights, they were seen as pirates in the eyes of Americans.
  4. Steamboats on the Red: Not a Huge Chapter, but an Important Chapter
    Video: Although the steamboat industry along the Red River lasted only fifty years, it was an important transitional step in the transportation industry of the area. The steamboats brought commerce, settlers, new towns, and international movements of goods and people to the Northern Plains.
  5. Steamboats on the Red: Money Drives the Need for Solution
    Video: The Red River of the North isn’t the first river that comes to mind when a person thinks of a water highway. So what could have possibly driven businessmen to think of it as such? Money. Money drove companies, like the Hudson’s Bay Company, to find a shorter and more economical route from New York to St. Paul, Minnesota. But as these businessmen would find out, nothing is ever as easy as it seems.
  6. Steamboats on the Red: It Was All About Commerce
    Video: The steamboats that navigated the Red River were designed to transport goods, not people. Cargo transported included food, farm implements, wagons, livestock, imported goods, and immigrants; but with all that weight in a very shallow river, running aground was a frequent problem.
  7. Steamboats on the Red: Cheaper Routes Are Not Without Problems
    Video: Piloting steamboats on the shallow Red River wasn’t without its share of problems: getting stuck, boats sinking, and turning the boats around were just some of the problems the boat captains faced.
  8. Steamboats on the Red: A New Cargo
    Video: Beginning in the late 1880s and early 1900s, the cargo transported on the steamboats changed from buffalo robes and furs to hard spring wheat. As a result, grain elevators were built along the banks of the river, and farmers were able to get their crops to market fairly quickly.
  9. Steamboats on the Red : A Monopoly Generates Competition, Manipulation, and Piracy
    Video: In the remote Red River Valley, a monopoly had developed in the steamboat trade, and two separate attempts were made to provide competition. The first ended when the competitors joined forces and returned the steamboat industry back to a monopoly; the second attempt ended when the larger company sabotaged and sank their new competitor’s boats.
  10. Steamboats on the Red: A Dashing Air, A Harsh Reality
    Video: The 1870s was an era of prosperity along the Red River, and the steamboat industry was flourishing. Seen as dashing and romantic, steamboats were the fastest way to travel great distances north and south along the Red River but not really the most comfortable. The boat itself was noisy and overcrowded; passengers had to deal with clouds of mosquitoes along the route; and the large boats ran aground often as they tried to negotiate tight bends in the river.