The Short, Dramatic Life Of The Steamboat Yellow Stone

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Old rivermen used to talk of the first time the steamboat Yellow Stone reached the fur-trading posts on the upper Missouri. Belching smoke, roaring like a cannon, and spurting steam into the air, she penetrated farther up the river than a boat under its own power had ever gone before. Her owner, John Jacob Astor, never saw her, although from his New York office he sent fleets of ships on trading missions from Liverpool to Canton. By the 183Os Astor’s American Fur Company controlled most of the trade with the Indians east of the Rocky Mountains. He had been talked into building the steamboat by his manager, Ramsay Crooks, who had gotten the idea from Pierre Chouteau, Jr., who was in charge of the Western department of the company, with headquarters in St. Louis. The plan was not originally Chouteau’s either but that of Kenneth McKenzie, who managed that part of the business called the Upper Missouri Outfit. McKenzie’s headquarters were at Fort Union, a trading house near the mouth of the Yellow Stone River (usually spelled as two words in those days), and it was his dream to bring a steamboat to his landing and thus replace the wallowing keelboats that were poled, rowed, or even towed by ropes up two thousand miles of the dangerous Missouri. It was an ingenious scheme that might not work, but it was worth risking eight thousand dollars to find out.

When Chouteau went to Louisville, Kentucky, in the fall of 1830 to hire shipbuilders to construct the Yellow Stone, the steamboat age was very young. Mark Twain, later to make life on the rivers seem so fascinating, was not yet born. Only a few miles of track had been laid in the East for the first steam locomotives. But the men and women of the frontier were intrepid in taking new ideas into their lives. It occurred to them early that the steamboat was the answer to the problem of moving their produce to the East Coast, in exchange for the goods they needed to build and thrive in such places as Biloxi, Peoria, and Kansas City. For most of the nineteenth century, until the railroads took over, the steamboat was as typically Western as the covered wagon, and equally important.

 
Carefully stowed barrels held the boat’s most important cargo—whiskey.

Steaming into her home port of St. Louis in the spring of 1831, the Yellow Stone was not an unusual sight; she resembled all the other vessels lined up at the wharves. She was 120 feet long, 20 feet abeam, and drew about 4 feet of water when substantially loaded. Her two side wheels, 18 feet in diameter, were driven by a powerful single-cylinder engine fed by steam from three boilers. It was not her appearance but rather her destination that got the attention of St. Louis businessmen. No more than two steamboats had gone as far up the Missouri as the mouth of the Platte, and one of them had been an experimental Army vessel of very shallow draft. Now the American Fur Company proposed to drive this vessel through waters bristling with burly cottonwood snags that might puncture her hull—crossing sandbars that would put her aground time after time, finding channels that could relocate overnight, through prairie storms that might tear the roof from her cabin or topple her sheet-iron chimneys.

It was mid-April before the steamboat set out with a crew of two dozen men, nearly a hundred engagés (French employees of the company) sleeping on the main deck, and Pierre Chouteau, Jr., himself in the forward cabin. Chouteau was a member of the most prominent, and perhaps the wealthiest, family in St. Louis, the family that had founded the city. Like most men in the fur trade, he could deal equally well with the tough workmen he employed, the Indians he bargained with, and the New York barons of commerce with whom he spent each winter. Benjamin Young was the Yellow Stone’s captain, and her pilot was Charles La Barge.

In the black hold of the ship, the odor of newly hewn white oak timbers mingled with the country-store aromas of the cargo. Casks, boxes, and bales held everything a frontiersman could want, especially if that frontiersman was an Indian who, with his wife and children, had become addicted to the gadgets and appurtenances of the white man. Rifles and powder for the hunt; bright fabrics and warm blankets to wear; iron pots for cooking; beads and baubles, tinkling silver bells for the children, needles, awls, knives, papers of pins, pots of vermilion and other cosmetic aids.

Nothing that rode in the hold of the Yellow Stone was as important, however, as what sloshed in the carefully stowed barrels. It was whiskey. There were other names for it—”ardent spirits” was a favorite with Washington bureaucrats who tried to ban it—but it was usually called whiskey, even if it was only straight alcohol or highly concentrated wine that could be watered down when necessary.