The Short, Dramatic Life Of The Steamboat Yellow Stone

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Wood provided the fuel for the boat, but whiskey was the fuel that made her voyage feasible and, indeed, made the American Fur Company thrive. In a roundabout way, whiskey made John Jacob Astor the richest man in America. The Indians demanded it. To trade with them in competition with smaller companies along the river, or with the powerful Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada that dispensed whiskey freely to some of “his” Indians, Astor had to have it. To get enough for his needs at a time when the temperance movement was afoot in America, and word of the debauching effect of liquor upon the tribes was spreading in the East, required tact, cajolery, and outright smuggling.

Beginning in 1802, federal law had forbidden the vending or giving of spiritous liquors to Indians. Later laws and amendments had strengthened the prohibition, while, at the same time, the successful lobbying of the American Fur Company, and in particular of Ramsay Crooks, had weakened it. As matters stood in 1831, the Yellow Stone was authorized to carry an allotment of whiskey for each of her crew members and engagés who were to spend the season upriver, as well as two barrels to use in the Indian trade as a concession to the company for the competition it faced from the Hudson’s Bay people. The allotment amounted to more than a thousand gallons of authorized whiskey.

The itinerary of the Yellow Stone would take it into the wilderness very quickly for those days. The steamboat would chuff past such old Missouri River towns as St. Charles and Boonville, and newer ones such as Lexington and Westport Landing, stopping at Cantonment Leavenworth, one of the westernmost military posts in the United States. Then it would pass the Black Snake Hills, where the small trading settlement would one day become the town of St. Joseph, Missouri. After that the river and its richly overgrown shores might be termed Astor country. There was competition for furs, but the American Fur Company was supreme. The next habitation on the river was Bellevue, a company post near present-day Omaha, and a few miles above it was the house of old Jean Pierre Cabanné, a company associate of many years. Next there was a small establishment among the Ponca Indians near the mouth of the Niobrara, then nothing on the river until Fort Lookout below the Great Bend in Dakota country, and above that Fort Tecumseh. Finally came the finish line on the obstacle course that was the Missouri: Fort Union, in a treeless valley between two ranges of low bluffs, where the presence of buffalo herds and Indian tribes made it a goal worth straining to achieve.

That first voyage was hardly a total success. The water was lower and the sandbars higher than Chouteau remembered from his boyhood days as a trader. The current was fierce and unpredictable. The snags that formed when whole trees slid into the stream and became embedded there were an incredible hazard. Wood to keep the boilers hot was a constant requirement, for the roaring fireboxes consumed ten cords a day. When the Yellow Stone nosed over to the bank for a wood stop, every employee grabbed an ax and went ashore. If there was no dry, long-burning hardwood available, the men took the softer cottonwood and willow. When that gave out—a day or so above Cabanné’s place—they turned to scrubby cedar. Lacking all else, they collected driftwood that had piled up along the shores, and if it was still wet, the firemen would prime it with a little resin to make it burn.

 
 

Chouteau was frustrated in more than one way. The frequent groundings and breakdowns vexed him, but so did the shabby appearance of his trading posts. The Ponca house, near which he was delayed for several days, he found especially unworthy of his company. Fort Tecumseh, across the river from where the city of Pierre, South Dakota, now stands, seemed so wretched that Chouteau ordered his superintendent to begin constructing a new fort immediately. The final disappointment came when he and his captain decided there was no chance of pushing on to Fort Union. Next year he would try again, getting an earlier start, to take advantage of the spring rise in the water level and to profit by what he had learned about the capricious river on this trip. They set out for St. Louis on the last day of June and were home within ten days, helped along by the current.

Navigable channels in the river bottom could vanish within minutes.

Chouteau’s consolation, quickly recognized by newspapers all over the United States and by Astor himself, was that he had taken a steam-powered vessel higher up the Missouri River than anyone had done before. He had shown the Indians the wondrous Yellow Stone and perhaps drawn some of them away from the influence of the Hudson’s Bay traders. He had stocked his high-country warehouses with goods for the trade and come back with a cargo that reeked with the wet-dog smell of skins from beaver, buffalo, deer, fox, otter, and muskrat. Next year would be even better, although a good company man such as Chouteau would never admit that business was anything but terrible.