The Short, Dramatic Life Of The Steamboat Yellow Stone

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The company sent its proud vessel south for the winter to work in the bayous of Louisiana. Looking forward to the arduous voyage next spring, Chouteau ordered some improvement in the living quarters for himself, his captain, and other officers. But there was nothing he could do about the greatest defect of the Yellow Stone, the depth of her hull in the water.

The departure from St. Louis for another try at Fort Union occurred on March 26, 1832, comfortably earlier than that of the first voyage. The firemen and engineers had steam up by noon on that day, and Chouteau came aboard with two daughters and some of their friends, who would ride to St. Charles, then return overland by carriage. There was a new captain, Andrew Bennett, and the usual complement of crewmen and engagés, who enlivened the scene along the waterfront with rapid gunfire as the Yellow Stone pulled away from the landing.

This time some of the passengers were making history. Two were the legendary Nez Perce men who had come to St. Louis the year before from near the present Idaho-Montana boundary, seeking the white man’s Holy Book and the power it gave him. Four other Indians, from the Sioux, Ojibwa, and Assiniboin tribes, had been escorted to Washington and other East Coast cities as part of the government’s policy of bringing in such tribal delegates for councils. The theory was that when these potentially hostile tribes learned how numerous and powerful the Americans were, they would become less inclined to fight them. The Assiniboin man, named the Light, had become so thoroughly enamored of the American Way that he would be seen as a talkative bore when he returned to his village. One of his tribesmen, tired of his boasting and doubting his magic, eventually shot him.

The most eager and excited passenger was a young lawyer turned artist, George Catlin. An Indian delegation such as that now aboard the boat had visited Philadelphia and fired in Catlin an unquenchable urge to paint the Western tribes and their environment. By now he was no Eastern novice, for he had come to St. Louis in 1830, traveled up the Missouri and Platte rivers, and gone with William Clark—of the Lewis and Clark expedition—on a tour to the upper Mississippi.

Catlin painted furiously, turning out both caricatures and masterpieces, producing the first authentic pictorial images of the Western Indians. He sent long letters back to the New York Commercial Advertiser, which later were published as a book. He was to spend his life displaying his paintings and talking about Indians. “I love a people,” he once wrote, “who have always made me welcome to the best they had...who are honest without laws, who have no jails and no poorhouse...who have never raised a hand against me, or stolen my property...and oh! how I love a people who don’t live for the love of money.”

Between Fort Leavenworth, which had been upgraded from a cantonment, and the mouth of the Platte, the Yellow Stone had its first problem with low water. Five days of delay followed while the pilot and his steersman went out in the ship’s yawl and probed the river bottom, seeking out channels that could vanish within minutes. The crew drove the vessel across sandbars by using a pair of sturdy spars that, when rigged with chains and operated by a capstan, moved the boat slowly forward as if aided by stilts. In another ingenious move they rocked the boat by marching in unison from starboard to port, setting up a rhythmic motion that allowed the current to carry away the sand that impeded the hull. Later the steamboat got past a place at the Niobrara that had caused endless trouble the year before, but then the boat struck impossibly low water just below the mouth of the White River. Up at Fort Tecumseh there was consternation over the delay. The trader Lucien Fontenelle was waiting there to meet men aboard the boat who were to join his annual expedition to the Rockies and the famous trading rendezvous at the Green River.

Chouteau sent a party overland to advise the men at Fort Tecumseh of his situation and to order a couple of keelboats to come down and lighten the load. On May 31 the expedition reached the fort. A cluster of raw, new buildings that Chouteau had ordered built the year before awaited the travelers, far better than the shabby structures he had found so wretched. With many a wineglass raised in the headquarters building, and many a canteenful of whiskey tossed down by crew and engagés, the place was rechristened Fort Pierre Chouteau. Later it came to be called simply Fort Pierre.

Upon leaving the fort the vessel was lighter, having dropped off large quantities of cargo and many men. So she rode higher in the water. On the other hand the river was lower by now; the annual June rise caused by snows melting in the mountains had come and gone.

Fort Union came in view at last in mid-June, bringing pleasure to everyone—but to no one more than Kenneth McKenzie. Near his post was an elevation that came to be known as McKenzie’s Butte, where he would go and watch for the annual steamboat in future years. He said he could see the smoke from the stacks a day before the boat arrived, because of its slow progress in the twisting channel. He named his favorite horse “Steamboat.”