The Short, Dramatic Life Of The Steamboat Yellow Stone

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Because of the falling river, Chouteau spent little time at Fort Union. After celebrating one more victory for the company, and after cramming the hold with packs of furs, the men of the Yellow Stone headed for home. By early July, newspapers had reported their feat and John Jacob Astor was sending congratulations from his vacation home in France. Ramsay Crooks wrote Chouteau that the “future history of the Missouri will preserve for you the honorable and enviable distinction of having accomplished an object of immense importance.”

 

While the Yellow Stone had been away, the U.S. Congress had been at work on one more statute to control the dispensation of liquor to Indians. An act passed on July 9,1832, provided that no ardent spirits could be introduced into Indian country under any pretense. This meant there would be no more whiskey earmarked for the alleged use of employees, no more discretion allowed to Indian agents or other officials in enforcing the statues. All cargoes into the Indian country were to be searched—and this meant really searched—without exception.

The mail traveled slowly in those days, and it is impossible to say when Chouteau heard of the new law. But for one reason or another, Chouteau decided to make a fast turnaround and send the Yellow Stone up the river again. He sent her to Cabanné’s post in late July, carrying another thousand gallons of whiskey. One last chance, perhaps, to get a cargo of spirits past the inspecting Army officers at Leavenworth before they were told to crack down.

Ironically, word of the new law had not reached Leavenworth, but the district commander had decided to start enforcing the old laws. In a careful search of the American Fur Company’s cargo, twenty-eight barrels were seized and placed under bond.

In New York, Ramsay Crooks thought the law could mean the end of the fur trade. He was convinced that whiskey was essential to the trade but said he would rather give up the business than break the law. Taking the more traditional frontiersman’s attitude, Chouteau and his colleagues in the St. Louis area sought new ways to violate the statute. Jean Pierre Cabanné made two suggestions, both illegal. Do a better job of hiding whiskey in the dark hold of the boat or haul the liquor past the Leavenworth officers in wagons during the fall, when the roads were passable. (Cabanné’s near-paranoid fear that other traders were cheating led him to commandeer the liquor supply of a rival at gunpoint, costing the company nine thousand dollars in a civil suit.) Later Kenneth McKenzie would try the boldest move of all when he built a distillery at Fort Union, made of parts shipped on the Yellow Stone, and began to raise corn for the making of whiskey. He got caught.

While these schemes did not work, and the company was hampered for a time, the dispensation of alcohol was to continue as long as the fur trade flourished.

Chouteau, momentarily stunned by his government’s determination to enforce the new law, was also persuaded by his voyages up the Missouri that he had the wrong steamboat for the job. He ordered a new boat made in Cincinnati, with larger, wider paddle wheels and some changes in hull design, which he named the Assiniboin. This was a first step toward devising a hull truly made for the upper Missouri, but many a year would pass before Chouteau and his shipbuilders learned to construct a serviceable vessel with a truly shallow draft.

 
 

In 1833 both the Yellow Stone and the Assiniboin made the spring voyage, but only the new boat was destined for Fort Union. The Yellow Stone was to travel only as far as Fort Pierre. The trip was made notable by the presence of a delightful trio of adventurers from Europe who were to change forever our image of the West. They were Prince Maximilian of Wied, his hired artist, Karl Bodmer, and his servant, hunter, and taxidermist, David Dreidoppel.