On its way to gold fields in Montana, the riverboat sank in the Missouri and its hull and cargo eventually covered with mud. The author helped recover more than 200,000 Civil War-era artifacts from the remains of the Bertrand after they were found in a Nebraska cornfield.
Caroline Millard and Mary Atchison, two young mothers each with two young children, were worried as they boarded the steamboat Bertrand at Omaha's bustling waterfront on the Missouri River. It was a beautiful Spring morning, the first of April, 1865, but they were embarking on a risky journey to the far reaches of civilization—far up the Missouri to Virginia City in the Montana Territory—to join their husbands, who were partners in a banking operation in the rough and dirty gold mining town.
Caroline’s husband, Joseph Millard, was one of the founders of Omaha and a partner in the Omaha National Bank. Years later, he would become its President and a Senator from Nebraska. Caroline was not happy that her husband had decided to invest in a new gold exchange in the frontier town. She was a genteel lady, involved in charity and social work in the community. Given her background, it is not surprising that Caroline distained the Montana frontier.
Riverboats on the shallow, muddy Upper Missouri faced many dangers including Indian attacks on crewmen sounding the water depth or searching for wood, or on the riverboats themselves if they became stranded. Paddlewheels could break apart, engines become clogged with mud, or boilers explode sending fire and scalding steam through the ship. Other dangers included swift, changeable currents, sandbars, floating debris, high winds or even tornadoes, and a scarcity of burnable fuel. A riverboat might sink in minutes if its thin wooden hull were punctured by invisible snags— trees that had become stuck in the river bottom with sharp, broken-off limbs hidden below the surface of the muddy water.
But there was money to be made upriver. In the early 1860s miners had discovered gold in the Montana Territory and thousands of merchants, farmers, and others rushed to Alder Gulch and Virginia City hoping for a piece of the treasure. And, as the Civil War neared an end, the Federal government moved military forces from eastern fronts to the West to protect travelers from conflicts caused by transgressions on Indian land.
This rapidly growing population required supplies, but farming and ranching were in their infancy the Rocky Mountain area and could not meet demand. When winter weather closed the Missouri River, mining camps ran short of food, notably bacon, vegetables, coffee, sugar, and especially flour. During the particularly bad winter of 1864-1865, several wagon trains from Salt Lake City broke down, their oxen died, and precious supplies were lost. Flour was in very short supply in Virginia City and its price shot up to $150 for a 100-pound sack. When rumors circulated that people were hoarding flour, a group of vigilantes searched every business and house, confiscating 125 sacks of flour and storing it in Leviathan Hall for safekeeping.
Merchants and riverboat companies back east saw opportunities for huge profit in trading with frontier outposts. At the time, about three-fifths of Montana's groceries, supplies, and equipment came up the Missouri on steamboats. In turn, gold came back down river. Riverboats literally became treasure ships. In 1865 the St. Johns carried $200,000 in gold dust and 200 bales of furs and robes downriver from Fort Benton, and the Yellowstone carried $250,000 in gold dust and 3,000 buffalo robes. The next year, six boats leaving from Fort Benton transported over $1 million in gold.
Caroline and Mary may have been comforted when they met the Bertrand’s skipper, Horace “Lightning” Bixby, one of the most experienced captains on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. When Samuel Clemons, of course later known as Mark Twain, traveled down the Mississippi in 1857 with the intention of sailing from New Orleans to the Amazon to find his fortune in the cocoa trade, he was so impressed by Bixby, the captain of the riverboat he was travelling on, that Twain paid $500 to sign on as a cub pilot. The young man studied for eighteen months with Bixby.
The Bertrand was, in many ways a typical steamboat modified to navigate the shallow reaches of the Missouri – a fast, shallow draft boat with a nearly flat bottom and extra width in proportion to its length. Her hull had been built in the summer of 1864 in Wheeling, West Virginia, an important boat-building center strategically located on the Ohio River near abundant supplies of white oak, a hard, flexible, and water-resistant wood. Bertrand was then rowed to Pittsburgh where master carpenter Peter Dunlevy built her cabins and superstructure. River pilots respected Dunlevy for building fast and light boats. They said that all you had to do to launch a Dunlevy boat was to pour a keg of beer over the bow and it would float on the foam. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer reported that the Bertrand was "a nice trim little steamer, and it sits upon the water like a duck."
The first of April was still early in the season to brave the cold, muddy water of the Missouri River, swollen by spring runoff, but time was not to be wasted. Captains took great risks with their boats, cargo, and passengers to be one of the first to reach Virginia City. Captains pushed high-pressure engines and boilers to their limits. In the winter-starved mining camps, prices had rocketed so high that a single melon could sell for a dollar and fifty cents. Wheat sold for five to eight dollars a bushel, barley and oats twelve to fifteen cents per pound. One newspaper observed that, “If the farmers can't make their 'piles' at these prices – in gold, remember – they had better sell out to somebody that can."
The Bertrand pushed off at daylight and by 3:00 had reached twenty-five miles north of Omaha. “It was a beautiful afternoon, and we were sailing along in hopes of a quick passage,” passenger Willard Barrows recalled later. “Most of the passengers at the time were lounging on their berths, or sitting about the boat, reading and conversing.”
But when the steamboat hit a snag on the port side, “our peaceful little home was changed into a fright, confusion, and almost despair,” recalled Barrows, “our plans for the future were all changed, and each was eager to save himself from the muddy waters of the Missouri. The chairs, tables and other furniture were thrown to one side; glass ware, crockery, skylight windows, and glass doors of the cabin were broken and creaking, the laboring vessel was parting and straining her timbers in rolling over. The screams of the women and cries of the children for a time passed description.”
Captain Bixby ran the boat toward the riverbank but it took on water and the “pretty little Bertrand” sank in five minutes in ten feet of water. Quick work by the crew swung a gangplank over to shore, and the passengers were able to walk to safety.