May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
She lived only six years, but it was a history-packed career
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Traveling under the name of Baron Braunsberg, Maximilian was a short, pudgy man nearing fifty, dressed in green hunting garb, who had been a student at Göttingen, a Prussian army officer, and a sojourner in South America. He had published a book on the native peoples and natural history of Brazil and now had an intense interest in the American West. The artist Bodmer was a young Swiss of great talent, better trained than Catlin and with an eye for landscape and figure painting that was remarkable. Bodmer’s output of watercolors and oils still brings crowds to museum galleries, and his portraits of Indians are among the finest ever made. Maximilian was later to publish an account of his Western travels, the translation of which has long been standard fare for students of the West. And his diaries on the ethnology and ecology of the regions he steamed through are now being translated at the Joslyn Art Museum, in Omaha.
According to Maximilian’s account, the Yellow Stone left the landing in St. Louis about noon on April 10 with perhaps a hundred people on board. Chouteau and his daughters rode to St. Charles and disembarked. McKenzie was a passenger, as were three subagents going upriver to visit the tribes in their charge. Dr. Benjamin F. Fellowes, carrying a new commission as an Army surgeon and wearing the traditional black frock coat of his profession, was going to Fort Leavenworth on his first tour of duty.
The birds and animals, and the scenes along the river, delighted Maximilian. He often compared what he was seeing with sights in his homeland or in Brazil. He thought the Independence Creek was “a brook like the Windbach,” and he wrote that in the quietness of the forests he missed the chatter of parrots, macaws, and monkeys of the jungle. But both he and Bodmer loved the pronghorn, the buffalo, and the mule deer. During one grounding he recorded thirty-five species of birds.
Members of the crew brought in specimens for Maximilian to study and preserve. The pilot gave him butterflies that wandered into the pilothouse atop the boiler deck. A passenger brought a raccoon, shot during a wood stop, and the skin went to Dreidoppel for preparation. The carcass went to the kitchen.
Ignorant of the long history of liquor control, Maximilian thought the search of the hold at Leavenworth was curious. He talked the officers out of confiscating the brandy he used in preserving specimens and said that during the search the cabin was as busy as a pigeon loft.
The Assiniboin, which had left St. Louis first, soon ran into low water and was overtaken by the Yellow Stone. Both vessels struggled with snags and sandbars, often going aground within hailing distance of each other. The crewmen, waiting for captain and pilot to consult on the best plan for escape, bowled or fired at targets on sandbars.
At Fort Pierre, Maximilian and his retinue took passage on the Assiniboin , which was proceeding to Fort Union. From there they would travel even farther up the Missouri to the mouth of the Marias, then return to spend the winter among the Mandans, whose villages were below Fort Union, before going back to Europe.
By June 21 the Yellow Stone was in St. Louis again, having fought the fierce waters of the upper Missouri for the last time. She would make a summer trip to Cabanné’s post—carrying cholera, which wiped out most of the crew before the boat reached Leavenworth. A new contingent came up from St. Louis on a keelboat so that the voyage could continue. The disease took some lives at Bellevue as an epidemic raged throughout the country; it had broken out before the steamboat arrived.
Following his usual pattern, Chouteau then sent the vessel south for the winter. She returned in the spring of 1834 to engage in the lead trade at the mines of Dubuque and Galena on the upper Mississippi. She had been put on the market but was as yet unsold.
For a steamboat of those times, the Yellow Stone was getting along in years: too many collisions with snags, too many grinding encounters with sandbars, and always the pounding of the engine that sent shudders through the hull from bow to sternpost. Five years was the average life of such a steamboat, and the Yellow Stone was now four.
In the spring of 1835 she was sold to a combine of owners in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and apparently was consigned to live out her life as a common working boat without further public attention. But events were astir on another part of the Western frontier that were to renew and heighten her fame.
In the Mexican province of Texas, Americans who had been colonizing there since the 1820s under the leadership of young Stephen F. Austin were restive. At first they had willingly become Mexican citizens and obeyed Mexican laws. But now their distaste for the government of Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna had brought them to the edge of revolt. The notion of making Texas a separate republic—or even a part of the United States—was tantalizing. That Americans would one day take Texas from the Mexicans seemed as inevitable as the fact that other Americans were inexorably taking all the trans-Mississippi country from the Indians. The movement would soon have a name—Manifest Destiny.
Meanwhile, the settlements on the Gulf Coast and along such streams as the Brazos, the Colorado, and the Trinity were developing fast. Cotton was a successful crop in those rich lands, and transportation was needed to take it to New Orleans. Steamboats seemed to be the answer, and by 1835 several vessels were at work in the lower reaches of Texas rivers.
At the end of 1835 the firm of McKinney and Williams brought the Yellow Stone to the mouth of the Brazos. She had been purchased by their New Orleans agents, Toby & Brother, and had undergone repairs to her hull and superstructure that would keep her going, hauling cotton and other goods between Quintana and New Orleans. Merchants and financiers, Thomas McKinney and Samuel May Williams apparently never actually owned the Yellow Stone; she remained an American vessel, listed under the Toby name and authorized to operate in foreign waters. Her captain was Thomas Wigg Grayson when she left New Orleans to serve in Texas, and her passenger list included a company of young volunteers called the Mobile Grays, recently recruited in Alabama.
Suddenly Gen. Sam Houston becomes a part of the Yellow Stone story. It was now the spring of 1836, and both Goliad and the Alamo had fallen. The war for Texas independence had begun but was faltering. As leader of the volunteer forces, Houston had begun falling back. He had encamped on the flooded Brazos to mull over his strategy (many of his officers doubting that he had one), while Santa Anna and thousands of Mexican soldiers advanced across Texas. Settlers were fleeing eastward to safety.
While encamped on Jared Groce’s plantation, Houston learned that the Yellow Stone was at Groce’s Brazos landing, taking on cotton. Believing Santa Anna was below him on the Brazos, Houston conceived the plan of bearing down on the Mexican general with all his force, including a smoke-belching, roaring steamboat carrying artillery, horses, and riders, followed along the shore by eager riflemen.
Houston “detained” the Yellow Stone while he pondered his strategy further. He could hardly commandeer an American vessel to help an army of Mexican citizens fight their government. His solution was to hire the steamboat from its captain, who was then John E. Ross, and offer Ross and all his crew a substantial personal reward for their cooperation. To Ross and his engineer, Lewis C. Ferguson, he offered a league of land each, about forty-four hundred acres, and to the other crewmen a third of a league each. They struck a deal.
Ross and his deckhands stacked cotton bales on the main deck—all around, and high enough to protect the pilothouse, thus creating a “cottonclad” steamboat of the type later used by the South in the Civil War. By the evening of April 11 he was able to tell Houston that he had four cords of wood on hand and was ready for action. He thought he could transport five hundred men.
Then the whole plan of a one-ship armada descending the Brazos changed overnight. Downstream, Santa Anna had been delayed by the swollen river but had finally discovered a ford where he could cross with his men. Learning that the provisional president of the new republic, David D. G. Burnet, and his top officials were in Harrisburg, about fifteen miles to the east, the general decided to try capturing the whole rebel Texas government intact.
Houston got wind of the march and wrote to Burnet on the eleventh: “News has just arrived that the enemy are crossing at Thompson’s below Fort Bend....I will cross the river soon and meet the enemy on the east side of the river if they are really crossing below.”
So now the Yellow Stone had a new role: to ferry Houston’s men, horses, wagons, and other gear across the Brazos. The steamboat that had licked the wild Missouri and made headlines as far away as Paris was now to serve as a big raft. By midmorning on the twelfth the crossing had begun. The soldiers urged their skittish horses up the gangplank and wheeled the wagons on board; the foot soldiers stood, sat, or squatted where they could, some of them rowing across in the boat’s yawl. The engineer nursed his four cords of wood along, keeping just enough steam in the boilers to turn the paddle wheels, and Ross, who was pilot as well as captain, doubtless made the best use he could of the current in nosing the steamboat from bank to bank. The movement took about a day and a half. The losses: two oxen from one of the wagon teams.
Now that they were on the same side of the river as Santa Anna, the men felt like a pursuing army again. Houston organized them into a new regiment. A couple of six-pounders called the Twin Sisters arrived as a gift from the people of Cincinnati, and the sight of the artillery pieces lifted morale still higher.
On April 21 Houston’s eight hundred men met and defeated more than thirteen hundred Mexican troops where the San Jacinto River joins Buffalo Bayou. It is a place that shines in Texas history. Santa Anna was captured, and Houston, badly wounded in the foot, turned the army over to the Texas government.
The Yellow Stone, still encapsulated in cotton bales like a giant cocoon, was now free to return to the settlements where the Brazos meets the Gulf. It was a trip that has passed into Texas folklore. Because there still were Mexican troops downstream, Captain Ross called for more steam, more speed. The old ship bounced from bank to bank, skidded around bends, churned over sandbars. Hearing the engine’s throb and the piercing sound of the steam from the escapement pipe, the Mexicans got ready for her. They raced alongside her, pumping musket and rifle bullets into her padded sides and firing at the chimneys because some of the men, never having seen a steamboat, thought those tall cylinders were the boilers. Some artillerists tried to fire an eight-pounder at her, and an eyewitness account, perhaps somewhat distorted by time, says they attempted to lasso one of the chimneys.
After her escape down the Brazos, the Yellow Stone was out of the Army but still in government service. She carried President Burnet and his cabinet to the battlefield and brought them back, along with Santa Anna and the wounded Sam Houston, who would be sent on to New Orleans for medical care.
Life became calmer for the steamboat then. By mid-October Capt. Thomas Wigg Grayson, back on board again, was advertising that he would operate on the Brazos and would pay three dollars a cord for wood. Ross, the former captain, and his crew set about collecting the rewards they had been offered by Houston, and twenty years later the surviving ones (and Ross’s widow) were still trying to obtain the lands they had been promised. Merchants McKinney and Williams apparently were not paid for the use of their vessel, although Houston did his best to implement the matter. “Had it not been for the Boat,” he wrote to the legislator Ashbel Smith in 1855, “Texas would have been lost!”
Most of the chores assigned the Yellow Stone after the autumn of 1836 were mundane, although in retrospect the most routine acts can sometimes seem important. She carried a new printing press to the tiny settlement of Houston, now to become the Texas capital, where the famous newspaper Telegraph and Texas Register was being relocated. Her captain, this time James H. West, who had been a ship’s clerk under Ross, entertained John James Audubon in his quarters when that creator of bird and animal portraits was touring the Gulf.
There was one somber assignment. Stephen F. Austin, worn out by illness and the effects of imprisonment in Mexico, and now to be known forever as the father of Texas, died in December 1836. The vessel, which had been a smuggling ship, a carrier of royal personages, an Army transport, and an all-round engine of Manifest Destiny, now became a funeral barge. Accompanied by the new president, Sam Houston, and an official burial party, Austin’s body was carried a few miles up the Brazos to Peach Point Plantation, the home of his sister, Emily, and her husband, where the bachelor founder of the republic had had his own bedroom wing in the main house.
The Yellow Stone was last seen in GaIveston Bay in June 1837. The common legend is that she was snagged and sunk, either in the Brazos or in Buffalo Bayou, and that a bell now on display at the Alamo in San Antonio was salvaged from her sunken remains. Another supposition is that she was sold and sent up the Mississippi and Ohio, to be refitted and given a new name in one of the shipbuilding yards. There is a record that she passed through the canal at Louisville in 1837, but it has never been corroborated. How could a vessel so well known disappear with no surviving notices in newspapers, public records, or private correspondence?
The Yellow Stone, once so much in the public eye, has somehow become misplaced in the paper shuffling of history. Her story deserves a better ending.