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article number 736
article date 09-20-2018
copyright 2018 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Riverboats Open the Doors to the West (Missouri), 1672-1860
by Walter Williams and Floyd Shoemaker

From the 1930 book, Missouri, Mother of the West. Decorated with drawings by George Bingham.

Lakes and streams were the great highways of commerce during the period of colonization and development of the United States, and these conditions largely persisted until the coming of the railroads. For a lengthy period in the history of this country there were no roads worthy of the name, except a few perhaps in the longer-settled district, and it was but natural that the pioneers should follow the example of the Indians in the matter of water-borne craft.

Settlements first were confined almost exclusively to the vicinity of navigable waters—the shores of the Great Lakes and many other lakes with important outlets, the great river valleys and the banks of tributaries to the large streams, these were the logical places to establish colonies in the beginning. The matter of transportation and inter-communication was then, as now, a matter of paramount importance.

In the neighborhood of the Great Lakes and the valley of the St. Lawrence the birch bark canoe came to be very popular. It was in a canoe of this make that Marquette descended the Mississippi. Although fragile, it combined in the greatest degree the qualities of lightness and carrying capacity.

The need for an especially light canoe was felt in these regions, owing to the frequent portages necessary to avoid rapids and in those places where there were stretches of land between one watercourse and another, a typical example of which was the portage between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers.

In the neighborhood of the trading posts in the Mississippi Valley the most primitive form of water craft was the “dugout,” so called from the fact that it was hollowed out of the large trunk of the cottonwood tree. This made a most popular canoe being very strong, and of light draft.

Journeys were made in these wooden canoes “to the heart of the wilderness two thousand miles from St. Louis. They were extensively used at one time, especially where there were no portages. The Indians used them to some extent.



This form of boat was used extensively by Indians and traders on the western rivers. According to Chittenden* the size was usually about 12 by 30 feet, and twenty inches deep. It had the least draught of any river craft, and was consequently well adapted for use on the shallower streams.

The cargo of the bull-boat generally consisted of robes, and amounted to two and a half tons weight, causing a draught of only about four inches.

The bull boat was made of buffalo skins sewn together, stretched over a frame of willow and cottonwood poles.

Several of the earlier travellers in the West mention a kind of a “round boat made of buffalo skins” which the Indians used. This was probably smaller than the regular bull-boat.

* Chittenden, Hist. of the Am. Fur Trade of the Far West.


With the development and growth of the settlements in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, the need was felt for a cheaply built but roomy boat with a carrying capacity of about fifteen tons. These mackinaws were frequently pointed at both ends, and were sometimes forty to fifty feet long, with a depth of hold of three to four feet.

The four oarsmen were disposed in the fore part of the boat, the steersman was on a high perch in the stern, and the cargo was piled up in the space between them.

These flat-bottomed boats were intended for down-stream navigation only.

Some flat-bottomed boats were not pointed in the stern. Many had an arch like shade or awning made at one end as a protection against the sun or rain. These were the most popular kind of craft for taking Missouri produce to New Orleans.

Being cheaply made and entirely unfitted for returning against the current, it was found more expedient to junk these boats for lumber at New Orleans. The men often made the fatiguing journey back to Missouri on foot or engaged themselves as oarsmen or towmen for canoes or keel boats which ascended the Mississippi.

Similarly the flat-bottomed boats which came down the Missouri with raw products from the upper reaches of the river were broken up for fuel or lumber on arriving at St. Louis.



When Marquette and Joliet, in 1672, discovered the Mississippi they found a tribe of Indians inhabiting the territory of what is now St. Louis County. These were the Missouris, so called in the language of the Illinois Indians because they used large wooden canoes, probably the most primitive form of canoe used by the Indians of Missouri and other territories having waters more or less turbulent, as was the case especially near the mouth of the Missouri, where birch-bark canoes would be hardly practicable.

It was a form of canoe noted for its strength (having no seams or joints) and its buoyancy, and could easily be made when the question of time was of no importance. All that was required was a trunk or log of the required dimensions. This was hollowed out by rough tools or sharpened stones and also by fire.

The white pioneers also made these canoes, and so the name “dugout” has been applied to them.

It is of interest to note that the “dugout” boat or canoe was made by prehistoric peoples in Europe and different parts of the world. Some of these boats were of very large size.

In the Mississippi and Missouri valleys they were usually hollowed out of the large cottonwood trees growing there.


Keelboats came into general use with the development of Missouri under the United States Government and were used extensively down to 1830, and did not entirely disappear until several years later. These boats were of respectable proportions as a rule, though they varied greatly in size—from fifteen or twenty to sixty or even seventy tons burthen.

The boats which the prominent fur companies sent up the Missouri River frequently carried merchandise to the value of $10,000, quite a large sum in those days.

The size of boat most in use “averaged from sixty to seventy-five feet long, fifteen to eighteen feet beam, and three to four feet depth of hold.

It was built on a regular model, with a keel running from bow to stern, whence its name.

Rising from the deck some four or five feet was the cargo box, cut off at each end about twelve feet shorter than the boat. This part of the boat, as the name implies, was generally used for freight, but was occasionally fitted up with staterooms when used for passengers only.

The boat was built on thorough principles of ship craft, and was a strong, substantial vessel.”

Various means were adopted to propel the boat, upstream, but towing by means of a long rope was used most. This rope was called a "cordelle," a French word which came to be adopted by the Americans.

The cordelle was fastened to the top of the mast, which was erected a little forward of the center of the boat. It passed through a ring, which was fastened by a short line to the boat, thus helping to guide the boat. Usually about fifteen or twenty men pulled it. The end of the rope was fastened to the mast in order that it would swing clear of the bushes and undergrowth on the banks.

There were occasions when the cordelle could not be used; in such cases poles were brought into use. These were of various lengths and were furnished with knobs or balls at the upper extremity made to rest in the hollow of the shoulder.

The "voyageurs" ranged themselves in single file on each side of the deck near the bow, facing aft. Planting their poles on the river bottom, pointing down stream, they pushed steadily against them, at the same time walking towards the stern along the "passe avant," a narrow walk on each side of the cargo box. One can still see the same system used on canals and rivers in many parts of Europe.

Where the water was too shallow for either the cordelle or poles to be used, then oars were substituted. By taking advantage of the wind it frequently happened that a sail was sufficient to drive the boat through the water, even against the current.

“Thus by one means or another, and now and then by all together, the early keelboat worked and worried its way up the turbulent current of the Missouri. The best known record for a long journey, say a thousand miles, was eighteen miles a day, while the average was scarcely more than twelve or fifteen. They were also used in transporting merchandise to New Orleans and were towed back by means of the cordelle, a herculean task which took months to reach St. Louis, whereas the voyage down stream was a matter of weeks only.” (Chittenden, loc. cit.)



The Mississippi steamboat was as attractive as it was useful. It differed from the ocean-going vessel in having most of its structure above the water, drawing only three or four feet of water.

As can be imagined from old sketches and paintings the steamboat on Western waters, with its white outline, its three funnels belching out black smoke, its sonorous siren announcing its approach, and its steady motion against the strong current, made a vivid contrast against the green banks, imparting to the river and to river life an attractive animation such as it never had before or since.

This was the Mississippi of Mark Twain’s days. Indeed, one might say that it was the Mississippi which produced Mark Twain.

It gave to the river that bustle and life, that romance and sentimentality which, despite the rudeness of a large percentage of the people of those days in the West, contributed immensely to the picturesqueness, humour, and poetry of the Mississippi Valley.

It was an important social event at many river landings when the steamboat called to discharge and take up both passengers and freight.

A distinctive type of longshoremen grew up with the development of the steamboat traffic.

Settlements and towns on the banks of the Mississippi developed at a rapid rate, people began to travel more, and it was as if a new order of things had come to pass. These conditions were reflected in the mentality and temperament of the people.

It was a period of fitting prelude to the introduction of the railroad train, but while the latter opened up the remote spots far from rivers or lakes and made for phenomenal progress in general, so far as social and economic expansion goes, yet it caused the decay of the steamboat traffic and took away from the Mississippi its most charming artificial feature.

The first steamboat to ascend the Mississippi above the mouth of the Ohio was the ’General Pike,’ which reached St. Louis on August 2, 1817. It was commanded by Captain Jacob Reed. The second steamboat was the ’Constitution,’ which arrived October 2 of the same year. In 1818 there were several arrivals.

The first steamboat to brave the more turbulent waters of the Missouri was the ’Independence,’ from Louisville, under the command of Captain Nelson. It was an event which was anticipated with keen interest. Many doubted that a boat propelled by steam power would be able to make headway against the strong current.

The ’Missouri Intelligencer’ of May 28, 1819 came out with a prominent editorial and a display caption—


"With no ordinary sense of pleasure we announce the arrival this morning, at this place, of the elegant STEAMBOAT Independence. Captain Nelson, in seven sailing days (but thirteen from the time of his departure) from St. Louis with passengers, and a cargo of flour, whisky, sugar, iron castings, etc., being the First Steamboat that ever attempted the ascending of the Missouri. She was joyfully met by the inhabitants of Franklin and saluted by the firing of cannon, which was returned by the Independence.

“The grand ’desideratum,’ the important fact is now ascertained, that Steamboats can safely navigate the Missouri river.”

The St. Louis ’Enquirer’ began at an early date to regularly announce arrivals and departures of steamboats at St. Louis. In its issue of June 2, 1819, it announced the arrival of the steamboat ’St. Louis’ from New Orleans, which did the distance in twenty-six days.

In the same issue one reads that the steamboat ’James Ross’ arrived at Louisville in sixteen days from New Orleans, making an average speed of 100 miles an hour. Announcement is made of a large steamboat of 700 tons which is about to be launched on the Ohio for the Mississippi trade. In the issue of June 9 the ’Harriet’ is announced as having arrived from New Orleans in twenty-seven days.

In the St. Louis ’Enquirer,’ issue of May 26, 1819, is printed the following news item :—

“New Orleans, April 14.

“The new fast-running and elegant steamboat ’St. Louis,’ intended as a regular packet, will be ready to receive freight on Thursday next for St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Kaskaskia, St. Genevieve and Herculaneum—will be dispatched immediately, having a considerable part of her cargo engaged.”

The ’Independence’ was back at St. Louis by June 5, and took on freight for Louisville, Kentucky. On the 8th of June, 1819, the ’Western Engineer,’ under the command of Major S. H. Long, started for an exploring trip up the Missouri, having on board several topographical engineers. It left St. Louis on the 21st of June.

It was a small steamboat with a stern wheel, and having an escape pipe so contrived as to emit a torrent of steam and smoke through the head of a serpent, with a red, forked tongue, projecting from the bow. It was understood that this contrivance was intended to make an impression on the Indians, as the boat had the appearance of being carried by a monstrous serpent, vomiting fire and smoke, and lashing the water into foam with its tail.

“Tradition says that the aboringines were panic stricken and fled, imagining that the ‘pale-faces’ had sent a “manitou" into their country to destroy them.”


The ’Independence’ was a vessel of fifty tons, built in Pittsburgh. She was constructed specially for ascending the Missouri River.

“The first steamboat built on the western waters” (Pittsburgh then being considered west to the New Englanders) was the ’Orleans,’ constructed in Pittsburgh in 1811. She was a vessel of 400 tons. She sailed from Pittsburgh in December, 1812, and arrived at New Orleans on the 24th of the same month.

The’Orleans’ continued to run between New Orleans and Natchez, making her voyages to average seventeen days, and was wrecked near Baton Rouge, in 1813 or 1814, by striking a snag, on an upward bound voyage.

In the beginning of steam navigation on the great rivers many accidents took place, some of which were due to negligence.

Boiler explosions were rather frequent, and the loss of life was high in some of these disasters on crowded boats.

A great number of boats were “snagged”; some were lost by fire or sunk in collisions with other boats.

Gradually the number of accidents decreased in proportion to the acquired experience of the pilots and captains, but still it was pretty dangerous to embark on one of the river boats even up to the ‘30s.

According to an article written by an expert and reproduced in Hall’s ’Notes on the Western States’ (p. 239), during the period of the fail of 1831 to the corresponding season in 1833, sixty-five boats went out of service. Of these seven were lost by ice; fifteen were burnt; twenty-four were snagged, and five were destroyed by collisions with other boats, the remaining fifteen were abandoned as unseaworthy, leaving fifty-one as lost by accidents peculiar to the trade.

Stoddard (’Hist. Sketches of Louisiana’, p. 303) describes the boats and the boatmen at the time Louisiana came into possession of the United States :—

“The boats used by the Indian traders are of various sizes; but those the most commonly preferred carry from fifteen to twenty-five thousand weight. Their sides are low, and their oars are short, so that they may be navigated near the shore, where the counter currents or eddies accelerate their progress; their bottoms are nearly flat, so that they are enabled to pass in shoal water. They are also somewhat narrow, and their length is generally from forty-five to sixty feet.

“The boats employed between New Orleans and the Illinois country are differently constructed,; they are higher out of water, and sink deeper into it; of much greater width, and supplied with keels. Hence they are called barges, and many of them will carry forty tons.

"The number of boatmen is usually designated by the weight of the cargo; one is required to every three thousand pounds. These boatmen are equal to any in the world; they generally consist of French whites, and French mulattoes (half breeds) ; and as they are accustomed to the water from childhood, they are capable of sustaining the greatest fatigue.

They are seldom known to be impatient of labor, or to be affected by the heat; and on these accounts they are to be preferred to others.

They are also accustomed to live on what would starve an English-American. A small quantity of corn meal and bear’s grease are all the article of nourishment allowed them in Indian countries, except when they are so fortunate as to kill game. They are seldom furnished with salted meat, except when employed in the neighborhood of the whites, where it can be easily obtained.”


Hall (’Notes on the Western States, p. 222) :—

The birch-bark canoes were peculiar to the northern regions, where the tree which furnished the bark, was found. It was used in great numbers by the French Canadians and the Indians of Great Lakes. The French who navigated the northern lakes, the Mississippi, and its tributaries, adopted in their trade, the use of the Indian bark canoe, according to Hall.

One of these boats is described in detail by McKenney, in his “Tour to the Lakes.” The length was about thirty feet, and the breadth across the widest part, about four feet. In the centre it was two and a half feet deep, but only about two feet near the bow and the stern. It had no keel and the bottom was rounded.

The materials of which the canoe were built consisted of birch bark and red cedar, the whole fastened together with wattap, and gum, without a nail, or piece of iron of any description to hold the parts together. The entire outside was the bark of the birch tree, and where the edges join together at the bottom, or along the sides, they were sewn with wattap, and the line of the seams were gummed.

Next to the bark were placed pieces of cedar, shaven thin, not thicker than a knife blade. They were pressed against the bark by ribs of cedar, which fit the shape of the canoe, bottom and sides, and coming up to the edges were pointed, and let into a rim of cedar of about an inch and a half wide, and an inch thick, which forms the gunwale of the canoe, and to these by means of the wattap, the bark and the ribs were sewed; the wattap being wrapped over the gunwale, and passed through the bark and ribs.

Across the canoe were placed five or six bars to keep it in shape. These were fastened by bringing their end against the gunwale, or edge, and securing them to it with wattap. The seats of the voyageurs were alongside of, but below, the bars, and were made of plank, about four inches wide, which were swung, by means of two pieces of rope, passed through each end, from the gunwale.

These boats were extremely light for their bulk, and great precautions had to be taken in loading them, yet the one described here would carry two thousand pounds.

During the commercial and industrial expansion of Missouri, from the period of 1820 to 1860, Particularly during the latter half of this period, the steamboats on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers performed an exceedingly important function in the economic life of the state. Up to the coming of the railroads practically all freight and passenger traffic was water-borne.

Industrialists and manufacturers erected their plants adjacent to landing stages in order to ship their goods and receive supplies as economically and expeditiously as possible. Steamboats, therefore, were the principal and almost indispensable means of progress and activity in the Mississippi Valley for a period of about forty years.

To cite only one example of how the steamboat was instrumental in fostering trade and commerce it is only necessary to mention the development of the pork-packing business on a large scale in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, long before the general establishment of railroads. With the building of the railroads Chicago attracted most of this trade, and some river towns, as for example, Alexandria in Clark County, once a place of considerable importance for its pork-packing, decayed.

Alexandria was destined at one time to be a large city, but received a severe check by the cessation of packing there in 1872. It was the most important pork-packing town about St. Louis at one time. The largest number of hogs packed at Alexandria in one season was 42,557 in 1869-70, by the firm of Pritchett, Fitz Henry and Maxwell.

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