Built: 1830-31, Louisville, Kentucky (order placed November 24, 1830).
Type: Sidewheel, wooden hull packet.
Size: 130′ x 19′ x 5′ 5″, 144 tons.
Engine: Single cylinder.
Boilers: Three boilers.
Paddlewheels: 18′ diameter.
Cost: $8,950 ($4,000 contracted for the boat, $4,950 for the steam engine).
The little YELLOW STONE earned a notable place in American history. She was the first steamboat to ascend the Missouri to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. On separate expeditions up the Missouri she carried leading artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer who chronicled Indian life and the disappearing frontier. Finally, she played a vital role in Sam Houston’s campaign for an independent Texas.
In the summer of 1830, Kenneth McKenzie (fur trader aka “King of the Missouri”) suggested to Pierre Chouteau, Jr., Western agent for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, that a steamboat could transport trade goods and supplies up the Missouri River and carry furs and skins on the return trip. On November 24, 1830, Chouteax placed an order with two firms in Louisville for the Yellow Stone, providing his specifications.
No previous steamboat had ascended the Missouri beyond Council Bluff. The American Fur Company planned to reach the mouth of the Yellowstone River where Kenneth McKenzie was stationed at Fort Union, more than 1,800 miles upriver from St. Louis.
On April 16, 1831, the Yellow Stone left St. Louis on her first run up the Missouri. She had been completed several weeks later than contracted, and the delay would mean running in low water. Benjamin Young was captain, and her pilot was Charles La Barge. Pierre Chouteau, Jr., himself occupied the forward cabin, and there was a crew of two dozen men, and nearly a hundred engagés (French employees of the company) sleeping on the main deck.
On this first trip upriver the Yellow Stone carried an assortment of merchandise valued at $50,385.79. The goods included 1,000 pairs of blankets, fabrics, 200 dozen mirrors, 126 dozen knives, 995 scalping knives, 75 dozen combs, 50 dozen corn hoes, 100 gross buttons, 4,500 pounds of blue and white beads, 25 pounds of seed beads, 300 beaver traps and chains, 1,000 half axes, 300 tomahawks, 48 American felling axes, 20 battle axes, 600 pounds of vermillion, 200 pounds of verdigris, 16 gross of clay pipes, 10,000 pounds of gunpowder, 20,000 pounds of lead and 12,000 pounds of tobacco, and 1,500 gallons of liquor.
She reached Cantonment Leavenworth on May 1st and the company’s Fort Tecumseh (later Fort Pierre, and now the vicinity of Pierre, South Dakota) on June 19, before being stopped by low water. Dissappointed, Chouteau realized that they could not reach Fort Union that season, and resigned to try again next year, starting earlier to take advantage of the spring rise. They set out downriver for St. Louis on the last day of June and arrived there within ten days. Chouteau’s consolation, quickly recognized by newspapers all over the United States and by Jacob Astor himself, was that he had taken a steamboat higher up the Missouri River than anyone had done before.
The company sent the Yellow Stone south for the winter to work in the bayous of Louisiana. Looking forward to the voyage next spring, Chouteau ordered some improvement in the living quarters for himself, his captain, and other officers.
On March 26, 1832, they departed from St. Louis on their second attempt to reach Fort Union. They had 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 levee. Among the passengers on this voyage was artist George Catlin.
Between Fort Leavenworth and the mouth of the Platte, the Yellow Stone encountered its first problem with low water. For the next five days the pilot and his steersman went out in the yawl to sound the river bottom for navigable channels. The crew drove their boat 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 method 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 Yellow Stone negotiated a place at the Niobrara that had caused endless trouble the year before, but then the boat found impossibly low water just below the mouth of the White River.
Chouteau sent a party overland to Fort Tecumseh, to advise them of his situation and to order a couple of keelboats downriver to lighten the load. This idea succeeded, and on May 31, 1832, the Yellow Stone reached Fort Tecumseh (which, aided by lubricating whiskey, they rechristened Fort Pierre Chouteau, later simply called Fort Pierre).
Upon leaving the fort the boat was lighter, riding higher in the water, having dropped off large quantities of cargo and many men. On the other hand the river was lower because by now the annual June rise, from melting snow in the mountains, had come and gone.
But at last, on about June 17, 1832, the Yellow Stone arrived at Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River, midst hearty cellebrations, the first steamboat to ascend the Upper Missouri. Kenneth McKenzie and his men had watched her approaching from a nearby hill (later called McKenzie’s Butte), from where McKenzie said he had seen the smoke from the stacks a day before the boat arrived, because of its slow progress in the twisting channel.
Chouteau spent little time at Fort Union because of the falling river. The Yellow Stone was soon crammed with furs and steaming downriver, averaging an astonishing 100 miles per day. She arrived safely at St. Louis on July 7, carrying 100 packs of beaver pelts and bison robes from Fort Union. Newspapers reported their feat and John Jacob Astor sent his congratulations. This landmark voyage demonstrated the practicability of navigating the Missouri by steam as far as to the mouth of the Yellowstone with a strong probability that boats could go on to the Blackfoot country.
In the spring of 1833, two fur company boats went up the Missouri River, the Yellow Stone and the Assiniboine. On the Yellow Stone was Prince Maximilian and his artist companion Karl Bodmer, whose work is a truly important visual record of the Missouri River and the people who lived along it.
After five years of navigating among the snags of the Upper Missouri River, the Yellow Stone’s career changed dramatically. The first steamboat in the fur trade, she was sold into the Texas cotton trade, steaming south on the Mississippi in the summer of 1835. Most steamboats her age would have been ready for decommissoning, if they had survived, but she had proven her reliability and was refitted in New Orleans at a cost of $4,000.
She steamed directly into the struggle for Texas, as General Santa Anna’s army overwhelmed the Alamo and pushed General Sam Houston’s force eastward. In April, 1836, Houston impressed the Yellow Stone into service in order to cross the flooded Brazos River. At 10 o’clock on the morning of April 12, Houston’s men began boarding the Yellow Stone, and by 2 p.m. the next day, more than 700 soldiers, 200 horses and supplies had been ferried across the swollen Brazos in seven trips. This crossing gave Houston vital time.
On April 21, at San Jacinto, Houston’s force surprised the Mexican Army during their daily siesta, attacking fiercely with cries of “Remember the Alamo”. Caught off guard, the Mexican’s surrended just eighteen minutes later.
After the Texans’ victory, the Yellow Stone transported Republic of Texas President David G. Burnet and other officials to the battleground at San Jacinto. At Buffalo Bayou, the steamboat played host not only to Sam Houston, but also to Santa Anna, 47 of his officers and other Mexican soldiers.
Subsequently, Houston remarked “Had it not been for the Steam Boat Yellow Stone, we would have lost Texas.”
The Yellow Stone was lost in 1837.
Notes:~ The first steamboat to enter the Missouri had been the Constitution, in October 1817, running an excursion 8 miles up to Bellefontaine. In 1819, the Independence (usually recorded as the first steamboat to enter the Missouri River), had left St. Louis reaching Old Franklin in thirteen days, before turning back at Old Chariton, in Missouri. On September 17, 1819, the Western Engineer arrived at Fort Lisa, a trading post of the Missouri Fur Company located on the west bank of the Missouri a few miles above present-day Omaha.
The Missouri River is commonly divided into the Upper Missouri and the Lower Missouri, with the dividing point generally considered to be the mouth of the Big Sioux River near present day Sioux City, Iowa, about 850 miles from the Mississippi.
The source of the Missouri River is in Red Rock Creek, Montana, some 2,500 miles from its Mississippi confluence, but the river is not navigable above the Great Falls in Montana because the gradient above the falls is too steep. The head of navigation is at Fort Benton, Montana, about 37 miles below the falls. From Fort Benton to the Mississippi is about 2,300 miles.
Before 1830 steamboats seldom ventured above the mouth of the Kansas River, and between 1830 and 1860 only a few boats had navigated up the river any farther than Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. The first boats to actually reach the head of navigation, at Fort Benton, were the Chippewa and the Key West arriving July 2nd, 1860. But following the discovery of gold in Montana in 1863, steamboat business to Fort Benton boomed. In 1865 twenty packets set out from St. Louis for Fort Benton, and the following year almost sixty boats left for the gold fields, although not all of them arrived.
Two annual periods of high water allowed easier navigation up the river to Fort Benton, Montana. The April rise was the result of local snow melt, while the June rise was the result of snow melt in the Rockies.
More boats to be added …