Steamboats On the Missouri and Powder River

A replica of the steamship, The Far West, on display at The Museum of the Upper Missouri, Fort Benton, MT

During the early and mid-1800s, steamboats cruised up the Missouri, into the Yellowstone, Big Horn, Tongue River and the northern Powder River. Steamboats brought supplies to the army that was in charge of keeping the peace on the plains, and, after the Custer Battle, carried Reno’s and Benteen’s wounded back to be treated.

Inside a steamboat, The Museum of the Upper Missouri, Fort Benton, MT

Steamboats, including a side wheeler, (a paddle on each side) and stern wheel (paddle in the rear) and the inboard, with the paddle underneath, have been used in the United States since the Clermont, Robert Fulton’s steamboat on the Hudson River in 1807, proved the viability of the steamboat.

Many were used on the Mississippi River to transport of passengers, cotton and other freight up and down the river. In 1819, Major Long built a steamboat for exploring the western waters and named it the Western Engineer.

Missouri River near Fort Benton, Montana

In an article in the Laramie Weekly Sun, May 20, 1875, it describes the ‘dragon boat.’

An Indian’s Explanation. In 1818-19 Major Long, of the United states Topographical Engineer Department, built a steamboat for exploring western waters to the Yellowstone, naming it the Western Engineer. On the stern running from the keel was the image of a huge serpent painted in black, its mouth red, and its tongue the color of a live coal; the steam escaped through the mouth of this image. The Indians looked upon it with great wonder and astonishment. They declared that it was the power of the Great Spirit, and said the big snake carried the boat on its back. Some were afraid to go near the machinery. The steamer was in command of Lieutenant Swift. Though not swift, but as a means of exploration she was a success. She was a side-wheeler and the first to ascend the upper Missouri.

The Native American’s saw that the steamboats were bringing in settlers and soldiers, and were not happy to see them invade their territories.

The Frontier Index Laramie City June 20th, 1868: Indians – The Indians are reported quite troublesome above Fort Buford and near Fort Benton. The Sioux are committing depredations and have driven of considerable amount stock at the mouth of the Mussel Shell River. Several wood-choppers had been killed, and number of boats fired into. The hostile Indians near Fort Rice sent word that they would make no treaties unless the Government stopped steamboat travel and took all the soldiers out of the country. There were, however, large number of Indians in the vicinity of Fort Rice, awaiting the arrival of the Peace Commissioners.

The steering wheel. The Museum of the Upper Missouri, Fort Benton, MT

Since that time, the steamboats have been used on Missouri to transport settlers, and supplies. Two of the most famous were the Josephine and The Far West. These two steamers, as well as others, carried supplies to the troops, and carried troops into the Indians’ hunting country.

In the Cheyenne Weekly Leader, May 27, 1876 The steamer Josephine has landed her first cargo of expedition supplies, and three companies of infantry at the mouth of Glendive Creek, on the Yellowstone, which will be General Terry’s base of supplies up the Yellowstone. Fort Buford dispatches state that three companies of infantry and two boat loads of provisions have arrived at the mouth of Glendive creek, where Terry has established a supply station for his own and Gibbons’ commands. Custer leads Terry’s advance with two companies of cavalry. No engagement has as yet taken place, but signal fires of the Indians are seen every night. The Indians are thought to number about 8,000 warriors.

Missouri River near Fort Benton, MT

And later in the year after the Custer fight, from the Cheyenne Weekly Leader, Sept. 1876. Terry’s Camp On Yellowstone River, Aug. 20, Via Bismarck, D.T., Sept. 4.—Yesterday morning Gen. Terry moved his command after an eight days rest, marching twenty miles before camping. Gen. Crook had changed his camp the day before in search of better grass, going nine miles up Powder River, his last night’s camp being about ten miles in advance of ours. Our road lay over that diabolical trail which had enticed us so far to so little purpose, and which had been abandoned as a hopeless job, the only reasons, apparently, for taking it up again being that both Generals were in absolute ignorance of where the Indians had gone and what they were doing and that the campaign had proven a failure; so that something had to be done for appearance sake—that this trail was the only Indian sign found and that the army might reach the agencies by this route as well as another.

From the steamer, which was still waiting near our last camp, having met the Josephine and Yellowstone coming up, forty miles below, Glendive creek, both of which vessels were fired upon by Indians, one private being killed— several small parties of Sioux were seen at different points on the north bank of the river, but only one of them came with in range and they quickly retreated before sharp firing from the boats, one chap falling as though badly hit. Just above here the Josephine picked up a white man who hailed her. He with another had deserted from the little garrison at Glendive creek and been surrounded by Indians, his companion killed, scalped and mutilated, and he himself badly wounded in the arm. Creeping between some rocks he lay in the pelting rain two days and nights, the Indians firing at him once in a while and evidently waiting till he should be starved out.

In the LaramieDaily Sentinal, Laramie City,Thursday Morning, SEPT. 7, 1876. Sept. 5.— Intelligence by way of Bismark is that on the31st of August, Crook was near Glendlve, south of the Yellowstone, en-route to Glendive for supplies. Terry was on the north side of the Yellowstone, 15 miles below Glendive traveling toward the Missouri. Eight miles below him, the Josephine saw a large fresh trail, leading north, which Terry should have struck.

Sept. 1st. The Josephine reports thirty inches of water in the Yellowstone on the 30th, with fifteen inches on the rapids, which she passed over at that stage. The Far West is above the rapids and will winter in the Yellowstone.

After the Custer battle, the Far West made a historic run to bring the wounded back to Bismark for treatment of their wounds.

The Museum of the Upper Missouri, Fort Benton, MT

In the Cheyenne Weekly Leader – July 15, 1876 The troops tended the wounded, buried the dead, and returned to their base for supplies and instructions from the General of the army. Col. Smith, of Gen. Terry’s staff, went to Fort Lincoln with dispatches and with the wounded, 85 in number, aside from three who died on the way, on the Far West, which left the mouth of the Big Horn at 12 o’clock in the morning on Monday, arriving there, traveling 900 miles by steamer in less than 36 hours.

One of the survivors loaded on the Far West was the only survivor of the Custer Fight.

A diorama of the Custer Battle at the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument Museum

In a Sheridan Post-Enterprise, article it said that the lone survivor of the Custer fight was Comanche, Captain M. W. Keogh’s clayback gelding.

Comanche was found badly wounded on the site after the battle. H. J. Nowlan of the Seventh, recognized Comanche sent him on the steamer “Far West” with the wounded men to Fort Lincoln, near Bismarck. N. Dak., where he was nursed back to health.

Comanache became the symbol of the Little Big Horn Battle, and had a home at Fort Meade, SD, and later at Fort Riley, Kansas. He lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1891, at nearly 30 years old.

After the Custer Battle, more settlers came to the Yellowstone Valley to make their homes, and the steamships could play a vital role in helping farmers by carrying their goods to market, and bring in goods from aboard.

In the Cheyenne Daily Leader, April 19, 1878 – Tongue River Talk: The valley of the Yellowstone is the last best heritage our people have, to make homes for themselves. Not that there may be as productive land else where, but it combines more advantages, is more like home to those coming from east of the Missouri, and while the season of navigation on the river may be short, it will be of incalculable advantage in shipping the productions of the country, and bringing in supplies from abroad. The one crop planted here last season demonstrated that the soil will produce in abundance the small grains, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, and in fact all manner and kinds of vegetables. It is a paradise of the stock man.

The head of navigation on the Yellowstone River is a disputed point, some claiming Baker’s Battle Ground, about 65 miles above the mouth of the Big Horn to be the place, while, others stop at the foot of Clark’s Fork Bottom, ten miles further up, and cry “Eureka.” This much is known; steamers like the Western, Fanehon etc. came as high as Sherman, and it is further known that the Josephine overcame all difficulties and went about one hundred miles above. Reason and experience teaches that above the confluence of two large streams there is less water, and their navigation attended with more difficulty than below, unless the river bed is more confined: this is not the case with either the Big Horn or the Yellowstone.

The Powder River, not really a good river to try to navigate

Travel along the Missouri, due to sandbars, irregular river depth, driftwood and other snags made the journey often slow and sometimes dangerous. With the coming of the trains, steamboat travel declined, as trains didn’t depend on waterways and travelers could take a more direct route.

But, for many years the steamboats played a role in the Plains Indian Wars, and the settling of the west.



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