Chapter LV

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas


Steamer Yellowstone Ascends Big Muddy in 1831  

Notable Voyages of Joseph La Barge--when St. Louis Was the Center of the Fur Trade  

   The following sketch giving an account of early navigation on the Missouri, and glancing through the pages of Capt. Chittenden’s book, is handed to me by a friend, who asks that it be incorporated in our chapters of river history.

   Capt. Hiram Martin Chittenden of the Corps of Engineers, United States Army, in his study of the American fur trade, became interested in the life history of La Barge, the famous captain and pilot, who was among the first to navigate the Missouri river.  “The History of Early Navigation on the Missouri River.”  has for its center of interest Joseph La Barge.  Around him is grouped the entire era “of the active boating business of the river.”  He saw it all from the day when the Creole and Canadian voyagers “codelled” their keelboats up the refractory stream to the time when the railroad won its final victory over the steamboat.

   Some years before the birth of our Republic at the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, there was born a village , the St. Louis of to-day.  Here set in two currents of future civilization, flowing from the East and the South.  The Canadians and the Creoles, “Kindred in language and tradition mingled in common pursuits and enterprises, and for many years bore an important part in the great movement which proceeded onward from the common starting point.”  La Barge presented in person the precise alliance of Canadian and Creole.  The original La Barge was a Norman, and his mother of Creole descent.  Jos. La Barge was born in St. Louis, in 1815.  He was not two years old “ when the first steamboat came to St. Louis, nor four when the first one entered the Missouri river.”  as a child he delighted in watching the river craft, and “thus unwittingly was training himself for this after career.”  It had been the intention of his father that he should enter holy orders, and he was sent to a Catholic school, but there was some breach of discipline and the lad left the seminary.

   In 1831 St. Louis was the center of the fur trade.  “The great bulk of the business was done along the Missouri river, where the trading posts were established throughout the entire valley.  The annual journeys to these posts were made by water.”  It was but natural that La Barge, who was then sixteen, should become infatuated with the tales of adventure.  In 1831, the steamboat Yellowstone was on her first trip up the Missouri, and was in the employ of the American fur Company.  On her return voyage La Barge found a place on her as clerk.  The boat was to go to the lower Mississippi to the bayou La Fourche.  As La Barge spoke English and French, his services would be found useful.  In 1832 the Yellowstone was at St. Louis.  The year before she had reached Fort Tecumseh. Now it was the intention of the fur company to send her as far as the mouth of the Yellowstone.  “The attempt was completely successful, and the voyage has ever since been considered one of the landmarks of the early history of the West.”  La Barge entered the service of the company as an engage or clerk.  The term of service was three years, and the salary $700 for the whole time.  He was to be assigned to any one in charge of a post, such officers being called burgeois.  It was at Council Bluffs where La Barge found his first regular employment.  It was known as Cabanne’s post and was a few miles above the modern city of Omaha.

  The American fur company was a power in those days, and certainly unscrupulous in its actions.  It never hesitated in crushing out a rival, and by force if it was deemed necessary.  In the  neighborhood of Council Bluffs there was one Narcisse Le Clere, who at one time had been in the employ of the company, but who was now trading in furs on his own account.  Le Clere bore a bad character and was as unscrupulous as any of the company’s agents.”  Cabanne finding that Le Clere had much liquor to trade in with the Indians which was a public offense, captured Le Clere and confiscated the liquor, and so the rival’s expedition was broken up.  The company was however, all powerful and though brought to court, managed to escape losing its license.

  La Barge became for the time an Indian trader, in the employ of the company.  The Pawnees lived in the country, and La barge became familiar with their habits and customs.  In the spring with high water, the furs were loaded into bullboats and shipped down to the mouth of the Platte.  Many were the trips made by La Barge in the service of the company.  He became, what was the most important, familiar with the river it was his apprenticeship.  In 1836 he became assistant pilot of the steamer St. Charles.  Some years afterward he was pilot of the Platte.  During these years La Barge became acquainted with the Mormons, notably Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Orson Hyde, La Barge said that he had never liked the appearance or demeanor of Smith and never believed in his sincerity.

   The time came when La Barge was in opposition to the American Fur company.  Having saved some money, he with some friends chartered the steamer Thomas, and was prepared to convey a cargo as far as Council Bluffs. He found that the fur company was in opposition to his venture and tried in all ways to defeat his projects.  In 1842 La Barge married.

   Capt Chittenden’s chapter, “The Missouri River,” considers what was then the nature of the business on the Missouri river and its relation to the growth of the country.

  For fully a hundred years the history of the Missouri River was the history of the country through which it flowed.  Its importance no one to-day can comprehend.  Now the railroad has made accessible almost every section of the country.  Then there were no railroads to speak of west of the Mississippi, nor, for that matter, any other roads worthy of mention.  The river was the great and almost the only highway of travel and commerce.  Everything was done with reference to it.  Commercial posts and military garrisons were established, expeditions were undertaken, and all business operations were carried on with special reference to this mighty stream, which descended from the distant mountains to the very heart of the continent and thence to the sea, whence the road was open to every quarter of thee world***  Of all the rivers of the globe, the longest is the Missouri-Mississippi.

  The potential character of the Missouri can hardly be expressed by figures.  A geological calculation seems to show that the mighty stream carries into the Mississippi 550,000,000 tons of earth yearly.

   That such an exercise of power should leave its impress deep upon the country which the river flows is not to be wondered at.  Every year thousands of acres of rich bottom lands are destroyed, forests, meadows, cultivated fields, farm houses and villages fall before its tremendous onslaught, and the changes that have been wrought in the topography of the valley during the past one hundred years almost defy belief.

   Apart from the natural dangers of navigation there are the fallen trees, anchored to the bottom of the river, the well known snags of sawyers.  The snags were the terror of the pilot, as they well might be.  The record of steamboat wrecks on the Missouri, an appalling one, shows that about 70 per cent were due to this cause.  Then in winter ice dams and gorges are formed, obstructing navigation, and when the ice breaks the dangers are increased.  There are, too violent thunder storms and the merciless tornadoes.

   When the Missouri was first known to the white man is of uncertain date, Probably it was in 1700.    “It is certain that at the time of the founding of St. Louis, 1764, the river was well known for a thousand miles above its mouth.”  When Lewis and Clark went up the river in 1804 they found that white men had preceded them almost to the mouth of the Yellowstone.  Such was the turbulence of the Missouri that the first trip of the steamboat, the Independence, in 1819, was considered as the most remarkable of all performances.  Then the era of the steamboat had its beginnings.  Before that the craft used on the river were the canoe, the mackinaw, bullboat, keelboat, and finally the steamboat.  The cause of the dug out when large was some thirty feet in length.  It was constructed of cottonwood, walnut or cedar.  The paddle was used in French “aviron.” Sometimes there were sails.  The loads the canoes could carry were but small.  Capt. Chittenden mentions as a product of the hunt of those days bears oil which was transported in these canoes and “was extensively used in St. Louis as a substitute for lard in the early days when swine were scarce and black bears plenty.”  Barrels not being procurable, the oil was carried in skins. 

   The mackinaws were built of timber and held together with wooden pins.  They were sometimes 50 feet long with a beam of 12 feet.  They served principally for down stream navigation.  Under favorable conditions they could make some 75 or even 100 miles per day.  After their single trip they were sold at the port of destination for lumber.  The mackinaw was a better style of river craft the boards being sawed by hand.

   Captain Chittenden describes the early steamboat and takes for type the Yellowstone, built in 1837-41.  She was 130 feet long, with a 19-foot beam.  She was a sidewheeler.  Later the size of the steamboats was very much increased, and they were of sternwheel variety.  The most serious problem was the solution of the fuel question.  At the beginning the crew cut the wood.  After a while there were many woodyards provided.

  Many were the ups and downs in the life of Capt. La Barge.  Sometimes he was at variance with the fur company, at other times in their employ.  He had many adventures with hostile Indians.  The gold discoveries on the Pacific Slope enormously increased the steamboat business.  During the civil war supplies for the army and the troops were sent by the river.  In his old age La Barge died in 1899.

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