1 The mouth of the Missouri was discovered by Marquette and Joliet in 1673. The river was entered about 1700 by the French, who ascended farther and farther, until Chittenden estimates that by the time St. Louis was founded in 1761 the river had been explored for a thousand miles. In 1804 Lewis and Clark had been preceded by white men almost up to the mouth of the Yellowstone.
2 Mr. George Cary Eggleston’s story, "The Last of the Flat-boats," gives a suggestive popular sketch of the magnitude, political consequence, and peculiarities of this system.
3As early as 1819, when the first steamboat entered the Missouri, arrangements were made, but not carried out, for the transportation of troops to the Yellowstone. In 1825 troops were carried in keel boats propelled by wheels turned by hand. After 1855 the steamboat played a large part in military operations along the Missouri and its tributaries. Of the various dramatic incidents of the steamboat days in the remote Northwest, one of the most stirring was the run of the Far West after the Custer massacre in 1876. Down the narrow and unknown Big Horn, down the dangerous Yellowstone and the Missouri, the Far West was driven with the speed of a railway train, bringing to Bismarck her load of wounded soldiers and the full reports of the battle — a thousand miles in fifty-four hours.
In 1877 General Miles’s good fortune in finding a steamboat near the mouth of the Muscleshell (Musselshell) enabled him to gain sufficiently on Chief Joseph and the fleeing Nez Percés. who were nearing British soil, to overtake them within fifty miles of the boundary line.
4 A steamboat was built at Pittsburg as early as 1811 and descended to New Orleans.
5In 1863 came the rich Alder Gulch discovery of gold placers on a branch of the Jefferson fork of the Missouri, and the following year the gold of Last Chance Gulch laid the foundation of the future capital of Montana, — Helena. The discoveries of mineral wealth which followed were the beginnings of Montana’s prosperity, and one immediate effect was a vast increase in steamboat traffic. "Prior to 1864," says Chittenden, "there had been only six steamboat arrivals at Fort Benton. In 1866 and 1867 there were seventy. The trade touched highwater mark in 1867 and at this time presented one of the most extraordinary developments known to the history of commerce. There were times when thirty or forty steamboats were on the river between Fort Benton and the mouth of the Yellowstone."
But just as the steamboat succeeded the pirogues, or "log dugouts," the "bull boats" of buffalo hide, the mackinaw boats built of planks, and the keel boats worked by oar and sail which formed the representative craft before steam, so the coming of the railroad supplanted the steamboat after a contest which lasted from about 1859, when the railroad reached St. Joseph, Missouri, to about 1887.
To-day there are probably more steamboats on the Yukon River in Alaska than are to be found on the Mississippi above St. Louis, and several times the number of the Missouri River boats, since the Missouri is nearly abandoned. One minor practical outcome of American expansion and development is shown in the fact that many of the pilots and other steamboat men trained on these rivers have been taken to the Yukon, where, it is said, their skill is making serious accidents a thing of the past.
6Mark Twain’s "Life on the Mississippi" and his "Roughing It" have a distinct historical value as pictures of the past life of the water ways and the interior of the West. The last stage of the contest between the steamboat and the railroad below St. Louis has been dramatized, as it were, in Mr. G. W. Ogden’s novel, "Tennessee Todd."
7 For a time Blue Mills, Missouri, was a starting point. The year 1817 brought the first stage of steamboat navigation of the Mississippi, and two years later the first steamboat reached the Missouri. The appearance of the steamboat brought more traffic for the trail. Later, Independence was found a more convenient point of departure.
8 The first trading expedition from the upper Mississippi country to Santa Fé, was about 1760, according to Captain Amos Stoddard’s "Sketches of Louisiana," and resulted in the imprisonment of the would-be traders and confiscation of their goods. Under Spanish rule there was some intercourse but no trade of consequence, and the second trading expedition is noted by Chittenden as that of William Morrison of Kaskaskia, Illinois, afterwards a partner of the famous Spanish fur trader, Manuel Lisa. This was in 1807.
Pike’s journey, and his involuntary journey to Santa Fé, formed the first visit of an officer of our government. Just before Pike the Spaniards had sent an armed force to the Pawnee villages at Kansas to enlist the interest of the Indians against the Americans. There were various minor expeditions over the trail in the first twenty years of the century, including the journeys of A. P. Chouteau and Julius de Munn in 1815—1817; but William Becknell of Missouri, "the father of the Santa Fé trail," is credited by Chittenden with the founding of this route commercially. Inman gives the date of his first expedition as 1812, but this should probably be later. The earlier traders had caravans of horses and mules. Wheeled vehicles were introduced probably about 1825, and Becknell was the first to take wagons over the trail. In that day cheap domestic cotton cloths could be sold for over two dollars a yard in Santa Fé. The possibilities of trade with New Mexico were seen by Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, "the father of the West," who introduced a bill in 1824, which became a law, for the survey of a route from the Missouri to New Mexico. But the survey was imperfectly carried out and the traders followed the old wagon route, portions of which are now followed by the main line of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fé Railroad.
9 The romance and adventure of this picturesque old trail is well illustrated in Colonel Henry Inman’s "The Old Santa Fé Trail." Unfortunately the author’s history is not reliable.
10 The trail crossed the Kansas River near the city of Topeka, reached the Platte River in Nebraska, and followed up the Platte along the south and then the north fork to Fort Laramie, which was a station much in use for rest and repairs, since there was no other similar halting place until Fort Bridger was reached, three hundred and ninety-four miles beyond. The trail continued along the North Platte, which was forded near Caspar, Wyoming, but was left behind a few miles farther on, since the trail continued westward, passing a famous landmark near the valley of the Sweetwater which was named Independence Rock, probably by Ashley, before 1830. From the Devil’s Gate, a remarkable cañon through which the Sweetwater flows, the trail went on to the great South Pass in Wyoming, between the Wind River Mountains and the Sweetwater Range. The first discovery of this pass was due not to Hunt and the Astorians of 1811—1813, but, in Chittenden’s opinion, to one of the parties of the fur trader and explorer, Alexander Henry, in 1823. At Fort Bridger, built in 1843 by the famous trapper, explorer, and guide, James Bridger, who discovered Great Salt Lake, the traveler had journeyed over a thousand miles. The trail kept on in a northwesterly direction, passing Fort Hall on the Snake River, and Fort Boise, and near Pendleton reaching the Umatilla River, which was followed to the Columbia, eighteen hundred and thirty-five miles from Independence. Two hundred miles down the Columbia the end of the trail was reached at Fort Vancouver, opposite the mouth of the Willamette.
11 The trail turned south and west beyond Fort Bridger, and the usual route was known as the Salt Lake Trail, which is described by Colonel Henry Inman in his picturesque though not infallible volume, "The Great Salt Lake Trail." There were at least three other early trails of considerable but lesser consequence. The exact identification of these routes is difficult, but Chittenden’s itineraries are recommended for consultation.
13An apt title given by Miss A. C. Laut in her vivid narrative, "The Story of the Trapper."
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman