1832 - Steamboats on the Missouri

This painting by George Catlin shows deckhands struggling to help the steamboat Yellowstone, which has run aground on a sandbar on the notoriously unpredictable Missouri. Between 1832 and 1880, hundreds of steamboats would ply the turbulent waters of the Big Muddy, as the Missouri is still known to its midwestern neighbors.

      Artist George Catlin ascended the Missouri River onboard the American Fur Company's paddle wheeler Yellowstone, which made the first attempt to open the Missouri River to steam travel in 1832.  At the same time Catlin was enroute to the Mandan Villages, Maximillian and Karl Bodmer were setting sail for the New World from Rotterdam. (Bodmer, the finest artist to paint the American West in it's 'natural' state, would spend the next ten years of his life devoted to the work produced by this expedition.)

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       Over the course of the next fifty years, hundreds of steamboats would ply the turbid waters of the Missouri.  By the 1880s, the dangerous steamboats (hundreds of them blew up when their boilers ruptured, or their hulls were caught by snags and sandbars) were replaced by trains. 

        In the 1830s, the average trip upstream aboard a steamboat to Fort Pierre, in the Montana territory, took seventy days, while the return trip would take fifteen.

       The amount of wood required to fire the ship's boilers for one voyage was estiated to be 1,700 mature oak trees.  TheYellowstone alone, in six and a half years - or 2,000 days on the river - burned forty thousand trees to fire its boilers.  Nvertheless, steamboats were the engines of Manifest Destiny.  Over a fifty year period, they would destroy the great oak forests of the plains.