Yellowstone Riverboat History

[Extracted “in-part” from the Daily Herald Records, and John G. MacDonald: “History of Navigation on the Yellowstone”, Master Thesis, MSU 1950; and excerpts from the research books noted in the text below]


Revised Thursday, May 31, 2012


The era of river navigation began in 1836, when a new riverboat Yellowstone made its way up the Missouri to the mouth of the Yellowstone River Footnote. Earlier however, in 1831, Pierre Chouteau of St. Louis had a small flat bottom steamboat also named YELLOWSTONE and he brought a cargo of goods up the river Footnote. This trip revolutionized the Missouri river fur trade by their being able to make the trip in a few weeks, which formerly took a whole season. Next was apparently Major Taylor, who came to St. Louis to work on the Mississippi steamboats. He became a riverboat captain and was master of the steamer "Clairmont" which he piloted into the Yellowstone River in 1845 on a trading expedition for Pierre Chouteau’s American Fur Company. Serious navigation on the Yellowstone River began in 1873 Footnote, and from that time until the NPR (Northern Pacific Railroad) passed through Billings, traffic was quite heavy In 1883 the NPR made a special deal for freight hauling that virtually eliminated all steamboat trade. The boats started out carrying supplies for the pioneers, and taking buffalo hides back. This changed to carrying supplies for the military, then for the railroad. Many of these boats were short lived, and their origins or travels haven’t been fully recorded. In reality they are flat-bottomed wooden packet boats, but are referred to as “steamers.” Most were stern-wheelers, but a few were side-wheelers. Steamers Mary McDonald and the Sioux City were reported in early Billings Gazette articles, but dates and locations of travel not established. Some of the boats had collapsing smoke stacks; some had smoke stacks that could be laid down to pass under bridges. Some of the greatest research endeavors into the operation of steamboats were created by:


1)      “Days of the Steamboats”, William H. Evans, Parents Magazine 1967.

2)      Wild River, Wooden Boats”, Michael Gillespie: Undated, Heritage Press.

3)      Old West River Boaters”, Charles L. Convis. (IBSN 1-892156-09-1), Undated

4)      “Steamboating on the Upper Missouri River”, William E. Lass. University of Nebraska Press. Undated

5)      A Brief History of Steamboating on the Missouri River with an emphasis on the Boonslick Area, by Robert L. Dwyer


 These first-hand research books tell virtually all you would ever want to know. The extraction below comes from these and other first-hand witnesses. Of interest, is the huge amount of wood needed to propel these boats upstream; 1-2 cords per river mile. The authors are to be commended for their diligence and research expertise in preparing their books.


Dates for travel on the Yellowstone River:



The first boat reportedly on the Missouri was the Constitution in October. Tickets were sold for an excursion trip from St. Louis to Bellefontaine, eight miles distant. (Site visitor to Dyer’s homepage reported the information, obtained from the Missouri Gazette of October 4, 1817.)



The government initiated an effort to use riverboats to carry expedition parties (mainly the Corps of Engineers or various Military commands) into the area frequented by the Sioux, this being the Upper Missouri River & the Yellowstone River the Independence[i], commissioned by Elias Rector, was second. [1]




The first steamship constructed specifically for river travel was the Western Engineer.  It was the third boat to ascend the Missouri. “To scare the Indians and to keep them from causing trouble, the Western Engineer was made to look as if she were riding on the back of a sea monster[ii].” At the bow was a huge snake’s head, with an open – red mouth. Exhaust steam from the engines hissed out of the mouth, giving the appearance of a real monster that was breathing fire. It did actually frighten the Sioux, who had never even seen a normal riverboat. It had a bullet-proof pilot house.This boat also traveled up the Missouri for a distance of about 200 miles, but it set the stage for future developments. On June 9, 1819 the vessel left St. Louis, along with a large group of smaller boats carrying military supplies. Two weeks after the Independence returned to St. Louis, a scientific expedition led by Col. Henry Atkinson & Major Stephen Long, started up the Missouri River in four[iii] steamboats and nine keelboats.


James Johnson, having strong political supporters, got the military contract without bidding, and with no regard of cost to build five steamers (in addition to the Western Engineer) to support the military’s first Yellowstone Expedition. [The Yellowstone Expedition term would be used over and over for virtually each of the treks into Montana, causing much error in future reporting of events.] The ships he had constructed were not designed for the rigors imposed by the Missouri, let alone the Yellowstone. These boats were the Thomas Jefferson, Expedition, R.M. Johnson, J.C. Calhoun and Exchange. This military expedition’s primary purpose was to establish an American presence at the mouth of the Yellowstone Rive to discourage the British in the area. Since the boats only made it as far as Council Bluffs, a fort was established there. The boats transported 1,100 escort troops and supplies under the command of Col. Atkinson. Major Long headed up the scientific team aboard the Western Engineer.


William D. Hubbell was hired on as a clerk on the R. M. Johnson. Years later he recounted the adventure[iv].


The Western Engineer accompanied the other boats, but was far in advance, and had to wait for them to catch up. It arrived alone at Ft. Osage on August 1st, then passed the future site of Ft. Leavenworth on the 18th, and stayed a week at Fort Lisa (five miles below Council Bluffs.) The others were 470 miles downstream. It was decided to winter here and await the others. A year later four of the boats reached Council Bluffs, where the expedition ended far short of its goal to ascend the Yellowstone. Congress terminated all funding.




The only reported boats on the Missouri were the Missouri Packet and the Expedition. The Missouri Packet arrived at Franklin on May 5th, and on the return trip it hit a snag and sunk not far from Franklin. Both boats carried supplies for the troops at Cantonment Missouri.




Kenneth McKinzie established the American Fur Company in the remote regions of the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers starting in 1827. He decided to cut operating costs for these outlying posts by building a steamboat to service them. He approached Pierre Choteau, Jr., agent in St. Louis with the idea. After some persuasion, Pierre presented the proposal to the New York office in August 1830. A contractor in Louisville was hired to build the little boat. It was 130 feet long, and had a beam of 19-feet, with a 6-foot hold. It drew 6-feet of water when loaded, and was patterned after the Mississippi boats, which required a substantial amount of water to travel, rather than the shallow draft that was needed on the western waters. It was delivered to St. Louis on April 10, 1831, in time for it to make its maiden voyage to Fort Union.  Pierre Chouteau was passenger on this trip. Commanded by Captain B. Young, it left St. Louis on 20 April and all went well until the end of May when it reached the confluence of the Niobrara. Low water prevented any further progress. Pierre called for help to unload the supplies and carry them upriver by land. Under a lighter load the Yellowstone continued upriver to Fort Tecumseh. On June 19th it could go no further, and returned to St. Louis on July 15th, carrying a load of buffalo robes, furs and 10,000 pounds of buffalo tongues. This trip revolutionized the Missouri river fur trade by their being able to make the trip in a few weeks, which formerly took a whole season, although it had problems.



The Yellowstone made its second trip up the Missouri, traveling 1,800 miles to Fort Union without difficulty, arriving June 17th. This boat showed that the river could be tamed, and the era of Steamboating on the western rivers was to begin in earnest. The flow of fur trade was such that there was no need to travel beyond Fort Union.


The El Paso, commanded by Captain John Duroc, in an interest to get fame, traveled just past the mouth of the Milk River. They named this point on the MissouriEl Paso.”



The military units stationed in the west started to use riverboats as a means to transport goods and personnel. The government representative generally contracted for a boat on a day-to-day basis, which was very costly. This method was used almost exclusively until 1866 when they issued contracts for service on a yearly basis. Under this method they paid a fee based on destination, type of goods and personnel to be carried. The Chippewa and Key West were reported to be the first riverboats to reach Fort Benton, on the Missouri River.



During the winter months, General Pope conceived of a new plan for his operations in the Indian country along the Missouri River, and assigned General Sully the task. For this he planned to constructed four new posts to be located at: Devil’s Lake, James River, Long Lake outlet, and one on the Yellowstone near Fort Alexander. The last three were to be placed on the emigrant routes leading to the gold mines in Montana. Red tape prevented General Sully from getting started as planned.


General Sully mustered about 2,200 men, two batteries (e.g., 12 artillery pieces), 300 teams and 300 beef steers. The men and equipment marched west by land while steamers carried the supplies. At Farm Island the Dakota Militia joined his forces. Moving from there to the outlet of Long Lake, he established Fort Rice on the west bank of the Missouri (about 8-miles above the outlet of the Cannonball River.) Seven boats were used to carry supplies to Fort Rice. The quartermaster misdirected 1,000 tons of supplies to Farm Island, where they were dumped, and causing great delay in recovery of the supplies. Steamer Alone and Chippewa Falls [drawing 12” water] each carrying about fifty tons of freight; and a little corn for the animals arrived at the mouth of the Big Horn River to meet General Sully’s Command. By the time General Sully was ready to depart Fort Rice he had over 4,000 soldiers under his command. The steamer Island City was the third boat in this group, carrying aboard nearly all of the command’s much needed corn, struck a snag near Fort Union and sank. This shortage of Corn prevented General Sully from proceeding west of the Yellowstone. The remaining steamers attempted to go upstream from the Big Horn, but a rapid shoal rendered it impossible Footnote.  The two remaining steamers then went downstream carrying Sully’s supplies, until the water became too low. The supplies were off-loaded and transported by the command. At the outlet of the Yellowstone General Sully selected the site for Fort Buford. (Constructed in 1866 when supplies were made available.)


By 1867 steamboat traffic had been established between St. Louis and Fort Benton. By 1881 there were 25 to 30 steamers plying the Missouri River with headquarters at Bismarck and Fort Benton. In 1877 exports worth $1,270,600 were carried out and in 1881 imports of $5,214,000 were carried in. Steamers declined after the advent of the railroad in 1887. The "Amelia Poe", a sternwheeler, hit a snag south of Frazer and sunk on May 28, 1868. The "Big Horn" a like fate 4 miles west ' of Poplar on May 8, 1883. Indians found cutting wood for the steamers profitable. The Steamer "Chippewa" burned and exploded on the south side of the Missouri River a few miles below Poplar River on June 22, 1861.[v]




Steamer Alone, with Captain RB Bailey & Cutler; and then again with Captain Abe Hutchison, went upstream on the Yellowstone about 45 miles to a place called Crane’s Ranch; to locate General Sully’s command so they could deliver the army’s supplies.


 No Record.

1873 – Start of Serious Steamboat Operation Footnote

Three major companies were vied for fur trade and commerce on the Upper Missouri Area[vi].

·         Missouri River Transportation Company based at Yankton (15 boats)

·         Northwest Transportation Company (7 boats)

·         Kountz Line (4 boats)


In August William J. Kountz who had worked with Sanford B. Coulson earlier, announced that he would no longer be associated with the Coulson Line (Missouri River Transportation Company), and would now operate exclusively with NPR. Thus he formed the Northern Pacific Railroad Line [steamboat line] stationed at Bismarck. The military eventually realized the importance of having steamboats to carry supplies and troops. Thus the era of ‘Steamboating’ started to flourish. Steamer Key West, commanded by General George A Forsythe (Major & Brevet General, Aide to General Sherman), commandeered Footnotethe Coulson riverboat at Fort Lincoln along with Grant Marsh as Captain; and his crew. The Army thought the area was probably filled with hostile Sioux warriors and General Forsythe was assigned a mission to ascend the Yellowstone River to examine the channel and the countryside as far as the Powder River. Boat officers were:


              Grant Marsh (pilot and captain)

              Nick Beusen (pilot and clerk)

              Charlie Dietz (mate)

              John Sacklett (first engineer)


There was no available military support at Fort Lincoln, so General Forsythe made arrangements to pick up soldiers from Fort Buford (Colonel WB Hazen Footnotecommanded five companies in his regiment stationed at Fort Buford) He also hired two French-Indian guides who claimed to know the upper Missouri River very well. After a short time it was apparent that these guides were lost, and of no value. Captain Marsh then recommended that they see if Yellowstone Kelly (age 23) would be at Wood Chopper’s Point, and ask for his services, which he accepted Footnote. There was no room for his horse on this trip, so he only brought his pack and rifle aboard. The accommodations were cramped (only 31 staterooms available at the time) and after picking up soldiers at Fort Buford, Kelly had to seek out a better place to bed down. During the trek General Forsythe made detailed sketches of the river’s course and terrain.


At Fort Buford they stopped and picked up two companies of the 6th Infantry under Captains M. Bryant and D. H. Murdock. Departing Fort Buford they entered the Yellowstone River. After 125 miles they reached Glendive Creek, and General Forsythe thought this would be the place where the NPR would eventually cross the Yellowstone. Accordingly he examined the area and established a suitable place where a supply depot could be constructed, disposing of the bulk of his military supplies to be used later by the Infantry approaching overland by foot. The supplies were arranged such that it formed a sort of barricade. On the seventh day of travel they arrived within two miles of the Powder River, stopping there on May 6th. Further journey was not possible due to low water and a large expanse of rocks blocking their path. Later in the season it was evident that they could traverse further upstream. This demonstrated to the Army that the river was navigable for at least 245 miles. During this journey, the first on the river for Captain Marsh, he [reportedly] kept a logbook of the journey, as was apparently custom for first-time treks into new waters. He and his pilot, Captain Beusen (listed as both Clerk and Pilot; and the first person to receive a license for piloting on the Yellowstone) recorded the river conditions, driftwood availability, channels, chutes, and named many of the visible mountain & local area terrain elements. All notable objects were named, excepting those identified earlier by William Clark in 1806. Some notable ones were:

            Forsythe Butte (First prominent Bluff on east bank of the Yellowstone just below its confluence with the Missouri named in honor of General Forsythe)

            Cut Nose Butte, Chimney Rock and Diamond Island were named because of their shapes.

            A few miles above Diamond Island there were seven small islands; Captain Marsh named them: Seven Sisters Islands (in remembrance of his seven sisters.)

            Crittenden Island was named for General TL Crittenden, Commander of the 17th Infantry garrisoned at several posts along the Missouri.

            Mary Island was attributed to the chambermaid of the Key West, and wife of ship steward “Dutch Jake.”

            Reno Island was named for Major M Reno, of the 7th Cavalry.

            Schindel Island was named for Captain Schindel of the 6th Infantry.

            Bryant’s Buttes were named for Major M Bryant, Commanding Escort for the Key West.

            Edgerly Island was named for Lt WS Edgerly of the 7th Cavalry.

            Monroe Island was named for Monroe Marsh, Captain Marsh’s brother.

            DeRussy Rapids was named for Issac D DeRussy, later a Colonel of the 14th Infantry

            McCune Rapids was named for one of Captain Marsh’s friend in St Loui.s

            Barr’s Bluff was also named for another of Captain Marsh’s friends.

            Stanley’s Point (located just before the Powder River) was named for Colonel Stanley, a member of the 22nd Infantry. 

            Sheridan’s Bluffs (located across the river from the mouth of the Powder River and now called “Sheridan Butte”) was named for Lt-General Sheridan.



Accompanying the army on the trip was Dan Scott, correspondent for the Sioux City Journal plus the following Army officers stationed at Fort Buford:


2nd Lt RT Jacobs, Jr., 2nd Lt George B Walker, Captain DH Murdock,

2nd Lt Josiah Chance, 2nd Lt Thomas G Townsend, Captain M Bryant (Brevet Major), Captain ER Ames, and 1st Lt Fred W Thibaut.


            Note that 2nd Lt Townsend would play a very important role in future trips up the Yellowstone, and he is the one who supplied the current military map for the area. This map is believed to be the one created by Capt Reynolds etal when they surveyed the vast Indian regions in 1859 & 1860. [Published in 1867 and very accurately places the Yellowstone River & tributaries with the earth’s coordinates.] Also accompanying the troops was Captain Ludlow of the Corps of Engineers.


Capt. Marsh returned to the Missouri River in just 9 days after leaving the area. During the upstream journey, Yellowstone Kelly would walk ahead of the riverboat, and check out the area for signs of Indians and game, and generally be waiting for the boat with a supply of meat for all to enjoy. He reported that typically he left the military campsites about 1 am, and bedded down a long distant from the boat and crew so that he could hear sounds of game. He would rise early and hunt for food, being very cautions not to run into any Indians. Elk were so numerous along the river it became quite obvious to him why the Indians called it “Elk River.” No Indians, however, were noted during this trip. The following pilot license was found in the Grant Marsh files:

(North Dakota Historical Society 16 mm mf-Grant Marsh file, apparently a gag, as no Indians were seen)


To whom it may concern:


            This is to certify that Captain Grant Marsh has given satisfactory evidence to me –General Inspector – of his capabilities to navigate the waters of the Yellowstone river and is hereby duly licensed to run, buck and warp up the river to his heart’s content.



Sitting Bull _____x (mark)

Inspector General of the Yellowstone, and Chief Scalp Lifter of the Hostiles.

            May 14, 1873

In June three Steamers, Peninah, Key West, and Far West, loaded supplies at Bismarck for the army troops who had left earlier from Fort Rice, and were traveling cross-country under the command of General Stanley.

              Peninah - Captain Abner Shaw

              Key West - Captain Grant Marsh

              Far West - Captain Mart Coulson

“Earlier in May, 1873, (See Above) the third expedition to the Yellowstone was organized at Fort Rice and commanded by General Stanley Footnote. The composition was: Troops A, B, C, E, F, G, H, K, L, M, 7th Cavalry Footnote; Companies C, 6th; B, C, F, H, 8th; A, D, E, F, H, I, 9th; A, B, H, 17th; Headquarters and B, E, H, I, K, 22d Infantry, and a detachment of Arikaree Indian scouts. This expedition, accompanied by a large wagon train loaded with supplies left Fort Rice, June 20th, arriving at a point to cross the Yellowstone, about fifteen miles above where the town of Glendive is now located, on July 31st.



The Key West had previously been ordered to first go to Yankton and pick up passengers, and then join the other two boats. FootnoteGeneral Custer ordered Captain Marsh to take on board most of the women and children of the regiment, as well as the personal baggage of the officers. Custer’s command would be mainly marching along the west bank of the Missouri on the upland prairies where the trails were smoother. The voyage and command march lasted several weeks. During the journey the boat docked near where the soldiers were camping whenever possible. They arrived at Bismarck on June 20th, and the three boats started their journey upstream.


After reaching the Yellowstone River the survey party and the accompanying large military escort proceeded south along the east bank of the river as far as Pompey's Pillar, but not without opposition from the Indians, who evidently had concluded that the surveying had gone far enough. On August 4th, just opposite to where Fort Keogh was built, they attacked the advance guard, killing the veterinary surgeon, sutler and one soldier of the 7th Cavalry.  The cavalry’s regiment pursued the “savages” for several miles, killing a number of them. On August 11th, the cavalry, camped opposite the mouth of the Big Horn River, again encountered the Indians and a desperate fight ensued with loss of life on both sides. Lieut. Charles Braden, 7th Cavalry, was severely wounded. Lieut. H. H. Ketchum, adjutant 22d Infantry and adjutant-general of the expedition, who was temporarily with General Custer then commanding the 7th Cavalry, had his horse shot under him. Upon the approach of the infantry the Indians abandoned the field. That night the battalion of the 22d occupied the advance posts and exchanged shots with the Indians, who tried to approach the camp, probably to stampede the horses, mules and cattle herd. During the afternoon of that day the artillery detachment, which was composed of men of the 22d and commanded by Lieutenant Webster, was obliged to shell the timber along the bank of the Yellowstone to dislodge a large body of Indians, who were evidently preparing to impede the next day's march. They were dispersed and seen again only in small parties, one of which fired into the camp at Pompey's Pillar and then beat a hasty retreat, having done no damage. From Pompey's Pillar the expedition marched north to the Musselshell River, thence westward to the Great Porcupine, following it until the Yellowstone was again reached. This was a new and unexplored country and it was a very difficult thing to take a large command and wagon train through it. There was a great deal of hardship, especially from frequently having to drink alkaline water and sometimes having no water at all. The command marched into Fort Lincoln, arriving there September 22d; thence the companies proceeded to their respective stations. They had marched during the expedition over twelve hundred miles and returned in excellent physical condition.”

Each boat, carrying advance supplies for the military and surveyors, dropped them off at the Glendive Creek depot, created earlier in May by General Forsythe, and two immediately returned; the Key West stopped at Fort Buford to pick up a company from the 6th Infantry under Captain Hawkins, who remained on the boat for the duration of the campaign. At Glendive the Key West remained to ferry various personnel assigned to support the surveying efforts of the NPR and other duties, and the soldiers started to erect a stockade at the supply station. Part of General Custer’s 7th Cavalry was the first contingent to arrive at the depot, some 12 days later. The commands as they arrived were ferried across the Yellowstone, to a point about 15-20 miles upstream named “Stanley’s Stockade.” Heavy rains hampered the support command’s main column and they took 41 days to complete the march (July 31st). During this march, General Custer had several invited guests, including R. Graham Frost (St Louis, and son of Confederate General DM Frost), Lord Clifford and another English Nobleman. The NPR engineer in charge of the survey group was General TL Rosser, Custer’s roommate at West Point, who had previously joined the Confederate Army, and had fought against Custer’s command. (Photo insert from Parmly Library – Scrapbook Files)


The Key West continued for several days to ferry men and supplies from Glendive to the temporary fort at Stanley’s Stockade until all were transferred. Captain Marsh then took the group of surveyors fifty miles upstream, where they surveyed that section of the valley west of Powder River (approximately 2-1/2 miles from the Baker’s Battlefield site – where in 1872 the survey was suspended). All of these surveys took place on the west side of the river, and were later discarded when a separate small team, acting under special orders, (1880-1881) created the eastern side route Footnote. It was at this time that Father Stephen (Catholic) arrived alone, having followed the army’s trail from Fort Rice. The survey efforts were completed, and the army started their return. One company of the 17th Infantry and two troops of the 7th Cavalry were left to guard the Stockade.

 Marsh was then ordered to carry some mail that just arrived from Fort Rice, back upstream to the Powder River contingent before they left for Bismarck. From there it returned to the Stockade. On one of the ferry trips in mid August they met the Josephine (Captain John Todd) coming up river loaded with some more supplies to be delivered at Glendive Creek. Captain Marsh transferred to her and sent the Key West back to Bismarck (Fort Abraham Lincoln).

In mid-August the Steamer Josephine (recently completed at Freedom, PA, and a much smaller boat), was pressed into immediate service Footnote. The main body of the Army Command under General Stanley, delayed due to bad weather, took an additional three weeks for them to reach the Yellowstone battle sites near the Big Horn. They fought the Sioux at various places along the Yellowstone as far south as Pompey’s Pillar Footnote, and for some distance inland towards the Musselshell. With them was Lt. Charles Braden, who was shot through the left leg by a rifle ball, shattering the bone from hip to knee Footnote. He was carried on a stretcher back to where the Josephine was tied up, and transferred to her. The Josephine then continued to ferry the command across the Yellowstone in preparation for their long march back to Fort Rice. It then returned to Fort Buford on the 17th with nine companies of troops and 28 officers from the 8th & 9th Infantry Battalions Footnoteand conveyed to Sioux City. Stopping at Fort Buford, on the way down stream, Captain Marsh picked up William H. Seward (Clerk to Paymaster, Major William Smith), who was assigned to pay off the troops at various posts along the river. He had one more post to visit, Fort Stevenson. He also received word when he departed that his wife had given birth, and he was very anxious to return home. Captain Marsh was under strict orders not to make any unnecessary stops while returning, but the paymaster’s clerk obviously needed some assistance, since there was no transportation from Buford to Stevenson, or further travel downstream.



From this Captain Marsh came up with an immediate solution:

Calling his First Engineer, Charlie Echols, he asked “Charlie, don’t you think the engine valves ought to be ground?” Echols intently scrutinized the face of his chief. “Well, I don’t know but they had, captain,” he replied with a grin.

“Take you about half a day, won’t it Charlie?”

“Yes. Reckon it will; about half a day.”

“Alright, we’ll do it at Fort Stevenson.”

They took Seward aboard and delivered him to Fort Stevenson to make payroll. When Seward completed paying off the troops he rejoined the boat and the Josephine immediately started south, dropping Seward off at Bismarck so he could catch the first train east. Eight years later Seward, wife and daughter, made a special trip west to meet with Captain Marsh to thank him for his kindness.

The next stop was at Fort Lincoln where Lt Braden was sent to the post hospital, and awaited further journey to St Paul. A year later, and with no ability to recover or to return to active duty, he retired. [Braden spent much of his time compiling rosters and other Army source materials.] Braden left his campaign hat on board, and Captain Marsh would not allow it to be removed from Braden’s cabin, a memento of one soldier’s exceptional courage.



No trips on the Yellowstone were recorded; however, the Josephine made several commercial trips between Yankton and Fort Benton. Carroll was founded near the mouth of the Musselshell River and served as a freight landing point for overland shipment by wagon trains across Judith Basin and into Helena. The Diamond R. Transportation Company, backed by Carroll townspeople, enjoyed a brisk business for two years. The shortcut took ten days less shipment time than the Fort Benton delivery route. [By 1876 the route was virtually eliminated due to numerous Sioux war party attacks, and steamers bypassed the stop.]


On 19 May, General Sherman ordered Col’s Forsythe and Grant, under orders from the War Department, to commandeer the Steamer Josephine for an Expedition up the Yellowstone to determine how far they could go, and to determine places for military support to the army. The boat reached a clear-water area on June 7th, about 1-1/2 mile west of Duck Creek Bridge, Billings, MT, and then turned around [vii] No civilians, excepting for the boat’s crew, were permitted on board. Four mounted scouts were allowed along with a number of soldiers.


While the Josephine was en route on the Yellowstone with Colonel Forsythe, the War Department, Engineering Section issued a direct order on June 14th, to commandeer the Josephine and make a trip to the Yellowstone. They actually meant, “to survey the headwaters of the Yellowstone River where Yellowstone Park is located,” but it was called “Yellowstone Expedition!” For this activity the Josephine traveled on the Missouri River and discharged its passengers at Carroll, Montana, and then returned to Fort Buford on July 15th. The members of this crew by numerous researchers have mistakenly been thought to be the ones on the previous trip to Duck Creek! Captain Ludlow conducted a survey of the Yellowstone River from Bozeman Pass to its headwaters in Yellowstone Park. He returned on August 16th. This is the trip that carried four Smithsonian Scientists mentioned in Captain Grant Marsh’s 1907 letter to the President, and in Hanson’s book: “Conquest of the Missouri”, pgs 221-223. It seems that after this was published, newspapers and others intermixed the two trips. [Refer to original notes.]



General Terry was sent into the Sioux Territory to fight. From the previous trips it was clear that supplies needed by the Army could be transported easily by “steamer” to the mouth of the Big Horn River. Boats used to provide the supplies were: Far West, Tiger, Benton, Silver Lake, Carroll, Yellowstone, Durfee and Josephine. By 1883, Josephine was the only boat on the river. After the Custer Battle, Captain Marsh, commanding the Far West, on June 30th, took on board 52 wounded, and Comanche, Custer’s injured horse. He delivered them to Fort Lincoln and Bismarck.

The need for better fort protection, as identified in General Pope’s 1863 original plan became evident, and Congress committed $200,000 for two posts on the Yellowstone[viii]: Fort Keogh (near the mouth of Tongue River, and usually referred to as the Tongue River Post), and Fort Custer (located at the mouth of the Big Horn). On July 24th the Quartermaster General of the Department of Dakota, issued orders to provide building supplies to 2nd Lt. Drubb (Bismarck Quartermaster). After learning the posts were to be built on the Yellowstone, he first instructed the Key West to be loaded with lumber and shingles, proceed to Fort Buford to take on a military guard, and go up the Yellowstone (but not past Tongue River), look for General Forsythe, and leave supplies for him at the new fort location. He later added five more Coulson boats to transport materials, plus Wilder’s Silver Lake and Peck’s Nellie Peck. To accommodate the heavy military demand, the Coulson line had to charter six more boats from their rivals.

John O’Brien, a local Billings’ Indian War Veteran, was stationed at Fort Richardson. He was ordered to the Cheyenne Agency. He took the train to Yankton, and the steamer Nellie Peck to the agency.[ix]


Fort Custer and Fort Keogh were under construction, and the boat traffic increased. The government opened a new bidding contest. Twenty firms competed, and John B. Davis won the bid. He then organized the Yellowstone Transportation Company, with John Reaney as manager[x]. Not having boats of their own, and unable to secure the lease of Missouri riverboats from the other bidders, the company leased heavy Mississippi Riverboats & crews, plus built towing barges to carry coal and supplies for the journey; wood being too scarce. The pressures of delivery were too tough to handle, and the freighting needs could not be met on schedule. One disaster after another befell the company. Loss of all the supplies and the boat Osceola, which was blown to pieces in a storm at the mouth of the Powder River, basically ended the short contract with the Yellowstone Transportation Company. Lt. Drubb then loaded Coulson’s boats with supplies anytime a Davis boat was unavailable. By fall all of Davis’s boats were unavailable. In late August the Davis contract was completed and he left the area.  (In 1878 he rebid the new contract, but failed to win.) On October 10th, it was reported that over 600 tons of military supplies still needed shipment. Providing supplies were: Far West, Western, Tiger, Yellowstone, Peninah, General Meade, General Sherman, Florence, Mayer, Osceola, Savannah, Kendall, Weaver, Victoria, Arkansas, Fanchon, JC Fletcher, Tidal Wave, Silver City, JH Rankin (sunk at the mouth of O’Fallon Creek), Rosebud, Big Horn, Fontanelle, General Custer, and Josephine. By 1883, only the Meade, Rosebud, Big Horn & Josephine remained. A Jewish man, by the name of Basinski, opened up a tent store near the ferry on the north side of the Yellowstone, across from Terry’s Landing. This was the start of Junction City. General Sherman and his staff took the Rosebud[2] from Fort Lincoln and onto the Yellowstone River, arriving at its mouth on July 13th. On the 17th he arrived at Tongue River, where General Miles was in process of establishing a post there. On the 18th they arrived at the Little Big Horn junction with the Big Horn River ; and there he established a new post on the 21st. The river was flowing eight-miles/hour in the bends. The General Sherman was stationed there, and was used to run traffic & supplies from the Yellowstone to the post. Sherman took the Rosebud and examined the river for a good spot to offload there military supplies. The river was too swift at the junction of the Big Horn with the Yellowstone, so he selected a place three miles upstream on the south bank of the Yellowstone for that purpose. (Cantonment Terrry – directly southeast of where Junction City was located. It was a 30-mile trek to the new fort by wagons.)

The Indian Service released a split-supply contract in New York, with the C.K. Peck & C.M. Primeau (associate of Peck). Five steamers were used to carry the supplies, plus General Terry’s military freight. Coulson’s steamers were thus available for other freighting activities. On one the 1877 trips, Thomas McGirl, who had recently homesteaded on some land at the confluence of the Prior Creek with the Yellowstone (later Huntley), went to Bismarck and ordered some needed supplies for a trading post he was establishing. The Josephine carried supplies for him, arriving at the end of May. At the McGirl Trading post Captain Marsh took on a load of furs. From there he proceeded upstream to where other homesteaders were reported to be residing. At this time, all were absent, and the only probable apparent campsite (tent) was Joseph MV Cochran’s, located at the site of the famed “Josephine Tree”. It was here that the Josephine docked; and deLacy recorded the event. Captain Marsh reported the docking as being June 7th. This simple date and location has been interchanged with the actual June 6th, 1875 docking date when Colonel Forsythe was exploring the Yellowstone River, and stopping about 1-1/2 mile west of Duck Creek. Walter W. deLacy (see above sketch), in his 1878 survey notes reported:


The Josephine reached “this fractional township situated at the eastern end of Clark’s Fork Bottom. It is bounded on the south and east by the Yellowstone River, which has been navigated in 1877 to a point within the township [Range 26E, Township 1S, Section 16] and a little above [downstream from the boat’s position] the town of Coulson. The only timber in the township is Cottonwoods along the Yellowstone River and on the islands. Tree marked by steamer ‘Josephine’ bears north 50 links distant, the highest point ascended to by steamboats.” Captain Grant Marsh stated in a 1907 letter that he marked the tree “Josephine, June 7, 1875. On the 1878 survey map Walter deLacy recorded what was actually carved on the tree, and reported it as “Highest point reached by a steamboat in 1877.” There is no record of any tree being marked according to the military report issued by Colonels Forsythe and Grant in 1875.


Peck retained part of the supply contract, and Coulson received all the rest. Supplies for the Red Cloud & Spotted Tail agencies were estimated at 900 carloads. Nine riverboats traveled the river, making 15 trips in total to Sherman, with some going on to Terry’s Landing (opposite of Junction), and one to Camp Bertie located near to Pompey’s Pillar. The supplies they delivered brought business to freighters who hauled loads to Bozeman. Some went by stagecoach.[3]


The steamers Rosebud, Butte, Helena, Eclipse, General Sherman, Batchelor, Big Horn, General Custer, Yellowstone, General Rucker, General Terry, General Tompkins, Peninah, and General Meade made trips on the Yellowstone. Nine of these steamers made 15 trips, with stops at Junction. At the time, Junction was on the “Outlaw Trail” a route from Utah to Canada. George Parker (Butch Cassidy) was one of the outlaws who used the trail.


It was reported by the Bismarck Tribune[xi] that private shipments amounting to about 4,675 tons was equally divided between the Coulson, Benton and Baker Lines. Shipments were made to all points on the Missouri and Yellowstone River. FY Batchelor delivered 50 tons of merchandise to Terry’s Landing (South of Yellowstone, across from Junction)


Steamers Rosebud, Helena, Butte, Big Horn, Nellie Peck, General Terry, Batchelor, Western, and Josephine made trips on the Yellowstone. Peninah II made its last trip to Fort Benton.


Only the Batchelor, Josephine, Rosebud, Big Horn, Helena, Black Hills, and Eclipse were on the river. Freight deliveries were made to:

         May & June     Miles City, Glendive, Fort Keogh, Fort Custer & Fort Buford

         October           Popular River & Fort Buford


Steam boating on the Yellowstone River essentially came to a close, with the hauling of materials for NPR mainly by NPR #1 and #2. The Eclipse made one trip, the General Terry one trip, and the F. Y. Batchelor made four short trips, its last being to Junction City. Some minor excursions were made near the mouth of the Yellowstone until about 1910. Deliveries were:

         April                Little Muddy, Fort Buford, Miles City (beer)

         June                 Fort Buford, Popular River, Wolf Point

During one of these trips the Batchelor stopped at Guy’s Landing to deliver supplies.

T.C. Power used the NPR for shipments to his Benton-Billings freight line. Business was so profitable that he moved his warehouses to Billings to better serve the storage needs. The FY Batchelor made two trips to Fort Custer from Myers. Once a week supplies were delivered to Heman Clark at Coulson, where he was installing a waterworks system for use by NPR at Billings. The steamer also delivered supplies for the Winston Company (ST. Paul) who were laying track in the Billings area. During the summer, supplies were delivered to the army stationed at various points along the river to guard the workers while the track was being constructed[4]. On Tuesday August 22nd, NPR Locomotive #84 (W. Snyder, Engineer, along with the construction engineer, and conductor, FB Smith) crossed the Yellowstone River.


Northern Pacific #2 was the tender for constructing the bridge over the Big Horn River. Additionally it took rail cars across the river while the bridge was being constructed.[5]


No steamboats on the Yellowstone, all were on the Missouri, however, the FY Batchelor and the NPR #2, earlier in 1882 made it as far north as Pease Bottom (12 miles below Junction City, its destination) and had to wait until spring to continue down river. While stuck in the ice Captain & Mrs. Woolfolk (NPR #2) &  gave a dance on the boat  Because the accommodations had low ceilings, Mrs Wolfolk and a friend Miss Rene Vander Power went over to the Batchelor to arrange dinner tables for the party to come later. Suddenly the ice broke, and the steamer turned sidewise against the current and the ice flows. The cables of both boats were strained, and the crews quickly attacked more cables to other trees for safety. The NPR in 1883 made a special contract with the two foremost remaining steamboat companies that essentially sealed their fate: Fort Benton Transportation Company (Owned by TC Power and organized in 1875) and Missouri River Transportation Company (Owned by Coulson).

1.      Any imports or exports of points on the Missouri above Bismarck, which also had to be handled by the railroad, would be channeled through NPR.

2.      The steamboat companies could not carry freight, which was delivered to the Missouri River below Bismarck.

3.      The steamboat companies could not carry freight destined for points on the NPR line.

4.      No steamboats would trade on the Yellowstone River, and:

5.      NPR would give the steamboat companies the benefit of reduced rates and rebates.

Accordingly, all riverboat trade in the Yellowstone River Valley was eliminated. All smaller riverboat companies in Montana were eliminated from competition; and these two giants had very profitable years. In 1885 Coulson withdrew from the Missouri trade. The two remaining NPR boats (#1 and #2) were delivered to Bismarck in May & June, thus ending the river travel.


Captain Grant Marsh carried concrete between Glendive and the Mondak Dam on the steamer Expansion. In July he transported the Hon. Secretary of Interior, Mr. Garfield and Senators Dixon and Carter of Montana and their party from Glendive to the headgate of the irrigating ditch on the Expansion, and all agreed that the navigation of the river should be conserved. This same Yellowstone River has well served a mighty purpose in the past, in the pioneer days, and well deserves the protecting hand of the government. From this meeting he wrote a letter in 1907 to President Roosevelt, protesting the potential damming of the Yellowstone.



Riverboat Summary


[Click on image link (where available) to preview photographs and sketches of the riverboat] Other referenced links are not available; just reference sites to local source documents. Source material obtained from http://www.members.tripod.com riverboat site & the above noted books. Please note that many of these steamers were reconfigured over time, thus changing the dimensions and decks to better accommodate the freight trade. Accordingly, there are various reports. There appears to be no clear-cut identification for the multiple names assigned to some steamers used in the local areas; Eclipse, Eclipse2. The ones listed below from the numerous sources listed are attempted to be a summary of the launch condition. Photographs are difficult to obtain at time of launch.










Net Tonnage

Draft Unladen

Tonnage @ 3 Ft

Tonnage @ 2 Ft

Original Owner

















12” @50 tons




Big Horn










Black Hills-1










Black Hills-2








Parts from Silver Crescent


C. W. Meade



























12” @ 50 tons














E. H. Durfee




















Eclipse (2)










Eclipse (3)










Eclipse (4)









Moore etal











Far West[xiv]




















Frank Y. Batchelor




3.5 then 4





Leighton & Jordan

General Custer










General D.H. Rucker










General Meade










General Sherman[xxii]









US Gov’t

Helena[xxiv] (Kehlor)




















Island City



















US Gov’t

Josephine   (1881-on Missouri)










Key West[xxix]










Mary McDonald






























Peninah #2










R . M. Johnson[xxxiv]









US Gov’t











Silver City










Sioux City[xxxvii]









Cooper & Sawyer

Tidal Wave (Grand Pacific[xxxix])









Kountz (Kouns?)











Western Engineer[xlii]









US Army








6 ft @75 tons


American Fur Co







[1] Copied from The Missouri, Rivers of America Stanley Vestal. Recorded in The Titchenal Saga, The Rivers Run West

[2] Inspections Made in the Summer of 1877, General Sherman, Report Dh22-1877

[3] Chapter II, Later Explorations & Early Settlements (1864-1882): Illustrated History of Yellowstone County, State of Montana 1907.

[4] The final army camp was Camp Villard, located on top of Bell Butte (Sacrifice Cliff).

[5] Junction City, Haven of Bullwhackers, Trappers, and Soldiers. WH Banfill (Billings Gazette) 1931

[i] The Independence, with Captain John Nelson commanding, went from St. Louis to Franklin, MO. A distance of about 200 miles, taking 15 days to complete. ”Old Man River, Memories of Captain Louis Rosche.”, Robert A. Hereford, 1942. (Caxton Printers), pages 97-100. Information provided by a site visitor to Dyer’s history page.

[ii] “Days of the Steamboats”, William H. Ewen, Parents Magazine, 1947

[iii] There were six rivewrboats created for the trip, but only four made it to St. Louis.

[iv]Wild River, Wooden Boats”, Michael Gillespie, Heritage Press,

[v] Short History of Fort Peck, by Ralph Shane, undated (c2000)

[vi] Steamboating on the Upper Missouri River”, William E. Lass, Univ of Nebraska Press

[vii] “He Reached Head of Navigation on the Yellowstone”, Billings Gazette June 30, 1927. Citing “Conquest of the Missouri”, by Hanson, the 1873, 1875 and 1877 trips got inter-mixed in the writing; thus starting a belief that the Josephine docked on June 7th, 1875 at Riverfront Park. This is an unfortunate error.

[viii] Reported in “The Military Frontier on the Upper Missouri”, article in the Nebraska History, Sep 1956, p178, written by Ray H Mattison, and Howard Lass in Steamboating on the Upper Missouri River, pg 124.

[ix] Montana Pioneer Biographies, 1928-1929, “John O’Brien”, by ID O’Donnell

[x] Ibid. The reader is directed to “Steamboating on the Upper Missouri River” for exceptionally well written details and full explanation of the events.

[xi] Ibid, Steamboating on the Upper Missouri River, pg 132.

[xii] Made 7 trips to Fort Benton before being dismantled.

[xiii] The Eclipse was removed from service in the Fort Benton area by Power, and was sent downstream to ST. Louis, where it was to be sold for service in the local area. It hit a snag enroute and was wrecked.

[xiv] The hurricane deck (roof) was added after 1876.

[xv] On October 30, 1883 she struck a snag and sank at Mulhanthy Island (approximately ten miles downstream on the Missouri River, below St. Charles, MO)

[xvi] Louis Hunter reported that the Far West drew 30 inches of water fully loaded. This is in conflict with the formal depth-load tables reported by William Lass obtained from Coulson’s records.

[xvii] March 29, 1864 hit snag, Atchison, KS. Copelan Captain.

[xviii] Hit rocks and sunk. Refloated and converted to freight carrier. Destroyed in 1907. Frank Y. Batchelor supervised construction in 64 days.

[xix] October 5, 1879, Rule, NB. Hit snag.

[xx] Destroyed Sioux City area.

[xxi] September 4, 1888, Pelican Bend, snagged opposite of Jefferson City, MO.

[xxii] Bought from gov’t by P.P. Manion, who renamed her for his wife.

[xxiii] September 20, 1884, snag in St. Charles Chute.     

[xxiv] Originally named J.B.M. Kehlor; renamed Helena 1881.

[xxv] Oct 23, 1891 hit snag, Bonhomme Island.

[xxvi] Hit snag, Missouri River.

[xxvii] Disabled at Osage Chute (near Jefferson) on maiden voyage.

[xxviii] Destroyed March 7, 1907 at Running Water, SD. Caught in ice.

[xxix] Key West reported also to be launched 1871, destroyed 1892. 201.4’, 35.2’ 4’ draft. Records are in conflict: but this appears to be correct; as it is listed as sister ship to Far West.

[xxx] Destroyed at Van Buren, Arkansas in winter.

[xxxi] Destroyed on Yellowstone River by tornado while awaiting roundup of a white stallion.

[xxxii] Sank at Sioux City, raised and taken to Yankton for repairs, broke loose and was grounded. Three weeks for repairs, then a cyclone tore off cabin.

[xxxiii] Destroyed Nov 7, 1887 Red River, LA. Last time at Ft Benton was 1880.

[xxxiv] Named for the 9th President, and brother of the man holding the military contract to build six boats.

[xxxv] The boat made it to the Kaw River, and could go no further.

[xxxvi]Destroyed June 16, 1896, settled on submerged piling at Bismarck as river water level dropped. Earlier sunk 1882 at Claggett, then again in 1886 (August) at Rocky Point. Boat made 50 trips to Ft Benton.

[xxxvii] Sidewheeler

[xxxviii] March 19, 1973, swept away by ice gorge.

[xxxix] Renamed Grand Pacific in 1883

[xl] Destroyed April 27, 1884, wind blew her into Burlington Bridge pier; broke in two.

[xli] Crushed by ice near Yankton, SD, and split apart. Boilers salvaged, rest remained under water as of 1998.

[xlii] Constructed to resemble a “Dragon” spitting fire, and was armed with three small canons, mounted on carriage wheels. Nicknamed “Long’s Dragon.” Was used in first Yellowstone Expedition, but failed to reach its objective. Funding terminated c1820. Disappeared.

[xliii] http://www.usace.army.mil/publications/eng-pamphlets/ep870-1-45/c-10.pdf

[xliv] Sidewheeler built in Louisville during winter of 1830/1831. Authorized by New York officials of the American Fur Co.

[xlv] Hung up on sandbar. Another boat with same name launched in 1870. No details.

  Email me:
Katy Hestand
Yellowstone County Coordinator

© 2014 MTGenWeb