The Missouri River from its source in the Rocky Mountains to its junction with the Mississippi is 2,963 miles long. Of this, 547 miles passes over South Dakota from the mouth of the Sioux River in the far southeast corner of the state to the northern border in central South Dakota.
From 1790 to 1865, the trading in furs and pelts was the main occupation of the region, in which both the Indians and whites engaged. From about 1820 until near the end of the Civil War, Fort Pierre was the center of the trade and the main depot for the region.
About 175 resident white men and many more Indian trappers were actively employed in the profession of trapping and trading in furs. The trade chiefly consisted in the exchange of commodities for fur and pelts secured by the Indians. At one time, the fur trade was the principal industry in our nation.
However, toward the end of the fur trading business, the trading in buffalo robes secured by the brigades of buffalo hunters was the main hide traded. When the business became thoroughly organized, the herds were soon utterly destroyed. The end came quickly.
The arrival of the steamboat on the Missouri River was an important element in the exploration and development of the west. The first steamboat to enter the upper Missouri was the “Yellowstone.” It was a flat bottomed boat which drew only about three feet of water, built in Pittsburg, especially for the Missouri River trade.
This steamer entirely revolutionized the traffic on the river. Heretofore it had been necessary to propel all the boats going up the river, by paddles, poles, sails, or by towing, according to the conditions along the river. From this date forward steam was used almost exclusively in the fur trade and for the other traffic along the river.
The “Yellowstone” reached Fort Pierre in June of 1831 and completely changed the fur trade. “Fort Pierre” became more widely known throughout the United States than any military or trading post in the country. Not only was it a great central market for Indian barter, as many as 6,000 Indians were in camp around it at the same time. It also became the most prominent landmark in the Northwest for Government expeditions sent out on scientific errands. In this way, it became well known throughout the nation.
The cost and ease of transporting furs and goods was nothing previously experienced by those in the fur business. Transportation of merchandise into or out of the country was relatively cheap and easy. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills and Montana resulted in more riverboats coming to Fort Pierre and areas further north and west.
Over the years, there were many fur trading posts located at or near the mouth of the Bad River. The first was Fort Teton, built by Joseph LaFramboise in 1817. Fort Tecumseh was established by the Columbia Fur Company in 1822. Fort Pierre was built in 1832. It was purchased by the federal government in 1855, dismantled, and later used in the construction of the quarters at Fort Randall.
The large number of military forts located along the Missouri River above the mouth of the Sioux River required that they all be supplied with supplies to make it through the long winter months. There was constant river traffic into and through South Dakota during the open season. Every advantage had to be taken to get needed supplies, equipment, and materials into the area for both civilian and military operations. The river was closed because of ice in November or December.
The steamboat business grew with the expansion of business and the Missouri River quickly became the interstate highway. Navigation was always difficult upon it by reason of the steep grade of its channel, the shifting sand bars, the snags from timber fallen in the river, and the long seasons of low water.
The handling of the steamboat on the river was a science in itself, and the Missouri River pilot had a more difficult role to fill than ever fell to a navigator on other rivers or the high seas. Not even the perils of Mississippi River navigation, now permanently fixed in literature through the genius of Mark Twain, were to be compared with those of its great western tributary.
Veteran Mississippi River men who signed up on all the Missouri River boats were treated as neophytes. All river men who had not served on the upper part of the river were treated likewise. Because of the difficulty of navigation on the river, those riverboat captains with top navigational skills could command their own wages.
Even though there were never over one-hundred steamboats on the Missouri during any one year, a total of more than 450 steamboats were sunk during the steam boating era. The river was so rough that few steamboats lasted for more than ten years.
In terms of present day river miles, you could float 2,073 miles from Ft. Benton, Montana to the mouth of the Missouri and pass the grave of a steamboat on the average of one every 7.6 miles. Between Sioux City, Iowa and Rulo, Nebraska, the average quickened to one every 4.7 miles.
Navigational aids on Missouri steamboats were practically nonexistent. Two years after the last steamboat ran between Missouri and Montana, a reliable map of the Missouri River was published. A common saying among steam-boaters was: “The main trouble with navigating the Missouri was that you had to take the boat with you.”
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on November 9, 2022