Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Steamboat Yellowstone

 [Editor's Note:  This is the article I wrote for Wikipedia, but expanded to include notes not appropriate for an encyclopedic article.]

The steamboat Yellowstone (sometimes Yellow Stone) was a paddle steamer (side wheeler) steamboat built in Louisville, Kentucky, for the American Fur Company for service on the Missouri River.  By design, the Yellowstone was the first powered boat to reach above Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the Missouri River achieving, on her maiden voyage, Fort Tecumseh, South Dakota, on June 19, 1831.(History of South Dakota, Fourth Edition, Revised)  The Yellowstone also played an important role in the Texas Revolution of 1836, crossing the Texas Army under Sam Houston over the swollen Brazos River ahead of Antonio López de Santa Anna's pursuing Mexican Army.

Early career on the Missouri River

The achievements of the Yellowstone along the Missouri River were, at the time, heralded in the press-- garnering the attention of Europeans. The boat represents cutting-edge application of the technology of the time and in the 1830's was famous for that. More than a novelty, the success of the Yellowstone demonstrated the practical and profitable use of steam boat technology on the shallow rivers, able to haul 100 persons, 75 tons of cargo and to do so at speed had obvious economic as well socio-political advantages.

The Yellowstone was built between 1830 and 1831 in Louisville, Kentucky, for the American Fur Company to service the fur trade between Saint Louis, Missouri, and the trading camps along the Missouri River up to the mouth of the Yellowstone River in western North Dakota.  Prior to the Yellowstone, fur traders beyond Council Bluff relied on un-powered keelboats which had to be dragged up-river for supply and then floated downstream with their furs. Beginning in St. Louis, The Yellowstone made her maiden voyage on April 16, 1831 and reached Pierre, South Dakota, on June 19, 1831, six hundred miles farther than any other steamboat,(Jackson, Donald, Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1985. p. 24) dramatically opening the way for regular travel and trade along the upper stretches of the Missouri River.  She returned, fully loaded, to Saint Louis on July 15, 1831.(Jackson, Donald, Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1985. p. 24)

The following year, 1832, the Yellowstone reached the mouth of the river for which she was named. That voyage was chronicled by George Catlin.

In 1833, German naturalist Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied, together with Swiss artist Karl Bodmer traveled the Missouri River on board the Yellowstone. That journey was also chronicled in Maximilian's Reise in das Innere Nord-Amerikas. Karl Bodmer's depiction of the Yellowstone struggling over a sand bar may be the most accurate depiction of the steamboat in existence.

Yellowstone, Missouri River steamboat,
depicted as aground on 19 April 1933,
in this 1844 print by Lucas Weber
based on a painting by Karl Bodmer.
In July 1833, the crew of the Yellowstone was overcome by cholera.  Many of the crew, including the firemen, died, and the boat was under threat of being burned by locals afraid of contagion. Leaving famed steamboat captain, then a clerk and pilot, Joseph LaBarge, to hold and protect the boat and its ailing crew, the Yellowstone's captain, Anson G. Bennett, ventured downstream to St. Louis, and soon returned with a new crew.(Chittenden, H. M. History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River. New York: Harper., 1903. p. 32.)

From 1831 through 1833, regular runs of the steamboat took advantage of the higher river due to April snow melts and again in June and July by favor of snow melt from the Rocky Mountains. During the winters when ice prevented such travel and late summer when water levels were insufficient for the six foot draft of the vessel, the Yellowstone served the cotton and sugar cane markets along the lower Mississippi River.(Jackson, Donald, Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1985. p. 27)  After the final July 1833 run up the Missouri River, the steamboat continued the work along the Mississippi River with Captain John P. Phillips, under new ownership.(Jackson, Donald, Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1985. p. 112.)

Model of Steamboat "Yellowstone",
Museum of the Fur Trade, Nebraska, USA

In November 1835, the Yellowstone steamed to New Orleans for a significant refit,(Jackson, Donald, Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1985, p. 115.) a second boiler was added and much of the wooden components replaced with newer wood.  Meanwhile she was sold yet again and registered by the new owners for trade runs in foreign (specifically, the then Mexican Texas) waters.

Career in Texas Revolution

The Yellowstone's part in the Texas Revolution is well known, perhaps mostly to historians, and much loved by many Texans. No account of the Texas Revolution is complete without at least mention of the role of the Yellowstone.

The steamboat was purchased by Thomas Toby & Brother to focus upon the cotton trade along the Brazos River in Texas, carrying bales from the growers down to Quintana, Texas, on the Gulf Coast.  Departing New Orleans on New Year's Eve, 1835, she was loaded with arms, ammunition and forty-seven volunteers of the Mobile Greys(Puryear, Pamela Ashworth and Nath Winfield Jr., Sandbars and Sternwheelers, Steam Navigation on the Brazos; Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1976.p. 46.) destined to support the Texans in their fight for Independence against Santa Anna.

In late March and early April 1836, despite three Mexican forces under Generals Antonio López de Santa Anna, Antonio Gaona, and José de Urrea all searching for the Texas army along the right bank of the Brazos River, the Yellowstone steamed upstream to continue collecting cotton from the growers. In early April, Santa Anna was camped at San Felipe de Austin, fifteen miles below the yet undiscovered Texas camp near Groce's Landing, while General Gaona was marching southward down the Brazos from the San Antonio Road, leaving the Texans caught between.

On April 2, Sam Houston sent word to the Yellowstone to remain at Groce's Landing, and prepare to assist in crossing the Texas Army.  The captain and crew complied.   On April 12, the Yellowstone began crossing the entire Texas Army, completing the crossing with multiple trips by mid afternoon the following day.   On April 14, as the Texans marched toward Battle of San Jacinto, the Yellowstone, still armored in cotton bales, began her sprint downstream to pass the Mexican camps on her way to the Gulf.(Jackson, Donald, Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1985. p. 131.)

With her bell clanging and smoke billowing, the Yellowstone sent many of the Mexican soldiers running in fear, having never known the existence of such a craft as a steamboat.(Pena, Jose Enrique de la, With Santa Anna in Texas, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1975, p.105)  One Mexican soldier is reported to have attempted to lasso her by her smoke stack as others fired on the craft heeding Santa Anna's order to capture the boat for his own crossing.  Santa Anna had already crossed to the left bank, moving toward Harrisburg and had left General Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma on the right bank to attempt capture of the boat. The bullet-ridden stacks represented the only damage the steamboat incurred as she quickly outran her pursuers.(Sowell, Andrew J. History of Fort Bend County. W. H. Coyle & 1964. p. 110.)

As she passed the San Jacinto Battleground soon after that battle. The soldiers on board saluted the place with cheers and rifle fire in honor of the near-sanctity of the place which came to be accepted of it and remains today.

Soon after the Texan's victory at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, the Yellowstone was waiting nearby and received the wounded Commander in Chief, Sam Houston, the new Republic's interim President David G. Burnet, the captured Santa Anna and forty-seven Mexican prisoners. She was held for a time for the purpose of returning the captive Santa Anna to Mexico, but Santa Anna's return would be delayed many months.(Jackson, Donald, Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1985. p. 135.)

Later that year and still in service (then as a packet boat along Buffalo Bayou), the Yellowstone was called upon to take the body of Texas hero, Stephen F. Austin, to burial, and then return mourners along the Brazos River afterward.(Puryear, Pamela Ashworth and Nath Winfield Jr., Sandbars and Sternwheelers, Steam Navigation on the Brazos; Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1976. p. 48.)

Final Disposition

Despite strong evidence that the steamboat had returned to her birthplace along the Ohio River in the Summer of 1837, Texans hold tight to the almost certainly spurious tale that she sank and remains at rest in Buffalo Bayou, near Houston. The machine is an anthropomorphized symbol for the Texas identity. Originating in the old pioneer west and coming to Texas to take part in the fight against the tyranny and tame a hostile land, the Yellowstone is seen as "one of us" by Texans, and to admit that her final resting place is other than within Texas is simply inappropriate, even if true. Those settlers who came to fight for Texas, stayed or died in Texas, so the regional legend will probably remain.

The ultimate fate of the Yellowstone is not recorded. Texas legend is that she sank in Buffalo Bayou in 1837; however, no record of such an end exists. A record does exist stating that a steamboat by that name passed through the Louisville and Portland Canal on the Ohio River, in the summer of 1837.(Jackson, Donald, Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1985. p. 147.) The Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library in San Antonio, contains a brass bell purported to be that of the Yellowstone.

The Bell

The bell mentioned as being generally accepted as that of the Yellowstone is in the collection of The Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library on the grounds of the Alamo has a legend attached to it mentioned in Jackson's book. The top of the bell is broken and missing pieces. The folklore is that the missing piece was sent to Philadelphia in hopes that the metal might be used to repair the Liberty Bell.  There is no source for that folklore.  However, that the bell is accepted, without evidence, by Texans as belonging to the Yellowstone, that her final resting place, also without evidence, is held by Texans to be near San Jacinto, and that folklore declares a kinship with the Liberty Bell -- all indicate the affection and therefore prominence of this boat's history for many.

Photo Credit: Ernesto Rodriguez, III,
Assistant Curator, The Alamo


Displacement: 144 tons
Length: 120 ft (37 m) or 130 ft (40 m)
Beam: 20 ft (6.1 m) or 19 ft (5.8 m)
Depth: 6 ft (1.8 m) or 5.5 ft (1.7 m)
Decks: Three: Hold, Main Deck and Boiler Deck.
Installed power: 1 boiler, as built; refitted with two boilers in 1835.
Propulsion: Two 18 ft (5.5 m) paddlewheels
Capacity: 75 tons, 72 passengers, and 22 crew.
Crew: 22

Several web sites indicate the Yellowstone to have been 130 feet in length-- but there is no source which I have been able to discover to support that dimension. It is for that reason, that the sourcing is doubled-- Jackson's transcription of the original order on page 160, being the most sound evidence of the correctness of the 120 foot dimension.

Puryear gives 122 feet, which is likely the main deck rather than the hull. The deck was to extend 18" beyond the superstructure (sides and rear, by examination of images), and it may be that the rear extension was beyond the hull, and the remaining 6" perhaps at the bow where the keel rises to the main deck.

Further reading

* Jackson, Donald, Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1985.
* Chappell, P. E., A History of the Missouri River, Kansas State Historical Society Pub. Vol. IX, p. 282
* Cushing S. W., Wild Oats Sowing, Daniel Fanshaw, New York 1857.
* Puryear, Pamela Ashworth and Nath Winfield Jr., Sandbars and Sternwheelers, Steam Navigation on the Brazos; Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1976.
* Moore, Stephen L. Eighteen Minutes the Battle of San Jacinto and the Texas Independence Campaign. Dallas: Republic of Texas, Distributed by National Book Network, 2004.

External links

* Steamboat Times - Steamboats 1830-1839
* Riverboat Dave's - The 1830 Yellowstone
* Riverboat Dave's - Alphabetical listing with notes
* Riverboat Dave's hosted article by Robert L. Dyer, A Brief History of Steamboating on the Missouri River
* HistoryNet's Steam Boat Yellow Stone Aided General Sam Houston and the Texas Revolution
* Ken Stach's article on the Yellowstone
*'s This Day In History - March 26, 1832
* Roots Web hosted article, Captain Joseph LaBarge
* Handbook of Texas Online article Yellowstone
* Phillip E. Chappell's Listing of Steamboats Operating on the Missouri River
* Texas Almanac's article, The Yellow Stone
* Celtic Cowboy's Texas Revolution pages
* Iowa History Project's Steamer Yellowstone Ascends Big Muddy in 1831
* Ronald Howard Livingston's The Steamboat Yellow Stone" The Lil' Steamer That Could
* Texas A & M University's Short Memoirs & Sketches from Old Texians