Dakota Datebook

Steamboat Traffic – 1881

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Steamboats operating on the Missouri River were a key element in advancing the frontier westward. Manufactured goods could be shipped to St. Louis, transferred to smaller steamboats and then freighted up river as far as Fort Benton, Montana. Freighters then hauled the goods from that point to the miners. Military posts along the river also needed supplies – thousands of tons each year to sustain the troops through the often brutal winters when almost all travel ceased on the Northern Plains.


In 1881, Bismarck was the hub of commerce in the northern part of the Missouri River. The railroad had arrived in 1872, and tracks had been laid to the water’s edge. Tons of supplies arrived on both the steamboats and the railroad. Work had begun on the construction of a railroad bridge to span the river, and once completed, the dominance of the railroad would mark the end of the era of steamboat traffic on the Missouri.


On this date over a half dozen steamboats were moored at the levee in Bismarck. The Rose Bud and the C. K. Peck were plying the waters on their way upriver from St. Louis. Meanwhile, steamboats like the Nellie Peck, the General Terry, the Red Cloud and the Benton were busy unloading tons of freight brought from the south and loading additional freight brought in from the east by the railroad to be moved further upriver. The Far West was at the halfway point to Fort Buford where the General Sherman was docked. Further up the river, the Helena was delivering its cargo at Fort Benton.


But steamboat traffic on this date would itself effect the end of another era. As the Far West, the Helena and the General Sherman delivered their cargos to Fort Buford, they began taking on a human cargo. Almost twelve hundred Indians, many who had fled to Canada after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, had gathered at Fort Buford and were now being transferred to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Nearly a hundred of those present were from Sitting Bull’s band, including his daughter, but Sitting Bull would not surrender until July. In the months following this, another two thousand Indians would make the journey from Fort Keogh in Montana Territory to the reservations in the Dakotas implementing a process author and photographer Frank Fiske would later term the “Taming of the Sioux.” So, the frontier era, once demarcated by the Missouri River, had, for the most part, ceased to exist on the Northern Plains.


Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis




The Bismarck Tribune May 20, 1881

The Bismarck Tribune May 27, 1881

The Bismarck Tribune June 3, 1881


This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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