Dakota Datebook

Captain C. J. Atkins

Monday, November 5, 2012


In 1855, St. Charles, Missouri was the gateway to the Missouri River, and it held the promise of adventure to an eighteen year old coming west from Vermont. Born on this date in 1837, Carroll Jones Atkins left a thirty-dollar-a-year job as a farm laborer and headed out to seek his fortune. After working a few menial jobs, Atkins learned the trade of a pilot on the St. Charles Ferry line, but his attention was soon focused on the steamboats that plied the Mighty Missouri from St. Charles to Fort Benton in Montana Territory.


In May of 1863, Atkins left St. Charles aboard a steamboat, the Robert Campbell Jr., and began the dangerous ascent of the fickle Missouri. Rocks, snags, sandbars and variable water levels were not the only dangers the river men faced. In 1863, the Civil War was raging and bushwhackers preyed upon the steamboats for their cargos. Still another danger was hostile Indians, indignant at the intrusion of these strangers into their lands. River pilots, exposed on the decks of the steamboats were ready targets.


As steamboats wound their way up the two thousand, six hundred river miles past such places as Fort Berthold and Fort Union, life on board was rigorous. Often the yawl, a small boat, was set upon the water to locate the channel and measure the depth, a task known as sounding. The crews would constantly forage for wood to fuel the steamboats’ boilers. Wood yards sprang up along the lower section of the river, but men brave enough to set up a wood yard in what is now North Dakota, seldom lasted a season, being run off or killed by hostile bands of Sioux.


Atkins married in 1865 and spent his honeymoon aboard a steamboat named the Benton. His last trip up the Missouri was made in 1868. He continued to work as a ferry pilot for the railroad in the St. Louis area. In 1884 he returned to Dakota Territory, this time to homestead near the town of Cando and he resumed the quiet life of a farmer. Here he raised his thirteen children.


Although he made only five voyages up the river, Atkins’ logs of these journeys paint a detailed picture of a long forgotten era in North Dakota’s history.


Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis



Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Volume II, 1908

History of North Dakota by W. B. Hennessy, 1900

Conquest of the Missouri by Joseph Mills Hanson 1909


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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