Email this review


A sketchy but affectionate study of early steamboat traffic on the Missouri which focuses on one ship, the Yellow Stone. The publisher's suggestion that this spare volume might bear comparison with DeVoto's expansive Across the Wide Missouri does not hold up. Jackson occasionally daubs a lyrical passage of simple, homely beauty, but far too often his is an account flowing with facts only a historian--not a general reader--could love. The $7,000 Yellow Stone, built in 1831, was the first steamer constructed for John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company in its empire-building bid to sweep from St. Louis to the northernmost fur-trading post on the upper Missouri at Fort McKenzie, South Dakota. The journey was an immense distance, well over 2,000 miles of treacherously snagged water and sandbars never before broached by a steam vessel, the technological wonder of the age for conquering the wilderness and advancing the frontier. (Civilization had faltered to a standstill at Cantonment Leavenworth, some 450 miles west of St. Louis.) Astor's Western agent Pierre Chouteau, Jr. was set on buying out the ""opposition,"" his competitors large and small, swallowing them up lock, stock and barrel, and achieving an iron-fisted monopoly of the fur trade. His method: ""Follow the letter of the law only when another course would hurt business. Do not bother to open up new territory; move in on someone else's."" In a sense, the first voyage of the Yellow Stone was that of a pirate ship. It carried 97 men on that trip, including 22 as crew. Incredibly, the ship burned from 25 to 40 tons of wood daily, which required a midmorning and midafternoon stop for woodcutting or buying cords from cutters along the river. Firing the boilers was work so arduous it required six firemen working three shifts. The following year found an artist aboard, the painter George Catlin, set on capturing the Indians on canvas. He was shortly followed by Karl Bodmer and John James Audubon. Severe laws tried to limit the growth of the liquor industry and prohibit sales to the Indians, but the Yellow Stone nonetheless carried enormous quantities of spirits. Chouteau was indifferent to the liquor laws. . . The ship's last recorded voyage was in 1837, but its eventual fate has yet to be discovered. Mark Twain can rest easy.

Pub Date: Oct. 4th, 1985
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin