Discovering a steamboat relic of Missouri River trade

Public Affairs Specialist
Published April 4, 2013
Some of the excavated timbers still showed the pigment from painted portions of the steamboat.

Some of the excavated timbers still showed the pigment from painted portions of the steamboat.

As excavation exposed materials from the sunken ship, timbers showing joining techniques helped archaeologists identify that
they had found a steamboat.

As excavation exposed materials from the sunken ship, timbers showing joining techniques helped archaeologists identify that they had found a steamboat.

Luke Wallace inspects ship timbers after the contractor reported an inadvertent discovery on a recent project.

Luke Wallace inspects ship timbers after the contractor reported an inadvertent discovery on a recent project.

When you think of shipwrecks, it might be pirates, the ocean, sunken treasure and the stuff of movie–style wonder. But the Mighty Mo’ tells a tale with hundreds of shipwrecks of all sizes along its length.

Through its history, the Missouri River has offered an interior access way to the upper Midwest. Native Americans built canoes and dugout boats from trees. Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark traveled from St. Louis, Mo., to Washington State and back along the Missouri River launching their journey in May 1804 with a 55-foot long keelboat and two 40-foot pirogues.

For the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, knowledge of these shipwrecks as well as the presence of other items of cultural or historic significance means something else. “We don’t come across them often, but we do come across them,” said Sandra Barnum, an archaeologist with the Omaha District.

For the Corps, there are several responsibilities: regulatory permitting for construction in areas where a discovery may occur, the need to mitigate a construction project to address a discovery and the need to protect and respect the significance of a discovery among others.

It is for this reason that the Corps does not release the locations or details of discoveries when they are made. Federal Laws including the Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act prohibit vandalism, looting, digging, collecting or selling artifacts from Federal property.

Recently Barnum and Matt McCullor, also a District archaeologist, were dispatched to a Corps project that encountered an inadvertent discovery.

“We know there are all kinds of items out there,” said McCullor, “It’s part of the regulatory permitting process stipulating project work will stop for reporting inadvertent discoveries to the proper authorities.”

In this case, it appears the inadvertent discovery might very well be a shipwrecked steamboat.

A contractor was excavating during a weekend and began to bring up varying material that was different than anything they had encountered previously on the project site.

Melissa Letak, the project engineer, said the contractor responded perfectly to the situation. They immediately stopped work and notified the Fort Crook Resident Office of the potentially historic find. The following Monday, her team went to examine the uncovered debris and, in turn, notified the Omaha District archaeologists to evaluate what the debris may have come from.”

“It was exciting to get the call,” said McCullor, “Sandy (Barnum) was on another project and I got the call.”

Letak says it isn’t often artifacts are uncovered during the construction of a Corps project.
“It was great to see the enthusiasm that the contractor had to preserve this potential historic find. The superintendent even did a little research by getting a book about historic ships,” said Letak.

The Corps goal is always to protect, preserve and respect these discoveries. In the case of this discovery the project encountered loose boards, boards showing joinery, large square nails and what turned out to be the skeletal remains of a deer.

“Our first priority is always the discovery of skeletal remains,” said McCullor, “When the contractor calls us, they also call the local sheriff to determine whether the remains are human and whether they are modern remains.”

The Omaha District has a very robust Cultural Resources program with 53 Federally-recognized Tribal Nations of which 29 are along the Missouri River system. When human remains are determined to be Native American remains, the Corps works with the Tribes in an effort to ensure the discovery is treated with respect and according Tribal custom.

Once the skeletal remains were identified as from a deer, the focus turned to the lumber and nails. The Corps works with the State Historic Preservation Officer and the State Archaeologist to identify the discovery and then whether a discovery has historic significance and needs to be registered with the National Register of Historic Places.

By examining the material the contractor encountered and comparing it with other vessels such as a barge or ferry, the archaeologists determined that what was found was most likely an approximately 120-foot long, 30-foot wide steamboat. Comparing known information about Missouri River shipwrecks and their approximate locations, McCullor figures the steamboat sank possibly between 1840 and 1870.

After identifying the discovery, the SHPO and the Corps’ recommended action was to avoid further damage to the ship and leave it in place.

In this situation, the Corps was able to relocate the project with minimal impacts to the project itself. The steamboat’s location was documented and registered with the SHPO and the steamboat was covered back under the earth.

“The contractor was very responsive during the entire situation and cooperative in rerouting the project to avoid the shipwreck,” said Letak.

“As an archaeologist, there is that desire to cordon off a location and perform an archaeological excavation to get to really see what you’ve found,” said McCullor, “but in this case, and as often is the case, what is best for what was found is to leave it where it is. It will be better if left in its location for future archaeologists with more advanced recovery and testing techniques.”

Record low water levels along the Mississippi River have exposed some of its shipwrecks and brought attention to the Missouri River’s history as well. But, many of the Missouri River’s shipwrecks are no longer in the river – at least today’s Missouri River. As the Missouri River rose and fell, it meandered in different locations sometimes more than a mile from today’s river channel.

From the mid-1800s, steamboats, ferries and barges were busily carrying commerce, products and people along the river. But the Missouri River we know today was very different back then; the river’s waters were shallow with many bends, currents and sandbars. Boats were specially designed to travel the Missouri with flatter bottoms and powerful engines to fight the current.

Often, the river and its snags (trees, sandbars, ice jams, shipwrecks, etc.) won the battle between river and boat. The typically shallow river rose during the spring thaw and in early summer with final snowmelt runoff and upper basin rainfall. An early spring could send ice chunks downstream damaging boats that were tied up for winter.

An 1897 Report of the Chief of Engineers included a report of the Missouri River Commission, which included a list of steamboat wrecks on the Missouri River from the opening of steamboat navigation up to 1897. Developing the list was cumbersome and included collecting information from newspaper reports, merchant’s exchange reports, mail surveys of river pilots and other documents from city libraries. The list totaled nearly 300 wrecks and about 275 boats lost to the Mighty Mo’.

Knowing the shipwreck locations, however, is another story. In addition to the river’s ever changing course, a shipwreck reported in St. Louis may be recorded as south of Yankton by one boat captain and north of Omaha by another. Some ships were raised and repaired, some broke apart and washed away, some destroyed by fire or were salvaged for parts and others were left to be buried by the muddy river’s sediment deposits, covered by time and the river’s changing course.

Many ships were engaged in Missouri River trade carrying supplies for rail construction, groceries, whiskey, furs, tobacco, rope, wood, corn, wheat, etc.

With the recent low water, there is always the chance a vessel could be exposed on a sandbar or a riverbank.

“We understand the temptation to explore is there. But, it is important for the public to remember that Federal lands are protected and removing items from federal lands is a punishable offense. Our goal is to protect these items, preserve them for future generations and respect the cultures that brought them here in the first place,” said Cultural Resources Program Chief, Julie Price.

For those interested in the history of the Missouri River trade, there are a few museums like the Steamboat Arabia in Kansas City, Mo.; the Steamboat Bertrand collection in DeSoto, Iowa, which is currently closed after the visitor center complex was severely damaged during the 2011 flood; the Sioux Ferry Boat, which ran from 1952 to 1962 in Washburn, N.D.; and the Steamboat Twilight in Odessa, Mo., to name a few.

Additionally, the Corps has visitor centers at Gavins Point Dam, Fort Randall Dam, Oahe Dam and Fort Peck Dam where the public can visit, for free, collections that tell the story about the regions where the dams are located.

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