EDITED BY John Ely Briggs
Copyright 1925 by the State Historical Society of Iowa
(Transcribed by Debbie Clough Gerischer)
A Voyage of the
The navigation of the Missouri River played no small part in the
building of Iowa towns, especially Council Bluffs and Sioux City. Even before
western Iowa was settled, the fur trade was responsible for considerable river
traffic. The name of the American Fur Company was prominent in most of the
early Missouri River expeditions, but as the frontier of the fur traders was
superseded by homesteads the steamboat trade came to cater more and more to the
transportation of settlers and the supplies of civilization.
The decade from 1850 to 1860 witnessed the rapid settling of
western States, the reopening of the slavery dispute by the Kansas-Nebraska Act,
the intensified California and Oregon immigration, and the Pike's Peak episode -
all of which contributed thousands of travelers to the western trails. Large
numbers of people affected by these events came to St. Louis or Jefferson City
by rail and there took the steamboat packets to some convenient cross-country
starting point on the Missouri River. On this account enterprising little river
villages grew into important marts of commerce. Of the Iowa towns, Council
Bluffs was the first to command a large share of the river traffic, but after
1856 Sioux City began to demand better and more constant steamboat service, so
that by 1859 there were at least a half dozen regular packets working the Sioux
City trade. The most famous and most faithful of the Sioux City boats during
the fifties was the steamer Omaha.
Missouri River steamboats of the Omaha type were the pride of
the western waters. Although they were not as large as the Mississippi River
steamers they were fully as well equipped and were mechanically as perfect. The
splendid passenger steamers during the golden age of Missouri River steam
boating were properly described as "floating places". They cost as much as
thirty thousand dollars. Some of them were equipped with as many as forty-six
staterooms, all comfortably appointed and finished in fine style. The cabins
were furnished with Brussels carpets. Convenient mirrors provided the young
swains of the day with ample opportunity to take full stock of their personal
appearance. Each steamboat of the better passenger type had a nursery for the
use of small children. In ornamentation some of the boats were unique, even
rivaling the famous Western Engineer. Gilding seems to have been the most
prominent characteristic in the art of the steamboat decoration and the curious
pride of many a workman was exhibited in the construction of the Missouri River
steamers. A boat that did not meet the standards of the times could not hope
for a large share of the commerce of that river.
Almost as much attention was paid to the entertainment of
passengers as to their physical comfort. Many of the steamboats were equipped
with a piano and some boasted a string orchestra. The decks were thronged every
evening, while the young people danced the Virginia reel, the polka, and perhaps
the daring waltz. The convivial bartender no doubt contributed his share to the
gaiety of social life on board. In the cabins, Pike's Peakers and hardy
frontiersmen made and lost fortunes at poker.
The Omaha, like the other Missouri River packets, prospered from
the Pike's Peak migration. A large part of the up-bound freight consisted of
the prospective gold miners' equipment. Mr. Wilcox, the clerk of the Omaha,
recommended the following outfit: "100 lbs. of flour, 2 bbls. of whiskey, 50
lbs. bacon, 49 gallons of whiskey, 100 lbs. of venison, 18 demi-johns of
whiskey, 2 boxes herring, 1 bbl. whiskey, 1 bbl. crackers, 55 gallons whiskey, 3
bbl. pickles, 3/8 bbl. whiskey, 12 quart mugs." He further explained, in the
light of experience by "one who has been thar", that a little more whisky might
be required but that the other articles should hold out.
Officers and crew on the Missouri packets exerted every effort
to attract patronage. No abler and probably no more popular steamboatman
navigated the river than Captain Andrew Wineland who commanded the Omaha. He
enjoyed the reputation of being one of the squarest and most courageous men who
ever measured wits with the fickle Missouri.
One beautiful spring day in March, 1859, the gangway of the
Omaha presented an animated scene quite in accord with the general hurly-burly
all along the wharf at St. Louis. Deck hands were hustling to and fro with
freight, passengers were finding their quarters on board, and Pike's Peakers
were making frantic last-minute preparations for their journey to the golden El
It was the heyday of river traffic and the steam marine of the
St. Louis wharf presented a solid mass of boats extending for more than a mile
along the river front. Huge piles of freight cluttered the wharf. Each
steamboat was the center of whirlpool of activity.
For days in advance the officers of the Omaha had advertised
sample accommodations on their first trip of the season to the village of Sioux
City far up the Missouri. At last, after much bustle and confusion and several
postponements, everything was declared ready and on the evening of March 24th
Captain Wineland rang the bell as a signal to cast off. After the first day of
their thousand-mile voyage up the turbid Missouri the weather changed from cool
to chilly, from chilly to raw, from raw to cold, and the eighth day ended in an
old fashioned northeast snow-storm. By that time the Omaha had reached
Brownsville. The snow that fell every day thereafter for more than a week added
greatly to the normal difficulties of wooding, avoiding snags, and skirting
After a stormy voyage of eighteen days the Omaha wharfed at
Council Bluffs where sleighs were in waiting to carry the passengers to town.
The river was out of its banks at this point and the Platte a few miles below
was shooting out large chunks of ice which spread all over the Missouri River
bottom. With the painstaking care and wizardry of a Missouri River pilot
Captain Wineland had directed his gallant craft through the floating ice.
Uncanny skill was required to steer the boat up the Missouri under the most
favorable conditions, beset as it was by innumerable snags and constantly
shifting sandbars. It is said that "Uncle Davy", one of the most noted of
Missouri River pilots, not only remembered the exact location of sandbars on
former trips but had the gift of knowing where they would next be formed.
After a cordial reception at Council Bluffs, where the usual
quota of passengers disembarked, the Omaha pursued her course up the sinuous
Missouri. It was remarkable that after passing the mouth of the Platte no more
ice was encountered on the trip to Sioux City although the weather was extremely
cold. On the seventeenth of April the packet arrived at Blackbird Hills in the
Omaha Indian Reserve where a large delegation of the tribe visited the steamer.
They were anxiously looking for their agent and were not a little incensed to
learn that he was not on board.
To conciliate the savages Captain Wineland presented them with a
large barrel of hard biscuit scraps which was borne ashore in triumph by two
stalwart braves named White Cow and Lone Buffalo. The feast was distributed in
a unique manner. Very dexterously and with the utmost nonchalance, White Cow
picked up an old iron skillet with an amputated handle, filled it with biscuit
scraps, and emptied them into his capacious blanket. This process was repeated
by the other Indians and they permitted the boat to depart, well satisfied with
Then ensued days of battling with the ever increasing force of
the current in the upper reaches of the river. After passing Omaha, fire-wood
became scarcer and of poorer quality so that much time was spent with the Omaha
tied up to the bank while the crew cut wood. There was a current joke among
river men which illustrates the immense amount of wood required for fuel by
these packets. A steamer was once pulling against a strong current when the
fuel gave out. Instead of tying up to the bank, there being nothing to tie to.
the captain kept the engine going. When over a hundred cords of wood had been
loaded they turned to proceed up stream, only to find that the whole amount had
been consumed in holding the boat to the bank.
About noon on Friday, May 8th, the forty-fifth day out, the
Omaha hove in sight of the straggling village of Sioux City. Long before she
reached the levee the whole population - merchants, townsmen, women, children,
Indians, and dogs - gathered at the river to answer the Omaha's guns with a
similar salute. No wonder. This was the first time their eyes had been
gladdened by the sight of a steamboat for seven months. The Omaha had been the
last boat down in the previous season, having left Sioux City on October 11,
1858. During the winter there had been no opportunity to replenish the stock of
goods in the local stores. All spring the merchants had advertised that fresh
supplies would be on board the first steamboat to arrive, and here at last was
the Omaha, the faithful Sioux City packet, laden with groceries, farm
implements, and, most important of all, mining tools.
The crew of the Omaha had a reputation for being very
businesslike. Remembering that "time is money" all hands set to work with a
will and in less than five hours over one hundred tons of freight had been
unloaded, fifty tons of potatoes and corn taken on board, twenty-two passengers
accommodated, of whom fifteen were ladies, all accounts had been settled, and
the Omaha had turned her prow southward for the long journey to St. Louis.
This voyage of the Omaha is especially significant on account of
the fact that the corn and potatoes taken on board were the first to be shipped
down the river from Sioux City. In previous years the Omaha had carried these
products to Sioux City. The event was indicative of the rapid development of
the Missouri Valley, particularly in northwest Iowa. J. Jewett Wilcox, the
clerk of the Omaha, reported that no better corn or potatoes were grown in the
whole Missouri Valley than in Woodbury County and in the rich valleys of the Big
Sioux and Floyd rivers. On the return trip Captain Wineland took on board also
a considerable quantity of earthenware manufactured at Dakota, a few miles south
of Sioux City on the Nebraska side of the river. This was another article which
had hitherto been transported in large quantities from St. Louis to the
settlements up the river.
Running down stream was much easier, and by Sunday, May 10th,
Omaha and Council Bluffs had been passed and the steamer tied up for the night
at Bellevue, Nebraska. A number of passengers intended to transfer to the
Hannibal and St. Joseph Railway at St. Joseph, but due to the unsavory
reputation of that railroad at the time, they decided to complete the trip to
St. Louis on the steamboat.
Just below Council Bluffs the Omaha met her first up-bound
rival, and from there to St. Louis many others were encountered. The Robert
Campbell passed on the twelfth of May at White Cloud where the Omaha wooded at
the rate of "one dollar for cord". On May 13th she met a whole fleet of boats,
each jammed with eager Pike's Peakers and heavily freighted with their outfits.
After an absence of fifty-two days, the Omaha dropped anchor at
the St. Louis wharf on Friday, May 15th, having negotiated with safety a trip of
over twenty-one hundred miles on the most irresponsible river in the world.
Thus the Omaha, and others of her kind, served in the settlement of the
Missouri Valley and the development of the young towns in western Iowa before
the railroads came to ruin the river traffic.
EDGAR A. HOLT