Woodcutters and Floods: Steamboats, Deforestation, and the Missouri River

In 1819, the U.S. Army’s Western Engineer became the first steamboat to navigate the shallow, shifting Missouri. During its voyage, the vessel encountered a number of obstacles that delayed its upstream passage, including sunken trees, sandbars, and mud (which found its way into the boiler).

Although steamboat navigation had an inauspicious beginning on the Mighty Mo, the following decade saw the beginning of regular steamboat service between St. Louis and the area that would later be known as Kansas City.

In 1831, the first steamboat traveled to the Upper Missouri (the river reach north and west of the Platte River confluence). In the 1840s, steamboats replaced keelboats along the entire length of the river. By the 1850s, dozens of steamers worked the Missouri between St. Louis and the head of navigation at Fort Benton, in modern-day Montana. The 1850s witnessed the peak of Missouri river steamboat traffic.

In 1858, fifty-nine boats navigated the Missouri south of the Platte confluence. Another twenty-three boats worked the river northwest of Sioux City, Iowa. Each of these steamers made multiple trips over the course of the eight-month long navigation season, which lasted from March thru November. Some vessels traveled repeatedly between St. Louis and upriver ports; others made shorter trips between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Omaha, Nebraska Territory, or between Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Sioux City. In 1859, Omaha recorded 174 steamboat arrivals. Many of these arrivals were repeat visits by the same steamboat.

Steamboats had a profound effect on the Missouri Valley environment. For instance, the thundering sounds of the steam engine and the loud crashing of the paddle wheel as it struck the water frightened mammals and birds. Prince Maximilian of Wied, on board the steamer Yellow Stone in 1833, noted, “The noise and smoke of our steamer frightened all living creatures; geese and ducks flew off in all directions…there were many elks, which were frightened by the noise of the steamer.” In seeking safety from the loud vessels, creatures fled the forested valley for the treeless uplands. Once there, bison, elk, and white-tailed deer suffered higher mortality rates from both predators and the region’s extreme weather.

To add to the woes of the valley’s fauna, heavily-armed steamboat passengers frequently shot any mammal within rifle range of the ship’s decks. Mary E. Cook on the steamer Henry Atkins in 1868 wrote, “Great excitement on board caused by seeing an antelope in the river; every man rushed for his gun and over sixty shots were fired at the poor creature….” John James Audubon saw a similar scene twenty-five years earlier on board the steamer Omega near the mouth of the Cannonball River. He observed, “…the moment they [five bison] began to swim [the Missouri] we were all about the boat with guns and rifles, awaiting the instant when they would be close under our bows. The moment came…and the firing was soon heavy….” Multiply the slaughter witnessed by Cook and Audubon by the thousands (to take into account the number of steamboat trips made on the river during the five decades of the steamboat era) and the scale of the wanton destruction of wildlife reaches frightening proportions.

Most significantly, the steamboats consumed huge quantities of bottomland timber. Crews procured all of the fuel for the boats by either felling standing timber or by collecting driftwood and deadfall. Each boat burned an average of twenty-five cords of wood per day. One cord is equal to a stack of wood four-feet wide, four-feet high, and eight-feet long. Since time in port meant a loss of potential income, the boats ran almost daily during the navigation season. As a result, a single steamer could consume thousands of cords in a year. During the three-month long, round-trip between Omaha and the Yellowstone confluence, a steamer could burn upwards of 2,250 cords of wood. As early as 1843, John James Audubon noted the paucity of kindling in the Missouri Valley. After passing the mouth of the Platte, he jotted down in his journal, “The timber is becoming more scarce as we proceed, and I greatly fear that our only opportunities of securing wood will be those afforded us by that drifted on the bars.”

The depletion of the valley timber resource worsened in the late 1840s and 1850s – as more steamers plied the Missouri. In 1850, Thaddeaus Culbertson beheld the near total absence of timber in what is now central South Dakota. He stated, “There is nothing that would be called a forest, except at some places along the Missouri. To-day we have seen very little timber; most of the banks are destitute of it entirely, except the willow; occasionally a point is seen well timbered with young cotton wood. I have been told that they go from Fort Pierre, one hundred miles above, to get timber for their boats and other purposes.”

In the 1860s, the Teton Lakota attempted to protect their forests from the Americans and their boats. The Indians needed the valley’s timber for heating fires, cooking fuel, lodge poles, and for the habitat it provided to bison, elk, and deer during inclement weather. Healthy stands of timber and the viability of nomadism went hand-in-hand. To conserve the forests, the Lakota launched the Woodcutter’s War. This war raged on and off from 1866 to 1876, but it never became a large-scale conflict. Instead, it consisted of a series of hit and run attacks on the roustabouts and woodcutters trespassing on Lakota territory. Mary E. Cook saw the war firsthand. Near the mouth of the Musselshell River in today’s Montana, she recounted, “Stopped at a deserted wood-yard and took on wood; one man killed here…stopped at Grand Island to get wood, also the two men who owned it got aboard, as it was dangerous for them to remain ther [sic].” But the Lakota failed to halt the destruction of their forest resources. Stands of cottonwood continued to succumb to the axe throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s.

Deforestation hastened the demise of the great bison and elk herds. The animals lost the sheltered woodlands so vital to their survival during the frigid, wind-blasted winter months. Deforestation also contributed to the end of nomadism across the Upper Missouri country. However, the biggest consequence of deforestation involved the Missouri River itself. As the trees disappeared from the valley floor, the Missouri became more flood-prone.

Bottomland trees stored water in their leaves, branches, trunks, and roots. Riverside forests acted as small reservoirs – holding water back from the big river. Stands of timber also served as buffer strips, slowing or stopping surface runoff from entering the Missouri. Trees even stabilized the Missouri’s banks, deflecting the river’s currents and reducing the Missouri’s erosive power. Without trees armoring its banks, the Missouri more readily cut new channels through the valley’s alluvial soils.

In the 1850s, just as steamboat traffic on the river reached its peak, the Missouri became very unstable. In the flood year of 1857, the high-flowing river darted across the bottomlands in new directions. In the process, it cut-off its long bends. Many of the resulting oxbow lakes formed in 1857 still exist today, including Brown’s Lake (west of Salix, Iowa) and McCook Lake (near North Sioux City, South Dakota).

As the valley’s forests vanished into the furnaces of the steamboats, floods came barreling down the Missouri more often and at higher levels. It is not coincidental that the most voluminous Missouri River floods in the nineteenth century took place during the steamboat era. Major floods descended the Missouri Valley in 1844, 1857, 1858, 1867, 1872, 1874, 1875, 1878, and 1881. The 1881 flood carried the largest runoff amount on record – until 2011. It came at the tail end of the steamboat era. It sank towns and farms from the Montana-Dakota border through the state of Missouri. Communities in southeast Dakota Territory and northeast Nebraska suffered the worst damage. Cold, slushy water rose to the rooftops at Niobrara, Nebraska. The Missouri swept away the small town of Green Island, Nebraska, located directly across the river from Yankton, Dakota Territory. And the powerful river delivered a knockout punch to Old Vermillion. High, fast water, in combination with ice flows, destroyed 132 of the town’s buildings. Following the flood, Vermillion residents wisely chose to move their community to the bluffs to the north.

In the middle nineteenth century, human action altered the Missouri’s hydraulic regime. Weather phenomena played a role in all of the floods. But human-induced deforestation pushed river levels higher than if the bottomland forests had remained intact.

Nineteenth-century Americans believed the steamboat represented progress and the technological sophistication of an industrializing nation. But along the Missouri, the steamboat’s presence fostered costly, deadly floods.

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