Making the Frontier Home: Stories from the Steamboat Bertrand

A Snag in the River

Along the Missouri River, mountain boats, hardy steamboats created to endure northward travel, transported people, goods, and ideas into the untamed West, connecting the frontier both tangibly and intangibly to the rest of the nation. Mountain boats provided an invaluable source of trade and transportation for Western settlers. Throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, these boats serviced forts, settlements, and mining camps (learn more about their journeys here). While over 80 steamboats made the arduous journey between St. Louis, Missouri and Fort Benton, Montana, many never reached their destination and instead sank along the Upper Missouri. One such steamboat was the Bertrandwhich sank after hitting a snag on its maiden voyage near DeSoto Landing, less than a month after its departure in March of 1865.

"Things were going along fine for some time when all of a sudden we felt a jar, and found out that the boat had struck a snag and punched a hole in the bottom. Soon the boat began to sink. There was great excitement and confusion, I climbed to the top deck right away, but the river was so shallow that the boat struck bottom before much of it was under water. When it hit it rolled part way over in its side and almost threw me overboard. We were all taken off the boat without a mishap and taken to a small town to await another boat.”  Account of the Bertrand Sinking, John Edward Walton 

The Bertrand  was one of several steamboats in the "Mountain Fleet" of the Montana and Idaho Transportation Line (see Corbin 2000). While it was not uncommon for steamboats to wreck along the shallow Missouri, the Bertrand remains a unique specimen in that it was located and fully excavated in 1968-1969. Its contents, now housed at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, provide an invaluable glimpse into life on the American frontier. 

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