Making the Frontier Home: Stories from the Steamboat Bertrand

Mountain Boats on the Missouri

St. Louis, Missouri, a center of industry and fur trade, was the starting point for most mountain boats heading into the Nebraska, Dakota, and Montana Territories. The American Fur Company, under the direction of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. in St. Louis, worked with contractors in the 1830s to develop steamboats light enough to navigate the Upper Missouri River. Their eventual success opened the West to efficient water travel. In 1865, the Montana and Idaho Transportation Line was formed, becoming the largest company sending steamboats out from St. Louis. Improvements in boat design and competition between transportation companies reduced freighting costs from $0.10-$0.18 per pound to the low price of $0.06-$0.08 per pound offered in 1865 (see Switzer 2013). The drop in shipping costs allowed consignors to send a larger diversity of goods to consignees in frontier towns. Most of these buyers stocked stores in well-established mining towns that serviced satellite camps. The consignees of the Bertrand included Vivian & Simpson, G.P. Dorriss, and M. Kingman & Co. of Virginia City, Montana, Stuart & Co. of Deer Lodge, J. Murphy of Fort Benton, Worden & Co. of Hell Gate, and J.J. Roe & Co. However, shipping goods on the Missouri was risky, as evidenced by the fate of the Bertrand and several others like it. Most investors elected to insure their boat and cargo as a result. Steamboats also faced the threat of attack and possibility of impassable waters. Remote towns on the frontier, however, depended on these shipments of goods, especially for food. 

In addition to commercial goods, steamboats carried passengers and their personal belongings out West. Travelling via water, as opposed to land, reduced travel time and fares. Ticket prices could be further reduced if the emigrant selected second-class deck passage, opting out of a cabin and meals, which could be as low as 30% of a first class ticket (see Corbin 2000). The affordability of steamboat travel made it an appealing and accessible option for a diversity of individuals. Single and married men made the journey in the hope of increasing their prosperity, married women with children traveled to reunite with their husbands, and occasionally single women ventured West with independent aspirations. Among the many male Bertrand passengers were at least three women with children and two single sisters, journeying westward to join family members. Steamboats also carried ideas and cultural trends up the Missouri, most notably the Victorian values prevalent during the latter half of the nineteenth century. These abstract concepts can be traced in the material artifacts mass-produced by industrial centers for consumers across the nation. Assorted domestic artifacts from the Steamboat Bertrand provide a case study for examining the transition and recreation of the quintessential nineteenth-century home on the mining frontier.

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