The “river that ate boats” swallowed nearly 300 in the 1800s

April 1, 1865

On this day the river said to “eat boats” claimed another victim.  The 161-foot sternwheeler “Bertrand”  hit a snag  at DeSoto Bend on the Missouri River and sank in just 10 minutes.

Bound for Montana Territory carrying something in the neighborhood of 251 tons, it and its cargo disappeared in 12 feet of water and remained there for more than a century. 

The owner of the “Bertrand” was thought to be the Montana and Idaho Transportation Line.  The company  counted  philanthropist John J. Roe, (right) a much admired St. Louis businessman, among its shareholders.  The loss was estimated at $100,000, an amount north of a million and a half today.  Luckily, money was all that was lost.  Nobody died in the mishap.

The ill-fated vessel had been launched a year earlier in Wheeling, Virginia.  It was part of a critical transportation network that supplied military outposts and frontier settlements as well as the gold fields.  And investors made huge profits.

Steamboats of various design plied the river, mid-19th century

There were less risky ways to make money, however.  Taking a full two months to reach Montana from Missouri, steamboat captains faced a threat from hostile native tribes and the more common danger of snags floating below the surface in the muddy, turbulent Missouri.

“Mandan Village,” on the upper Missouri by Karl Bodmer, 

Its popularity as a byway was nothing new.  The Missouri had been an important water route for hundreds of year and became increasingly important as the nation moved west.  America’s longest river, the three main forks merge near Bozeman, Montana, to begin a 2,500-mile descent to the Mississippi just north of St. Louis.  Translated from the Siouan languages, the name means “those with dugout canoes.”  

Lewis and Clark famously documented nearly every mile in 1804 on their way to Fort Mandan, North Dakota.  Spanish fur trader Manuel Lisa (right) traveled the river as early as 1808 and the U. S. Government commissioned the overly ambitious, ill-conceived Yellowstone/Missouri Expedition in 1819. 

It was a failure of monumental proportions.  Led by Colonel Henry Atkinson and Major Stephen Long, four steamboats and nine keel boats carried 1,100 “escort” soldiers, a scientific team and all their supplies.   Intended to discourage British intrusion, the flotilla was headed for the mouth of the Yellowstone River. 

One by one, however, the steamboats encountered difficulties.  Atkinson and company got no further than present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Calling it a day, they established Fort Atkinson on the spot that Lewis and Clark had parlayed with the Oto 15 years earlier.

Atkinson (right) did eventually make it up the Missouri to the Yellowstone River in 1825.   He successfully negotiated trade agreements with a number of Native American tribes.

Long (left) wasn’t sidelined either.  President James Monroe chose him to lead a scientific expedition along the  north bank of the Platte River to the Rockies.  That too, nearly ended in disaster.  Aiming for the southern Red River, the party got lost, encountered unfriendly tribes and nearly starved.

Not surprising, Long was unimpressed with the landscape.  His official report declared the entire area from Nebraska to Oklahoma basically “uninhabitable.”

Navigating the Missouri didn’t get any easier over the next half century.  While steamboat travel on the river became more common and extremely profitable, it did indeed seem to “eat boats.”  An estimated 289 steamboats sank on the Missouri in the mid-19th century alone.  To date, only two have ever been salvaged; the “Bertrand” in 1968 and what is believed to be bits and pieces of the 1820 “Missouri Packet” in 1989.

If dicey weather or opaque water didn’t get you, your fellow passengers might, claimed one traveler.  Gambling, drunkenness and petty thievery were common.   In some cases even the captains couldn’t be trusted.

The successful excavation of the “Bertrand” proved to be more of a revelation about Montana’s gold field than expected.  Virginia City was at the time of the “Bertrand” sinking, the richest place in the country evidenced by artifacts at DeSoto Bend.  The lost cargo included canned oysters, brandied cherries, French mustard, an astounding 5,000 barrels of whiskey, as well as practical mining supplies.

 Samples of the canned foods were tested in 1974 and while the color and nutritional value had eroded, they would have been safe to eat, according to the scientists. 

Some of the vast number of items recovered from the river

More than 200,000 items were excavated at the “Bertrand” site and are on display at the DeSoto Bend Wild Life Refuge near Missouri Valley, Iowa.

By the end of the Civil War, railroads had replaced the perilous river routes.  The steamboat era had lasted little more than a decade.  But it’s nostalgic hold on the American imagination has yet to be erased.

The Steamboat Bertrand Museum and Visitor Center at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Highway 30, Exit 75 at Missouri Valley, is twenty-five miles north of Omaha.  It includes a stunning collection of artifacts from the “Bertrand” and provides an unusual glimpse into life on the frontier in the 1860s.   In addition, DeSoto Bend offers a unique blend of natural and manmade history.  Situated on a flood plain of the Missouri, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service created the refuge in 1958 as a sanctuary stop-over for migratory water fowl.

Nature lovers can wonder several miles of trails stretching over more than 8,000 acres of wildlife habitat.  There is a $3 entrance fee per vehicle entering the grounds. The museum and grounds are open daily.  Visitor Center hours are 8:30 to 4:30 and the grounds are open dawn to dusk. For more information go to, e-mail DeSoto@fws.govRefuge, fax to (712) 388-4808 or call (712) 388-4800.

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.