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    -0.008
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    0.000
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  • NTID.USA
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    -0.090
    -3%
  • NTIDL.USA
    2.010
    -0.090
    -4.3%
  • OTRI.USA
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    -0.220
    -3%
  • OTVI.USA
    11,406.010
    -45.940
    -0.4%
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FreightWaves Classics: The Yellowstone achieved ‘firsts’ in peace and war

In the era before railroads opened up the West (defined loosely as the area west of St. Louis), horses, stagecoaches and wagons were the primary means of travel – unless you were lucky enough to be able to travel on one of the nation’s navigable rivers. 

The side-wheeler steamboat Yellowstone (also known as the Yellow Stone in some citations) departed St. Louis, Missouri, on her maiden voyage in 1831. The vessel described by the St. Louis Register as a “new and handsome steam boat,” was built in Louisville, Kentucky. The Yellowstone was placed in service along the Missouri River between St. Louis and trading camps and posts further to the north.  

George Catlin's depiction of the Yellowstone at St. Louis just prior to its maiden voyage to the mouth of the Yellowstone River in 1832. (Image: history.brazoriaresearch.com)
George Catlin’s depiction of the Yellowstone at St. Louis just prior to its maiden voyage to the mouth of the Yellowstone River in 1832. (Image: history.brazoriaresearch.com)

John Jacob Astor and the American Fur Company

The owner of the Yellowstone was the American Fur Company, which had been founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808. It became one of the largest businesses in the nation. Astor started the American Fur Company to compete against the two great fur-trading companies in Canada – the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company.

John Jacob Astor. (Painted by John Wesley Jarvis in 1825)
John Jacob Astor. (Painted by John Wesley Jarvis in 1825)

Initially, Astor began a fur-trapping and trading operation in the Columbia River Valley of Oregon; that company was a subsidiary called the Pacific Fur Company. He began a similar effort in the Great Lakes region under another subsidiary, the South West Company. However, both companies failed during the War of 1812. But Congress passed an act in 1817 that excluded foreign traders from U.S. territory, making the American Fur Company the biggest company of its kind in the Great Lakes region.

Astor partnered with the Chouteau family of St. Louis in 1821, which gave the American Fur Company a monopoly in the Missouri River region (and later in the Rocky Mountains). 

The American Fur Company was adept at buying out smaller competitors or putting them out of business through stiff competition. Therefore, by 1830 it had a virtual monopoly in the entire American fur trade by 1830. However, Astor withdrew from the business in 1834.

In an effort to save money, several of the company’s trading posts were closed, which led to increased competition. More importantly, though, the demand for furs began to decline significantly. Although the company’s managers sought to increase revenue by diversifying into other industries (such as lead mining), the American Fur Company ceased operations in 1842. The company’s remaining assets were divided into several smaller organizations, most of which failed by the 1850s.

The steamer Yellowstone on April 19, 1833. (Aquatint by Karl Bodmer from the book Maximilian, Prince of Wied's Travels in the Interior of North America.)
The steamer Yellowstone on April 19, 1833. (Aquatint by Karl Bodmer from the book Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America.)

The Yellowstone’s first voyage

On the Yellowstone’s first trip, Benjamin Young was the ship’s captain and Charles La Barge was the pilot. Pierre Chouteau, Jr., whose family enterprise had joined forces with the American Fur Company, was then the company’s western agent, and he traveled on the Yellowstone as well. Others on board included nearly 100 French employees of the company and a crew of approximately 25 men. The goods being transported to trade for furs included blankets, fabrics, mirrors, knives, combs, beads, axes, gunpowder, tobacco, and liquor. 

On her maiden voyage, the Yellowstone made history. The Yellowstone was the “first powered vessel to travel beyond Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the Missouri River – about 660 miles north of St. Louis.” 

The steamboat continued to sail northward on the Missouri, and reached Fort Tecumseh, a company outpost on June 19, 1831. It was located near what is now South Dakota’s capital city of Pierre. Low water kept the Yellowstone from moving any further north on the river; the steamboat returned to St. Louis on July 5, fully loaded with furs.

In 1832 the Yellowstone sailed further north on the Missouri River, reaching the mouth of the river for which she was named. This trip was sketched by George Catlin, an artist whose focus was Native Americans. These Yellowstone’s first voyages stirred interest among the Native Americans along the steamboat’s route, as well as among businessmen and shippers in the United States and Europe. 

During 1832 and 1833 the Yellowstone made several trips up and down the Missouri. A journey to Fort Pierre in 1833 was “detailed by Prince Maximilian von Wied, a German naturalist, and painted by Karl Bodmer, a Swiss artist, who were passengers” on the vessel. During the winter, the American Fur Company made use of the Yellowstone on the lower Mississippi, making trips between New Orleans and the Yazoo River. 

A role in the Texas revolution

The steamboat Yellowstone was already well known in the West when it came to Texas. As it turned out, it played a major role in the Texas Revolution. The Yellowstone had been designed and built to navigate the shallow waters and snags of the Missouri River. These characteristics were also similar to those found on the Brazos River in Texas, where the boat was used in the cotton trade. 

By 1835 the Yellowstone was owned by Thomas Toby and registered in New Orleans. Toby  had the Yellowstone repaired and retrofitted in New Orleans for the Texas cotton trade. In November 1835 the boat arrived in Brazoria from New Orleans; it then ran loads of cotton between San Felipe and Washington-on-the-Brazos. 

It was manned by a crew from the United States and flew the U.S. flag. On December 31, 1835, however, it cleared port with a cargo that was largely composed of ammunition and its passengers were primarily volunteers for the Texas army, including 47 men of the Mobile Grays. The ship arrived at Quintana, which was located at the mouth of the Brazos, early in January 1836. On the Brazos River it was operated by the merchant firm of Thomas F. McKinney and Samuel M. Williams. In February 1836 the Yellowstone traveled up the Brazos River as far as San Felipe de Austin; it was commanded by Capt. John E. Ross.

An advertisement for the Yellowstone that appeared in the Telegraph and Texas Register on December 22, 1836 (Image: Public Domain/wikimedia)
An advertisement for the Yellowstone that appeared in the Telegraph and Texas Register on December 22, 1836 (Image: Public Domain/wikimedia)

The Yellowstone was loading cotton above San Felipe when the army led by General Sam Houston arrived on March 31, 1836. It was raining heavily; Houston and his men set up their camp on the west side of the Brazos. It had been 25 days since the Alamo had fallen.

At dawn on March 6, 1836, which was the 13th day of the siege of the Alamo, the final battle of the Alamo began. Fighting lasted roughly 90 minutes, and by daybreak all the defenders had died. The loss of the men at the Alamo was felt deeply across Texas, and around the United States.  

Houston and his army were pursuing General Santa Ana and his troops. Houston pressed the Yellowstone into service to ferry his army across the river, which was flooding due to the heavy rains. He, Captain Ross and his crew of 16 made an agreement; Houston pledged land in the Republic of Texas in exchange for their services and promised indemnity to the boat’s owners for wages and any damages. 

Captain Ross later presented a bill for $4,900 to the Texas government, which covered the boat’s time and transportation services. The Yellowstone was recognized as an “unarmed neutral ship of the United States, and the crew was not required to bear arms.” 

Work on behalf of the government of the Republic of Texas

On April 12, 1836, Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, along with 750 men and a six-pound cannon, began crossing the Brazos downriver from Houston’s forces. On the same day the Yellowstone made the first of seven trips transporting the Texas army across the river. After Houston released the Yellowstone from service, the boat, its crew and passengers (protected to a degree by bales of cotton), set off down the swollen Brazos and passed the burned ruins of San Felipe at 10 p.m. on April 15. 

Gen. Joaquín Ramirez y Sesma and his division, who had been forewarned about the Yellowstone’s journey down the Brazos, shot at the boat with muskets and another six-pound cannon. The boat was only slightly damaged, however. 

Sam Houston in The Battle of San Jacinto by the artist Henry Arthur McArdle.
Sam Houston in The Battle of San Jacinto by the artist Henry Arthur McArdle.

On April 26, the Yellowstone was at Galveston Island. It was commandeered by David G. Burnet, the president of the Texas Republic, to house the new nation’s cabinet. On May 4 Burnet ordered the Yellowstone to journey to Buffalo Bayou, where the cabinet was to begin treaty negotiations with the defeated Santa Anna. 

David G. Burnet, the first president of the Republic of Texas. (Official portrait/Texas State Capital)
David G. Burnet, the first president of the Republic of Texas. (Official portrait/Texas State Capital)

On May 9 the Yellowstone began its return journey. In addition to Burnet and his cabinet, additional passengers included Santa Anna and his staff, the wounded Houston and his staff, Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos and 80 other wounded prisoners. The Yellowstone briefly stopped in Galveston, and then continued on to Velasco, where the treaty between Texas and Mexico was being written. 

Captain Ross left the Yellowstone in July 1836; he was replaced by James H. West, who had come to Texas from Pennsylvania with the New Orleans Greys. The boat was later captained by William Sargeant, a veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto, and Thomas W. Grayson. 

The Yellowstone disappears

The Yellowstone transported the body of Stephen F. Austin and mourners from Columbia Landing downriver to Peach Point Plantation in December 1836. It also moved the Texas government as well as the printing press and staff of the Telegraph and Texas Register from the Brazos to Houston in the spring of 1837.

Despite repeated petitions from Sam Houston to the republic, the full terms of his pledge for land to the crew of the Yellowstone were never met. 

Dr. A. Ewing traveled on the Yellowstone from Houston to Galveston on May 30, 1837. It is the last known voucher for the Yellowstone and was signed by Ewing in Galveston. After that trip the Yellowstone apparently vanished…

Governor Sam Houston. (Photo: Matthew Brady/Library of Congress)
Governor Sam Houston. (Photo: Matthew Brady/Library of Congress)

Since then there have been theories and guesses about the ship’s fate. William M. Lytle believes that the Yellowstone was stranded on the Brazos in 1837 with no lives lost, but his theory is not verified by anyone else. Another theory is that the Yellowstone sank in 1837 in Buffalo Bayou, which is a slow-moving body of water that flows through Houston. A ship’s bell, which is claimed to be from the Yellowstone, is housed in the Alamo museum. 

No one really knows the fate of the Yellowstone or its final resting place. However, Sam Houston’s words in his petitions for the redemption of his pledge are a fitting epitaph: “Had it not been for its service, the enemy could never have been overtaken until they had reached the Sabine [River],” and the “use of the boat enabled me to cross the Brazos and save Texas.”

Model of Steamboat "Yellowstone," located in the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska.
Model of Steamboat “Yellowstone,” located in the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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