Wheel Boats on the Missouri: The Journals and Documents of the Atkinson-O’Fallon Expedition, 1824-1826
Wheel Boats and Flying the Flag on the Missouri
An Army experiment with man-powered paddle boats on a trip up the Missouri River in 1824 is the subject of a new book published jointly by the Montana Historical Society Press and the Nebraska State Historical Society .
This early example of gunboat diplomacy in the wake of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is the subject of Wheel Boats on the Missouri: The Journals and Documents of the Atkinson-O’Fallon Expedition, 1824-1826 edited and introduced by Richard Jensen and James Hutchins.
"Most people are aware of the role that keel boats and steamboats played on the Missouri River in opening the West to development. This book brings to light an often overlooked part of western history that involves the nearly forgotten wheel boat," former Montana Historical Society Press Editor Martha Kohl said.
In 1824 President James Monroe directed Brig. Gen. Henry Atkinson and Indian Agent Benjamin O’Fallon to negotiate peace treaties with tribes along the Missouri River. The president was concerned by a series of Indian attacks against American fur traders and trappers that he believed had been encouraged by Canadian fur companies to chase Americans from the trade.
About 475 soldiers of the First and Sixth Infantry regiments were ordered up the still wild Missouri River to "impress" the Indian tribes as well as demonstrate to Canadian and British interests that the United States could project military power in the region.
Lewis and Clark were still the best authority on the river, but the troops found that the Missouri was a changing adversary.
"The appearance of the country about it similar to the description given by Lewis and Clark. The river for several miles above and below the mouth of the river Jack appears to have changed its bed repeatedly since Lewis and Clark ascended, turning greatly to the right and leaving several islands and many sand bars in the neighborhood," Atkinson wrote in his journal.
Atkinson made a monumentous decision to use man-powered wheel boats to take his troops on the 3,000-mile expedition rather that relying solely on the cordelle, which was a long length of rope used to pull boats upstream from the bank of the river.
"Besides the facility of movement gained by the new mode of propelling the boats, the health of troops is preserved, and their clothing, from the wear and tear incident to boat hands who navigate the river in the ordinary way," he wrote.
Essentially the men powered the boat by pulling and pushing crossbars connected by pitman gears to the side-mounted paddle wheels. A detailed appendix to the journals by the editors provides illustrations and interesting insights into the development and technology of the wheel boats.
The journals deal primarily with the daily activities, navigation problems, Indian cultures encountered by the troops and political negotiations of the expedition. It provides details of daily army life down to orders on river etiquette.
"The men in halting for breakfast, dinner or to encamp for the night, are in the habit of easing themselves on the call of nature, on the ground necessary to be occupied by the troops, this practice is forbid," Atkinson ordered.
There also are some interesting sidelights in the journals about the diplomacy of the 1820s.
"the Crows became very hostile in their conduct, and from their attempting to take the presents before they were told to do so Maj. O’Fallon struck three or four of the chiefs over the head with his pistol."
This book is a fascinating look at how the United States followed up on the Lewis and Clark Expedition as well as at an interesting experiment in river transportation.
The 272-page hardback book sells for $39.95 in bookstores or can be ordered directly from the Montana Historical Society by calling 1-800-243-9900.