From 1620-1803, all of colonial America was east of the Mississippi River. But in 1803 the land size of the U.S. more than doubled when Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to finance his war with Great Britain. All this new land was west of the Mississippi. For the next 16 years transportation “out west” was mostly on foot or horseback. The trails were too narrow for wagons and the Missouri River, which later proved invaluable, was one of the most difficult waterways in the world to navigate because of its shifting channel.
With the advent of steamboats and the courage of men like John Nelson, water transportation improved greatly beginning about 1819. Captain John Smith was the first person to attempt the Missouri River by steamboat. Leaving St. Louis aboard The Independence on May 15, 1819, Nelson reached Franklin, Missouri, on May 29. A second steamboat reached St. Louis on June 9, 1819, and was in Franklin on June 13. Four days between Franklin and St. Louis is pretty slow by today’s standards, but it was earth-shattering in 1819.
Over the next 40 years, boat makers could barely keep up with demand. One manufacturer in Freedom, Pennsylvania, kept a supply of straight boat bodies and when someone wanted a boat, it was a simple matter of putting two ends on the correct length. Without this shortcut, boats usually took eight months to build and cost between $100,000-$150,000. This was quite an expense considering the life expectancy of a boat before being sunk or blown up was about five years. There was one bend on the Missouri River between St. Louis and Cairo that boasted over 100 shipwrecks.
Before travel by steamboat started declining around 1858, there were no less than 60 packets on the Missouri at any given time. Packets were steamboats that ran daily and semi-weekly carrying U.S. mail, express, freight, and papers. There were also between 30 and 40 transient boats, called tramps, which came from smaller rivers and steams and made one or two trips per season.
Today, while steamboats are but a distant memory, the Missouri River is alive and well in Missouri.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008. She has covered the War Between the States, U.S. history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.firstname.lastname@example.org.