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Discover Mid-America —August 2005

On the Missouri: History at every bend

by Ken Weyand


As settlers moved west from St. Louis, the routes of easiest passage and maximum safety were the rivers. Flatboats and canoes, and later steamboats, brought a steady influx of homesteaders and entrepreneurs, who established the river settlements.

The Sergeant Floyd Welcome Center in Sioux City, IA (photo by Ken Weyand)

While a few Indian trails and traces pierced the forests and prairie, settlements on the Missouri River served trappers, traders and adventurers — all the while attracting new residents. As steamboat traffic developed in the 1840s, the settlements grew in importance, becoming centers of trade for tobacco, hemp, salt pork, and other products.

Many travelers on the Santa Fe, California and Oregon Trails used the Missouri River to reach Independence, MO. John Mark Lambertson, director/archivist for the National Frontier Trails Center in Independence, said that river traffic was the impetus for settlement, and the trails were extensions of this.

“In the early 1800s, western Missouri was the edge of the frontier,” Lambertson said. “Only organized wagon trains with military escorts and official credentials could venture farther west.”

Two Missouri towns, Independence and, later, Westport, served as provisioning centers and the eastern terminals for the trails.

While many of their countrymen left the river at Wayne City (often called Independence Landing) or Westport Landing (later to be Kansas City), Nebraska settlers pushed upriver to start their overland trek. Their river destinations were Brownville, Omaha and other towns north of present-day Kansas City.

Most readers of Discover Mid-America are familiar with historic towns that grew up along the Missouri River. Today, old river towns reward the traveler with scenic beauty, wineries, home-cooked meals and a variety of antiques and collectibles — many of the items gleaned from old homes in the area. Historic sites and museums celebrate river history and early settlements.

The recent Lewis and Clark Sesquicentennial has spurred interest in the river as seen by the explorers, with towns along the way springing into action to welcome visitors.
Following Lewis & Clark

In 2004, the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, a group of Lewis and Clark reenactors with boats fashioned after the expedition’s keelboat and pirogues, moved upriver, retracing the explorers’ route. They had left their boathouse/museum facility in St. Charles, MO, stopping along the way to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the encampments.

One of the commemorations was held at Kaw Point in Kansas City, KS, at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, where the original expedition had camped and held a courts martial proceeding..

Fort Calhoun, north of Omaha, was the first U.S. military post west of the Missouri River, and marks the site where the expedition met with Otoe and Missouri chiefs. Nearby is the reconstructed Fort Atkinson, built in 1820.

The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, IA, is filled with interactive exhibits. It is located near the Sergeant Floyd River Museum & Welcome Center, which features a forensic reconstruction of Sergeant Floyd, the only expedition member to die en route, and hundreds of riverboat artifacts and photos. The grave and obelisk monument memorializing Sgt. Floyd is a short drive to the south.

About 20 miles west of Sioux City is Ponca State Park, where a new interpretive center introduces visitors to the Missouri National Recreational River, a 59-mile segment that remains relatively unchanged since the days of Lewis and Clark. Two scenic overlooks offer great river views.

The Spirit Mound, a conical hill once believed by many Indian tribes to be the home of devils, can be visited near Vermillion, SD. Many tribes in the region refused to approach the hill. The captains and a few members of the expedition climbed the hill on Aug. 25, 1804, and observed several herds of buffalo in all directions.

Pierre, SD, boasts two important attractions for Lewis & Clark buffs: the Cultural Heritage Center, and the Lewis & Clark Site at nearby Fort Pierre, where the expedition met with the Teton Lakotas. It was here that disagreements with the Lakotas nearly stalled the expedition in its tracks. Fortunately, one of the chiefs resolved the dispute.

Mandan, ND, is the site of the restored On-A-Slant Mandan Indian Village and Interpretive Center. The village was part of the original Mandan settlement that was decimated by smallpox shortly before the expedition’s arrival.

Forty miles to the north is the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and reconstructed 1804-05 winter post, Fort Mandan, where the expedition spent the winter and met the Hidatsu girl, Sakakawea, who would serve as their guide. The center houses dioramas, interactive exhibits, maps and art including paintings by noted Western artist Karl Bodmer, who visited the area in 1833-34. To the northwest is the reconstructed fort, where visitors can see the expedition’s sleeping quarters, blacksmith shop and storage areas for trade goods.

More than 25 expedition campsites and historic sites are available between Kansas City and Fort Mandan. For details visit

A taste of steamboat days

Although steamboats had plied the Missouri River since 1819, when the Independence, and later the Western Engineer, docked at Franklin, steamboat appearances at river settlements were rare, at least for about the next couple of decades.

Before the floods of 1826 and 1827 forced the relocation of the town farther from the river, Franklin’s citizens dreamed of becoming a major port and welcomed the occasional steamboat visits with cannon salutes and feasting. One of the town’s visiting boats later sank near Franklin, leaving a cargo of government supplies, whiskey and $200,000 in silver coin at the bottom of the Missouri — never to be recovered.

In 1823, Lewis Caleb Beck, writing in A Gazetteer of the States of Illinois and Missouri, wrote: “The current of the Missouri is considerably greater than that of the Mississippi, or any of the western rivers, being generally about four miles an hour. It is on this account that the bed of the river is continually changing, and shoal islands and sandbars are constantly forming. Hence it is unsafe to settle on the alluvium banks of this steam: for it not infrequently happens, that thousands of acres, containing houses and plantations, are swept away by the impetuosity of the current.”

But snags were the biggest problem. Large trees, dislodged from the riverbank, would settle in the mud. Over time, their smaller branches would wear away, leaving their trunks intact. The current kept them upright and they became lethal spears just below the surface, and difficult for a riverboat pilot to see until it was too late.

By the late 1830s, the Platte Purchase opened for settlement. Coincidentally, snag boats cleared the river upstream 300 miles from St. Louis about the same time, and boat builders began making shallow-draft vessels with more power. By 1840, the steamboat age had begun in earnest, providing settlers, trappers and adventurers with new ways to reach the West.

The Missouri River continued to challenge steamboating. Hidden snags, sandbars, constantly shifting channels and boiler explosions sent boats to the bottom. The average lifetime of a Missouri River packet boat was a little over two years. It is estimated that more than 400 steamboat wrecks are buried in sandy fields and wetlands that once formed the course of the river.

Artifacts of two steamboats can be seen at major museums. In the spring of 1865, the steamboat Bertrand, on its maiden voyage to supply miners in Montana, hit a snag at DeSoto Bend, about 20 miles north of Omaha and sank.
Although the boat itself was never recovered, most of its vast cargo of household goods, tools, clothing and other items was salvaged in the late 1960s. A visitor center, located within the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri Valley, IA, displays the artifacts along with parts of the steam engine and other machinery. Visitors can also view the hull of the Bertrand as it lies beneath the waters of a pond on the Refuge.

In 1856, the Arabia, a steamboat heading for Omaha loaded with household provisions for Nebraska settlers, hit a sycamore snag near Parkville, a few miles upriver from Kansas City. It sank in minutes. Over the years the riverbed shifted, leaving the Arabia in 50 feet of sand beneath a Kansas cornfield.

In 1988, a team of salvagers, headed by the Hawley family of Independence, MO, raised funds and began a wintertime excavation that would eventually recover many parts of the Arabia and its diverse cargo. By 1991, using their own and borrowed funds, the Hawleys opened one of the largest private museums in the U.S. at City Market of Kansas City, MO. It exhibits thousands of shoes, clothing, buttons, trade beads, utensils, fine china, stoneware, preserved food, building materials, tools and household furnishings recovered from the wreak.

Greg Hawley, in his book, Treasure in a Cornfield, The Discovery and Excavation of the Steamboat Arabia, wrote: “Excavating the Arabia was like shaking hands with the pioneers. I had gone beyond the mere written words of history…I had come to know my and understand my ancestors for the first time.”

Another museum with a variety of steamboat artifacts, photos, maps and other items is the Sergeant Floyd Welcome Center in Sioux City, IA. Named for the sergeant who died on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Sergeant Floyd is a 130-foot diesel-powered vessel that was launched in 1932 and for 45 years provided towing, survey and inspection work on inland waterways for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Since 1983, the Sergeant Floyd has served as a combined state tourist welcome center and river museum.

The hurricane deck and pilothouse of the Sergeant Floyd contains displays of the chief engineer’s quarters and radio room. Visitors can stand in the Pilot House, high above the water and surrounded by dials, gauges, and engine controls and imagine themselves in command of the Sergeant Floyd as she cruised the great river.

River towns

South of Sioux City, a traveler encounters a refreshing mix of river scenery and history. In addition to celebrating the Lewis and Clark Expedition and recalling steamboat lore, many river towns offer interesting museums and stately homes that date to antebellum years.

Nebraska City, NE, about 30 miles south of Omaha, is home of the international holiday Arbor Day. It contains more homes and commercial buildings on the National Register of Historic Places than any town in Nebraska. Besides Arbor Day, the town celebrates an Applejack Festival in September and Living History Days in October.

Historical attractions include the Old Freighters Museum, originally owned by Russell, Majors and Waddell Freighting Company, formed in 1859. The Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum features a 52-room mansion built in 1855 and owned by J. Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day. The 150-year-old Mayhew Cabin provided sanctuary for runaway slaves.

Brownville, NE, settled by Richard Brown in 1854, became a major steamboat landing, river crossing and milling center on the river. In its heyday the town boasted a population of 5,000. With the coming of the railroad, Brownville declined. Today, it is a village with restored business buildings and residences dating to the mid-1800s.

A dry-docked riverboat, the Meriwether Lewis, contains a museum with river-related artifacts. The restored Captain Bailey House, operated by the Brownville Historical Society, displays photos and other items celebrating the town’s early days.

St. Joseph, MO, began as a trading post operated by Joseph Robidoux at Blacksnake Creek. Robidoux acquired 150 acres of land, which grew into St. Joseph. A section of his row houses, built in the late 1840s, is now the Robidoux Row Museum, giving visitors an insight into the past.

Other museums include the Patee House Museum, headquarters for the Pony Express in 1860 and a National Historic Landmark; the nearby Jesse James Home Museum, in which the outlaw was murdered in 1882; the Pony Express Museum, where the famed overland mail service began in 1860, the Glore Psychiatric Museum, site of “State Lunatic Asylum No. 2” and now a unique museum illustrating developments in treating mental illness; and many historic homes and other historic attractions.

St. Joseph was an important provisioning point for westward-bound settlers, and a busy riverboat port.

Atchison, KS, was commercial center for steamboats, wagon trains and railroads. Many old homes nestle on high bluffs overlooking the river. Museums include the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, Atchison County Historical Society Museum, Atchison Rail Museum, Evah C. Cray Historical Home Museum and the Muchnic Art Gallery.

The city and the Ninety-Nines, Inc., an international organization of women pilots, established the International Forest of Friendship, with trees from all 50 states and 35 countries. A life-size bronze statue of Amelia Earhart overlooks the forest, a living memorial to those who contributed to aviation and space exploration.

The Lewis and Clark Pavilion at Riverfront Park commemorates the expedition’s 1804 visit to the area.

During the 1840 and 1850s Weston, MO, was an important riverboat port, and a commercial center for tobacco, hemp and other products. Home of Ben Holladay, the “stagecoach king,” the town once boasted one of the largest breweries in the state, fine hotels and many old homes.

Today, many of the antebellum homes are restored, along with one of the early hotels, and business buildings. A variety of antique and collectible shops, unique gift and décor shops and cozy restaurants can be visited, along with the Weston Historical Museum, filled with historical exhibits. Much of the town was declared an Historic District and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Leavenworth, KS, the first incorporated city in the state, was established in 1854. Fort Leavenworth, the most important military post in the West, dates to 1827. Because of the fort and its strategic river location, and later the advent of the railroad, Leavenworth was a major provisioning point for westbound settlers.

Important museums in Leavenworth include the Carroll House Museum, First City Museum, Fred Harvey Museum and the new C. W. Parker Carousel Museum. At Fort Leavenworth is the Frontier Army Museum, an excellent collection of more than 5,000 items representing the culture of Frontier Army soldiers who served between 1804 and 1917.

Beautiful old homes grace the older part of the city and overlook the river. Several are open for tours.

Fort Osage in Sibley, MO, was built in 1808 to protect settlers on the frontier of the new Louisiana Purchase from Indian attacks. The site of the fort, about 15 miles downriver from present-day Kansas City, was chosen by Capt. Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The fort was a major trading post with the Osage Indians and helped the settlers build a harmonious relationship with the Osage. The restored fort is a popular historic site and visitor attraction, with special events featuring costumed interpreters depicting frontier life.

Lexington, MO, established in the 1830s, was a key river town in frontier days. It was a provisioning stop on the Santa Fe Trail and was later the site of an important Civil War battle. More than 120 antebellum homes, the Battle of Lexington Historic Site and other attractions make Lexington a major stop for history buffs.

Glasgow, MO, once the next great river port upstream from St. Louis, was founded in 1836 by European settlers. The site of a Civil War battle, the town contains many antebellum homes. The world’s first steel bridge was built across the Missouri River here. Glasgow’s City Museum, on the National Register of Historic Places, features Civil War artifacts and items relating to the town’s early days.

Early settlers founded Arrow Rock, MO, in 1829. Named for a landmark that guided flatboats and canoes, the village became an important gathering place for Santa Fe Trail travelers, who made use of a ferry that had been started in 1811. Several historic buildings can be seen, including the Huston Tavern, an early-day inn, now a museum.

Rocheport, MO, founded in 1825, had the advantages of a “deep, sheltered cove, a reliable ferry, and superior roads,” according to its historical record. Its early settlement was so important that in 1840, it was chosen by the Whigs as the site of their state convention. Later the town would be an important stop on the “underground railroad” which aided escaping slaves. Civil War guerrilla raids ravaged Rocheport, and fires in 1892 and 1922 destroyed part of the town.

The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (the “Katy Line”) built its line through Rocheport in 1893, constructing the only tunnel on the line within the town limits. Today, Rocheport is a favorite access point to the Katy Trail State Park.

Rocheport was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Restaurants, inns and antique shops occupy historic buildings.

German settlers settled in Hermann, MO, in the late 1830s, on land purchased by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia. Vineyards were planted on the steep river bluffs by the settlers, who celebrated their first weinfest a decade later. Riverboats brought increasing numbers of visitors, making the town an important river port as well as a wine-producing center. A museum and visitor center recalls Hermann history, and five wineries continue the wine tradition.

New Haven, MO, was founded in 1836 by Phillip Miller, who operated a wood yard catering to the steamboat trade. Originally called Miller’s Landing, the town’s name was changed in 1856 as the Union Pacific Railroad provided the town a new commercial focus.

The downtown and a nearby residential area are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Two museums preserve and promote the town’s history.

Henry Tibbe began producing corncob pipes in Washington, MO, in 1874, some 35 years after the incorporation of the town. The “Missouri Meerschaums” are still being made. The river town was also the home of Franz Schwarzer, who built zithers from the late 1800s to the 1920s. The Washington Historical Society Museum contains artifacts, photos and old-time lore.

Washington contains many historic business buildings and residences that reflect the town’s origins as a river settlement. The town is also the home of the gallery and studio of Gary R. Lucy, whose art includes outstanding paintings of riverboats.

St. Charles, MO, is celebrated as the river settlement where the Lewis and Clark Expedition stopped to complete its provisioning before leaving on May 21, 1804. At that time, the town was populated by about 400 French-Canadians, who first arrived with fur trader Louis Blanchette, and named the settlement Les Petites Cotes (The Little Hills). The town was renamed Saint Charles shortly after the expedition’s visit. Today, the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, a non-profit organization dedicated to the Lewis and Clark legacy, makes its headquarters in St. Charles, at the Boat House and Nature Center.

Between 1821 and 1826, Missouri’s first state capitol was located in St. Charles. A few years later, German settlers began developing the town as a marketplace for their growing wine region, which thrives today along the Missouri River.

St. Charles contains several historic sites, including the Frenchtown Nationally Registered Historic District. Several festivals mark the town’s historic past, including a Lewis and Clark Celebration in May.

In the 21st century — with its highways and airports — the Missouri River can hardly be considered an important transportation artery.

But the public’s love of history and nature is again — however slowly — drawing attention to this great river.

Discover Mid-America founder and Senior Contributing Editor Ken Weyand files regular reports on notable Midwest destinations. He can be reached at

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