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The Steamer Josephine

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When the steamboat Independence navigated the Missouri River in the early 1800s, it brought a new form of transportation that helped open up the settlement and development of the American West. The Missouri River is over two thousand miles long and was considered a nightmare for navigation. The level of the water was unpredictable, sometimes flooding and sometimes only a few feet deep.

In 1832, the Yellowstone steamed up to Fort Union. After delivering a cargo of badly needed supplies, the boat was loaded with furs for the return trip. The steamboat Assiniboine went into service the following year. Before long, boats were steaming up and down the river carrying cargo and passengers. The arrival of a steamboat created a great deal of excitement. The boats carried not only supplies but also news and letters from home.

Artists who flocked to the West, frequently relied on the steamboats. They included George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, who painted the people and the landscape of what seemed to be a different world. And there was John James Audubon, who focused on the birds and animals, creating detailed life-size paintings that are still popular today.

Steamboats were unable to travel the western rivers in the winter, so they made as many trips as possible before the rivers froze. On this date in 1887, Captain William H. Gould left Bismarck for his home in Yankton. He had carefully put his boat into winter quarters where it would stay until the spring. Gould was captain of the Josephine, one of the most important steamboats in the American West.

Built in 1873, the boat was named for the daughter of General David S. Stanley. The boat provided important support on the 1875 Yellowstone Expedition. By that time, steamboats were common on the Missouri. The Josephine demonstrated that it was also feasible to run steamboats on the Yellowstone River. It took her two weeks to sail from the mouth of the Yellowstone to what is now Riverfront Park in Billings, Montana. Josephine continued her service for commercial journeys and also supported the activities of the United States Army. The boat completed at least fifty more trips. She came to a sad end in 1907 when she struck ice and sank.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher.

Bismarck Historical Society. “It Happened in Bismarck.” http://bismarckhistory.org/it-happened-in-bismarck/?&offset=700 Accessed 10/8/2021.

Yellowstone County Museum. “The Steamer Josephine.” http://www.ycmhistory.org/thesteamer-josephine http://www.ycmhistory.org/the-steamer-josephine Accessed 10/8/2021.

State Historical Society of North Dakota. “Missouri River Steamboats and Visitors.” https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr4/frontier-era-north-dakota/part-4-missouri-river-fur-trade/section-3-missouri-river-steamboats-and#:~:text=A%20steamboat%20called%20the%20Yellowstone%20steamed%20up%20the,Yellowstone%20was%20joined%20by%20another%20steamboat%2C%20the%20Assiniboine. Accessed 10/8/2021.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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