Heart of Dakota | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Heart of Dakota

Mar 23, 2019

The Missouri River never had a Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, to pilot its historic steamboats into the literary canon. Steamboating on the Great Plains in general has been shortchanged by regional historians, beginning with the great one, Walter Prescott Webb, in 1931. This was because Webb was from Texas, and steamboats were not significant drivers of white settlement on the southern plains.

On the northern plains steamboats were far more significant, and Missouri River steamboating has a good historian, Bill Lass, but our understanding of the importance of the subject has become dated. I have come to think that for our story we need a Conrad, not a Clemens. It’s a Heart of Darkness kind of story.

It has to do with conquest, the dispossession of native peoples from their lands. On the northern plains, the face of conquest has been George Armstrong Custer. Although he died trying, he represents the aggressive impulse of the movement. And we always believed that men on horseback, cavalry, were the key agents of conquest, because they rode out onto the plains and struck the natives where they were.

With the work of emergent environmental historians in the late twentieth century, we come to a different understanding of what happened. The crucial real estate on the Great Plains was riverine - the channels and valleys of the rivers and creeks. This was true for the agricultural peoples of the plains, such as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, who farmed the river bottoms. It was equally true for the equestrian cultures, for reasons that are obvious when you think about the matter.

Shelter was one value of the river valleys for native peoples. They needed it, but more than that, their horses needed it. We think of Plains Indians as hunters, but more importantly, they were pastoralists, taking care of large herds, which on the northern plains needed winter shelter along the rivers.

There was forage all around, but in crucial winter-survival time, it was snow-covered. Horses were kept alive with browse, green woody growth from the riverbanks. Their keepers needed the timber of the same territory for fuel. Take possession of the rivers, and the native peoples cannot hold.

Much as cavalrymen may have disparaged infantrymen, it was forts, not horsemen, who took the country. And the forts were on the rivers, which were plied by steamboats that not only supplied the armies but also depleted native resources - burning wood and dispersing game.

Why did did Sitting Bull so ardently, albeit hopelessly, assail Fort Mandan and Fort Buford? He knew. Just as General Alfred Sully, who built Fort Mandan, knew. Modern armies of the nineteenth century could not operate without steam-powered support - either railroads or steamboats. Sully was criticized in 1863 for refusing to advance into Indian country because, he said, the water was to low for his boats - but he knew.

If you wonder why I liken this situation to Joseph Conrad’s novel, and you are familiar with that work, then consider this: in 1864, Sully ordered the heads of three Yanktonai men to be severed from their bodies and mounted on pikes. In the heart of Dakota Territory.

We have a new history of steamboating, by Tracy Potter, published by History Press and entitled, Steamboats in Dakota Territory: Transforming the Northern Plains. I’ll talk about it next week.

~Tom Isern