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The Steamboat Yellowstone and Fort Lincoln


Profit was the driving force behind John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. The objective: deliver the most furs at the lowest possible cost while discouraging competition. To such ends, the American Fur Company constructed Fort Union in 1827 at the strategic location of the Missouri and Yellowstone confluence, effectively eliminating small opposition posts in the region. This new fort would act as a rendezvous point for trade with Native Americans and a staging area to launch trapping brigades into the Rocky Mountains.

But a great location wasn’t enough. As a global industry, the fur trade was susceptible to market fluctuations. Therefore, the speed at which the American Fur Company could deliver furs would increase their marketing edge. Prior to 1832, upper Missouri trade goods and furs were transported by keelboats that were expensive to build, labor intensive and slow in maneuvering up the Missouri.

A solution was proposed by Kenneth McKenzie. While president of the Columbia Fur Company, McKenzie had shipped furs by steamboat up the Minnesota River to Fort Snelling. After his company merged with the American Fur Company, McKenzie was chosen to head a subdivision called the Upper Missouri Outfit, headquartered at Fort Union. To discourage competition, lower costs, and increase speed, McKenzie proposed the use of steamboats on the Missouri. Steamboats could carry trade goods, supplies and visitors up the river and return to St. Louis with furs and skins. The American Fur Company responded quickly to McKenzie’s suggestion, and in 1830 commissioned two Louisville firms to build the steamboat Yellow Stone.

To take advantage of the June rise of the Missouri, the Yellow Stone departed St. Louis on March 26, 1832. No previous steamboat had ascended the Missouri River beyond Council Bluff, Iowa. On this date in June 1832, the Yellow Stone arrived at Fort Union.

McKenzie’s experiment successfully gave the American Fur Company the advantage over their competitors. By 1833, the Yellow Stone, and other steamboats to follow, granted McKenzie rule of the entire river and was thus dubbed, “King of the Missouri.” The arrival of the Yellow Stone Steamboat marked the beginning of a 27-year run of financial success for the American Fur Company’s Fort Union.

Dakota Datebook written by Richard Campbell


Casler, Michael M., Steamboats of the Fort Union Fur Trade. Williston: Fort Union Association, 1999.

Wood, W. Raymond, Twilight of the Upper Missouri River Fur Trade: The Journals of Henry A. Boller. Bismarck: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 2008.

“Yellow Stone.” Steamboat Times: A Pictorial History of the Mississippi Steamboating Era. http://steamboattimes.com/steamboats_1811~61_p2.html Accessed June 4, 2011.