The Steamboat Yellow Stone: The Lil' Steamer That Could


on Sunday, August, 01 2010 @ 07:22:00 pm (1345 words)
In Brazoria County history [ 67783 views ]

 

I am a descendant of a veteran of the army of the Republic of Texas, one of the soldiers who fought at the  Battle of San Jacinto, which decisively concluded the Texas Revolution and gained for Texas its independence.

Recently* my Yahoo! 360 page has undergone an extensive renovation, thanks largely to the expertise and kindness of one of my dear 360 friends. Particularly noticeable is the change in the background of the page. The new theme consists of Swiss artist Karl Bodmer's depiction of the American Fur Company steamboat Yellow Stone, which in 1833 carried the 23-year-old landscape artist, his employer German (Prussian) Prince Alexander Phillip Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied, and the prince's servant and skilled hunter-taxidermist David Dreidopple over much of a nearly 3,000-mile journey from St. Louis, Missouri, to Fort McKenzie, near present-day Great Falls, Montana, and back.

My selection of this picture as a theme, however, has more to do with events three years later than the expedition of the German naturalist prince and his retinue up the Missouri River---my ancestor, William C. Gill, a private in Captain William S. Fisher's "The Velasco Blues," Company I, Texas Volunteers, almost certainly set foot, however briefly, aboard this historic vessel, which author Donald Jackson has called an "Engine of Manifest Destiny," when it ferried the Texas Army across the Brazos River as the army maneuvered to position itself opportunely to meet in combat the invading army lead by Mexican President and General Antonio López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón.

Contracted by Pierre Chateau, Jr., by permission of American Fur Company owner John Jacob Astor, the Yellow Stone, which was projected for use in the fur trade on the upper Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, was built in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1831, at a cost of $7,000. Though designed for navigating the Missouri's shallow waters and snags, the vessel of 144 tons burden nonetheless had a deep draft with a six-foot depth of hull.

One-hundred-twenty-two feet in length, the side-wheeler with a 20.5 foot beam had one engine, a single rudder, and twin stacks. Following delivery to the fur company on April 1, 1831, an additional $1,000 was spent in fitting out a blacksmith shop on board. Under command of Captain B. Young, the Yellow Stone left St. Louis on April 16, 1831, and reached Fort Tecumseh on June 19.  On July 5, it delivered its first cargo back to St. Louis.

The voyage created excitement not only among the native tribes along the route, but with business people and investors throughout the United States and in Europe. In 1832, the Yellow Stone made the first successful run as high up the Missouri River as Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. A passenger on board for the voyage was artist and ethnographer George Catlin who chronicled the voyage in writing, paintings, sketches, and collections.  His rendering of the Yellow Stone is seen here at the end of this article.Throughout 1832 and '33, the side-wheeler made several trips up and down the Missouri River, including that during which Maximilian and his entourage were passengers.

Difficulties and expenses of navigation during the winter months caused the fur company to utilize the vessel on the lower Mississippi between New Orleans and the Yazoo River.  During one excursion of the side-wheeler near St. Louis, the Yellow Stone collided with a steamboat carrying American author Washington Irving as a passenger.

In May 1835 the Yellow Stone was registered as owned by a group of Vicksburg, Mississippi, businessmen, but later in the same year, owned by New Orleans commission merchant Thomas Toby, the steamboat was placed in dry dock and extensively repaired and outfitted for the Texas trade. Ownership of the Yellow Stone was by Thomas Toby and Brother Company as late as December of that year, however, as agents of Texas commission merchants Thomas F. McKinney and Samuel May Williams. Such listed ownership may have served to skirt U. S. neutrality laws.

The Yellow Stone first arrived in Texas, reaching Brazoria from New Orleans, in November 1835, during which time it was used to move cotton between San Felipe de Austin and Washington-on-the Brazos.  Flying the U. S. flag and manned by a U. S. crew, the Yellow Stone, Thomas Wigg Grayson, master, cleared the port of New Orleans carrying amunition as a cargo, and passengers, including forty-seven men of the Mobile Grays, who were Texas bound to volunteer for the Texas army.  The steamboat arrived at the port of Quintana at the mouth of the Brazos River in early January.

Under control of the firm of McKinney and Williams, the side-wheeler ran cotton and other produce from up the Brazos to the firm's headquarters at Quintana. On one such trip in February 1836 the vessel went as far up as the vicinity of San Felipe de Austin with Captain John E. Ross as captain.  Above San Felipe at Groce's landing, the vessel was taking on a cargo of cotton when General Sam Houston and his Texas army arrived in a heavy rain across the river on March 31, 1836.

Establishing camp on the west side of the Brazos, General Houston impressed the vessel to ferry his men across the flooded river. On April 12, the same day that Mexican General Santa Anna with 750 picked men and one six-pounder cannon were crossing down river at Thompson's Ferry, the Yellow Stone began the first of seven crossings to ferry the Texan army across the swollen Brazos. Released from impressment and Groce's cotton placed to protect passengers. crew, and engine, the steamboat ran at full steam past the burned ruins of San Felipe at 10 p.m. on the night of April 15 and through musket fire and shots from a six-pounder fired by soldiers of the division commanded by General Joaquín Ramirez y Sesma. Some of the mounted soldiers even made attempts to lasso the smokestacks of the vessel.  Although only slightly damaged the steamboat briefly spun around careening into the bank; nevertheless, the steamboat reached Quintana, passengers and cargo intact.

Following the victory of the tiny Texas Army over the contingent led by Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, President ad interim David G. Burnet (on April 26) commandeered the Yellow Stone to house the cabinet and transport the government officials to the scene of the battle. On May 9, the returning vessel transported additional passengers beside the government officials, including Santa Anna and his staff and eighty Mexican prisoners, as well as the Texans' wounded General Sam Houston and his staff. From Galveston Island, the vessel continued on to Velasco (across the Brazos from Quintana) where the cabinet was to begin treaty negotiations with Santa Anna.

Among the final services to the young republic by the steamboat was the transport of the body of former empressario Stephen Fuller Austin, who had died while serving as Secretary of State of the new republic at the first official capital Columbia in December 1836. His body and mourners were transported from Columbia Landing (also called Marion) to the home of Austin's sister at Peach Point Plantation, where funeral services were held. In the spring of 1837, the vessel removed the government of the republic from Columbia to the new capital at Houston, as well as the press and staff of the Telegraph and Texas Register.

The final fate of the Yellow Stone is a mystery. A ship's bell, alleged to be that of the Yellow Stone is in the Alamo museum. Sam Houston summed up the importance to Texas of the steamboat that once transported pelts, buffalo skins, Indians, and fur trappers in the far north of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. Wrote Houston: "Had it not been for its service, the enemy could never have been overtaken until they reached the Sabine [River]," and also the "use of the boat enabled me to cross the Brazos and save Texas."

 

[*This article first appeared as an entry in my Yahoo! 360 blog for April 01, 2007. The blog entry itself was titled "The Little Steamer that Could!"]

 

Pictures: (Top) Aquatint by Karl Bodmer.  (Bottom) George Catlin's depiction of the Yellow Stone at St. Louis just prior to its maiden voyage to the mouth of the Yellowstone River in 1832.

 


5 comments

Comment from: Ginger Tumlinson [Visitor]
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08/01/10 @ 21:52
Comment from: Richard Tinsley [Visitor]
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