NAVIGATION OF THE NORTH PLATTE
The trials of river navigation on the North Platte, as brought out in
Scott's story, were always great. This river could be navigated by
small craft without much difficulty in the upper stretches, but became
very shallow, braided, and full of sandbars in the neighborhood of
Scotts Bluff. The first attempted navigation was by the returning
Astorians in 1813.1 Their two dugout canoes
got only a few miles downstream, due to the extreme shallowness. The
next recorded attempt was by Fitzpatrick, Stone, and Branch, who, in
1824, started down the upper North Platte with a cargo of beaver skins.
This venture also ended in disaster, and the men were forced to walk
in.2 Eventually, successful trips were made
with mackinaws and bullboats down the entire Platte to Missouri
stations. After the establishment of Ft. Laramie, at the Laramie-North
Platte junction, in 1834, numerous voyages were made in the spring of
each year by parties of the American Fur Company and various independent
traders and trappers.
The bullboat was the favorite because of its ease of manufacture,
lightness, and extremely small draft. These boats were of ancient use
among the Missouri river Indians. They varied in size from small
"one-man" conveyances (commonly used by the squaws) up to the large
boats, sometimes over 30 feet long, developed by the fur traders.
Dunbar gives the following description of a bullboat:
"The bull-boat of the Missouri and other western rivers was a type of
craft unknown except on those streams. It resembled an enormous shallow
oval basket, and in size it was ordinarily about 25 feet long and 12 or
15 feet wide. Its sides stood two or three feet above the surface of
the stream on which it was navigated, and when full laden it never drew
more than a foot of water. The framework of the bull-boat consisted of
long and pliable poles, some of which extended along the greater
dimension of the craft, with the others lying at right angles to the
first and securely fastened to them. All the poles were bent upward at
the edge or circumference of the framework and secured in that position,
thus producing the basket-like shape of the fabric. The frame was
covered with dressed buffalo hides (for this purpose the skins of bull
buffaloes were used exclusively; hence the name "bull-boat") which had
been sewed together with sinews from the same animals and then soaked.
After being placed on the poles in their soaked condition the hides soon
shrank to a considerable degree and thus formed a very tight covering.
The seams between the hides used in making a bull-boat were made
water-tight by a mixture of melted buffalo fat and earth or ashes, and
the final result was a craft of extreme lightness which floated on the
water almost like a bubble. A large contrivance of this sort could
carry a burden of three tons in a stream whose depth did not exceed ten
inches, and its propulsion by poles was a comparatively easy matter.
The two principal objections to the bull-boat were the ease with which
it was penetrated or reduced to a leaky condition by rubbing along a
snag or rock, and its helplessness on a stretch of river wherein the
water was too deep for the poles to be used. In a situation of that
sort it was at the mercy of the wind and current. Bull-boats were the
favorite vehicles for downstream transportation of furs.3
The mackinaw (often referred to as a barge) was occasionally used
down stream. On the shallow Platte there was probably used a
modification of the type described by Dunbar:
"The mackinaw was a flat-bottomed affair, but instead of being
rectangular in shape it was elliptical, and usually about four times as
long as it was wide. A large boat of the sort was 50 or 60 feet long.
From the edge of the raftlike structure which constituted the bottom of
the mackinaw rose a gunwhale several feet high, so that the hold of the
specimen was four or five feet deep. The oarsmen sat on benches near
the forward end of the craft, and a seat eight or ten feet up in the
air, reached by a ladder, was provided for the helmsman in the stern.
From his elevated throne of authority the steersman kept watch for
trouble ahead, manipulated his rudder and shouted his orders to the crew
in the bow. The central section of the mackinaw was used for cargo
purposes, and was separated from the rest of the boat, both fore and
aft, by strong water-tight partitions. The cargo hold was also elevated
a foot or two above the actual bottom of the hull, so that an invasion
of water might not damage whatever goods were stored there. The freight
frequently rose high above the sides of the boat, and in all weathers
was protected by a huge tarpaulin of skins made after the fashion in
which the covering for a bull-boat was put together. Four men besides
the steerman usually constituted the crew of a mackinaw. They worked
from earliest dawn to nightfall, and sometimes moved more than a hundred
miles a day, though the average speed of a mackinaw was four or five
miles an hour. After such a boat reached St. Louis it was sold as
lumber a few dollars."4
Sage relates his experience while going down from Ft. Laramie in 1842
in the following words:
"The boat was freighted with some 60 packs (a pack of robes generally
embraces ten skins, and weighs about 80 pounds) of robes, and provisions
for four weeks. A barge belonging to another company, also in
readiness, started with us, and we all flattered ourselves with the hope
of a speedy and pleasant trip.
"The two boats numbered a united crew of 11 men,--mine consisting of
five, and that of our consort counted six.
"Moving along prettily during the day--sometimes floating with the
current then again plying oars,--we reached the mouth of Horse Creek;
and passing on a short distance, lay to for the night.
"The day following we again pushed off, but, after proceeding 10 or
12 miles, the water became so shallow, we were compelled to lay by to
await a further rise, and struck camp in a small grove of cottonwood
upon the right bank of the Platte, a short distance above Scott's Bluff.
Here we remained about two weeks."
Sage's party eventually were forced to abandon their barges several
hundred miles below Ft. Laramie and proceeded on foot.5
In the 1840's, travelers along the Platte route often noted the
descent of fur batteaux, Joseph Williams saw "6 flat bottomed boats
coming down, loaded with buffalo robes and skins." Overton Johnson
recorded a shipment of furs stranded in low water at Ft. Laramie in
July, 1845. Francis Parkman recorded a group of 11 boats with buffalo
and beaver skins, rowed by Mexicans, which ran aground 50 times a day.
A Missouri newspaper in 1846 stated that eight mackinaw boats, laden
with buffalo robes, etc., with a company of 36 men, arrived July 2 at
Ft. Leavenworth from Ft. St. John at the junction of the Laramie and Big
Platte, although three boats were abandoned en route because of low
Despite the extreme shallowness and treachery of the shifting
channels, there has been reported one ascent of the North Platte by
steamboat, in 1853. Edward Hale, in his "Kansas and Nebraska" (Page 2),
stated that the steamboat El Paso ascended the North Platte above Ft.
Laramie in the spring of 1853. Francis Parkman corroborates this, in
his "California and Oregon Trail" (page 519), by stating that the El
Paso steamer ascended the Nebraska in the spring of 1853 to the distance
of 400 or 500 miles. This spring of 1853 must have been one of
exceptional high water, although the El Paso was noted for its high
ascents of the Upper Missouri. (The El Paso was 180 feet long, by 28
feet wide, and operated from 1850 to 1855, when it was sunk below
Booneville, on the Missouri.)
1Op. cit., p. 321.
2Hafen and Ghent, op. cit., p.
3Seymour Dunbar: History of Travel in
America, Vol. 4, pp. 1143-4.
4Dunbar, op. cit., pp.
5Sage, op. cit., pp. 139-140. Also
see Fremont's report (1843), p. 15.
6Joseph Williams: Narrative of a Tour, p.
36. Johnson I. Winter: Route Across the Rocky Mountains, p. 151.
Francis Parkman: The California and Oregon Trail, p. 93. Pub. Neb.
State Hist. Soc., Vol. 20, p. 159.