This well known and highly regarded classic of the opening up of the American West concentrates on the great rivers of North America and the Missouri in particular. Focus is, of course, placed to the iconic paddle-steamers, their captains and crews, that plied its waters and that have become emblematic of river navigation in 19th century America. The scope of the narrative is significant. Events are described from the mid 1850s and through the American Civil War. However, the book principally deals with the post Civil war period of westward expansion and the role of the vessels and the river itself in the wars against the plains Indians. The transportation of troops and materials played a significant part in these campaigns and this is, of course, is recounted here in some detail. Readers will learn about the exploits of boats including the ‘Far West,’ ‘Key West,’ Rosebud,’ ‘Luella’ and ‘North Alabama’ in this fascinating account of the American frontier afloat.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Night now coming on, the boat tied to the bank where she was, but during the evening Captain Marsh confided with a quiet chuckle to George Foulk, the engineer:<br>
“George, there is more than three feet water between those islands, but there’s no use in our going above them, for that’s the Little Big Horn fifteen miles back and you can bet on it.”<br>
At dawn the boat turned about and started back. In the meantime Captain Baker, having slept over it, had begun to think that he might have been mistaken and when the boat again arrived at the stream previously explored, with his sanction she stopped. In order to keep her safe from Indian attack she was tied to the shore of an island opposite the mouth of the tributary and the crew and escort then proceeded to pass the time as pleasantly as possible until tidings should come from the column.<br>
From where they lay the valley of the Little Big Horn, as the stream later proved in fact to be, was visible for several miles extending back among the hills. Along both its shores spread dense thickets of willow brush, while about its mouth and over the island where the boat lay, large cottonwood trees, their leaves rustling pleasantly in the summer wind, afforded shelter from the heat. The waters of the Big Horn, rippling over their gravel bed, were clear and cold and teemed with pike, salmon and channel cat-fish, which had not yet learned through sad experience to be wary of the angler’s bait. A number of the men therefore cut willow poles and, scattering along the shore of the island, devoted themselves with great success to fishing. A little after ten o’clock, Captain Marsh, Engineer Foulk and Pilot Campbell, together with Captain Baker and Lieutenant Carlin, strolled out from the boat, and, selecting a spot a little removed from the others, engaged in the general pastime.<br>
The smoke columns noticed along the southern horizon on the two previous days had disappeared now, and the general opinion was that Custer and Terry had met the enemy and routed them, so little fear was felt of an Indian surprise. Nevertheless, as they sat there, George Foulk noticed how close they were to the dense willows on the main shore and remarked to the others that it would be very easy for Indians to creep up and fire on them. They were still idly discussing the suggestion when, without the least warning, the green thickets at which they were looking, parted, and a mounted Indian warrior, of magnificent physique and stark naked save for a breech-clout, burst through and jerked up his sweating pony at the brink of the water.<br>
The fishermen leaped to their feet with startled exclamations, but before they could run back the Indian held aloft his carbine in sign of peace. They then paused and, upon scrutinizing him more closely, recognized from his erect scalp-lock that he was a Crow, and then, to their surprise, that he was Curley, one of the scouts who had gone with Custer. They had expected to hear from Terry and Gibbon, but not from Custer. Motioning to him to come to the boat they hurried there themselves while he forded the stream and joined them.<br>
As soon as he was on board he gave way to the most violent demonstrations of grief. Throwing himself down upon a medicine-chest on deck he began rocking to and fro, groaning and crying. For some time it was impossible to calm him. When at length he had to some extent regained his self-control, the question arose as to how to communicate with him, for no one on board could understand the Crow language, while he spoke no English, so that all efforts at conversation failed. Finally Captain Baker produced a piece of paper and a pencil and showed the Indian how to use them.<br>
Curley grasped the pencil firmly in his fist and dropping flat on his stomach on the deck, began drawing a rude diagram, while about him the army and steamboat officers gathered closely, waiting in silent suspense for his disclosures, for everyone guessed from his actions that he brought important news. The Crow drew first a circle and then, outside of it, another. Then between the inner and outer circles he began making numerous dots, repeating as he did so in despairing accents:<br>
When he had quite filled the intervening space with dots, he glanced up at the intent faces around him and then slowly commenced filling the interior circle with similar marks, while his voice rose to a yet more dismal tone as he reiterated:<br>
“By Scotts!” exclaimed Captain Marsh, “I know what that means. It means soldiers. That Englishman, Courtney, who runs the woodyard at the head of Drowned Man’s Rapids, told me so. One time when I was there some Crow Indians started down river from the woodyard and Courtney told me they were going to see the Absaroka at Camp Cooke.”<br>
He was interrupted by Curley, who suddenly sprang to his feet, faced the listeners and flung his arms wide. Then, swinging them back, he struck his breast repeatedly with his fingers, exclaiming at each blow, in imitation of rifle shots:<br>
“Poof! Poof! Poof! Absaroka!”<br>
The white men stood in tense silence, searching each other’s faces. For a moment no one dared confess that he understood. Captain Baker was the first to speak:<br>
“We’re whipped!” he said, hoarsely. “That’s what’s the matter.” And he turned away.