Model of the Bertrand
|Nearest city||Blair, Nebraska|
|Governing body||U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service|
|NRHP Reference #||
|Added to NRHP||March 24, 1969|
The steamboat Bertrand, carrying cargo up the Missouri River to Virginia City, Montana Territory, sank on April 1, 1865, after hitting a snag in the river north of Omaha, Nebraska. Half of its cargo was recovered 100 years later. Today, the artifacts are displayed in a museum at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge near Missouri Valley, Iowa. The display makes up the largest intact collection of Civil War-era artifacts in the United States.
The Bertrand was launched in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1864. It measured 161 feet (49 m) long, with a beam of 32 feet (9.8 m); its total burden was reported as 251 tons. A shallow-draft vessel, it drew only 18 inches (46 cm) when light, and perhaps no more than twice that when loaded.
Sources differ on the ownership of the Bertrand, but it probably belonged to the Montana and Idaho Transportation Line, based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm was owned in part by John J. Roe of St. Louis.
On April 1, 1865, under the command of Captain James Yore, the steamboat struck a submerged log in the Desoto Bend of the Missouri River, about 25 miles (40 km) upstream from Omaha, Nebraska. In less than ten minutes, it sank in 12 feet (3.7 m) of water. No people died, but almost the entire cargo was lost; the estimated value of vessel and cargo combined was $100,000.
Over 100 years later in 1968, private salvagers Sam Corbino and Jesse Pursell discovered the wreck in the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the Department of the Interior. Since the boat was found on government property, the men had to comply with the Antiquities Act of 1906. They had to give all of the artifacts to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for permanent preservation. The boat was excavated and over 10,000 cubic feet of cargo (over 500,000 artifacts) were recovered from the hold. This time capsule of life in 1865 is on display at the museum of the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in the Missouri Valley, Iowa.
Transportation systems and the Montana Territory
The Bertrand was part of a large water-based regional trading system that developed during the mid to late 19th-century. Only since 1859 had steamboats been traveling up the Missouri River to Fort Benton, Montana Territory. When gold was found in the Alder Gulch Claim in Montana in 1863, streams of hopefuls migrated to the area from other states; they created one of the most prosperous frontier cities: Virginia City, Montana Territory. Within a year of the find, more than 35,000 people would be living within a 10-mile radius of the discovery point.
J.J. Roe and his partners entered the shipping business in 1864, creating a line to ship goods up the Missouri River to the frontiers of the Montana Territory. J.J. Roe & Co. also invested in the Diamond R Transportation Co., which established a system of ox trains to bring goods to more remote locations some hundreds of miles from the river. Prospectors and settlers created the demand for the goods that the steamboats were able to bring up the Missouri. By 1867, there were 113 different businesses registered in Virginia City to provide goods and services. Soon, the Alder Gulch Gold Camp grew into one of the largest frontier gold towns. It would prove one of the largest gold payoffs from the Rocky Mountains. The Missouri River was a major transportation route that sustained these Montana gold mines and the budding cities.
The river route was integral to the continuing fur trade between St. Louis and the Indian Country that provided American furs, which had been going on since the early nineteenth century. J.J. Roe & Co. consistently took goods upriver, and brought furs and other extractive materials back down the river. On one trip in 1865, the ship unloaded in St. Louis with 260 packs of furs.
The trip from St. Louis to this new Montana Territory took about two months and was often dangerous, due to encounters with the local Sioux Indians, but the profits were well worth the hardships. J.J. Roe entered the market with other merchants, businessmen and salesmen in this period, all earning their profits from supplying the demands of the settlers for consumable goods. This was an incredibly profitable economic niche on the frontier.
The cargo found on the excavated Bertrand provides a unique glimpse into the material life of Virginia City, Montana Territory. The steamboat was full of clothing, tools, food and various consumer items on their way upriver. The ship’s cargo amounted to roughly 283 cubic meters. The collection includes: dried and salted beef, mutton and pork; oysters; pepper sauce; strawberries, peaches and peanuts; mustard from France; 5,000 barrels of whiskey including bourbon; brandy and brandied cherries; and medicine bottles. There were over 3,000 textiles and clothing items, including gloves, hats, trousers and 137 men’s coats in seven different styles. Household goods included mirrors, clocks and silverware; and there were various building supplies for the growing town. The largest consignment of the goods was bound for the Vivian and Simpson retailer in Virginia City. They would have also been sold from log cabin stores in the surrounding towns, including that of Frank Worden, the founder of Missoula.
Many of the goods were beyond the expectations for a primitive mining town. The ship also carried everything necessary to mine the Montana claim, including blasting powder, pickaxes and shovels. All the goods were fully insured, and the insurance company ultimately reimbursed the merchants for their losses. The men and women on the frontier were not totally isolated from the rest of the country and its consumption and fashion habits, but appear to have been relatively integrated and informed. The artifacts from the Bertrand represent the evidence of what kinds of goods flowed from St. Louis to the Montana territory during this important period of American state formation. More generally, water travel and the development of the steamboat played a major role in the settlement and development of America.
In 1974, samples of canned food from the wreck, including brandied peaches, oysters, plum tomatoes, honey, and mixed vegetable, were tested by the National Food Processors Association. Although their appearance, smell and vitamin content had deteriorated, there was no trace of microbial growth and the food was determined to be still safe to eat.
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- Switzer, Ronald R. The Steamboat Bertrand and Missouri River Commerce. University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.