Vanguards of the Frontier: A Social History of the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains from the Earliest White Contacts to the Coming of the Homemaker

By Everett Dick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
THE ROMANTIC ERA ON WESTERN WATERS

AMONG the outstanding characteristics of the American frontier was that it always advanced most rapidly along waterways. Accordingly the trans-Mississippi streams were the scenes of the earliest thrusts of settlement into the wilderness. Long before the shores were occupied by agrarian settlement, strange craft manned by stranger crews plied up and down western streams under the crudest of frontier conditions. The boatmen formed a distinctive Western type. The canoe, pirogue, bateau or barge, flatboat, bullboat, mackinaw, and keelboat each served in its place before the coming of the steamboat in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

The simplest western craft was the canoe. This boat, made of birch bark, was a familiar sight on the lakes of the north country, but it was not used much on the trans-Mississippi waters owing to the absence of birch and because the frail craft was no match for the turbulent rivers. The typical river canoe was a dugout made from a cottonwood, walnut, or cedar log from fifteen to twenty feet long and three or four feet in diameter. Such a craft possessed strength and lightness. It required a crew of three, two to propel it with paddles and one to steer. It was universally used for local business and was the most generally employed of all the river craft. It was often used for express messages downriver and occasionally carried freight. Bear oil was an item freighted in canoes on the Missouri. Fats were scarce in St. Louis, and as bears were plentiful on the river above, much bear oil was carried down and used as a substitute for lard. Casks were not available in the wilderness, and since bear oil readily filtered through skin recep

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