15 March 2006

Black American Steamboatmen on the Upper Missouri

In Honor of Black History Month
Black American Steamboatmen on the Upper Missouri
By Ken Robison

Published in the Fort Benton River Press 15 Feb 2006

This continues the series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center at the Schwinden Library & Archives in Fort Benton.

We don’t know the first black American to come up the Missouri River to Fort Benton by steamboat, though he no doubt came not as a passenger but rather as a crewman. We do now that many blacks worked as steamboatmen on the Upper Missouri, while some came as passengers, and some remained to become Montana pioneers. Little has been written about their experiences.

Black Americans, both slave and free, had long served on riverboats in the ante-bellum years. Steamboat owners employed their slaves as roustabouts, or “roosters,” as well as immigrant Irish and Germans, other foreign-born, and young Americans. Free blacks often served as stewards, cooks, cabin boys and chambermaids.

With black emancipation and the end of the Civil War, the composition of steamboat crews changed. For freed blacks, working on the river offered jobs and some opportunity for advancement and relocation. Mixed race crews became common on the western rivers including the Missouri.

Some insight into the crew situation on the Upper Missouri is provided by the 1880 census. Taken in Fort Benton in early June, this census shows two steamboats were located at the levee with their crews recorded in the census records. The steamboat Key West under Captain Frank Maratta brought about 270 passengers to Fort Benton from Bismarck including 200 North West Mounted Police. Among the crew of 41 were seventeen Scandinavians and three blacks. The black Americans were young Kate Murphy, age 20 from Kentucky, working as laundress; Frank Thomas, age 24 from Virginia, a rooster; and David Homes, age 33 from New York, a rooster.

The second steamboat in the census, the Nellie Peck, under Captain Martin Coulson, was manned by a crew of 39 with eleven foreign born and four blacks. The black Americans were Lucy Chapman, age 30 from Missouri, a servant; Bush Glenn, age 18 from Kentucky, a waiter; Henry Randoff, age 20 from Tennessee, a cook; and George Stockwell, age 25 from Virginia, a waiter.

A reminder of the dangers of travel on the Upper Missouri comes from the experience of Wesley McClellan, a young black deckhand age about 20 from Nashville who fell overboard off the Helena enroute Fort Benton in June 1882 and was presumed drowned.

The best knowledge we have of a black crewman who remained on the Upper Missouri comes from remarkable young Edward D. Simms. Ed Simms was just nineteen years old when he made his first trip by steamboat to Fort Benton in 1873. Simms, had been born into the slave society of Arkansas in 1853, and after emancipation worked for a time in Texas. On the steamer he worked as assistant steward on that first trip, and in his words, “The people and the country looked good to me from the first, and I determined to live here.”


(1) Steamboat crewman Ed Simms [Photo from Great Falls Tribune 1911]

(2) Ed Simms worked on Steamboat Red Cloud 1878-1880 [From Overholser Historical Research Center]

Simms continued his account, “After a time I got employment on another boat, the Red Cloud, on which I worked from 1878 to 1880. It was owned by Howard Conrad and later by the firm of Conrad & Baker. I quit the boat on August 15, 1880, and went to work for Joseph A. Baker and after that I worked for Charles Price, both of them living in Fort Benton. I served them as cook and general handy man about the home. One of the colored people in Fort Benton then was Henrietta Johnson, now living in this city.” [Mrs. Henrietta Johnson was one of 76 blacks living in Fort Benton in 1880, and she worked as chambermaid at the Grand Union on its opening November 2, 1882.]

Ed Simms went on, “Then I worked in the dining room of the Choteau house at Fort Benton for Jerry Sullivan and then I went to Fort Shaw to work for Mr. McKnight [the post trader at Fort Shaw]. That was 1882, and I stayed there till 1886, when I came to Great Falls.” Ed Simms became the first black resident of Great Falls, and in the summer of 1886, he returned to St. Louis to marry Elizabeth Miller. Their daughter Gertrude, born in Great Falls in 1887, was the first black child born in the growing town. Simms worked as chef at the Cascade Hotel and later as steward for the exclusive Rainbow Club. Ed and Elizabeth Simms became social, religious, and civic leaders in the black community of Great Falls.

Few black passengers are known to have come by steamboat up the Missouri River since the trip was relatively expensive and an adventure into the unknown. The first recorded in our Upper Missouri River Passenger file came to Fort Benton on the steamboat Emilie in June 1862, either as the slave or servant of William Hurlbert. In June 1876, adventurous Mattie Bell Bost, who was born a slave in North Carolina and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, brought two white children to Fort Benton to join their mother Mrs. Sire. Within a year of arriving in Fort Benton, Mattie owned her own laundry. In 1879 she married John K. Castner, and this dynamic couple together founded the town of Belt.

By 1878 the boom building period of Fort Benton had begun, and the word had spread downriver that there were jobs and good times at the head of navigation. In that year, Henry and Henrietta Johnson came up the Missouri by steamboat. The Adams sisters, Mary and Maria, were mixed race young ladies who had worked at Fort Abraham Lincoln for General and Mrs. Custer, until the general’s death. Mary and Maria heard about the good times in Fort Benton and took passage on the steamboat Nellie Peck. Mary died at Fort Shaw within a year of arrival in Montana territory. Maria prospered as a businesswoman and in 1880 married Duke Dutriueille. Until her death in 1939, Maria was a leader in the black social and religious community in Fort Benton, Helena, Marysville, Belt, and Great Falls.

We can all learn from the steamboat adventures of black Americans on the Upper Missouri. Blacks shared with native and foreign-born adventurers of all races that frontier Montana offered challenges and opportunities for all.