Why Steamboat Captains

This post was written in response to another recent round of my being asked the question, “Why steamboat captains?”

Last week I visited a local museum to look at a few items relating to one of my steamboat captains- David C. Haney. I got to hold his steamboat logbook from 1865, a letter he wrote in 1876, and a tintype picture of him. It was exhilarating to see his picture and read his own words written by his hand. I will admit that I had a moment or two where I geeked out a little bit. Okay, a lot a bit.

A page from the back of the logbook that once belonged to David C. Haney. Held by the Durham Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.

I have been drawn to history for as long as I can remember. Ironically, steamboats used to be a topic that I did not find remotely interesting. Then about five years ago, through a series of circumstances that is perhaps best described and summed up as act of serendipity, I heard the name James McGarry. He was introduced to me by a living descendant of his brother Henry. Through the process of confirming for her if she really was related to this steamboat captain or not, I realized there was an incredible story just waiting for someone to come along and tell it. For the first time, I began asking myself questions about the lives of those who worked aboard steamboats: What were their lives like? What were they like? What were their contributions to history?

At first a little thing called graduate school got in the way of my really digging into research on Captain McGarry. I have now been researching him for over three years. I feel a sense of gratitude and honor in being his biographer. It often feels like I didn’t choose this project, it choose me. I think this project is possibly one of those once in a lifetime, a historians’ dream type of things. Researching his story has greatly added to my own. I have already scratched off items on my want to do and accomplish list when I haven’t even had an article about him published yet.  Researching Captain McGarry has been a challenge. I credit these challenges for strengthening my research abilities and for my overall growth as a historian.

Captain James McGarry
Captain James McGarry

While researching Captain McGarry, I have used a modified version of the FAN club. For those unfamiliar with this concept, the FAN club is a genealogy methodology in which you examine the friends, associates, and neighbors of your research subject to uncover more information about that subject. The use of this methodology has not only proven to yield a great deal of helpful information about McGarry, but introduced me to many other steamboatmen. Not just captains either. I am struck by the variety of their backgrounds, the unique nature of their contributions and personalities, as well as the depth of their stories. I will be a little sad when one day I must say goodbye to Captain McGarry, but I am excited to tell the others’ stories.

Those who worked the Upper Missouri river in particular have not received the attention they deserve. I hope to change that one story at a time. Below is a list of steamboatmen of the Upper Missouri for who I am endeavoring to answer the questions of What were their lives like? What were they like? What were their contributions to history?:

John Christie Barr

Nick Bueson

Nick Byrne

Sam Corbin

James Greenough

David C. Haney

Joseph Hill

Andy Johnson

William R. Massie (likely his brother John)

A. D. Rodefer

Abner Shaw

Charles Wiseman

And several others on my “Possibly” list……