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……




Goals & Hopes for 2017

As it is nearly the end of February and I am just now posting my hopes and goals for 2017, perhaps I should really consider adding updating my blog on a more regular basis or daresay even on a schedule to my list? If the past two months are any indication, it will be a very busy year for me.

I recently applied for a spot at the Association of Documentary Editing’s summer institute. If I get in, it will be a great opportunity for me. Historical document editing is one area I am committing to learning more about this year. Cross your fingers for me!

Next week, I will present a paper at the Missouri Valley History Conference. This is the third year I have done so. I will be discussing the life of John Christie Barr. He was a friend of our dear Captain McGarry. I have been pulling records on John hoping to find references to Captain McGarry (applying a genealogy research practice) for about a year now. Along the way I figured out that John, or Johnny as he liked to be called, also has a great story to share.

At the beginning of January I created a research plan for the entire year for my Captain McGarry project. However, I have already made so many breakthroughs that I have to completely redo that research plan. At the moment, my focus is on transcribing dozens of letters from my research trip to Montana. Once I am done with those I will draw up a new research plan. That plan will include several mini research trips throughout eastern Nebraska, to Sioux City, Iowa, possibly South Dakota, and perhaps even in Missouri.  My goal is to have my Captain McGarry research wrapped up by the end of the year if not by October.

I have a couple writing projects that I am going to stay mum about for the time being. Just know writing is one of my top goals for the year.

I recently updated my bio to reflect that I am once again a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists and available as a genealogist for hire. This is something I have been contemplating for a while and the timing just feels right. Two of my other genealogy goals for this year are devoting more time to the Rogue Genealogist and my own family tree. I have somewhat neglected my family tree. Sometimes I am just plain research burned out by the time I can get to working on my family tree! I am looking forward to spending more time on genealogy and coming up with ideas to combat research burn out.

Well, I have avoided transcribing this painfully difficult to read letter for long enough- back to work!

Save the Date

I am pleased to announce that McGarry’s Pub of Maple Plain, Minnesota (Twin Cities area) will be holding a fundraiser for my research into the life of Captain James McGarry. The fundraiser will be held the weekend of September 17, 2016 as a part of their Half Way to St.Patrick’s Day Celebration.  McGarry’s Pub is owned and operated by Bill McGarry, a descendant of the Captain’s brother Henry.

I will update this post as more details become available. In the meanwhile, please take a moment to check out their website and Facebook page. Their food looks mouthwatering! Words cannot express how grateful I am to have Bill organize this and how much support from the Captain’s living relatives means to me.

Donations can also be made at gofundme.com/KassieNelson.

Because He was Loved

137 years ago today, Captain James McGarry died.

Well known. Well liked. Well respected. But, famous he certainly was not.

His memory could have very easily faded into complete obscurity. It nearly has.

He died too soon, before his life could be documented by those clinging to the romance of the steamboat era.

He died too soon, in the prime of his life with many accomplishments behind him and likely just as many, if not more, before him.

He died too soon, his passing coming as a shock to all of those who knew him.

For years his memory has teetered on the edge of obscurity, overlooked by historians but kept alive because he was loved.

Because he was loved his family grieved so profoundly that the hardest of hearts feels heavy when reading of how that grief was expressed.

Because he was loved his siblings, nephews, and nieces held dear his memory and shared his legacy with the next generation, then another, and yet another seemingly defying the effects of passing time for well over 100 years.

Because he was loved, his memory did not fade into obscurity.

So today let us not remember him for the achievements made on the river but as the man who was loved as a brother and as an uncle.

Captain James McGarry

O Captain! My Captain!

DeSoto Lake, once a part of the Missouri River, frozen over in February.

I first came across the name Captain James McGarry back in 2012. I knew then there was something special about this steamboat captain, but, fully delving into his story had to go on the back burner until after I finished my masters. Once I was able to delve in, just how special he and his story are quickly became clear. I am what I refer to as a “stay-at-home historian.” What that means is that I’m an independent historian, but, I am also a stay-at-home mom.  Funding is hard to come by and the records I can order depend largely on what’s left over from the family budget at the end of the month. Over the last couple of months I began to realize just how quickly I was running out of free resources or records that could be obtained with ‘left over money.’ I needed funding. I needed it soon or else all the work I’ve done would be for nothing- my research would stall.

The prospect of not being able to properly tell the Captain’s story is a source of anxiety for me. I look at his story and I see not only a noble man but a way to bring a part of history that most may not even really consider to a new audience. I see it as something that sparks someone’s imagination and makes them think, “History is actually cool.” There is a certainly a unique kind of appeal and draw to it. Along the way I developed a hunch, a feeling, whatever you want to call it that this would also be “it” for me. That this would be the story that gets noticed. Hopefully, I’m not jinxing myself by saying this, but, so far it is turning out to be just that. I was over the moon when the paper about him that I presented at the Missouri Valley History Conference received an award from my alma mater . Over the moon does not begin to describe how I feel today. I am proud to announce that I am one of five recipients of the BYU Charles Redd Center’s Independent Research and Creative Works Award. It will fund a significant portion of my research, primarily my research trip to Helena, Montana. I have also setup a GoFundMe account to help with the remainder of the costs.

As excited as I am, I am also greatly humbled. Sometimes you do not find research projects, they find you. I am thankful the story of Captain McGarry found me. Tonight when my husband and I pop a bottle of champagne in celebration we will not only toast my supporters, we will toast the Captain- may I tell his story well.