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……




Joseph Hill’s Moustache

Joseph Hill is an intriguing character in the history of the Upper Missouri. He was an early settler of the region and a prominent businessman who came from an interesting background but died from a painful growth on his spine at all too young of an age. He worked side by side with some of Montana’s greatest early businessman and had connections to none other than our old friend Captain James McGarry. Joseph Hill was part owner of the steamer Benton and served as clerk for the steamer’s maiden voyage in 1875. As you may recall if you follow my blog, McGarry oversaw the building of the Benton, was part owner, and served as her captain from 1875 through 1877.

Joseph Hill also had a rather intriguing moustache.  A face adorned with an impressive moustache was cause for high praise and even conducive to romance. For instance, take the May 7, 1875 edition of the New Northwest which shared the following supposed Spanish proverb “A kiss without a moustache is like an egg without salt.”

Joseph’s moustache was impressive enough to make the papers at least twice.  That is, to date I have found two articles and suspect there may indeed be more. Joseph’s moustache first made the newspapers when on March 11, 1875 the Helena Weekly Herald commented “Mr. Joseph Hill…is successfully growing a Missouri moustache.” It is unclear if he had difficulty growing the said moustache, if a previous calamity had befallen it, either way the demise of his moustache in 1876 made the papers. This time in the Benton Record:

Sept 1 1876 p3 col1-b

Oh what a tragedy to occur as the result of a intently reading the bible (cough, cough). We are able to glean some idea of what his moustache looked like from the details included the article. Despite the fact that the moustache was considered “young and tender,” it appears it was long since it would not grow back out until the following spring. What exactly is a Missouri moustache? I’m not sure, but, it does sound rather grand. Perhaps I can find a picture of Mr. Hill and his grand moustache when I’m out in Montana later this year.

What do you think of this article? Satire or were they serious? Perhaps a little of both? And, what of Joseph Hill’s explanation- likely or a good cover story?

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.