The Tricky Missouri River and the Steamboat Bertrand
Iowa is the only state with four border rivers and the ability to navigate these rivers was of great importance in the settlement of Iowa before railroads. Steam boats and flatboats brought thousands of early settlers to the new land of Iowa. Steamboats brought supplies to the new Iowans and transported their produce to market. The lure of big profits lead steamboats to travel in unsafe river conditions and at unsafe conditions. This lead to many accidents and groundings.
On April Fool’s Day in 1865 the Missouri River played a trick on a steamboat named the Bertrand. The boat had left St. Louis two weeks earlier. It was headed toward the Montana Territory, where gold had been discovered.
About 25 miles north of Council Bluffs and Omaha there was a big V-shaped bend in the river. The bend was thick with snags of dead trees. Somewhere along that bend the Bertrand hit a snag. Within five minutes the boat sank. All the passengers were saved, but thousands of dollars worth of cargo was lost.
Over the years the shifting sands and the mud in the river buried the Bertrand. The course of the Missouri River changed too. No one could be quite sure where the steamboat had sunk. A hundred years had passed.
Then around 1968 two men in Omaha decided they would search for the Bertrand. They read old newspaper stories about the accident. They looked at old maps and tried to find where the river had flowed a hundred years earlier. Then they found evidence of a wooden boat buried under 25 feet of dirt, clay and logs. Could it be the Bertrand?
Digging down to the boat was an enormous job. As they dug the huge pit, groundwater filled the hole. Scuba divers tried to reach the boat, but the water was too muddy to see much. The water and mud had to be pumped out.
Finally they reached the boat's storage compartments. They lifted out a crate labeled "Bertrand." Then they found a chalkboard with the name "Fannie" carved around the outside. Fannie Campbell had been a little girl on the Bertrand. The size of the boat matched the size of the Bertrand. Everyone was sure that this was the steamboat that sank on April Fool's Day.
The next summer archaeologists set to work digging up the cargo. Most of it was covered with hard blue clay. The archaeologists had to wash or chip off the clay without damaging the items. But the clay had also preserved the cargo for a century. If the cargo had been exposed to air, much of it would have rotted away.
What did the archaeologists find? Just about everything! There were barrels of flour and nuts, jars of honey, catsup, mustard, and cans of pineapples and powdered lemonade. Bottles of alcohol and patent medicines still had paper labels on them. Rolls of silk cloth, shirts, coats and 3,000 shoes and boots were dug up. There were clocks and combs, lamps and mirrors, candy dishes and waffle irons. Crates held axes and hammers, doorknobs and washboards, plows and sleighbells. There were pick axes and blasting powder for gold miners. The artifacts were clues to what miners and settlers used in 1865.
The exact number of accidents in Iowa waters is not known. The Bertrand was just one of the many steamboats to sink. Visitors today can see over 200,000 artifacts taken from the Bertrand on display at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri Valley, Iowa.
- Ginalie Swaim Ed., “The Tricky Missouri,” The Goldfinch 6, no. 4 (April 1985): 7.