Navigating the Missouri: Steamboating on Nature’s Highway, 1819–1935

by William E. Lass, The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2008, $45.

William Lass’ research of Missouri River steamboating began with his doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which led to his 1962 book, The History of Steamboating on the Upper Missouri River. More than four decades later, he realized that academia had yet to produce a complete history of steamboating along the entire Missouri system. “So,” he notes, “I decided to write one.”

The void has been filled. Navigating the Missouri is a thorough, well-documented and lively history someone should have tackled years ago. It starts with an introduction to the vessels on the Missouri in 1819—“during a surge of American nationalism”—and ends on December 31, 1935, when the last steamboat, Hermann, was sold and removed from the river.

Lass relates 116 years of river transportation, highlighted by steamboating entrepreneurs, colorful captains and hazards. The latter included boiler explosions, snags and disasters such as the Great Fire—the St. Louis levee fire of May 17, 1849. But the author also examines the periods the business affected, including the fur trade, westward migration and relations with Indian tribes. “Missouri River steamboating has to be considered as part of the Industrial Revolution that rapidly transformed the United States,” writes Lass, professor emeritus of history at Minnesota State University at Mankato.


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here