T. S. Bowdern, S.J.
Title: Joseph LaBarge Steamboat Captain
Source: The Missouri Historical Review published by the State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, Vol 62, Summer 1968, pgs 449-469
This article is reproduced on the Laberge-LaBarge Genealogy website with the permission of the State Historical Society of Missouri, 7/26/06.
Some of the most exciting episodes in America's frontier history during the nineteenth ceutury involved the steam boat traffic and trade. Explorers, traders, adventurers, merchants, artisans and farmers relied on this mode of transportation to take them, or their goods to points on the western frontier and beyond. Joseph LaBarge, whose lifetime (l815-1899) spans the history of the Missouri River steamboat trade, traveled the river for fifty-three eventful years. His fortunes rose and fell concurrently with the success and failure of the steamboat trade.
Joseph LaBarge was born in St. Louis on October 1, 1815.
At that time, St. Louis was an important center of steamboat activity. The community's geographical position, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, made it a natural meeting place, base of operation and point of embarkation for those connected with any operations involving river traffic.
His father, Joseph Marie LaBarge, had followed the river routes from Canada to St. Louis in 1808. Born in Assomption, Quebec, in 1787, Joseph Marie on hi arrival in the St. Louis area began selling charcoal to the inhabitants of that community. Eventually, he opened a boarding house that he later transformed and expanded into a hotel, tavern and livery stable.
Joseph Marie led an exciting and often dangerous life. He carried dispatches during the Indian wars with the Sac and Fox, fought against the British during the War of 1812 and periodically joined various fur trading expeditions.
In 1813, Joseph Marie married Eulalie Alverez Horitz, a young woman whose father, Joseph Alverez Horitz, had served as military attaché to Spanish territorial governors Zenon Trudeau and Charles Dehault DeLassus. Their son, Joseph LaBarge, was the second oldest of seven children in the family.
Shortly after Joseph's birth, the family moved to a farm at Baden, north of St. Louis. As he grew older, Joseph received what elementary education was available in St. Louis. This education included the learning of English. For three years, he was a student at St. Mary's College, Perry County, Missouri. He probably acquired some semblance of a high school education at this institution before he was sent home at the age of fifteen. St. Mary's, a preparatory school for candidates for priesthood, discovered that young LaBarge was not really interested in becoming a member of the religious order.
After his dismissal, Joseph worked for John Bent, a lawyer in St. Louis. Because of Bent's excessive drinking, young LaBarge left his employ and for almost a year clerked in a clothing store. Bored with this occupation, and wanting adventure and excitement Joseph found himself attracted to the fur trade. In 1831, with his father's blessing, Joseph LaBarge started looking for a fur trading venture.
When young LaBarge made his decision to leave the clothing business the fur trading expeditions were already on their way up the Missouri. This predicament afforded Joseph the opportunity to travel down the Mississippi River as a clerk on the steamboat Yellowstone, which was engaged in the sugar trade downriver.
Because he spoke both French and English, LaBarge proved most useful as an interpreter on this trip. The next spring, as an engagé, or hired hand, of the American Fur Company, he started up the Missouri on the Yellowstone on her historic trip "farthest north" to the Yellowstone River. At Council Bluffs, a few miles above the site of the present city of Omaha, he was drafted off the boat by John P. Cabanne, the bourgeois, or head man, of the trading post there.
When the Yellowstone came down the Missouri on her return trip, Cabanne boarded her with his favorite new hand, LaBarge, and went to St. Louis. While Cabanne was busy with affairs of the company, LaBarge shipped on the Warrior for a trip up the Mississippi to Prairie du Chien at the mouth of the Wisconsin River, where the famous Jesuit Father Marquette had discovered the Mississippi in 1678 and where his own father had entered the Mississippi in 1808.
On his return to St. Louis LaBarge joined Cabanne. Together they went up the Missouri to Council Bluffs for LaBarge's first winter among the Indians. With four men under his command and a supply of merchandise to trade for furs he spent the winter of 1832-1833 in a village of Pawnees on the Loup Fork of the Platte River in Nebraska about 100 miles west of modem Omaha. LaBarge was popular with the Indians because he possessed the knack of making himself agreeable to all. The Pawnees were especially infatuated by his writing down their language and reading it back to them. This procedure helped LaBarge master the language which, in turn, added to his stature in the Indian community.
With spring's arrival in 1833 LaBarge took his stock of furs in bull boats down the Loup to the Platte to the Missouri and then in mackinaw boats to St. Louis.
On the Yellowstone's second trip up the Missouri in the summer of 1833 LaBarge went aboard for Council Bluffs. Cholera broke out on board and by the time the steamboat reached the Kansas River, so many of the crew were dead including the pilot, engineer and all the firemen that Captain Anson G. Bennett had to put ashore. Bennett left for St. Louis to engage another crew leaving young LaBarge in command.
LaBarge, on previous voyages, made the most of his opportunities to learn how to handle a steamboat. When the Missouri settlers heard that cholera was rampant on the Yellowstone, they proceeded to the river to burn the boat unless LaBarge moved it. He became a one-man crew-fireman, engineer, pilot. He got up steam and single-handedly piloted the Yellowstone far enough upstream to be free from the threats of the Missourians. Eventually Captain Bennett returned with a new crew and proceeded to finish the trip to Council Bluffs.
That winter LaBarge rode for the Pony Express. The American Fur Company exchanged messages between its St. Louis headquarters and all its posts. This precious packet of letters went by horseback from St. Louis to Fort Pierre and by dog-sled between Fort Pierre and the posts above. At Pierre the St. Louis messenger usually met the messenger coming down from the outposts. Exchanging packets, each returned to his starting point. In this way the headquarters obtained invaluable and timely information about supplies needed all along the line and on the prospects of the season's procurement of furs.
The express rider from St. Louis to Council Bluffs in January, 1834, was none other than LaBarge's father, Joseph Marie. As a young man, the elder LaBarge had paddled a birchbark canoe from Quebec to St. Louis with only eight miles of portage. In his own right he was a hero of the West. Named for him is the LaBarge Creek (also called Battle Creek) that flows into the upper Missouri and the LaBarge Creek that flows into the Green River in Wyoming.
After a brief reunion between father and son, Major Joshua Pilcher asked the younger LaBarge to take the express to Pierre. The day after his arrival at Fort Pierre the express from Fort Union came in by dog-sled. LaBarge took the express down the river to Council Bluffs, or Cabanne's Post as the company's establishment was called.
That spring, Joseph LaBarge was sent to St. Louis with furs and buffalo robes collected at Cabanne's Post. Again, in the spring of 1835, he transported furs to St. Louis. Concluding this venture, his three-year contract with the American Fur Company was completed and he signed to work for the winter with Joseph Robidoux in the Black Snake Hills. Robidoux's post, named St. Joseph, eventually developed into the Missouri city of the same name.
The next four years LaBarge traveled on the Missouri River serving on different steamboats as clerk, pilot and master. With his reputation as a pilot established he could command almost any steamboat he wanted. Returning to the employ of the American Fur Company in 1840, he received an order to transfer to a new steamboat, the Trapper. By refusing to obey be shocked and angered the company's officials. The American Fur Company's discipline with their employees and their crushing of competitors was ruthless and unscrupulous. Expecting to be obeyed without a word, the owners were undoubtedly surprised when LaBarge not only walked out on them but, also, immediately became one· of their competitors or the "opposition."
With his own savings and the backing of two partners, J. B. Roy and Henry Shaw of St. Louis, LaBarge bought a store of goods to trade with the Indians and chartered the Thames to carry them as far as Council Bluffs. The cargo included a number of wagons for which LaBarge hoped to buy enough horses or oxen to pull. Starting late in the season from Council Bluffs he proceeded by wagon to the Niobrara River. There, because of snow, he changed to sleds and travele on the ice of the frozen Missouri. These actions were construed as a declaration of war by the American Fur Company.
the Niobara, LaBarge found Narcisse LeClerc, a casualty of a previous
"opposition" war with the company. In fact, LaBarge had helped Cabanne
put LeClerc out of business eight years before this meeting.
latter was in desperate need of employment to feed his family who were
with him and LaBarge hired him.
The caravan proceeded up the frozen Missouri, past the Vermillion and Handy's Post. At the post, they met a white man, Bruyere, and ten Indians who said they were on their way to Vermillion. LeClerc did not believe their story and warned LaBarge of his apprehension. LaBarge then plied the strangers with liquor. Inebriated, Bruyere admitted the party was sent to ambush the trading venture. While his new "friends" slept off their stupor, LaBarge slipped away reaching safely the abandoned Fort Lookout, took possession of the huildings, and set up his own trading post.
Another plot against him unfolded when a single unarmed Indian, a brother-in-law of the agent at Pierre, brought LaBarge an invitation to visit Pierre. LaBarge discovered that the Indian was not unarmed when he found the latter's weapons hidden in a tree. Hiding the weapons himself, the captain left the next day with his would-be assassin. His unexpected arrival at Pierre emharrassed the treacherous agent. However, he feigned welcome, fed LaBarge and kept the unexpected guest awake all night trying to get him drunk in hopes of killing him or cheating him while he was in the desired condition.
LaBarge, wary of this plot, refused to drink and, as he expected, the agent offered to buy him out. At first the offer was rejected but when the captain discovered that LeClerc, through imprudence or disloyalty, had placed him and his property in even greater danger, he yielded. Selling all of his stock at cost-plus-ten-percent, LaBarge, in 1841, signed a three-year contract with the American Fur Company. His first job under the contract was to bring furs, trapped by the Pawnees, down the Platte and the Missouri to St. Louis.
The year 1845 was a turning point in the history of the
River. Until that year, LaBarge and others, making their living in the
steamboat trade, spent the majority of their time immersed in the fur
trade. But with the coming of the Mexican War, the westward trek of the
Mormons and the discovery of gold in California and adjacent areas, the
volume of business destined for the steamboat trade swelled enormously.
With these windfalls rapidly developing, LaBarge took the necessary
steps to increase his own fortune.
In 1846, he purchased his first steamboat, the General Brooks, for $12,000. Selling the boat at the end of the trading season, LaBarge stayed in Cincinatti to supervise the construction of a new steamboat, the Martha, which was readied for the 1847 season. LaBarge became master of the Martha due to the retirement of Captain Joseph A. Sire. Accompanying him on the Martha's maiden voyage was his wife, the former Pelagie Guerette, whom he had married in 1842. Pelagie's Louisiana French father, Pierre, was a millwright and architect who constructed one of the first grist mills in St. Louis for Auguste Chouteau. The mother of LaBarge's five sons and two daughters, she achieved distinction on this voyage of being the first white woman to travel the upper Missouri River.
On the return trip of 1848, LaBarge brought a menagerie of wild animals to St. Louis. At this time he experienced more difficulties with the American Fur Company which he solved by selling the Martha to the company. Immediately he built a new steamboat named the St. Ange, after the first military governor of Upper Louisiana. Both LaBarge and the steamboat were commissioned by the Quartermaster's Department for army service.
Under the commission, one of LaBarge's duties was to transport supplies from St. Louis to army posts. On the second return trip from Fort Leavenworth, being delayed by a storm kept the St. Ange from being destroyed. Arriving at St. Louis after midnight, LaBarge discovered the levee enveloped in a roaring inferno. If the St. Ange had not been delayed, it might have been destroyed in the "Great Fire" of 1849 which devastated twenty-three other steamboats and the main business district of the city.
LaBarge established the speed record for steamboats on the Missouri River in 1850 when he piloted the St. Ange from St. Louis to the Yellowstone River in twenty-eight days. He achieved another record the next year when he navigated the same steamboat to the Poplar River, the farthest point reached by that mode of travel at that time.
His passenger list on the latter trip included the famous Jesuit missionary, Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, and his companion, Father Christian Hoecken. During the trip up the rivers, Father Hoecken died of cholera and was buried at the Little Sioux River. On the return, LaBarge exhumed the remains and brought them to St. Louis where they were received by the Jesuit Fathers.
After the record-breaking trip, LaBarge sold the St. Ange and, at the age of thirty-six, retired from the river to enjoy the fortune he now possessed. Some of this fortune he invested in a large section of real estate called Cabanne Place. The captain chose to sell this property and undoubtedly regretted his move as later developments made the site extremely valuable.LaBarge returned to the river in 1852 and, until 1855, he bought, sold and built steamboats and once again began trading. The American Fur Company, in 1855, sold Fort Pierre to the United States government. This prompted the beginning of the military conquest of the upper Missouri country and LaBarge, with a new boat named the St. Mary, moved the fur company out to a new post and returned to bring the army to the newly acquired fort.
Pierre Chouteau invited LaBarge to become a partner, supervise the construction, and command the St. Mary. The former's action was not unselfish. A mutiny on the fur company's voyage of the preceding year resulted in a great financial loss. Knowing that LaBarge had never failed in any of his voyages, the owners, for their own protection, wanted the captain to become a member of their company. LaBarge agreed and obtained a quarter interest in the St. Mary.
In 1849 a delay was responsible for LaBarge's missing the levee fire at St. Louis. His daring and seamanship, in turn, saved the St. Mary in 1856. Usually the river ice in the Mississippi would break and move gradually because of melting, causing only small ice-floes. But in 1856 the ice was four feet thick and the water level very low. With an unexpected rise in the river, the entire ice-surface moved from its shore anchorage in a solid, unbroken mass. It crushed all the steamboats and other craft wintering at St. Louis except the St. Mary. Reacting quickly, LaBarge got up steam while the mate persuaded several men to volunteer to come aboard. At the proper moment, the captain backed the St. Mary out into the moving ice and went down the river; he traveled twenty miles before he could maneuver the boat free.
In spite of saving this steamboat in which the American Fur Company owned half interest and other services he performed, LaBarge ended his employment with the company in the same year. This parting of the ways stemmed from an incident involving the chief clerk of the St. Mary, one of the sons of the partners in the fur company. The clerk's wife went along on a trip under the protection of LaBarge. At Fort Clark, the "bourgeois," or head of the post came aboard to travel to Fort Union. To make room for the man, two junior clerks were put out of their stateroom to sleep on cots elsewhere. The "bourgeois" resented this, and, holding an important post in the fur company hierarchy, said he would commandeer the lodging of the chief clerk, with pointed reference to the young man's wife. That night LaBarge allowed the bully to get as far as the cabin door, then collared him and literally kicked him to the other end of the boat. He ordered the crew to put the man off to spend the remainder of the night in the willows along the shore.
When the St. Mary returned to St. Louis, the young wife at once called on Mrs. LaBarge to thank her for the captain's gallant protection. In the meantime, the clerk proved himself an ungrateful coward by omitting all reference to LaBarge's chivalry and submitted to his father an official report that the captain was guilty of severe conduct to the company's employees. The report led to LaBarge's dismissal from the company. He accepted the disgrace silently and, in three years, when the father learned the truth, he called on the captain to apologize and attempted to repair the damage caused by his son's actions. LaBarge declined the offers of the father and did not rejoin the fur company. He never could accept the cruel injustices and unscrupulous methods of that dictatorial monopoly.
Captain LaBarge did not have to worry about unemployment. The years 1855 to 1860, were the peak years of the golden age of Missouri River steamboating and the Missouri River pilot was the king. A natural highway to the West, the Missouri's banks were settled higher and higher, year after year, until by 1852, the tide of settlement reached Sioux City, Iowa. In 1858, there were fiftynine steamboats in regular traffic between Omaha and St. Louis. During the next year, more steamboats left St. Louis for Missol,lri River points than for the upper and lower Mississippi River together.
The farthest point of navigation on the Missouri was constantly changed by the daring river pilots. Finally, in 1859, the Chippewa traveled to a point fifteen miles from Fort Benton. John LaBarge, brother of Joseph, captained the Chippewa during this venture. The former was also a famous pilot and in the opinion of the only woman pilot on the Missouri, Mrs. Woolfolk, (later Mrs. M. I. Draper), the brothers were the greatest steamboat men in the history of the Missouri River. Captain John LaBarge, who died at the wheel while making a landing at Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1885, accomplished a memorable feat on that 1859 journey. He piloted the Chippewa farther from the sea than any steamboat on any river in history - 3,500 miles.
On October 1, 1859, Joseph LaBarge celebrated his forty-fourth birthday by taking his new steamboat, the Emilie, on her maiden voyage. Designer, builder, owner and pilot, the captain named the vessel for one of his daughters. The Emilie was 225 feet long, 32 feet wide in the beam, six feet deep in the hold with a capacity of 500 tons; the average steamboat carried 200 or 300 tons.
The Emilie's most famous passenger was Abraham Lincoln. In modern Council Bluffs, a monument marks the spot where Lincoln stood in August, 1859, and looked out over the majestic Missouri River Valley. He gave a speech, examined some real estate and conversed with General Grenville M. Dodge, just returned from making surveys for the route of the Union Pacific Railroad. Later, when Lincoln was president, and because of these talks, he decreed that the Union Pacific should start in Council Bluffs instead of Omaha.
In the fall of that same year, ice stymied the Emilie near Atchison, Kansas, and forced LaBarge to stay there for the winter. The next spring, at the request of the citizens of Atchison, he used the Emilie as an ice-breaker, opening a channel between Atchison and St. Joseph by maneuvering the boat up on the ice until her weight broke through. Ice caught LaBarge and his vessel the next year near Liberty, Missouri, and while there he heard that his tall passenger of the previous year had been elected president.
Within a few months the Civil War became a reality. The Missouri River was a "Southern" river. Most of the people along her banks and almost all the river pilots were Southern sympathizers. LaBarge, although in sympathy with the South, preferred union to disunion and took an oath of allegiance to the United States government. Operating his boat in the service of that government, he suffered rough treatment from the armies of both North and South because neither side completely trusted him.
The traffic on the Missouri reached enormous proportions during the war. This increased volume did not originate solely because of the civil conflict. A gold rush in Montana attained its peak in the same period and naturally added names to the passenger lists of the steamboats. For those who traveled the Missouri at this time it was an exciting and dangerous experience. Below Omaha, in the lower river, boats were fired upon by both armies, while on the upper river, they were attacked by the Indian tribes who were becoming bitterly hostile.LaBarge, hoping to reap an even larger share of the government trade, went into business in 1861 with his brother John, Eugene Jaccard, James Harkness and Charles Galpin. Each of the partners invested $10,000 in LaBarge, Harkness & Company. The captain sold the Emilie to the company and the smaller Shreveport was also purchased. At the end of April, 1862, the "fleet" prepared to sail.
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