Author:  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.

Joseph LaBarge 
Steamboat Captain 

Captain Joseph LaBarge (1815-1899)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.

George Catlin's Study of Fur Traders, which appeared in His "North American Indians," Vol. IBecause 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.

Henry ShawAt 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.  The 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 Missouri 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.

E. B. Trail Coll.

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.

Pierre Chouteau, Jr. John LaBarge departed in the Shreveport and two weeks later, his brother followed with the Emilie. Still the pride of the river, the Emilie not only overtook the Shreveport but lost time in helping her into port at Fort Benton. Still, with loss of time, the Emilie completed its trip upriver which totaled 2,300 miles in thirty-two days and the return trip to St. Louis in fifteen days, an average speed of 71 miles per day up and 152 miles per day down the river. This feat was considered remarkable in 1862. In fact, it was so remarkable that Pierre Chouteau, Jr., sent his carriage to the St. Louis levee to bring LaBarge to him to discuss the record trip. This was an extraordinary courtesy from a member of the American Fur Company and a leader of LaBarge "opposition."

One incident, which occurred during the record trip was less surprising and more in keeping with the American Fur Company policy. The Spread Eagle, a fur company boat, attempted to ram the Emilie ahove Fort Berthold. This transpired during the first steamboat race on the upper Missouri. The Spread Eagle left St. Louis three days before the Emilie and the latter overtook her near Fort Berthold. For two days the boats were together; then the Emilie began to pull away. Captain Robert E. Bailey maneuvered the Spread Eagle into the regular channel to the right of the island while LaBarge turned to the left. The course to the left provided the captain with a shorter channel and it was navigable only because of a recent flooding of the river. As soon as Bailey realized that he was beaten, he brought his boat around in pursuit and rammed the Emilie amidships. Under the threat of being shot Bailey backed away before much damage occurred, Triumphant, the Emilie proceeded to Fort Benton and arrived four days before the Spread Eagle and returned to St. Louis a week ahead of her adversary. Charges were preferred against Bailey for his actions and the steamboat inspector revoked his license which was eventually restored through the efforts of LaBarge.

Before Bailey was reinstated, LaBarge returned up the Missouri with a group of people, including his wife. At Sioux City they met the Shreveport coming down and the cargo and passengers were transferred from the Emilie to the lighter steamboat which returned to Fort Benton. Here, LaBarge, Harkness & Company planned to construct their main trading post. On June 28, 1862, Mrs. Joseph LaBarge drove the stake of the new post named Fort LaBarge. To celebrate the event a pleasure trip was taken to see the Great Falls of the Missouri, thirty-seven miles away, by a party that included Mrs. LaBarge, Margaret Harkness and Father De Smet; the two ladies from St. Louis were the first white women to see the Great Falls.

After the departure of the Shreveport with the tourists from St. Louis, James Harkness left Fort LaBarge with an ox train of merchandise for the new mining camps in Montana. He exhibited the telltale signs of an unregenerate tenderfoot and by the time he reached Deer Lodge Valley he gave up his mission, turned over his goods to Nick Wall and hurried back to St. Louis. Captain LaBarge later said in disgust, "He was back in St. Louis almost as soon as I was." Wall was instructed to sell the goods and receive a commission. However, the company never obtained any money from the goods left with him. Ironically, Wall's trading post was named LaBarge City although two years later the name was changed to Deer Lodge.

The year 1862 was a busy one for the Emilie. After the two voyages on the Missouri Captain LaBarge took her into government service on the Mississippi during late summer, fall and through the winter. Union armies under General Ulysses Grant were fighting their way south to the climax of the siege and capture of Vicksburg in 1863 as the Emilie carried stores between St. Louis and Memphis.

In the spring of 1863, Captain LaBarge expected to make the usual trips up the Missouri with the Emilie and the Shreveport. To his surprise the quartermaster at St. Louis told him he could not take the Emilie out of government service. Captain LaBarge then sold the Emilie for $25,000 to the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad and left them to argue with the quartermaster. He chartered the Robert Campbell and began to load her and the Shreveport. The Shreveport left in the latter part of April with a cargo for the mines of Montana and the trading posts of the LaBarge, Harkness & Company while the Robert Campbell was under contract to transport the goods which the government was to distribute to the Indians. The year 1863 was a year of low water.  In any year the steamboats always left as early as they could to have the advantage of the high water necessary to reach the farthest posts and forts on the upper river. But the Department of Indian Affairs delayed Captain LaBarge forty-two days! Even then he had to leave without some goods which were shipped by railroad to meet him at St. Joseph.

An armed guard of thirty soldiers went on the boat as far as St. Joseph. Their original orders were to see the government cargo safely through the war zone. However, they were just as important in defending against hostile Indians as they were against Confederates. Unfortunately the soldiers disembarked at St. Joseph and LaBarge continued his slow journey unprotected.  By June 20, 1863, the Robert Campbell reached Fort Pierre.

Samuel M. Latta, the Sioux Indian agent, began distributing the goods assigned to the Indians by the United States government.  Because of Latta's dishonesty, he held back one-third of the total goods; the Indians became incensed. Their anger was aroused even earlier when eight of their tribe were killed by soldiers. Hoping that LaBarge could help them, the Sioux appealed to the captain for help. However, LaBarge was powerless and could not persuade the Indian agent to deal honestly.

Latta ordered LaBarge to proceed on his journey. Still angered by the failure in receiving their allotted goods, the Indians pursued the Robert Campbell. Whenever the current carried the steamboat close to a high bank the Indians fired their weapons. LaBarge, to protect lives and property, ordered the building of a barricade using the freight on board.

For 600 miles this nmning fight continued-all the way to Fort Union. The worst incident occurred at Tobacco Garden where 1,500 Sioux lay in ambush planning to capture the boat and massacre the crew and passengers. An attempted parley was ended by the treachery of the Indians who killed three and severely wounded one out of a volunteer crew of seven men who rowed a small boat ashore to meet them. Retaliating with all their firearms, including three howitzers, those aboard the two steamships killed eighteen Indians and wounded many others.

The annuity goods destined for the Montana tribes of Crows, Assiniboines and Blackfeet were to be carried as far as Fort Benton but the boats could not make it because of low water. Progress halted at the mouth of the Yellowstone River and Dr. Henry W. Reed, agent for the Blackfeet, proposed that the cargo be unloaded and stored in the American Fur Company warehouse at Fort Union to be delivered as soon as possible. Past experience reminded LaBarge that he could not trust the fur company but under the circumstance there was nothing that he could do. He did, however, insist that full receipts be made with Captain W. B. Greer, United States Army, as witness and that agent Reed sign a statement concerning the transaction.

The empty steamboats started for St. Louis under the command of the two LaBarge brothers. They were stopped at Crow Creek, eighty-two miles below Fort Pierre, by General Alfred Sully who commandeered the Shreveport. John LaBarge refused to stay with the vessel, so his brother traded boats with him and John took the Robert Campbell back to St. Louis while Joseph operated the Shreveport in support of Sully's victorious expedition against the Indians.

LaBarge started home again but at Leavenworth he was ordered to bring a cargo of supplies to Sioux City. As late in the season as it was, the trip was successful and when LaBarge finally returned to St. Louis he was exhausted from the rigors of the past months.

He then went to Washington, D. C., to straighten out his unsatisfactory affairs. Unfortunately, the government paid him only for the goods delivered to the Indians and renewed his contract to pick up the goods stored with the American Fur Company and carry them on to Fort Benton. By the next spring, the American Fur Company sold these goods and since the goods never reached Fort Benton, the government refused to honor the contract; this meant a loss of $20,000 for LaBarge.

LaBarge, Harkness & Company could expect no mercy from the American Fur Company. Being in opposition, both were involved in a war to the death. With a better partner than Harkness, LaBarge might have combatted the company more effectively. To make matters worse, in 1863, the Roe and Wall Company of St. Louis was also fighting for the right to supply the Montana  mines. Although LaBarge had done many substantial favors for Nick Wall, the latter now used all his resources to ruin his benefactor.  He succeeded, with the help of LaBarge's incompetent partners and staff. Court proceedings continued through 1865, and LaBarge, Harkness & Company were then out of "opposition" and the captain incurred a loss of $100,000.

Before the court reached its final judgment, LaBarge decided on his own initiative to enter the still profitable trade with the Montana mines. He sold the Shreveport earlier for $25,000 and was without a boat; but this predicament was soon remedied.

John S. McCune John S. McCune, president of the Keokuk Packet Company, brought to St. Louis the steamboat, Effie Deans which, being inadequate for his business, he decided to sell. LaBarge bought three-fourths interest in the boat for $40,000 and McCune retained the other fourth as a partner's share. On March 22, 1864, the Effie Deans left for Montana and, because she could not get as far as Fort Benton, the cargo for the mines was transferred to a wagon train and the captain's brother, John, took the boat back to St. Louis.

Moving the supplies overland, LaBarge succeeded in selling out at Fort Benton and Virginia City. Everyone in Virginia City seemed to know that he accumulated $100,000 in gold-dust from his trading and a group of citizens kept an eye on the captain while they planned to rob the stagecoach in which he would depart for St. Louis. Since it was too dangerous to return home via the Missouri River because of the potential Indian attacks, LaBarge announced his departure for Salt Lake City by stagecoach and then left at an carlier date. The stagecoach on which he had announced his departure was waylaid and a passenger killed.

In Salt Lake City, he visited with his old friends, Brigham Young and the Mormon leaders. Because it was the least expensive way to return home, he organized a party of fellow travelers and together they purchased a team and wagon. Going by way of Fort Bridger and the South Platte Valley, they were informed near the Platte River, that an Indian war party was running amuck. For several days the travelers hid on an island in the Platte and when they started again, they found a party of emigrants who had been massacred the previous day. At Nebraska City, south of Omaha, they reached the Missouri River just in time to catch the last boat for St. Louis. On his arrival LaBarge discovered that his partner's company had chartered the Effie Deans for a trip to Montgomery, Alabama. When the steamboat returned to St. Louis the long distance record for one season, 8,400 miles, was completed.

The next spring, Captain LaBarge left for Montana hoping to repeat the preceding year's success. On the way. he heard the news of Lee's surrender and Lincoln's assassination. When he arrived at Fort Benton, the cargo was put ashore and Captain Thomas Ray took command of the Effie Deans return voyage. LaBarge again hired a wagon train and journeyed to a new mining town in Montana named Helena. Deciding to retail his goods. he bought a house, used it for a store and appointed himself and his son as salesmen.

While LaBarge was selling his goods in Helena, McCune sent another cargo of supplies to Fort Benton on the Kate Kearney with LaBarge's brother John as captain. Potential Indian attacks caused the Kate Kearney to turn back above Fort Union. When the Montana miners heard of this they sued McCune for $300,000.  Remembering LaBarge's $100,000 disaster, McCune hurried an overland message to his partner. Leaving his son in charge at Helena. Joseph LaBarge started for Fort Benton.

Fortunately, Captain Ray met the Kate Kearney and transferred the cargo to the Effie Deans and prepared to travel back to Fort Benton. Shallow water forced Ray to unload at Fort Galpin, a little above the Milk River. He then sent a message to Fort Benton and LaBarge, already there, at once hired thirty ox teams and went to Fort Galpin. Taking over the cargo from Ray, he delivered it to the Montana mines. LaBarge reached the mines in time to prevent the suit and with $50,000 profit in gold-dust the trading venture ended in success.

After his return to St. Louis in 1865, LaBarge became sole owner of the Effie Deans. During the winter months he overhauled the steamboat and made ready for the annual trip to Fort Benton.  He secured contracts for a full cargo and decided, on McCune's advice, not to insure the boat. After refusing an offer of $40,000 for the Effie Deans he was awakened at home, that same night, and informed that the Effie Deans had caught nre from another steamboat, the Nevada, and was a total loss.

This was a staggering blow but, backed by credit advanced by McCune, a new steamboat was ordered at once. Needing a boat for the summer, LaBarge leased the Ben Johnson and was engaged by the Northwestern Treaty Commission, popularly known as the Peace Commission of 1866, to transport the members at $300 a day.  The commission's ignorance of Indian ways and character plus their contempt for advice handicapped their success and even endangered their lives. Only LaBarge's courage and skill kept the commission's summer work from becoming a total failure.

On his return, LaBarge gave back the Ben Johnson to the owners, claimed his new boat and brought her to the wharf to finish her construction. "I drew the entire plans and specifications for the boat, machinery and all, and she was built that summer accordingly. . . . She cost $57,000 and was a splendid boat. I paid for her partly in cash and gave my notes for the balance." On October 1, 1866, the Octavia, named for his second daughter, began her first trip on the lower Missouri and then on the Mississippi.  She wintered at Kimmswick, twenty miles south of St. Louis.

The steamboat season of 1867 was a golden harvest for the Octavia and her master. With every member of his family on board, LaBarge sailed on the lower river in early spring and, on May 7, he started his most successful and important trip to Fort Benton; according to the Montana Post, this trip was also the fastest ever made.

By special order of General William T. Sherman, 100 troops were taken aboard at Omaha. These troops were mostly Irish Fenians under the command of a lieutenant who was as openly hostile to the English as his men. A British officer, Captain Spear, also boarded the Octavia at Omaha. He quickly sensed his danger and spoke of his apprehension. After midnight, as Spear and LaBarge mounted some steps, the sentinel posted on the hurricane deck fired his weapon and the bullet struck the Englishman in the head and killed him instantly. The sentry was released without a trial and this action led to an international incident. A civil trial was demanded by the British government and, at the trial, the soldier was acquitted.

The 300 passengers and 300 tons of cargo made this trip the largest in LaBarge's career. His assumed responsibilities kept him at work night and day allowing him very little sleep. He stated that "The moment we landed at Benton and I knew the danger was over, I went to sleep and instructed my wife not to awaken me even for meals. I slept almost continuously for twenty-four hours." At the end of the season, LaBarge made a profit of $45,000 and to the delight of McCune, he was able to pay the remaining notes on the Octavia.

LaBarge had another good season in 1868, but it did not measure up to the previous year. Returning to St. Louis in 1868, he chartered the Octavia to the Department of Engineers of the United States Government for service in their river work. At the end of the season, he sold them the boat for $40,000. The captain admitted that he should have quit the river at that time. "I had the $40,000 which I had received for my boat. I had about $50,000 in the bank. My home, 40 acres at Cabanne Place, was easily worth $40,000 even at that time; and I was entirely out of debt."

Instead of quitting, he built a bigger and better steamboat, the Emilie LaBarge, for $60,000. The new steamboat was ready for service in 1869. By this time, however, railroads were rapidly replacing steamboats. About the only lucrative trade left was with the government and, although the captain missed a government contract, he spent a profitable summer working for the successful bidder and then made two trips to New Orleans. In 1870, he worked again for the government and during the next year, he spent the season trading between St. Louis and Omaha. He sold his boat for $30,000 in the fall.

In 1872, LaBarge built the DeSmet, in honor of the Jesuit missionary. Finishing the steamboat in time to engage in the Mississippi-Red River trade between St. Louis and Shreveport, Louisiana, LaBarge suffered great financial losses because of the· low water in the Red River. To offset this inconvenience, the captain shipped his cargo overland, at his own expense, and fulfilled his contract.

Steamer DeSmet at Fort Benton, Montana

During the next year, the DeSmet made profitable trips to Shreveport and Fort Benton. At Fort Benton and preparing to return to St. Louis, LaBarge was arrested by Deputy United States Marshall and sub-Indian agent, C. D. Hard. The latter charged the captain with selling whiskey to the Indians and seized the DeSmet expecting LaBarge to bribe her free. Instead, the captain traveled to Helena and secured an order from Chief Justice Wade of Montana, for the release of his boat. After this incident, LaBarge competed for trade between St. Louis and Alton, Illinois.   This did not prove successful, and when his friend McCune died unexpectedly, LaBarge sold the DeSmet to his competitors, the Eagle Packet Company.

Captain LaBarge built another steamboat, the John M. Chambers, and was trading again the next year. The best trade in 1877, was out of Yankton, South Dakota, and LaBarge was a part of this trade until engine trouble forced him to return to St. Louis for repairs. He entered the Yankton trade again the next season.  At the close of the season he sold the last steamboat he ever owned.  In 1879, he was a pilot on the lower river and from 1880 through 1885 he served as pilot on the government steamboat Missouri which carried a Missouri River Valley surveying party. The survey was completed in 1885 and as LaBarge walked off the Missouri he marked the end of a career and the end of an era.

At the age of seventy-five, in 1890, the captain was an old and poor man. His fortunes had risen and fallen with the fortunes of the steamboat trade. Friends secured a position for him with the St. Louis city government from 1890-1894, and, in 1897, he was employed by the United States government to aid the Missouri River Commission in compiling a list of steamboat wrecks on the Missouri. Two years later, at the age of eighty-four, Joseph LaBarge died.

* T. S. Bowdern, S.J., received his B.A, his M.A. in Scholastic Philosophy and his Ph.D. in Education from St. Louis University.  Former president of Creighton University, his is now a professor of Education at Rockhurst College, Kansas City, Missouri.

Editor's Note. -- the story of Joseph LaBarge and the historic nineteenth century steamboat era appears in the two-volume work, History of Early Streamboat Navigation on the Missouri River, by Hiram Martin Chittenden.  Using these volumes and other related works, Professor Bowdern has reconstructed LaBarge's career in that exciting era.


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