Captain Joseph LaBarge

Captain Joseph LaBarge
Compiled by Craig A. LaBarge

Portrait: 16Kb JPEG

Captain Joseph Marie LaBarge was only 2 years old when steamboats began to be used to navigate the rivers of the mid-west. His early fascination with river travel would lead him to become one the most famous steamboat captains to operate on the Missouri River. He was particulary noted for his ability to pilot steamboats through unfamiliar waters. According to an article on the Captain in the magazine section of the St. Louis Republic, January 9, 1898, Capt. LaBarge was "the man who taught Mark Twain about the Mississippi River."[3]  Hiram Chittenden, in his book History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River, described LaBarge's physical appearance:

In personal appearance, Captain LaBarge was one of the most distinguished looking men of the West in his time. He stood five feet ten, was well proportioned, weighed about 180 pounds, was erect, muscular, and alert with a sharp, quick eye and a quiet energy in all his movements. He always wore a beard after reaching manhood's estate, and in later years bore a striking resemblance to General Grant... 

Captain LaBarge, no doubt, acquired his sense of adventure from his father, Joseph LaBarge, Sr. Joseph, Sr. left Quebec in a canoe at the age of 21 and settled in St. Louis. He worked as a trapper and wilderness guide and engaged in many trapping expeditions upriver. A riverman in his own right, all three of his sons became steamboat pilots.

Young Joseph Marie LaBarge once studied theology, however, his self-confessed fondness for the ladies made him an unsuitable candidate for the priesthood. He also worked as a law clerk and was involved briefly in the dry goods business before finding his niche in a more adventurous profession.

At the age of 16, LaBarge went to work for the American Fur Company. It was during these years that LaBarge became demonstrating the bravery and resourcefulness for which he would become famous. Once, while transporting buffalo meat to a remote post, he encountered several stragglers from a Sioux war party out on the open plains. Single-handedly, LaBarge faced down the indians while his traveling companion moved the pack mules to a safe location and went for help.

LaBarge also got his first taste of life on the river during these years. On a trip upriver on the American Fur Company's steamer, the Yellowstone, an outbreak of cholera swept through the boat and killed half of the crew. Among the victims were the steamship's pilot, engineer, and all of the firemen. The Captain turned over the boat to the young LaBarge and took a small craft back down the river to St. Louis to find another crew. The local Missouri settlers, frightened by epidemic raging aboard the Yellowstone, threatened to set her on fire. Despite lack of the normal crew, LaBarge managed to light the boilers, start the engines, and move the Yellowstone to safety on the Kansas side of the river.

Portrait circa 1840: 12Kb JPEG

Following these adventurous years, LaBarge went to work as a steamboat clerk. He advanced rapidly and by 1840 had received his Master's license. The portrait at the right was done at about this time. In 1846, at the age of 31, he acquired the steamboat General Brooks for $12,000. He would eventually have 14 boats on the river.

Life on the river was full of danger, particularly from the Sioux tribesmen. LaBarge was so confident of his abilities that in 1847 he took his wife, Pelagie, on a voyage upriver on the steamboat Martha, named for his daughter. LaBarge was transporting "annuities" or goods provided to the indians by the Government under the terms of a treaty. At Crow Creek in the Dakota Territory, LaBarge ran into serious trouble. The government agent aboard the Martha off-loaded only a portion of the goods and informed the Sioux that the remainder would be dropped off 92 miles upriver at an American Fur Company post. It was common in those days for the trading companies to bribe the government agents to store the annuities at their posts. The goods, which should have been distributed to the Sioux, would instead be sold to them. The Sioux tribesmen, well aware of this practice, became angered and started to approach the steamer. LaBarge decided to stay put instead of moving the steamer. He had 10 cords of wood on shore for the return voyage that he wanted to protect. He enlisted the help of some mountain men who were passengers aboard the Martha. After a brief confrontation with the Sioux, they managed to get the wood moved onto the boat and the Sioux retreated. The Sioux later returned and stormed up the gang plank. The Martha's brass canon had been previously damaged and was stored in the engine room awaiting repairs. LaBarge had his engineer, Nathan Grismore, load the cannon with gun powder and rivets. They then hoisted the cannon up on deck. LaBarge took his cigar, held it near the cannon's fuse, and threated to "blow them all to hell." The Sioux scrambled to retreat from the ship as the cannon was then pointed towards shore. After the incident, the crew was no where to be found. LaBarge later reflected on the aftermath of the incident:

I looked for my crew. I looked for the brave mountaineers. Where had they hidden, leaving the boat defenseless? They were hanging thick as sardines all over the paddles. I was so disgusted that I was disposed to set the wheels in motion and give them all a ducking, but the Indians had put out the fires and we had no steam.

In his work transporting people and goods up and down the river, LaBarge came in contact with people from all walks of life. In 1843, LaBarge transported the distinguished American naturalist, John James Audubon, up the Missouri River where he studied "Audrupeds in America" which appeared in print in 1844. When the Mormons moved west to what would become Utah under the leadership of Brigham Young, many of Captain LaBarge's vessels were used. Although LaBarge and Brigham Young had differing religious views, the two men came to respect one another. He became acquainted with senators, several Union generals during the Cival War, and other assorted dignitaries. Even Abe Lincoln, himself, traveled aboard the Captain's vessels.

Captain LaBarge worked on the river until he was about 70 years old. He had the rare distinction of having never lost or seriously damaging a steamboat. This feat was considered nearly-impossible back in the early days of river navigation. LaBarge was something of a celebrity on the streets of St. Louis until his death in 1899 at the age of 84. The funeral for Captain LaBarge was held in St. Louis in St. Xavier Cathedral and he was buried in the beautiful Calvary Cemetery which lies in the northern part of the city.


[1] Chittenden, Hiram Martin. History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River: Life and Adventures of Joseph LaBarge. Ross & Haines, 1962.

[2] O'Neil, Paul. The Old West: The Rivermen. New York: Time-Life Books, 1975.

[3] Sorensen, Lola. LaBarge Genealogy. Manuscript prepared for Pierre L. LaBarge and donated to the Mormon Family History Library, Salt Lake City (Call Number: US/CAN, Book Area, 929.273, L111s), 1985.

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