Home Plays 19th Century Vocabulary Reenacting
A monologue of Captain Grant Marsh

by Eric Ferguson
5732 Bossen Terrace #2
Minneapolis, MN 55417
phone/fax: (612)726-6364

This monologue was commissioned by the State Historical Society of North Dakota for use at Fort Buford. I am open to other commissioned work and offer this as a sample. Fees will depend on the length of the final piece and the amount of research involved.

(MARSH enters with a letter in hand and begins reading aloud.)

"November 21, 1907. Honorable Theodore Roosevelt, Washington DC, My dear Mr. President: Being mindful of, and appreciating your desire and sincere effort to build up and foster inland navigation, and your wish to restore our western rivers to their former sphere of usefulness, and as a lifelong navigator of western rivers and pioneer of the Yellowstone and Upper Missouri rivers, and a resident of North Dakota, I sincerely invoke your aid to prevent the destruction of the Yellowstone by the building of a dam at a point about fifteen miles below the Glendive and about sixty-five miles from its mouth. The dam is being constructed by the reclamation bureau for the benefit of a private corporation known as the Water Users' Association. I am told this dam is being built with public money of the United States which is to be returned hereafter."

I'm writing to the president in hope he'll stop the construction of a dam that will put an end to navigation on the Yellowstone River. That river is hardly the easiest to navigate, but I have a strong attachment to it anyway. My name is Grant Marsh, and I'm usually addressed as "Captain". At the risk of sounding immodest, you may have heard of me. I took a steamboat hundreds of miles farther up the Yellowstone than a steamboat had gone before, and I ran the boat that accompanied the army's ill-fated campaign on the Big Horn. I've been a pilot most of my life, and I've been working on steamboats since I was 12-year old cabin boy. I grew up on the Ohio River not far from Pittsburgh. There were still some keelboats on the river then, and I used to watch the steamboats chugging past them, rocking those old-fashioned keelboats in their wake. Myself and a friend once took to throwing rocks at the paddlewheel of one boat, which then turned towards shore, thereby convincing us it was chasing these impudent urchins who attacked it. We ran up the hill as if it was climbing right after us, and we didn't stop until we were safely on the other side.

The dangers of the Upper Missouri were somewhat more real than a steamboat chasing us up a hill. When I first brought a boat this far up the Missouri during the Civil War, the river was still filled with snags and sandbars, shoals and shallow areas, many of which were still unknown to any pilots. There were miners out here already, and Indians who didn't appreciate the invasion of their land. The army was building forts to try to restrain the Indians, and eventually open up this area for settlers and railroads. One day in 1866, while I was captain of the "Luella" taking supplies to Fort Benton, which was the head of navigation on the upper Missouri, I came upon a group of soldiers engaged in the first stages of constructing a fort here at the mouth of the Yellowstone. You would never think it now, when Fort Buford is abandoned and only this building is still standing, but they were building what would become a substantial army post. They lacked for tools and had to keep their rifles handy at all times. Their commander was Captain William Rankin, who was frequently my host while he was here. That was the first of many stops I made here, either bringing supplies or picking them up to take to units farther upstream. They risked being shot by the Sioux whenever they went outside the walls. In fact, any steamboat coming up here put boiler iron around the pilot house to protect the captain from Indian bullets.

I already mentioned the miners pushing their way up the Missouri, and by the 70's the railroads were sending out surveyors to determine the best routes for expansion of the railroads in Dakota and Montana. The Indians saw what the railroads meant for them and sought to stop that expansion. In 1875, the army decided to explore the Yellowstone River to determine where navigation was possible and choose sites for new posts. They chartered the "Josephine" with myself as captain, since I had as much experience as anyone maneuvering boats on these "rainwater creeks," and I seemed a likely choice on a river whose channels and obstacles were unknown.

The "Josephine" left Yankton in May with myself as master and pilot. We stopped at Fort Abraham Lincoln and then at Bismarck, where we picked up General Forsyth, who was in command of the expedition. We then proceeded directly to Fort Buford, where we picked up Companies E, G, and H of the 6th Infantry to serve as our escort. So we set off up the Yellowstone with 42 boat's officers and crew, seven army officers, 100 enlisted men with 350 rounds and one-month's provisions, and one one-inch gatling gun with 10,000 rounds. During the days we mapped the channels and the obstacles, and at night we made the boat fast while a semi-circle of soldiers was posted on the prairie to guard against a surprise Indian attack.

Despite the strong spring current, we quickly reached the Wolf Rapids, which was as far as steamboats had gone before. On the right bank we saw huge deposits of bituminous coal. You might think these deposits would solve the problem of finding firewood on the prairie. There were some professors from the Smithsonian Institute with us for the scientific part of our expedition, and they insisted I try to make some use of this coal. I had tried before, as had every other boat captain who had been delayed for hours cutting firewood, but I repeated my experiments for them. I even resorted to piling well-seasoned wood under and around this coal so as to subject it to the greatest heat possible, and it still did nothing more than glow red around the edges. I tried to tell them. I was an experienced steamboater, so of course I knew. They were astonished. Their jaws dropped. Almost as much as mine did when I came back to the upper Missouri in 1903, after being gone 20 years, to discover everyone was burning this coal quite happily.

Nonetheless, in 1875 we were still having to send out woodcutters and guards to search for firewood. We saw no substantial timber until we reached the tongue river, where we found extensive stands of cottonwoods. Some of those trunks were six-feet thick. This was also where we encountered our first Indians. Despite the mounted scouts moving around and ahead of us, we saw no sign of them until we reached a village nestled among the trees. They saw us at the same time, and fled into the nearby hills. They ran so fast that they left their fires burning in their teepees. We knew they were watching us the rest of the way, because we saw smoke signals every so often. Not so efficient as a telegraph perhaps, but the system worked for their purposes. They would go to the top of some conspicuous elevated place, dig a small hole in the ground, and fill it with damp prairie grass which makes a good smudge. They let the smoke rise upward for a while, and then cover the fire with a blanket so the smoke can gather. They use puffs and the columns of smoke like we use dots and dashes. General Forsyth was quite impressed, and remarked on how superior it was to sending messages with scouts.

Though they watched us, the Indians left us alone, which meant the soldiers had little to do most of the trip. They had guard duty of course, and frequent wood cutting details, but that was about all. The scouts did the hunting and supplied plenty of fresh meat. We stopped at some islands to gather whatever berries were in season. The only ones who had a lot of work were three men assigned to measuring distances. Careful measurements are best on an expedition like this of course, but we had neither the time nor the safety for careful surveying on shore. What we did was put three men on the top, or "hurricane" deck, with one at the stern and two at the bow. One at the bow would pick a point on shore and walk from bow to stern, keeping even with the point on shore, so he was in place while the boat moved beneath him.

(MARSH illustrates this with his fingers and arm.)

When he reached the stern, the boat had traveled exactly 150 feet. He went back to the bow while the second man also picked a point and walked to the stern, and the man in the stern kept track of how many trips they made. Thus we had our distances from point to point. Inexact distances I grant you, but still the standard pilots use on the Yellowstone.

As a matter of fact, the notes I took for myself also became the standard, though not of my own doing. Like any good pilot in a strange bit of river, I recorded where the bends were, the snags, the cliffs and so on, and one day General Forsyth happened to come up to the pilot house and observe what I was writing. "Well, by George, I want that information; it is exactly what I am after and have never been able to get."

"Why, I thought you were after information about the country General," I said. "You have engineer officers and professors from the Smithsonian along with you, and I didn't suppose my little notes could be of any value to you compared with the ones they are getting."

"Why, what do you suppose I care about the geological formation of this country or the traces of Mesozoic formations? I want military information for the use of campaigning troops; I want to know about this river for the transportation of supplies, and all the engineers and professors on Earth can't give me what you have in that book."

I reluctantly gave it to him with the understanding it was just for military use. I stood to see great pecuniary gain from the sale of my notes to other pilots and General Forsyth was quite understanding. His superior, General Sheridan, thought to make the book public. When Forsyth informed him of the conditions under which I'd given it up, Sheridan responded that I took these notes on a government boat under government contract and on government time, and that I should go to a warmer climate. I don't think he meant to offer me a government contract on the lower Mississippi.

Now General Forsyth may have had no interest in geology, but when we were 27 miles above the mouth of the Big Horn, I noticed some rugged bluffs closing in on us and the channel becoming distinctly narrower. We had needed nothing but the engines to push us along up to this point, but this "mill race" must have been running nine miles per hour, and our engine had all it could do to reach one-sixth of a mile per hour. I had the spars set, and it took a struggle of several hours to get through this area we called "The Narrows."

The spars of a steamboat look something like telegraph poles, and their use is called "sparring" or, because of the resemblance to a certain insect, "grasshoppering." The spars are set in the river bottom and inclined to the bow. A tackle block is attached to each with a cable attached to the capstan and the gunwhale. With the engine running, the capstan is turned and the boat is literally lifted over the obstacle a hop at a time. A similar practice is warping, in which one end of a cable is attached to the capstan and another to a solid object on shore, like a large tree. When the capstan is turned, the boat is pulled toward the object on shore.

The same day we successfully navigated "The Narrows," we saw an isolated butte which we recognized as "Pompey's' Pillar," discovered by William Clark during his expedition with Meriwhether Lewis in 1806. This told us we had gone much further than anyone dared hope for. Pompey's Pillar is made of fairly soft sandstone, and high up on the face where Clark had left the words, "Wm. Clark, July 25, 1806." Many of the men carved their own names in the rock, but I was modest enough to inscribe just "Josephine, June 3, 1875." As I looked upon the rock from the pilot house, it struck me as a fine place to fly the stars and stripes. We had two flags on board, so I carried one to the top and nailed it to a staff where we left it fluttering. It seemed to me a fitting symbol of America's conquest over the wilderness.

We were also shown the weakness of our isolation in such a place when we found a large camp of Indians. I think there were about 350 lodges. We had been moving through a long stretch of narrows and rapids, and we could move only with difficult warping and sparring, so if the Indians had been hostile our safe return would have been doubtful. Fortunately for us, these were mostly Crows, who were friendly to whites and the implacable enemies of the Sioux, and they were to prove useful allies in the upcoming war.

We reached the head of a rapids we called "Hell Roaring Rapids," the difficulty of which the name should prepare you for. The scouts reported that we could proceed no further without continual resort to warping and sparring, so we called that the end of our journey. I carved the name "Josephine" and the date, June 7th, on the cottonwood to which the boat was tied. We were less than 60 miles from Yellowstone National Park and farther upriver than any steamboat has gone since. To give the idea of the difference between traveling upstream or downstream, we had been nearly two weeks from Fort Buford. We returned here in four days.

It was of course my unique experience on the Yellowstone that caused me to be chosen as captain when a boat was chartered for the campaign against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne the following year, which campaign is best known for the Battle of Little Big Horn. I could speculate as could any of you as to what actually happened to General Custer, but it's best if I get right down to business and tell you only what I did and directly observed myself.

This time I piloted the "Far West." My first stop was Fort Abraham Lincoln, where the 7th Cavalry was posted and I was to pick up supplies, and I learned they had left 10 days before. Those who were left put on a celebration like it was the fourth of July, which was customary when a boat arrived at these frontier posts. I was with difficulty persuaded to put aside my hurried work for a luncheon with Mrs. Custer and the wife of another officer. They revealed that they had their husbands' permission to travel with me to join their husbands in the field. Well, this was a reason I chose the "Far West" this time instead of my usual "Josephine." It wasn't just that the shallower draft was better suited to those narrow waters, but it had almost no space to accommodate passengers, who would be in great danger on this campaign and thus become a constant concern for me. Their accommodations would be the roughest kind, and I suspected I might be carrying wounded soldiers. Nonetheless they were hard to dissuade, and they tried every argument to convince me to carry them, but I am glad I did not yield on this point. As hard as it was for them to hear the news when we returned, being there would surely have driven them mad with grief. I proceeded from there to Fort Buford, where I picked up more supplies and part of the garrison for an escort, and proceeded on to meet the 7th Cavalry at the Powder River.

Most of the role of the "Far West" from that point is unexciting, yet it was invaluable all the while. I ferried soldiers across unfordable rivers when units would otherwise have been isolated from each other. I moved supplies around much faster than mule trains could have done, thus making it possible for the soldiers to cover much more ground. I also carried the commanding officers, and General Terry, who was in overall command, used the "Far West" as his command post. I came to know many of the officers, and I came to know General Custer's youngest brother, Boston, by his nickname "Boss." When the General wanted to persuade his brother to stay behind on the final march, I induced him to remain with me until I met the cavalry with their supplies. Then one day he went to get some tobacco and that was the last I saw of him, as he decided to remain with his brother.

You might wonder if there was a sense of foreboding around this campaign, and it's fair to say there was. We sent a sergeant and a couple soldiers from Fort Buford back downstream in a skiff with the mail. It was more than could be carried overland. We thought the skiff would let them travel at night and hide during the day, but it turned out the men had no idea of how to handle the skiff. Consequently, the it overturned in a rapid current. We presumed the men drowned and the bodies were washed away, and we expected the same happened to the mail, but we retrieved every letter anyway. Each letter was laid out on the deck to dry. One of those letters was Boss's letter to his mother. All those men's last letters home looked like their bodies laid out, and soon that same deck would be covered with wounded.

I won't go into all the maneuverings and movements, so suffice it to say that when Custer's command left for the last time anyone would see them, the "Far West" was ordered to go up the Big Horn River to the mouth of the Little Big Horn, if we could get that high, which we did despite having to pull the boat over several rapids. We were delivering supplies for the cavalry. They had not arrived, so we waited. Unknown to us, the battle took place as we were struggling upriver not very far away.

Our first indication of what happened was when an Indian appeared on the opposite shore. He was Curley, one of the 7th Cavalry's Crow scouts. He forded the river and came on board, where the grief-stricken man threw himself on the medicine chest on deck and rocked to and fro, crying inconsolably. When we calmed him, he informed us of what happened. He spoke no English and we spoke no Crow, so he communicated by diagrams and hand signals. He drew one circle, and then another around it, and in between the circles he made marks and cried "Sioux, Sioux!" He marked the inner circle and said "absaroka," which I happened to know meant "soldiers." When he saw I understood, he poked his chest with his fingers and said "poof, poof, absaroka." We finally understood. Curley set himself in a corner of the deck, refused all food, and mourned in the manner of his tribe.

At dawn the next day, we heard sentinels crying "Indians!" As the Indians came nearer, we saw they were in pursuit of a white man, a scout sent to find the boat after the battle, and he would surely have been killed had we not been there. He was the one who told us of the battle. We waited longer in hopes more might find us, and two soldiers came along and told us the 7th Infantry was bringing 52 wounded. I turned the deck into a makeshift hospital. When they arrived, we set off for Fort Abraham Lincoln with 52 wounded men, some gravely, and one doctor to tend them. Two did indeed die shortly. We made short stops at the forts along the way and announced the sad news. From the Big Horn to Bismarck took us 54 hours, the quickest time for a steamboat ever on these far western waters. Of course, I doubt any had quite the impetus we had.

When the we reached Fort Abraham Lincoln and the news was revealed, there were scenes of pandemonium as widows, orphans, and close friends rushed to the boat to learn the fate of their own loved ones. Despite it all, Mrs. Custer was gracious enough to send a carriage for me to come see her. I declined.

What's most odd perhaps is much of the reason for the whole campaign was to make the upper Missouri safe for railroad surveyors. They could not have done their work without my steamboats. Now they think them as quaint as those old keelboats of my boyhood.

(Marsh picks up his letter and starts reading.)

So, Mr. President, "I had the honor of commanding the steamboat 'Expansion' last July when it transported the Secretary of the Interior and the senators for Montana from Glendive to the headgates of the irrigating ditch, and all agreed that the navigation of the river should be conserved. This same Yellowstone has well served a mighty purpose in the past, in the pioneer days, and well deserves the protecting hand of the government. Maybe, sometime in the future, the river may be needed again. Who can tell? Why then permit its destruction?

Again thanking you for your indulgence and assuring you of my high esteem, I remain, Yours Respectfully, Captain Grant Marsh."

(end of play)

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