Monday, December 3, 2012

Wreck of the Bertrand

John J. Roe of St. Louis founded the Idaho and Montana Transportation Line and the Diamond R Transportation Company in 1864. The company carried everything imaginable by steamboat up the Missouri River from St. Louis to Ft. Benton. Its ox-drawn freighters then carried the goods to the various destinations. The treacherous steamboat voyage took two months. The steamer Bertrand left St. Louis in the early spring of 1865 carrying an astonishing inventory bound for Fort Benton, including 6,000 kegs of nails, mining equipment, and food and clothing. The goods were to be delivered to Virginia City, Deer Lodge, and Hell Gate (present day Missoula). On April 1, the boat hit a snag twenty miles north of Omaha and sank. All passengers and crew escaped, but the inventory—fortunately insured—was lost. In 1968, the wreck was rediscovered and the goods, preserved for a century in the river’s silt, were recovered. The cargo is a microcosm of frontier life. Among the recovered items are powdered lemonade; canned pineapple; brandied cherries; imported olives; salted and dried beef, mutton, and pork; jars of French mustard, catsup, and honey; clocks and combs; lamps and mirrors; patent medicines with their paper labels intact; 3,000 textiles including bolts of silk and 137 men’s coats in 7 different styles; shoes and boots; barrels of whiskey; hammers, doorknobs, pick axes, and blasting powder; washboards; plows; and sleigh bells. It’s hard to imagine some of these luxury items for sale in primitive log cabins. The DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa includes a museum displaying some of the artifacts recovered from the Bertrand.

Artifacts recovered from the steamboat Bertrand, displayed in the visitor center at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge

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