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Up From the Ooze: The 1860s Frozen in Mud on the Steamboat Bertrand

March 18, 1865, a week after Lincoln was elected to a second term, the very week General Robert E. Lee mounted one last offensive in Virginia; on March 18, 1865, the steamboat Bertrand left St. Louis going up the Missouri on a trek as treacherous as all of them were, climbing the country's longest river, from St. Louie to Montana Territory, where, gold, in abundance, people said, waited to be rescued like some shimmering damsel in distress.

Up or down river made no difference; navigating the Missouri took luck and pluck and generous helpings of sheer grace. The average lifespan of a steamer back then was three short years. But gold fields--just the sound of those words--made taking on dumped cottonwoods and the ever-wily river the kind of gamble lots of dreamers wanted a hand in.

At Omaha the Bertrand beefed up its already abundant cargo, then sat in a dock for some time waiting for the river to rise. When finally it did, they left, north once again but got just 25 miles upstream before some monster cottonwood snagged it and crumpled it like cardboard. In ten minutes, people claim, the Bertrand went down. Fifty or sixty passengers scampered off, but the Bertrand, only a year old, had run its last route.

It was lost right for a long, long time, while a century of mud and dirt oozed over it. Eventually, the ornery Missouri tired of the old channel, and, with a flood or two simply pulled up stakes and moved elsewhere, without the Bertrand. There it stayed until Sam Corbino and Jesse Pursell, a couple of salvagers, determined its location, put down feelers into the mud, and, voila! found it and 200,000 artifacts in leftover cargo impossibly well-preserved, 150 tons of salvageable goods, circa 1865. Amazing.

Not a dime’s worth of gold, but the steamer itself was a buried treasure. The story all that cargo told and still tells is a story otherwise told only on printed pages of a history text. What did gold-seekers need to strike it rich, beside the gold, that is? How did merchants outfit all those fortune-hunters on their mighty enterprise? In 1865, what goods did people deem essential?

Well, weights and measures, and ledger books to keep track of the winnings. Mortar and pestles and mercury flasks, but only a few--salvagers long ago must have taken the bulk of them. Kegs of powder and a forest of mining shovels, and more. Boots, buffalo boots, in fact, for cold Montana winters. Seriously, bottles of ketchup and ink and ale—and, of course, lots and lots of bitters, medicinal cocktails with unimaginable healing power.

Corkscrews too—lots of them—to get at all that good medicine. And a raft of cannon balls for some distant war. Cowbells too, dozens.

What those two salvagers discovered when they washed out all that mud was a huge shiny mirror of what we were—and what we are too, a museum of goods that tells a story, our story. This is how it goes really--if what you’re looking for is not aboard the Bertrand, you best ask yourself if you need it.

Nice of Big Muddy to hold all those treasures for all those years, don't you think? The river could be a beast sometimes back then, but occasionally she would show a heart of gold. Still does.

Go to De Soto Bend to see wildlife, thousands of migratory birds; but while you're there, stop at the Bertrand display, where you’ll see in abundance what you can of the gold rush, but then something of yourself too.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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