Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole


Keelboats were a type of craft much used by the fur trappers and traders on the Missouri River.  Even after the introduction of the steamship on the Missouri these boats continued to see use, especially in the down river direction.  These were long, narrow boats with a shallow draft, generally not more than 2 feet when loaded, and were intended for use in shallow rivers. They were built with a central keel, and with ribs that were covered with plank.  Keelboats were usually from 40 to 80 feet long, with a 15 to 20 foot beam.  They were "cigar-shaped," i. e. pointed at each end after the manner of the pirogue of the French or Canadian voyageur. The middle part of the boat might be left open, but usually it was covered with a deck or cabin. All around the gunwales ran a cleated footway, known as the "running board," twelve to eighteen inches wide, where the crew walked when poling the boat. Some keelboats carried a mast for putting up a sail when favorable winds blew. However, the mast often proved to be more of a hindrance than help, and few keelboats had one.  Seats were present at the bow for rowers, ranging from four to twelve in number.  Keelboats had a carrying capacity of 15 to 50 tons, but usually less than 30 tons.  Construction of a keelboat cost from $2,000 to $3,000 each when manufactured in the early 1800’s. By comparison, at this time gold had a value of about $20 an ounce.

Keelboats were propelled upstream primarily by human muscle.  When the river was shallow, the boat was propelled by setting poles.  Running boards ran along each side of the keelboat, along which a line of men would walk while pushing a pole set in the bottom of the river.  When an individual reached the rear of the boat he would lift up his pole and return to the front of the boat and repeat the process.  If the river was too deep for setting poles, cordelling was another method of propelling the craft.  The cordelle was a strong cable, frequently as much as 300 yards long, fastened to the mast by which the boat was pulled up stream by a force of 20 to 30 men, all the while fighting their way through brush, driftwood, mudholes and other shoreline obstacles.  If there was a danger of Indian attacks, the men cordelling might also carry their guns strapped to their backs.  Oars were also used, and under favorable wind and river conditions, a sail might be used.  However, due to fickle winds and the meandering nature of the river, the mast and sail caused possibly more trouble than assistance.  Many a keelboat was swamped or capsized as a result of the mast catching in a low lying tree branch, or a sudden shift in wind directions.  A distance of about 15 miles a day was considered a good day's work, requiring the most arduous labor from all hands from daylight to dark to accomplish. Another method of propelling the boat was called warping, which was generally a last resort because of the effort involved.  A skiff would carry a cordelle upstream and fasten the end to a snag or a tree.  The men in the bow of the boat would draw the boat forward by means of a windless or winch, or even by pulling the cordelle in hand-over-hand.  This was the most laborious of all methods, and progress of six miles in a day was considered good.

Frederick Chouteau, one of the early traders on the Kansas river, mentions one of these boats which was used on this stream, as follows: "The keel boat which my brothers had in 1828, I think, was the first which navigated the Kansas river.  After I came the keel boat was used altogether on the Kaw River [Kansas River].  We would take a load of goods up in August and keep it there until the following spring, when we would bring it down loaded with peltries.  At the mouth of the Kaw we shipped on steamboat to St. Louis. The keel-boats were made in St. Louis.  They were rib-made boats, shaped like the hull of a steamboat and decked over.  They were about 8 or 10 feet across the deck and 5 or 6 feet below deck.  They were rigged with one mast and had a rudder, though we generally took the rudder off and used a long oar for steering.  There were four row locks on each side.  Going up the Kaw river we pulled all the way; about 15 miles a day.  Going down it sometimes took a good many days, as it did going up, on account of the low water.  I have taken a month to go down from my trading house at American Chief [or Mission] creek, many times lightening the boat with skiffs; other times going down in a day.  I never went with the boat above my trading house at the American Chief village.  No other traders except myself and brothers ran keel boats on the Kaw.  We pulled up sometimes by the willows which lined the banks of the river.”

The crew of a keel boat engaged in the fur trade frequently consisted of as many as 100 men and was called a "brigade," this number including many hunters and trappers who were not regular boatmen. Very few of these men regularly rode the boat.  Most every boat carried a swivel gun and the crew went armed.   

For more information about Keel-Boats see: 

The Keelboat Age on Western Waters, by Leland D Baldwin, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1941.  A wealth of information regarding keelboats, flatboats, barges and other forms of water transportation, and the river men that powered them, generally for the period of the late 1700's.

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