The subject of Donald Jackson's latest book is a rare vehicle for popular history. In 1832 the Yellow Stone became the first steamboat to penetrate the Missouri as far as the confluence of the Yellowstone River in what is now Montana. Four years later and 1,000 miles to the south, the Yellow Stone carried Sam Houston past Santa Anna's Brazos River blockade and on to eventual victory in Texas' war of independence, having been armored for the occasion with cotton piled up to the pilothouse windows.
In between, the sturdy, 120-foot-long paddle wheeler was involved in several historic adventures and touched the lives of a wonderful array of frontier luminaries. Built and outfitted for John Jacob Astor's American Fur Co., the Yellow Stone was designed to increase dramatically the Astor company's presence on the Missouri and dominate the fur trade on the northern plains and east slope of the Rockies.
The Yellow Stone achieved its primary mission of reaching the upper Missouri (where at Fort McKenzie in August 1833 the boat's passengers witnessed the savage dawn attack by Crees on Blackfeet encamped outside the fort that is depicted in Karl Bodmer's famous painting), but within a year Astor decided to sell his interest in the American Fur Co. and get out.
A protagonist in Astor's last grand effort to monopolize the western fur trade, the Yellow Stone was also a supporting player in the stories of many memorable passengers. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, probably rode on the Yellow Stone to Independence, Mo., with printing presses for a new Mormon paper.
John James Audubon, the great American painter of birds, traveled on the Yellow Stone, as did other important western painters of the period, such as George Catlin and Bodmer. European royalty was represented by Prince Maximilian, the Prussian author, while notable Indians included Black Hawk, who was returning west after his defeat and capture in the war that bears his name.
Withdrawn from the Missouri with the breakup of the American Fur Co., the Yellow Stone was sold and dispatched to Texas in 1835 carrying the Mobile Grays, a company of volunteers who planned to fight in the war with Mexico.
Before the year was out, the Mobile Grays were all dead, executed by Santa Anna at Goliad, and the Yellow Stone had become actively involved in Houston and Stephen F. Austin's struggle for Texas independence. Attacked on the Brazos with cannon, musket and lariat (some of the Mexican troops attempted to lasso the steamboat's smokestacks), the Yellow Stone came through it all to carry first the defeated Santa Anna back to Galveston, and then the deceased Austin to his grave at Peach Point Plantation.
There is enough material in the Yellow Stone to more than fill a rich frontier history, to say nothing of a full-length feature film and sequel, but curiously Donald Jackson has treated the Yellow Stone saga as a miniature. The book's 140-odd-page narrative is often erudite and well written, but painfully pinched in scope. Jackson does a good job developing the astonishingly baldfaced illegal liquor trade conducted by the American Fur Co. and the Yellow Stone on the upper Missouri, but at the end (and the end comes quickly in this little book) one wonders why so much was left undeveloped.
"Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone" could have been a major book, the gleanings of a long and distinguished career set against what must surely be the story of any writer's lifetime. Knowing Donald Jackson's reputation as the author of "Thomas Jefferson and the Stony Mountains" and "Valley Men," as well as the editor of the letters and journals of Lewis and Clark, John Fremont and Zebulon Pike, I hoped for a new "Across the Wide Missouri," perhaps with greater attention to Texas and the Southwest, and without the froth that Bernard DeVoto's writing seemed to churn to the top.
Instead, I'm afraid "Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone" is a minor effort that will only interest western history aficionados, and perhaps an astute movie producer or two.