In 1818 America made an agreement to obtain Florida from Spain, and was free to begin fulfilling its ownership of the northern Great Plains. The U.S. had purchased the land from France, it had set a border at the 49th parallel in a deal with British Canada, but Britain still dominated the area. British traders had alliances with Indian tribes, and used the Native Americans as a police force to keep Yankees out.
Secretary of War John C. Calhoun had promoted a reasonable idea: to build a fort at the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. A fort in that location would allow American troops to patrol the upper midwest all the way to the Rocky Mountains. It could be re-supplied by boats traveling the Missouri. Unfortunately, as Secretary Calhoun’s plan, called the Yellowstone Expedition, was mulled by Congressmen and an enthusiastic public, it fell victim to what we would call “mission creep.”
The mission’s keelboats, powered by human rowers and proven useful during the Lewis and Clark expedition, were replaced by steamboats–which were untested on the Missouri River. Colonel Henry Atkinson, responsible to lead 1,000 soldiers on the assignment, had been pulled in countless directions by his superiors. He had insufficient time to plan the operation. Major Stephen Long, an engineer, was in charge of a group of scientists and artists who were to gather information about the west.
The five steamboats intended for troop transport were overpriced and not well-suited for the Missouri. The expedition, anticipated to start in mid-1819 after the spring runoff on the Missouri was over, was delayed because one of the steamboats was not completed. After a summer of struggle, Atkinson and his men began to make winter camp near what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa on September 26, 1819. They had coaxed only two of the steamboats to that point, which was short of their goal by the width of the Dakotas.
The scientists had a better boat, the Western Engineer, which was probably the first sternwheeler steamboat built. It was designed to ride high in the water, an essential feature for navigating shallow western rivers. The spark arrester on its smokestack was made in the shape of a serpent’s head to impress the Indians. Indeed, Indian sentinels were perplexed to see white men riding on the back of the smoke-puffing “water monster” as it made its way up the Missouri. Having no confidence in the whites’ ability to control the creature and fearing it might climb out of the river and run amok, the Indians left the scene quickly.
Soldiers and scientists made separate camps about five miles apart and settled in for what was to be a calamitous winter. The steamboat experiment had delayed getting the camps organized properly. The outfit had inadequate provisions. Major Long returned to Washington, D.C. to report on progress, or the lack of it.
When Long arrived back at camp in the spring of 1820, his company’s journal noted a sad sight: “Camp Missouri has been sickly, from the commencement of the winter; but its situation is at this time truly deplorable. More than three hundred are, or have been sick, and nearly one hundred have died. This fatality is occasioned by the scurvy (scorbutus). Individuals who are seized rarely recover, as they can not be furnished with the proper [foods]; they have no vegetables, fresh meat, nor antiscorbutics [citrus fruits, sauerkraut, watercress], so that the patients grow daily worse, and entering the hospital is considered by them a certain passport to the grave.” The active agent against scurvy, Vitamin C, was not discovered until the twentieth century. Today, a few dollars worth of Vitamin C tablets would be enough to keep Colonel Atkinson’s men healthy.
The high hopes of politicians and the public for the Yellowstone Expedition collapsed. Though Major Long’s scientists were the first to climb Colorado’s Pike’s Peak, and Long’s Peak is named in his honor, Long described the western country as “The Great American Desert,” not good for much besides being a pasture for buffalo. The nation’s attention turned to other regions. When pioneers ventured across the plains beginning in the 1830s, they did so on their own initiative and at their own risk. Uncle Sam’s appetite for western adventure had been soured for the time being.

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