Steamboat Adventures - Thoreau




Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) wrote books, essays and poetry exploring nature, politics, and the human spirit. His famous book Walden chronicles his thoughts and experiences at Walden Pond. The letter below was written to his biographer, Mr. Sandborn, describing his journey up the Minnesota River.

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Redwing Minnesota, June 25th 1861
Mr. Sandborn

Dear Sir,
After spending some three weeks in and about St. Paul, St. Anthony, and Minneapolis, we made an excursion in a steamer some 300 or more miles up the Minnesota River, to Redwood, or the Lower Sioux Agency, in order to see the plains and the Sioux, who were to receive their annual payment there. This is eminently the river of Minnesota, for she shares the Mississippi with Wisconsin, and it is of incalculable value to her. It flows through a very fertile country, destined to be famous for its wheat; but it is a remarkably winding stream, so the Redwood is only half as far from its mouth by land as by water. There was not a straight reach a mile in length as far as we went, generally you could not see a quarter of a mile of water, and the boat was steadily turning this way or that. At the greater bends, as the Traverse des Sioux, some of the passengers were landed and walked across to be taken in on the other side. Two or three times you could have thrown a stone across the neck of the isthmus while it was from one to three miles around it. It was a very novel kind of navigation to me.

The boat was perhaps the largest that had been up so high, and the water was rather low (it had been about 15 feet higher). In making a short turn, we repeatedly and designedly ran square into the steep and soft bank, taking in a cart-load of earth, this being more effectual than the rudder to fetch us about again; or the deeper water was so narrow and close to the shore, the we were obliged to run and break down at least 50 trees which overhung the water, when we did not cut them off, repeatedly losing part of our outworks, though the most exposed had been taken in. I could pluck almost any plant on the bank from the boat. We very frequently got aground and then drew ourselves along with a windlass and a cable fastened to a tree, or we swung round in the current, and completely blocked up and blockaded the river, one end of the boat resting on each shore. And yet we would haul ourselves round again with the windlass and cable in an hour or 2, though the boat was about 160 feet long and drew some 3 feet of water, or, often, water and sand. It was one consolation to know that in such a case we were all the while damming the river and so raising it.

We once ran fairly on to a concealed rock, with a shock that aroused all the passengers, and rested there, and the mate went below with a lamp expecting to find a hole, but he did not. Snags and sawyers were so common that I forgot to mention them. The sound of the boat rumbling was the ordinary music. However, as long as the boiler did not burst, we knew that no serious accident was likely to happen. Yet this was a singularly navigable river, more so than the Mississippi above the Falls, and it is owing to its very crookedness. Ditch it straight, and it would not only be very swift, but soon run out.

It was from 10-15 rods wide near the mouth and from 8 to 10 or 12 at Redwood. Through the current was swift, I did not see a 'rip' on it, and only 3 or 4 rocks. For 3 months in the year I am told that it can be navigated by small steamers about twice as far as we went, or to its source in Big Stone Lake, and a former Indian agent told me that at high water it was thought that such a steamer might pass into the Red River.

In short this river proved so very long and navigable, that I was reminded of the last letter or two in the Voyages of Baron la Hontan (written near the end of the 17th century, I think) in which he states that after reaching the Mississippi (by the Illinois or Wisconsin), the limit of previous exploration westward, he voyaged up it with his Indians, and at length turned up a great river coming in from the west which he called 'la Riviere Longue' and he relates various improbable things about the country and its inhabitants, so that this letter has been regarded as pure fiction - or more properly speaking a lie. But I am somewhat inclined now to reconsider the matter.

The Governor of Minnesota (Ramsey), the superintendent of the Ind. Affairs in this quarter, and the newly appointed Indian agent were on board; also a German band from St. Paul, a small cannon for salutes, and the money for the Indians (aye and the gamblers, it was said, who were to bring it back in another boat). There were about 100 passengers chiefly from St. Paul, and more or less recently from the N. Eastern states; also half a dozen young educated Englishmen . . .

The last of the little settlements on the river, was New Ulm, about 100 miles this side of Redwood. It consists wholly of Germans. We left them 100 barrels of salt, which will be worth something more when the water is lowest, than at present. Redwood is a mere locality, scarcely an Indian village - where there is a store and some houses have been built for them. We were now fairly on the great plains, and looking south, and after walking that way 3 miles, could see no tree in that horizon. The buffalo was said to be feeding within 25 or 30 miles.

A regular council was held with the Indians, who had come in on their ponies; and speeches were made on both sides thro' an interpreter, quite in the described mode; the Indians, as usual, having the advantage in point of truth and earnestness, and therefore of eloquence. The most prominent chief was named Little Crow. They were quite dissatisfied with the white man's treatment of them and probably have reason to be so. This council was to be continued for 2 or 3 days - the payment to be made the 2nd day - and another payment to the other bands a little higher up the Yellow Medicine (a tributary of the Minnesota) a few days thereafter.

In the afternoon, the half-naked Indians performed a dance, at the request of the Governor, for our amusement and their own benefit and then we took leave of them and of the officials who had come to treat with them.

Yours truly,

Source: Jones, Evan (1962) The Minnesota: Forgotten River. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York.


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