Westward Ho: The Missouri River

Weblog Excerpt: Adapted from a weblog entry.

St. Louis, bird's eye view ca 1850
St. Louis, bird’s eye view ca 1850

Little Birds is set in New Mexico territory in 1857 so I have to get these people from New York to New Mexico. That means researching

(1) early train travel — not as well documented as you would guess, unfortunately;

(2) St. Louis in its time as doorway to the west — also not as well documented as I would hope;

(3) travel by steamboat on the Missouri River from St. Louis to Independence or actually, Westport.

It’s the last bit I’ve been working on lately, this morning going through Hiram Martin Chittenden’s 1903 History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River (Volumes 1 & 2). As anticipated there were lots of missionaries traveling west (Jesuit, Mormon, etc etc) and the whole Bleeding Kansasbusiness had New Englanders headed for Kansas territory[1]You learned in school that the Civil War started in 1861 when Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, right? So did I. Not true...

This is the best kind of discovery:

It so happened that two St. Louisans, Sam Gaty and a man named Baldwin had recently won a prize of forty thousand dollars in the Havana lottery, and were using it in building a boat […] Captain La Barge made the annual voyage of 1855 in this new boat.

$40,000 in the Havana lottery? That was a huge amount of money at this point. So off I go to look into the Havana lottery and I discover… that I’m back in New Orleans (where I was for all of Queen of Swords) where the Cuban lottery was very, very popular at this point in time. In fact, all lotteries were so popular that they were the primary way of funding all kinds of projects you would expect to be financed by taxes.  From a website which is much too short for my tastes:

By the 1810s the number of lotteries began to rise exponentially, making way for an entirely new profession, the lottery broker. Once sponsoring parties had been granted a franchise, the middleman-broker would oversee every aspect, including ticket sales, advertising, and payouts. Many lottery brokers would go on to stellar careers in banking, such as ticket salesman John Thompson, who founded the Chase National Bank (Chase Manhattan) in 1873. Although states began outlawing lotteries in the 1830s, they remained popular throughout the century; believing as much in luck as in the self-made man, Americans continued to buy lottery tickets in the hopes they could obtain something for nothing. Capitalism by Gaslight

So now I’m straddling New Orleans, St. Louis, the Missouri River, and I’m also back in Manhattan and I’ve got this very interesting character giving me the eye. He’s a lottery broker. Originally from Cuba. Or maybe Italy. A brand new copper by the name of Oscar Maroney who likes card games knows him, and can tell some stories. This lottery broker wants a spot in Little Birds, and he’s going to be persistent about it, I can tell.

Meanwhile I’ve got to get these two characters off the train, through St. Louis and onto a steamboat on the Missouri.  One of them is wondering about maybe a detour to New Orleans, and he’s over there talking to a good looking young guy who has just starting his apprenticeship as a steamboat captain on the Mississippi. Name of Sam.


Travel on the Missouri by steamboat was a risky, risky undertaking.

Steamboat wrecks on the Missouri River


1You learned in school that the Civil War started in 1861 when Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, right? So did I. Not true.

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