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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published April 24 2011

Eriksmoen: Famous author saved riverboat pilot’s life

The man called the “finest riverboat pilot who ever lived” claimed that his life was saved early in his career by the wise decision of his boatmate and good friend, Sam Clemens.

In his biography, “The Conquest of the Missouri,” Grant Marsh told the author that in the winter of 1858-59 he, Clemens and other members of the A.B. Chambers No. 2 ran aground in the Mississippi when their boat ran out of fuel (wood) in the ice-crested river.

Marsh, Clemens and other members of the riverboat climbed aboard a

flatboat to go to shore to replenish their wood supply. While in the smaller vessel, an ice-jam broke and the ice surged down upon them. Marsh yelled, “Turn back quick, Sam, we’ll be crushed!” Clemens shouted back, “No, go ahead as fast as you can!”

The crew rowed on ahead of the surging ice and safely reached shore, where they loaded up on wood. Marsh told his biographer, “But for Clemens, the lives of all would undoubtedly have been lost.” Clemens later became better known as Mark Twain.

Marsh was born May 11, 1834, in Pine Grove, Pa. His family later moved to Phillipsburg (now called Monaca) on the Beaver River in eastern Pennsylvania. Marsh spent many days watching the steamboat traffic. In spring 1852, he was hired as a deckhand on a steamer named Beaver, which transported passengers and goods between Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In 1854, he worked on the F.X. Aubrey that traveled the Missouri River between St. Louis and St. Joseph, Mo.

The next year, Marsh was transferred to the A.B. Chambers. He was promoted to watchman and eventually became a cub/apprentice pilot. In 1858, he became friends with Clemens, a cub pilot of the John J. Roe.

During the Civil War, Marsh served the Union fleet by hauling troops and supplies on the lower Mississippi. At the Battle of Shiloh on April 6, 1862, he helped ferry Union troops across the Tennessee River. He also helped transport troops and supplies during the siege of Vicksburg in summer 1863.

He was then transferred by the Army to St. Louis, where he helped transport supplies and troops who were engaged in combat against Indians in Dakota Territory. In spring 1864, he was assigned to the Marcella to bring supplies to Gen. Alfred Sully, his first trip to the upper Missouri River, a place that was to be his base of operation for the next 20 years.

Because of his work during the Sully expedition, Marsh was given command of his first steamboat, the Luella, in early spring 1866. In 1870, he went into riverboat partnership with Elias H. Durfee and Campbell K. Peck, Indian traders on the upper Missouri. In 1871, this partnership turned out the steamboat Nellie Peck, and Marsh was named captain. Later that year, Marsh, Durfee, Peck, three Coulson brothers, and two other riverboat captains joined to form the Coulson Packet Co.

In 1873, CPC bid on the military contract for carrying troops and supplies on the Missouri River and “easily beat all competition.” One of the main concerns of Gen. William Sherman, commanding general of the Army, was “to protect the construction and operation of the railroads from attack by hostile Indians.”

He ordered Gen. George A. Forsythe to meet with Marsh to explore sending a riverboat up the Yellowstone River so the boats could carry supplies and troops to protect surveyors and workers as the railroad moved westward.

Marsh chose the steamer Key West and asked his friend Yellowstone Kelly to serve as guide. Marsh sailed up the Missouri from Fort Abraham Lincoln and stopped at Fort Buford to pick up two infantry companies to provide protection. On May 6, 1873, he entered the Yellowstone River and, on the voyage, encountered Sitting Bull. Marsh asked Sitting Bull for permission to continue to travel on the Yellowstone and the Sioux leader agreed. Marsh navigated to the confluence of the Yellowstone and Powder rivers.

During the next two years, Marsh made regular trips into Montana Territory transporting troops and supplies. In 1875, he received a new steamer, the Josephine, which was designed for the shallow and treacherous Yellowstone River. Marsh was able to travel to the site of present-day Billings, Mont.

In 1876, Marsh began piloting the Far West, which was commissioned as the mobile headquarters for Gen. Alfred Terry. Terry commanded the U.S. Army column ordered to confront Sitting Bull and other Indians who refused to settle on established reservations. Terry was joined by columns led by Gen. George Crook and Gen. John Gibbon. Within Terry’s command was the 7th Cavalry under Col. George Custer. Marsh piloted the Far West to supply all three columns.

By late June 1876, Marsh had navigated the Far West near the mouth of the Little Big Horn River. On June 21, Terry held a strategy meeting with Custer and his other officers aboard the Far West concerning the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians thought to be in the Little Big Horn Valley. Little did Marsh know what historic challenges awaited him during the next few days.

We will conclude our look at Marsh next week as we examine his career following the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the numerous commemorations he received.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.