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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published May 01 2011

Eriksmoen: North Dakota boat captain transported soldiers, Sitting Bull

The riverboat captain who brought wounded soldiers back from the battlefield at the Little Big Horn in 1876 was responsible, six years later, for bringing Sitting Bull to the Standing Rock Reservation.

Grant Marsh made huge fortunes for the companies that owned his riverboats, but when he died in 1916, he was nearly broke.

In 1876, Marsh was ordered to pilot a supply boat called the Far West on a mission headed by Gen. Alfred Terry to persuade Sitting Bull and his followers to relocate on established reservations. Marsh reached Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 27, only to find out that Custer and the 7th Cavalry had left 10 days earlier. After having supper with Mrs. Custer, he proceeded up the Missouri to meet Terry.

On June 21, Marsh then proceeded up the Rosebud and Big Horn rivers and secured his boat off a small island in the Little Big Horn River on June 27. While crewmembers were fishing, they spotted an Indian on the main bank, frantically waving his arms. Marsh recognized him as Curley, one of Custer’s Crow scouts. Through pantomime, Curley tried to convey that everyone in Custer’s immediate command had been killed.

The next morning, Far West crewmembers saw a rider being chased by Sioux warriors. When the Sioux spotted the riverboat, they left, allowing Muggins Taylor, a scout from Gen. John Gibbon’s forces, to get on board. Taylor confirmed what Curley had tried to convey. That evening, two scouts from Terry’s army arrived with orders that Marsh would be responsible for transporting wounded soldiers from Maj. Marcus Reno’s command to Fort Lincoln.

On June 30, after the 52 wounded soldiers and scouts were loaded onto the Far West, Marsh headed back to Fort Lincoln, 730 miles away. The boat pulled into Bismarck at 11 p.m. on July 5, and word quickly spread about Custer’s defeat.

Marsh severed his connection with the Coulson Packet Co. and, in the spring of 1878, signed on with Joseph Leighton and Walter B. Jordan, Indian traders at Fort Buford. The traders purchased a steamboat, the F.Y. Batchelor, which was being constructed in the Pittsburgh boat yards. Marsh traveled to Pittsburgh and brought the boat to Dakota Territory.

Marsh’s first mission aboard the Batchelor was to take Gen. Nelson A. Miles on a tour of the Custer battlefield. In 1882, Marsh purchased his own riverboat, the W.J. Behan. In late April 1883, he transported Sitting Bull from Fort Randall in southern Dakota Territory to the Standing Rock Reservation. Marsh then sold the Behan and moved to Memphis, Tenn., where, for the next dozen years, he operated ferry boats and tug boats. In 1896, Marsh shipped coal from Louisville to New Orleans. He was then employed as a riverboat inspector for the Mississippi River Commission. From 1900 to 1901, Marsh had a contract in Memphis to transport mail with his riverboat.

During this time, William D. Washburn operated several major businesses in western Dakota Territory. Washburn’s Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad was moving west through the state, he owned 100,000 acres of farmland in Burleigh and McLean counties, and the coal company he formed near Wilton operated the largest lignite coal mine in the world.

Washburn’s railroad purchased a steamboat, the Expansion, and hired Marsh in August 1901 as captain to haul freight on the Missouri. When Washburn’s railroad reached Bismarck in 1902, Marsh went to work for the Benton Packet Co. piloting a riverboat between Bismarck and Washburn and also operating a “snag” boat, removing obstacles from the river. Marsh also operated a ferryboat that transported people and cargo across the Missouri River at Fort Abraham Lincoln. In 1907, he purchased the Irene, a pleasure yacht, for excursion trips along the Missouri near Bismarck.

In July 1907, Marsh resigned his position with the Benton Co. On Aug. 23, he went aboard his former boat, the Expansion, and confronted the pilot, William R. Massie. Massie charged Marsh with assault, and at a hearing of the Department of Commerce and Labor on Dec. 8, Marsh’s license was revoked. Marsh died on Jan. 6, 1916, “in near poverty.” Isaac P. Baker, his manager at the Benton Packet Co., laid claim to much of his estate because of unpaid bills. Marsh was buried in a simple grave in Bismarck’s St. Mary’s Cemetery.

In 1959, the Capt. Grant Marsh Memorial Committee was formed to raise funds to erect a proper marker at his grave, and 11 years later, a 2½-ton marker was placed over his grave.

In December 1943, the Liberty ship, the SS Grant P. Marsh, was launched. In 1965, the Grant Marsh Bridge was built as part of the I-94 project, and it was rebuilt in 2002. Overlooking the Missouri River at Riverside Park in Yankton, S.D., is a life-size statue of Marsh.


“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.