In 1824 Congress authorized a military expedition to the upper Missouri River. Its purpose was to sign peace treaties with the Indian tribes living along the river to make the country safe for American fur traders. About 480 soldiers of the First and Sixth U.S. Infantry Regiments went on the trip.
Steamboats of that era could not cope with the current of the mighty Missouri, so the expeditionís commander, Gen. Henry Atkinson, began experimenting with man-powered paddle boats. On eastern rivers and lakes, paddle boats powered by horses walking on a treadmill had been used for some time, but Atkinson sought a way to use the manpower available in his army command.
Atkinson first tried a man-powered treadmill, but he was not satisfied, and designed a completely new mechanism. In this new design, men pulled back and forth on crossbars attached to a connecting rod or pitman. The pitman was attached to a cogwheel, and the power was transferred to paddlewheels through gears. Five boats, each about 100 feet long and 12 feet wide, were fitted with the mechanism. Fifty men powered each boat, leaving ample room for passengers and supplies.
The flotilla sailed from Fort Atkinson, north of present Omaha, on May 16, 1825, and reached a site in present Montana before low water forced the expedition to turn back in August. Although the man-powered boats proved successful, they were never used again due to improvements in steamboat technology. In later years special, light-draft steamboats were used by fur trading companies and others to navigate the treacherous currents of the upper Missouri River.