Floating the Platte River in Fur Trade Days

Wagon teams ford the South Platte River near present-day Hershey, Nebraska, in 1866. NSHS RG3351-32

Nebraskans familiar with the Platte River would probably never imagine it as a source of transportation. Today’s flows, however, are only about 10 percent of its past volume. With that much more water, one might think the Platte was navigable in historic times.

Among the earliest firsthand accounts of navigating the Platte was that of E. Willard Smith. After wintering in the Rockies, he embarked on a journey to St. Louis on April 26, 1840, in the company of South Platte fur trader Andrew Sublette. From Smith’s diary we learn:

We started in a mackinaw boat . . . thirty-six feet long and eight feet wide. We had seven hundred buffalo robes on board, and four hundred buffalo tongues. . . . The water was very shallow and we proceeded with great difficulty, getting on sand bars every few minutes. We were obliged to wade and push the boat along most of the way for about three hundred miles, which took us forty-nine days.

Other fur traders also tried with limited success to bring furs down the Platte.

In 1860 C. M. Clark, traveling the Overland Trail to the gold fields of Colorado, noted navigators, probably miners, on the river:

Their progress was often interrupted by striking the sand bars, when their craft would swing round and stop, then the boatmen would have to get out and drag it over, which was effected, after much delay, by tugging at the bowline and pushing at the stern. The sand bars met with are very wide and numerous in many places, and a great effort was required to cross them; and the majority who attempted to navigate the Platte at this season, after proceeding down a hundred miles or so, left their boats and took the road.

As far as we know, later travelers also took to the road. The Platte was truly the river which evoked its name-”flatwater”— said without much exaggeration to be a mile wide and an inch deep. Not surprisingly, the river itself never developed as a transportation—but its broad valley has proved to be a natural highway for overland travel.

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