He was also the bearer of shocking Custer news.
Captain Grant Marsh made the record books in the aftermath of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s Last Stand. In a navigation feat never equaled, Captain Marsh brought more than three dozen wounded survivors of Reno Hill from his landfall at the mouth of the Bighorn River to the hospital at Fort Abraham Lincoln—a distance of more than 710 miles down the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers—in just 54 hours. Grant’s arrival at the Dakota Territory fort at 11 p.m. on July 5, 1876, brought first word of Custer’s monumental defeat to a stunned America.
“Grant Marsh was always ready to take any chances when the services of his government demanded them,” Brig. Gen. Edward Godfrey wrote of the voyage in which Marsh’s stern-wheeler, Far West, “with ‘full steam ahead,’ crashing through willows and caroming against mud banks, made her memorable voyage.” Godfrey described Marsh as “a man of tremendous energy and resources to fight and overcome all obstacles”—even sandbars so near the surface that Far West had to use deck derricks and inch over them by linking up with trees on the bank, in effect towing itself with winches. His rescue of the wounded from Reno Hill made Marsh a hero to the cavalrymen. The obstacles Far West had to overcome also explain why river steamboats disappeared as soon as railroads connected frontier outposts.
Grant Prince Marsh, future king of the Missouri, was born on May 11, 1834, in New York’s Chautauqua County, to John and Lydia Dyer Marsh. The family moved to Rochester, Pa., on the Ohio River a few years later. Marsh became a cabin boy at 12 and worked his way up to deckhand. He was serving as watchman aboard A.B. Chambers in late February 1856 when the sudden breaking of an ice jam tore the ship from its berth and sank or wrecked 50 other steamboats on the St. Louis waterfront. By 1858 he was first mate on Chambers. The following year, Samuel Clemens joined the crew as a pilot. When the Civil War broke out, Clemens briefly served the Confederacy, then deserted and worked for a Virginia City, Nev., newspaper using the pen name Mark Twain. Marsh, by then married to Katherine Reardon of St. Louis, stuck with the Union and worked on boats along the floating battlefield of the lower Mississippi. He was mate on John J. Roe in spring 1862 when that vessel helped carry Ulysses S. Grant’s army up the Tennessee River from Fort Donelson, Grant’s first big victory, to Pittsburgh Landing for the carnage at Shiloh. In the predawn hours on the battle’s second day, Marsh helped clinch victory by landing Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s forces on the river’s left bank to reinforce Grant.
Steamboats had come to the upper Missouri in 1831, three years before Marsh was born. The steamers—flat-bottomed scows, gradually shifting from side paddle wheels to stern wheels—were a commercial success on the Mississippi. The cost of shipping a barrel of flour had dropped from $1.50 in keelboat days to 50 cents (sometimes a quarter when the boats needed ballast). The Missouri, however, was no safe highway: Between 1831 and 1893, when steamboats became moribund, the river claimed 295 ships. Steamers exploded due to defective boilers, hit snags of cottonwood trees cut down to keep the boilers fed, or sometimes just succumbed to sloppy construction. The average life span of a Missouri steamboat was four to five years. But they were the cheapest way to shift bulk freight and safer from predatory Indians than land travel. The trouble was that ice closed the upper Missouri four to six months of the year, preventing steamboat traffic.
Marsh made his first trip to the upper Missouri as mate of Marcella in 1864, transporting supplies for Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully’s inconclusive expedition against the Sioux. Marsh saw the river’s potential. Starting in 1866, as master of Luella, he began to link St. Louis with Fort Benton, originally a fur-trading post but now thriving due to the Montana Gold Rush (and soon to become the biggest port between St. Louis and San Francisco). On his fourth and last voyage of the year, traveling in some instances over just 2 feet of water, Marsh delivered 2½ tons of gold dust, conservatively valued at that time at $1,250,000— the richest cargo ever to go down the Missouri River.
In 1867 Marsh brought up the newly constructed Ida Stockdale from Pittsburgh. On the way to Fort Benton that June, he picked up passengers and cargo from the wrecked steamer James H. Trover, then returned to help salvage Trover’s machinery and take it to Fort Buford. Next he transported Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry, commanding the Department of Dakota, to his new post at Fort Benton.
In October 1868, commanding Nile, Marsh carried supplies for three Missouri River Indian agencies—under protest—to satisfy treaty negotiations with Chief Red Cloud and the Oglala Sioux. Marsh thought it was too late in the season, and he was right. Nile delivered, concluding Red Cloud’s War, but dropping water levels eventually forced the hapless steamer to spend the winter stuck in the ice. Marsh’s skill at maintenance kept river ice from crushing the hull, and Nile became the first boat to winter on the upper Missouri.
In 1869 Marsh was contracted to put down a mutiny on the steamer Tempest. He arrived in a mackinaw boat, shut down the bar and ended the mutiny. Crewed by the now-sober ex-mutineers, Tempest made it to St. Louis under its own power. Marsh finished the year in North Alabama, carrying fresh vegetables—a vitally needed antiscorbutic—to Army posts upriver. Scurvy, caused by a lack of Vitamin C, was a known killer at frontier posts; enlisted men would hand over three days’ pay for a can of peaches. Ice trapped the steamer 25 miles short of Fort Buford, and the vegetables were transported overland. Marsh was able to extricate the boat after a brief thaw and return it safely to St. Louis. A year later, North Alabama was wrecked and sank— under a different captain.
As early as 1870, the railroad link to Sioux City, Iowa, was reducing steamboat trade on the upper Missouri, so Marsh shifted some of his commerce to the lower Missouri ports. The river, however, was his destiny, and north–south Reconstruction-era government contracts somewhat compensated for the loss of east–west transport. In 1873 Marsh carried Brig. Gen. G.A. Forsyth’s reconnaissance party up the Yellowstone in Key West and later supported the expedition that led to Custer’s clash with the Sioux during the Yellowstone Expedition. In 1875 he took the stern-wheeler Josephine 483 miles up the Yellowstone— a record for such a boat.
The Sioux War of 1876 found Marsh in command of Far West, a boat that in 1872 had beaten his own Nellie Peck in a celebrated race. An accident occurred on the Yellowstone when a sergeant, dispatched with two privates to deliver the mail in a small skiff on the Powder River, capsized and sank in midstream, still holding the mail sack. Marsh’s men recovered the sack with boat hooks, but the sergeant was lost. The crew of Far West spent all night drying and resealing the letters.
Worse news followed on June 27, when Far West encountered the Crow scout Curley at the confluence of the Bighorn and the Little Bighorn and learned that Custer’s immediate command had been destroyed in detail. Marsh directed his men to fashion a field hospital on Far West’s broad stern, took aboard the wounded and moved down to the confluence with the Yellowstone. On July 3, after ferrying companies of the 7th across the Yellowstone in pursuit of the Lakotas, Marsh made his celebrated lifesaving run with the casualties (from the commands of Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen) back to Fort Abraham Lincoln on the Missouri River.
Marsh spent the remainder of the campaign supplying the Army and, in the end, transporting the captive Indians. In 1881, as captain of a five-boat fleet, he brought 3,000 of Sitting Bull’s surrendered Sioux to Standing Rock Agency. It was over for the free-roaming Lakotas, and soon it would be over for Grant Marsh on the Missouri, as the newly completed railroads put the steamboats there out of business. The last boats had iron-sheathed hulls and improved derricks for traversing sandbars, but they still had to face the winter ice. Marsh’s last important trip was to ferry Sitting Bull and 171 followers, the last of the “hostiles,” from Fort Randall to Fort Yates. He spent the next two decades back on the Mississippi, and after a brief return to the upper Missouri, he retired in 1910. Marsh died at home in Bismarck, N.D., in 1916. Never once did he lose a steamer, but he would be best remembered for that epic 1876 voyage on the wild Missouri when he brought the Reno Hill survivors to safety.
Minjae Kim helped research this article.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.