Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


Captain Grant Marsh Letters


Sunday, April 18, 2004


This letter was submitted to President Roosevelt, and relatives issued a copy retained by Captain Marsh to the archives of the North Dakota Historical Society at Bismarck, along with the President’s response. The microfilm copies are not legible for copying. These are an exact transcription, including punctuation and spelling. These documents were omitted from many of the earlier researchers, and present a new picture of the events occurring on the rivers.





Text Box: Bismarck NL Dak., November 21, 1907.

Honorable Theodore Roosevelt,
	Washington, D. C.
My dear Mr. President:
	Being mindful of, and appreciating your desire and sincere effort to build up and foster inland navigation, and your wish to restore our western rivers to their former sphere of usefulness, and as a lifelong navigator of western rivers and peioneer of the Yellowstone and the Upper Missouri rivers and a resident of North Dakota-a state which feels honored by its past associations with you-and while asking  your indulgence, I beg to call your attention to the coming destruction for navigation purposes of the Yellowstone river, a beautiful, useful stream, the heritage of steamboat men and for a thousand years to come, a stream that should serve the producers of both montana, North Dakota, and the Middle West, for the transportation of  their products and for pleasure travel.
	I sincerely invoke your aid to prevent its destruction for navigation purposes by the building of a dam at a point about fifteen miles below Glendive and about sixty-five miles from its mouth. The dam being constructed by the reclamation bureau for the benefit of a private corporation known as the Water Users’ Association. I am told this dam is being built with public money of the United States which is to be returned hereafter.
	As a steamboat man and a citizen, I would respectfully urge that while steamboat men do not begrudge the use of water taken in any quantity from the stream for the purposes of irrigation or for other purposes, we urge that what water is left (and there should be plenty left) should be conserved for navigation purposes, and beg that navigation be not wholly and needlessly destroyed. If the dam must be constructed, there should at once  by built by the general government, around such dam, a canal and lock suitable for passage of boats about 150 feet in length.
	I had the honor of commanding the Steamboat “Expansion” last July when it transported the Hon. Secretary of Interior, Mr. Garfield and Senators Dixon and Carter of Montana and their party from Glendive to the headgates of the irrigating ditch, and all agreed that the navigation of the river should be conserved. This same Yellowstone river has well served a mighty purpose in the past, in the pioneer days, and well deserves the protecting hand of the government. Well I remember how in the year of 1876 all the world stood aghast when the news of the Custer massacre spread broad-cast over the land and the then famous steamboat Far West under my command carried the precious cargo of wounded and dead of the 7th Regiment, U.S.Cavalry from the Big Horn river to Bismarck. This was before the advent of railroads hereabouts. Maybe sometime in the future, the river may be needed again. Who can tell? Why then permit its destruction?
	Again thanking you for your indulgence and assuring you of my high esteem, I remain,
Yours respectfully,
[signed Grant Marsh]



November 26, 1907,

My dear Captain:

	I thank you for your letter. I have sent it at once to the Inland Waterways Commission. It will have careful consideration.

	With regard,

                           Sincerely yours,

			[Signed Theodore Roosevelt]

Captain Grant Marsh,
	Bismarck, N. Dak.

When Captain Grant Marsh started to operate his riverboats on the Yellowstone River, he asked for and received permission to do so from the Sioux Indians. This is a copy of that authorization from Sitting Bull[1] on May 14, 1873. [Captain Marsh was piloting the Key West, and it was reported that Yellowstone Kelly was on board as Chief Scout. They reported to have been within two miles of the Powder River.[2]] In 1873 the Army hired Captain Marsh to explore the Yellowstone River, so as to assist them in the hunt for Sioux Indians. [This seems almost contradictory to the Army’s main task for which he was hired.]  Marsh chose the Key West [200’ Sternwheeler] for this task. General Custer and his 7th Cavalry arrived at Yankton via Dakota Southern Railroad on April 9, 1873. They stayed on-site for about a month, departing on May 7th for Fort Abraham Lincoln. From there they were to join with the NPR Survey Party and provide escort. In anticipation of needing additional supplies General Custer had Captain Grant Marsh make an exploratory excursion into the survey region, with the intent that later, when the survey teams were at the Yellowstone River, they could be re-supplied with needed provisions by steamboat. To assist Captain Marsh, Custer had Yellowstone Kelley (his chief guide) accompany him on the journey. Unfortunately the river’s water level was low and Marsh had to frequently use his spars and steam powered capstans before having to stop near the mouth of the Powder River[3]. It was here that he happened to encounter Chief Sitting Bull, who was impressed with the boat, and gave him authorization to travel on the Yellowstone River. This trek is not notably reported in the records of steamboat journeys into the Yellowstone Region[4], as its trek was somewhat secret.
According to the review by John MacDonald, in 1937, The Key West was a sister ship of the Far West, and Captain Grant Marsh met with General George A. Forsythe, under orders from General Sherman, to take command of the steamer and explore the Yellowstone River up to the mouth of the Powder River. Should it prove successful, steamers could be used to support the NPR survey. To assist in the mission, Yellowstone Kelly was picked up at a woodchopper’s point after leaving Fort Lincoln. At Fort Buford two infantry companies were taken aboard[5]. The Key West entered the Yellowstone on May 6th 1873. They successfully navigated the river to a point about two miles north of Powder River, where a large sand bar blocked their further travel. [This was later not evident on future treks.] General Forsythe later established a supply depot at Glendive Creek. This was to be used for resupplying the military expeditions supporting the Corps of Engineering NPR surveys expected to arrive in June. This research indicated that they encountered no Indians enroute. This is in direct conflict with the issuance of the permit on the 14th by Sitting Bull. The steamer returned to Fort Buford on the 15th. [This discrepancy cannot be explained.]
Capt Buesen (pilot and clerk on this trip) was in charge of the steamer "Key West" when that boat made its exploring trip up the Yellowstone River in April 1873. This boat was sent up the stream by order of General Phil Sheridan [to General Forsythe] to ascertain whether that river could be navigated as far as Powder river; a tributary of the Yellowstone, located about 200 miles from its mouth. The boat entered the river on May 6th, and the captain made a careful sounding of the channel in many places and completed a successful trip to its required destination, for which Capt Buesen had the honor of being rewarded with the first pilot's license issued for that river by the US government.[6] This license remarks that Marsh [piloting the Key West] was the first person to receive a license from the Sioux to operate on the Yellowstone. Captain Buesen received his license from the Government.


Text Box: COPY—

	Captain Grant Marsh is the first man on record as a licensed pilot on the Yellowstone. He received the license when the boat was found recently lying near the mouth of Powder River, two hundred and thirty-five miles up the Yellowstone, and was issued by Sitting Bull, the boss Indian of that Region. We give the document in full below.
” To whom it may concern:

This is to certify that Captain Grant Marsh has given satisfactory evidence to me—General Inspector—of his capabilities to navigate the waters of the Yellowstone river and he is hereby duly licensed to run, buck and warp up river to his hearts content.

Sitting Bull [___mark______]

Inspector General of the Yellowstone, and the Chief Scalp Lifter of the Hostiles,

May 14, 1873.”


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[1] The 235 miles reported in the authorization is overstated. This error wasn’t discovered until June, when Col. Forsythe was commanding the Josephine on a Military Exploration of the Yellowstone.

[2] John G. MacDonald, History of Navigation on the Yellowstone
River (Master's Thesis, Montana State University, 1950)

[3] “Steamboats on the Western Waters”, Louis C. Hunter, Harvard Press, 1949, pg 37.

[4] Boone’s Lick Heritage Quarterly (Volume 5, No. 2, June 1997)

[5] Refer to The Conquest of the Missouri, Joseph Hanson, 1908, for details.

[6] Obit for Captain Buesen, Jersey County Obituaries, Tri-County News (Marty Crull)