This is a photograph of Joseph LaBarge's steamboat license from 1897. Licenses could be revoked or suspended for a variety of things such as faulty equipment, reckless behavior, drunkenness, and sleeping on duty.
[E. B. Trail Collection, 1858-1965 (C2071), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]
LaBarge's first experience piloting a steamboat occurred in 1833 when passengers on the Yellowstone became ill with cholera. Many of the passengers and crew died, including the pilot, engineer, and fireman. The boat's captain returned to St. Louis to hire a new crew, leaving LaBarge in command. When settlers living near the river heard that the Yellowstone had experienced a cholera outbreak, they threatened to burn the steamboat unless it was moved away from their settlement. Without any assistance, LaBarge fired up the boilers and moved the boat upstream away from harm. After his contract with the American Fur Company ended, LaBarge began working on steamboats full-time in various positions and developed a reputation as a skilled pilot.
John James Audubon
John James Audubon.
This is a portrait of famed naturalist John James Audubon, who became famous with the publication of his celebrated book Birds of America. In 1843 Audubon traveled up the Missouri River to document animals he had not yet seen. The resulting book was The Viviparous Quadrupeds Of North America. Audubon was one of many celebrities that LaBarge met during his fifty-year career on the Missouri River.
[Courtesy of the White House Historical Association]
On August 17, 1842, LaBarge married Pelagie Guerette. The couple had seven children together: five boys and two girls. The following year, La Barge served as pilot of the steamboat Omega. Among the passengers was distinguished naturalist and artist John J. Audubon, who was on his final trip west to study and document American wildlife.
By 1845 boat traffic on the Missouri River was growing as steamboats now carried not just furs and supplies but also artists, settlers, missionaries, Native Americans, miners, explorers, slaves, scientists, and fur traders, leading some to call it the "Highway of the Plains." Some of the steamboats that carried passengers became more luxurious, while others remained devoted to hauling cargo. In 1846 LaBarge purchased his first steamboat, the General Brooks, for $12,000—the rough equivalent of over half a million dollars today. He sold it the next year and built a new steamboat, the Martha. Over the years, LaBarge owned or leased a number of boats.
Some steamboat pilots relied on more than memory and skill. Edmund Gray was a steamboat captain on the Mississippi River. He recorded detailed observations of the river and steering directions in a ledger that is called a pilot's log.
[Edmund Gray Papers, 1831-1955 (C3611), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]
Like many steamboat captains, LaBarge often contracted with the American Fur Company to transport passengers and freight up the river; other times he worked for the federal government, or even chose to work for himself. No matter the job, LaBarge met a wide variety of people on board his boat.
In 1851 LaBarge piloted the steamboat St. Ange up the Missouri to Fort Union with Father Pierre De Smet, a famous Catholic missionary, as one of his passengers. That same year, at the age of thirty-six, LaBarge decided to retire. His retirement was short-lived, however, and he had the honor of transporting Abraham Lincoln, not yet president, on one of his boats during Lincoln's 1859 visit to Council Bluffs, Iowa. In 1861 LaBarge and some partners founded LaBarge, Harkness & Company, whose main rival was the American Fur Company.