Abstract: Heroine of the Western Frontier: The Archaeology of an Early American River Steamboat


“The circulation of steamboats is as necessary to the West as blood is to the human system”

French engineer Michel Chevalier, writing these words in 1835, could plainly see the vast transformation of America’s western frontier wrought by a mere quarter-century of steam navigation. Laden with tons of cargo and masses of immigrants, steamboats hauled the outside world into the center of the North American continent, utterly transforming the region’s environments and cultures.

This lecture presents the story of the Heroine, the earliest western river steamboat to be excavated by nautical archaeologists. Launched in 1832, Heroine traversed the swift, shallow Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers for nearly six years, dodging hazards and enduring boiler explosions while making its own contributions to the whirlwind of change that swept the mid-continent. Stabbed and sunk by a submerged log on the upper Red River in 1838, the wreck of Heroine has survived into the 21st century to tell us about steamboat architecture, machinery, cargoes, and the lives of its crew and passengers.

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