Jump to Navigation

Keelboat Steering Oar

Keelboat steering oar

This crooked wooden pole is likely a steering oar from a keelboat on the Kansas River.

"We would take a boat up with goods in August, and keep it there till the next spring, when we would bring it down loaded with peltries."—Frederick Chouteau

The best way to ship goods around Kansas in the 1820s was by water. French fur traders knew how to navigate the West's shallow rivers. Although the canoes favored by American Indians worked well, they were incapable of carrying large loads of furs down river to market. For this reason, traders preferred keelboats.

These crafts had extremely shallow drafts, meaning they didn't displace much water and could handle almost any western channel. Most were between 40 and 80 feet long and seven to ten feet wide. A robust crew was required to move a keelboat upriver, either by pushing off from poles shoved into the river bottom, or by pulling the craft using tow ropes on the bank. It was an arduous process that averaged only about 15 miles per day. Floating down river was much easier.

This crooked wooden pole, found in the Kansas River, is almost certainly a steering oar from a keelboat. A steering oar functions like a rudder by controlling the boat's direction. Unlike rudders, though, steering oars are not fixed to the bottom of a boat. They swivel from the top, allowing vessels to move through shallow water. This particular oar measures over 10 feet long.

A Fur Trade Dynasty

It is impossible to verify, but the oar may have been associated with a fur trade dynasty. The Chouteau family first became involved with the business in the mid-1700s. Subsequent generations expanded the clan's domination of the western trade. By the mid-1820s, Pierre Chouteau was running the entire Western Department of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, a monopoly controlling the fur trade in the Midwest and other regions. Due to their wealth and influence, the Chouteaus knew some of the American West's most iconic figures—William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame), Daniel Morgan Boone (Daniel Boone's son), and John Frémont (explorer and later presidential candidate).

Frederick Chouteau—Pierre's brother—established a trading post upriver from present-day Topeka around 1830. There, on a tributary of the Kansas River, the Kansa Indians built a village of about 20 lodges with the intention of trading with the Chouteaus. Among the goods sold by Frederick were firearms, blankets, and whiskey. In exchange, he received furs as well as cash from the tribe's government annuity payments. Frederick later recalled that his annual cycle with the Kansa began in late summer, when his crew poled a boat loaded with supplies upriver. For a couple of weeks, the Kansa purchased these goods on credit before embarking on an extended hunt. They returned to the village in late December, giving Frederick his "pay" (pelts). In the spring, the tribe planted corn before leaving on another lengthy hunt. Their departure was Frederick's signal to load the keelboat with pelts and float it down river to the Chouteau warehouse in Kansas City. From there, the furs could be dispersed to any location where such fashionable items as beaver hats were in demand.

Keelboat in West Virginia with heavy steering oar at left foreground. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Frederick later claimed the Chouteaus owned the only keelboats on the Kansas River. This is entirely possible, considering the government granted them an exclusive license to trade with the Kansa tribe. Frederick also described the Chouteau keelboats as being outfitted with a rudder, "though we generally took the rudder off and used a long oar for steering." He certainly was describing an oar like this example.

Although keelboats were not large vessels, they could transport great quantities of goods and furs. The loss of just one loaded craft shocked a trader's balance sheets. One of Frederick's brothers wrote his uncle about a boat accident in 1829: "It is with the greatest sorrow that I inform you of the loss of the keelboat Beaver, loaded with 200 packs on the way to St. Louis. She hit a rock about 10 feet from her stern and she sank in less than three minutes." He gave a complete inventory of the goods aboard the boat, including the skins of 15,000 deer, 2,000 raccoons, 1,500 muskrats, and "400 pounds of beaver." Luckily for the Chouteaus' business, all the skins were recovered from the bottom of the river, although three crewmen drowned from the accident.

The Chouteaus' trade on the Kansas River lasted until 1845, when a treaty removed the Kansa tribe to Council Grove (central Kansas). By this time, though, the fur trade was in decline because world fashion had shifted its tastes from fur to silk. Many years later, this steering oar was discovered while workers were constructing a new bridge over the Kansas River near downtown Topeka in 1897. The oar was donated to the Kansas Historical Society, where it is preserved in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

Listen to the Steering Oar podcast Play Audio Tour

Entry: Keelboat Steering Oar

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2009

Date Modified: June 2016

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.