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Grant Prince Marsh: Legendary Riverboat Captain

By Roger Applegate
With research assistance by Ron Ciani

Milestones Vol 34 No. 1

Described as possibly the finest riverboat pilot who ever lived, Captain Grant Prince Marsh steamed the rivers of the American West and was a part of one of the most fascinating chapters in the Indian wars of the late 19th century. In his biography of Captain Marsh, titled The conquest of the Missouri: Being the Story of the Life and Exploits of Captain Grant Marsh, Joseph Mills Hanson describes him as:

"Tall, broad shouldered and powerful of frame, clear-eyed and gentle of voice, this veteran navigator of the Missouri has lived and worked, shoulder to shoulder, with many men famous in history, and passed through as many strange and rugged experiences as would stock the biography of an adventurer of the Spanish Main."

Marsh was born at Pine Grove, Warren County, Pennsylvania on May 11, 1834 to parents John and Lydia Dyer Marsh . At an early age his family moved to Rochester, Pennsylvania, and later ended up in Phillipsburg, known to us today as Monaca. During his time here in Beaver County, Marsh and his childhood friends spent many days down by the river watching the steamboat traffic and dreaming of the day when they too could journey the river on one of those mighty vessels. His dream came true at the age of 12 years, when Grant Marsh began his steamboat career as a cabin boy on an Allegheny steamer named the Dover which traveled between Pittsburgh and Freeport, Pennsylvania . At some point, he left the Allegheny trade to work on various boats running between Pittsburgh and locations on the Ohio River. In the early spring of 1852, still in his teens, young Marsh turned his sights westward as he took employment on a packet running between Pittsburgh and St. Louis, eventually ending up on the Missouri River.

By 1858, he was the First Mate on the A.B. Chambers No. 2, and the second pilot was a very capable young man named Samuel Clemens who went on to become one of America's best known humorists under the pseudonym of "Mark Twain". During their time on the Chambers, Clemens and Marsh became good friends, and for many years, they remained in contact, although they were destined to never serve together on another riverboat after they parted ways in 1861.

Throughout most of the Civil War, Marsh served the Union by hauling troops and supplies. His service began in 1861, and in 1862 he was a part of a fleet of steamers moving General Grant's troops from Fort Donelson to Pittsburg Landing prior to the battle of Shiloh. During the battle, he ferried troops across the river which helped to turn the tide of battle against the Confederacy. His service continued in various operations from the Arkansas River to Vicksburg. Following Vicksburg, he moved into a new theater of operations, transporting army supplies and troops against the hostile Indian nations in the Dakota and Missouri Territories.

Following the temporary pacification of those tribes, Marsh turned his talents to commercial ventures on the Missouri River in the St. Louis to Fort Benton trade. As captain of the steamer Luella, he once cleared a record profit of $24,000, only to break his own record the next year with the Ida Stockdale when she cleared $42,594 for only five months work. That profit was twice the value of the boat and far more than was made by any of the other thirty nine steamers that year.

Joining with Sanford Coulson, Marsh captained a variety of steamers of the Coulson Line for the next ten years doing military contract work hauling supplies to posts along the Missouri River and ferrying army explorers and survey parties up to the Yellowstone River. This was dangerous work as the Sioux and other tribes were turning hostile again at the further encroachment of the whites into their territories. During his Yellowstone exploration trips, Marsh became acquainted with many frontier notables like Luther "Yellowstone" Kelly, General Nelson A. Miles, Buffalo Bill Cody and Colonel George Armstrong Custer.

In 1875, Captain Marsh received a new steamer named Josephine from the dockyards in Freedom, Pennsylvania which was built to his specifications especially for use on the shallow and treacherous Yellowstone River. A typical upper-river sternwheeler, she displaced perhaps 300 tons, drew a mere 20-to-30 inches of water and burned about 25 cords of hardwood each day. In emergencies, the boat could lift itself over shallows and sandbars by means of special stilt-like spars on its bow. The two spars were long, thick poles whose base would be planted in the river bottom with the top tipped forward. Through a series of pulleys and rope the top of the spars would be connected to the capstan which was turned by a small steam engine. The rigging would pull the spars to an upright position and therefore lift the boat over the obstruction and then "walk" the boat over the sandbar. Due to its resemblance to a certain insect, this process became commonly known as "grasshoppering".

During a surveying expedition up the Yellowstone River that same year, Captain Marsh worked the Josephine to the foot of Pompey's Pillar, a sandstone butte that covers about 2 acres at its base and stands approximately 150 feet high and has been a Native American landmark for centuries. Pompey's Pillar was first discovered by the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1806, and on the side of the high mesa, Marsh found the inscription "Wm. Clark, July 25, 1806," chiseled into its face. In a prominent place, Marsh commemorated his feat of navigation by inscribing "Josephine, June 3, 1875". Not content with the inscription, Marsh got an American flag, nailed it to a stout pole, climbed the steep sides of the butte and planted it at the top. Continuing on another twenty eight miles up river, the Josephine finally reached the site of present day Billings, Montana, further up the Yellowstone than any other steamboat had ever gone. In more recent times, a commemorative plaque has been placed in Billing's Riverfront Park, documenting this as one of the greatest feats of river navigation accomplished up to that time.

In 1876 General Philip Sheridan dispatched three converging U.S. Army columns to halt the Sioux depredations in what came to be known as the Little Bighorn Campaign. As supply ship for one of these columns, he hired the Far West and Captain Marsh, at a rate of $360 a day. During this campaign, Captain Marsh achieved another of his great navigational feats while supporting General Terry's column, which included the Seventh Cavalry. After supplying the 7th from his stores at the mouth of the Rosebud, Marsh said good-bye to his friends, Charlie Reynolds one of Custer's scouts and Boston Custer, a civilian and the youngest brother of the 7th's commander, as they marched off to their date with destiny. Both would fall in the fighting that was to come. Shortly after the 7th Cavalry departed, the Far West moved up near the mouth of the Big Horn River to attempt its ascent. The river was barely a hundred yards wide at its widest, its tortuous channel choked with islands and sandbars, many sharp bends, and white water in summer flood. Since no steamer had ever gone there before, all of Captain Marsh's skill, as well as the superhuman efforts of her crew, were needed to allow the steamer to ascend the river and finally tie up to an island in midstream near the mouth of the Little Big Horn River. Unbeknownst to Captain Marsh, the Far West arrived almost at the same time that Custer launched his attack a mere eleven miles from where she lay.

Fishing and idling in the sunshine and not fearing any trouble from the indians, the captain, crew and military escort were enjoying the day, when suddenly an Indian warrior burst from the trees on the main bank. Startled, they reached for their weapons only to discover that it was Custer's Crow scout, Curley. Through pantomime and pidgin English, the badly frightened scout was able to convey the news of the Custer disaster and explain that he was the sole survivor of Custer's immediate command.

The next morning, riding for his life amid a flurry of gunshots from the hostile Sioux chasing him, scout Muggins Taylor arrived and verified Curley's account of Custer's defeat.

Within a day or so, General Terry ordered the Far West to prepare to receive fifty two wounded from Major Reno's command as well as Commanche. Captain Miles Keogh's horse was the only living thing left on the battlefield where Custer and his troops lay. As recorded in his book, The Conquest of the Missouri, Joseph Mills Hanson states that once the wounded were loaded, General Terry, the expedition's commander, instructed Captain Marsh as follows:

"Captain, you are about to start on a trip with fifty-two wounded men on your boat. This is a bad river to navigate and accidents are liable to happen. I wish to ask of you that you use all the skill that you possess, all the caution that you can command, to make the journey safely. Captain, you have on board the most precious cargo a boat ever carried. Every soldier here who is suffering with wounds is the victim of a terrible blunder; a sad and terrible blunder."


Marsh and the Far West more than justified his confidence by making the perilous 710 mile journey, steaming both day and night to reach Bismarck (Fort Lincoln at that time) in a record 54 hours without incident. This was a navigational feat never equaled again on western waters and one of the most remarkable exploits in the annals of Missouri River steamboating.

Upon arrival at Bismarck, the Far West delivered the news of Custer's annihilation and disembarked the wounded. Afterwards, she took on supplies for the troops remaining in General Terry's command and immediately returned to their camp on the Yellowstone River.

Within a short time, Captain Marsh was ordered to take on some troops of cavalry and scout down the Yellowstone River in an unsuccessful attempt to locate the hostiles. One of the scouts for this expedition was William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Dressed in his signature fringed buckskin hunting outfit, riding boots and a broad sombrero, he and Marsh were to meet for the first time. In his memoirs, "The Life of Honorable William F. Cody" written in 1879, Cody says of Captain Marsh:


"The steamer Far West was commanded by Captain Grant Marsh, whom I found to be an interesting character. I had often heard of him, for he was and is yet one of the best known river captains in the country."

At the end of 1877, Marsh severed his connection with the Coulson Line and signed on with Leighton and Jordan, who commissioned their own steamboat, the F.Y. Batchelor, also from the Freedom boat yards.

Captain Marsh returned east to Pittsburgh to personally bring the Batchelor back to Fort Custer at the junction of the Little and Bighorn Rivers, along with the co-owner, C.W. Batchelor who was also a noted riverboat captain.

After discharging her cargo at Fort Custer, C. W. Batchelor and several other passengers disembarked to take a tour of the Custer battlefield, along with General Nelson A. Miles, the district commander. Interestingly, the party was accompanied by White Horse and Little Creek, two Cheyenne Indians who supplied details of their fight against Custer. They were also joined on board the F.Y. Batchelor by Curley, Custer's Crow scout who, several years earlier, brought the news of Custer's massacre to Captain Marsh while aboard the Far West.

In his log of the voyage, Stanton Batchelor, the clerk of the F.Y. Batchelor, said:

"'Curley,' the Crow scout, the only known living being saved from the Custer massacre, was interviewed through an interpreter on the boat by General Miles. More details and correct information was obtained from him than had ever been given. 'Curley' had never fully recovered from the fright of that memorable day."


In the F.Y. Batchelor later that year, Marsh set another speed record, this time going against the current from Bismarck to Fort Buford. According to the Bismarck Tribune, " This wonderful run makes the steamer Batchelor the champion boat of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.".

For several more years, Marsh and the F.Y. Batchelor continued to steam the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, but the establishment of the Northern Pacific Railroad through Bismarck began to sound the death knell of river trade.

Marsh was to play a role in one last act of frontier history, however. In the spring of 1882, Marsh, now captain of the W.J. Behan, was chartered by the government to take the remaining 171 Sioux who were returning from Canada under the command of Sitting Bull to their new reservation. At one of the stops on the voyage, Captain Marsh was presented with an intricately carved pipe stem by a man named Frank Chadron at the Cheyenne River Agency. Upon seeing it, Sitting Bull, speaking through an interpreter, wanted to buy it from him, but Marsh refused because it had been a gift. Sitting Bull became so persistent, that an exasperated Marsh told him that he would take $50 for it. Joseph Mills Hanson goes on with the story:

"'Well', replied the captain, addressing the interpreter, 'tell him that he has kept me scared for twenty years along the river and he ought to give me something for that.'

'I did not come on your land to scare you,' retorted Sitting Bull, with dignity. 'If you had not come on my land, you would not have been scared either.'

The reply was so convincing that Captain Marsh made no attempt to pursue the argument further, though the chief did not get the pipe stem."

Following the delivery of Sitting Bull and his followers to Fort Yates, Marsh continued on to Bismarck where he found two gentlemen who offered to purchase the W.J. Behan at a favorable price.

With the slowing of opportunities along the Missouri River due to the railroad, he sold the W.J. Behan and proceeded to his home in Yankton where he prepared his family for a move to Memphis, Tennessee to seek his fortune on the Mississippi River.

For the next twenty one years, Marsh kept busy, first operating a ferry at Memphis and then commanding different boats carrying both passengers and freight to various points along the river.

He eventually returned to the upper Missouri River and worked with the Benton Packet Company, where his last years were spent piloting a steamer between Washburn and Bismarck and also operating a "snag" boat removing obstacles from the river.

Ironically, in 1907 he was Captain of the Expansion which hauled cement and other building materials from Glendive, Montana to the Headgates diversion dam of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project. The construction of this dam essentially ended steamboat navigation on the Yellowstone River.

With the completion of the Great Northern Railroad, steamboating's final act on the Missouri was finished and the curtain was beginning to fall on the career of the legendary riverman.

The sad ending to Captain Marsh's last command was personally witnessed by Usher L. Burdick in June, 1915 and related to us in his book, The Last Battle of the Sioux Nation:

"The captain at that time was eighty years old, but was as buoyant and erect as a man of forty....The piloting of the boats down the river was referred to by the Captain as a matter of too small concern to mention. Had he not in the later fifties, the sixties, the seventies and early eighties plied the river with steady hand; had he not brought down the "Far West" from the mouth of the Little Big Horn with the wounded of Reno's command and established a record of seven hundred and ten miles in fifty four hours, a record never to be equaled?...When the festivities had been concluded and the word to start was given, the grand old captain climbed the pilot house and took the wheel, with all the assurance of former days. He was confident - so were all those on board, for the Captain's reputation was well known to all. All was in readiness and with the command to push off, the boat slowly left the shore. The current was strong and before the captain could gain his course in the swift running stream, the boat was beyond his control and was carried like a wounded bird until it beached on the opposite shore. Another attempt was made, but the old captain was plainly perplexed and the second attempt ended in failure like the first. His watchful eyes had known every bend in the Missouri, and even at night he was master of the river. Those alert eyes were now dimmed with years and the once mighty pilot was helpless on his last voyage. He turned the wheel over to younger hands, and with tears trickling down his face he left the pilot house never again to appear as a pilot on the river where he had spent his life."

His storied career ended on January 6, 1916 when, at the age of 83 he passed away at St. Alexis Hospital from a bout of pneumonia that was contracted while living at the home of his sister-in-law. Captain Grant Prince Marsh was laid to rest in St. Mary's Cemetery in Bismarck, North Dakota on a hilltop overlooking his beloved river.


The Josephine was a sternwheel packet boat built in 1873 to the specifications of Captain Grant Marsh in the Freedom boat yards for J.S. Coulson for use on the upper Missouri River. The Josephine was named for the young daughter of General David S. Stanley, who was the commander of the 22nd infantry and worked with Captain Marsh exploring the Yellowstone territory. The steamboat was 183 feet long by 31 feet wide and only drew four feet of water, which was perfect for use on the shallow rivers of the west. In 1873, she made her first trips to the Yellowstone River under Captain Marsh in support of Custer's Seventh Cavalry.

In 1875, she was used to explore the Yellowstone River and in doing so, the Josephine went further up the river than any riverboat before, when she went above Pompey's Pillar to the site of present-day Billings, Montana and tied up to a cottonwood tree. In later years, her supposed landing place was made into a park aptly named "Josephine Park", but the park has since been taken over by the expansion of a water treatment plant.

Her next task was in the Canadian Northwest where she was used to transport Canadian troops to posts in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Following that duty, she returned to the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers where she was used to support the army during the Sioux wars. The Josephine did great service with the Coulson Line as she made nearly fifty trips to Montana. She was finally sold sometime in the 1880's and began a new career in government service as a "snag boat" removing obstructions along the Missouri River. In 1891, after almost two years of sitting idle, she was used for river inspection out of Bismarck. The Josephine met her end in 1907 when damaged by ice and sunk. Her machinery was salvaged and shipped to Alaska for use on a Yukon River steamer.

F.Y. Batchelor

The F.Y. Batchelor was a sternwheel packet boat measuring 180 feet long, 30 feet wide and only 3.5 feet in depth. The hull was built in Freedom, Pennsylvania by McCaskey and Kerr and was completed at Pittsburgh in 1878 in only sixty four days. It was built to the specifications of Captain Charles W. Batchelor on behalf of himself and his nephew Joseph Leighton for use hauling supplies to their store at Fort Buford on the Yellowstone River. Captain Batchelor named the new steamer after his deceased brother, Frank, also a former riverboat captain. Her first captain was Grant Marsh who piloted the newly built Batchelor from her launching in Pittsburgh to Fort Custer located at the junction of the Little and Bighorn Rivers.

In August, 1878 while under the command of Captain Marsh, the F.Y. Batchelor was to set a speed record by steaming the 307 miles from Bismarck to Fort Buford in 55 hours and 25 minutes. This feat was accomplished while traveling up river against the current, and still beat the previous record by almost eight hours.

Disaster struck the Batchelor in November, 1879 when she struck some rocks sixteen miles below Forest City, South Dakota and sunk. Fortunately, the F.Y. Batchelor was raised, repaired and continued in service to Leighton and Jordan until 1885 when she was sold to the Benton Packet Co. who used her to haul freight to Fort Benton. In this service, she was credited with being the last steamboat to haul commercial freight to the fort. She worked around Bismarck and was eventually sold to Captain Joseph Leach in 1906. The F.Y. Batchelor finally met its end on March 6, 1907 when she was trapped by ice at Running Water, South Dakota and was wrecked. In an interesting side note, L.A. Huffman, a noted western photographer whose camera chronicled the Indian campaigns and recorded the passing of the American west, built one of his studios with lumber salvaged from F.Y. Batchelor. Also, the pilot's wheel of the F.Y. Batchelor can be seen on permanent display at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center in Williston, North Dakota.


1. Way's Packet Directory, 1848 ­ 1994. Compiled by Frederick Way, Jr., Athens: Ohio University Press, Revised Edition.

2. The Conquest of the Missouri: being the story of the life and times of Captain Grant Marsh. By Joseph Mills Hanson. Toronto: Murray Hill Books, 1946.

3. Incidents in My Life, with a family genealogy. By Charles William Batchelor. Pittsburgh: Jos. Eichbaum & Co., 1887.

4. Electronic correspondence with Mr. Arch Ellwein of Sidney, Montana. Mr. Ellwein is a noted living historian and Grant Marsh interpreter.

5. The last Battle of the Sioux Nation. By Usher L. Burdick, Fargo, N.D.:Worzalla Publishing Co., 1929.