Riverboat captain fell on hard times

2011-05-01T00:15:00Z 2012-03-26T11:41:20Z Riverboat captain fell on hard timesBy CURT ERIKSMOEN Bismarck Tribune
May 01, 2011 12:15 am  • 

The riverboat captain who brought the wounded soldiers back from the battlefield at the Little Big Horn in 1876 was responsible, six years later for bringing Sitting Bull to the Standing Rock Reservation. 

Grant Marsh made huge fortunes for the companies that owned his riverboats, but when he died in 1916, he was nearly broke.

In 1876, Marsh was ordered to pilot the supply boat the Far West on the mission, headed by Gen. Alfred Terry, to persuade Sitting Bull and his followers to relocate on established reservations. Marsh reached Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 27 only to find out that Custer and the 7th Cavalry had left 10 days earlier. 

After having supper with Mrs. Libbie Custer, he proceeded up the Missouri to meet Terry.  On June 21, Terry held a strategy meeting aboard the Far West while it was moored at the mouth of the Rosebud River and, the next day, the members of the 7th Cavalry drew their supplies from the Far West.

Marsh then proceeded up the Rosebud and Big Horn Rivers and secured his boat off a small island in the Little Big Horn River on June 27.  What they did not know was two days earlier, only 11 miles away from where the Far West was anchored, Custer had launched his ill-advised attack. 

The crew spotted an Indian emerging from the trees on the main bank.  He was frantically waving his arms, and Marsh recognized him. The Indian was Curley, one of Custer’s Crow scouts.  Curley was invited aboard the Far West and through pantomime he tried to convey the fact that all of the other members of Custer’s immediate command had been killed. 

He did not know English and no one aboard understood Crow.  Curley was given a piece of tarpaulin and a pencil, and he showed that all of the other soldiers and scouts of Custer’s command were dead.

The next morning, members of the Far West saw a rider being chased by Sioux warriors.  When the Sioux spotted the riverboat, they left, allowing Muggins Taylor, a scout from Gen. John Gibbon’s forces, to get on board.  Taylor confirmed what Curley had reported.  That evening, two scouts from Terry’s army arrived with orders that Marsh would be responsible for transporting wounded soldiers from Major Marcus Reno’s command back to Fort Lincoln.

On June 30, after the 52 wounded soldiers and scouts were loaded onto the Far West, Marsh began his race back to Fort Lincoln, 730 miles away.  At 11 p.m. on July 5, the boat pulled into Bismarck, and word quickly spread about the news that Custer and his soldiers had been defeated.   

Late in 1877, Marsh severed his connection with the Coulson Packet Co. and, in the spring of 1878, signed on with Joseph Leighton and Walter B. Jordan, Indian traders at Fort Buford.  The traders were getting into the transport business and had purchased a steamboat, the F. Y. Batchelor, which was being constructed in the Pittsburgh boat yards.  Marsh traveled to Pittsburgh and brought the boat to Dakota Territory.

In August 1878, Marsh piloted the Batchelor from Bismarck to Fort Buford, a distance of 307 miles, in 55 hours and 25 minutes. This was a speed record on the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, and it was done by going upstream. 

In 1879, Marsh purchased the Andrew S. Bennett, a ferry boat.  The Bennett was used in Bismarck, and Marsh hired a pilot to operate it.  Marsh continued to pilot the Batchelor up the Yellowstone but, when the Northern Pacific Railroad reached the Yellowstone Valley in 1881, that source of riverboat revenue ended.

In 1882, Marsh purchased his own riverboat, the W. J. Behan. In late April 1883, he was given the assignment to go to Fort Randall, in southern Dakota Territory, and transport Sitting Bull to the Standing Rock Reservation. Following this assignment, Marsh sold the Behan and moved to Memphis, Tenn., where, for the next dozen years, he operated ferry boats and tug boats.

For the next few years he did a variety of jobs.

Meanwhile, William D. Washburn was operating a number of major businesses in western Dakota Territory. 

Washburn was in need of a skilled riverboat operator who was familiar with the Missouri River and he  hired Marsh in August 1901.

Washburn’s railroad purchased a steamboat, the Expansion, and hired Marsh as captain to haul freight on the Missouri.  When Washburn’s railroad reached Bismarck in 1902, Marsh went to work for the Benton Packet Co. piloting a riverboat between Bismarck and Washburn, and also operating a “snag” boat, removing obstacles from the river. 

Marsh also operated a ferry boat that transported people and cargo across the Missouri River at Fort Abraham Lincoln.  In 1907, he purchased the Irene, a pleasure yacht, for excursion trips along the Missouri near Bismarck.

In July 1907, Marsh resigned his position with the Benton Co., and on Aug. 23, he went aboard his former boat, the Expansion, and confronted the pilot, William R. Massie.  Massie charged Marsh with assault, and at a hearing of the Department of Commerce and Labor, his license was revoked on Dec. 8.

 On Jan. 6, 1916, “Marsh died in near poverty,” as Isaac P. Baker, his manager at the Benton Packet Co. laid claim to much of his estate because of unpaid bills.

Marsh was buried in a simple grave in Bismarck’s St. Mary’s Cemetery. 

In December 1943, the Liberty ship, the SS Grant P. Marsh, was launched.  In 1965, the Grant Marsh Bridge was built as part of the I-94 project, and it was rebuilt in 2002.  Overlooking the Missouri River at Riverside Park in Yankton, S.D., is a life-size statue of Capt. Grant Prince Marsh.      

(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.)

Copyright 2015 Bismarck Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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