Genealogy Trails
Pottawattamie County, Iowa

Steamers Came To Door Of City

Traders Point Once River Trade Post

Written by Belle Sanford

Council Bluffs was the first of the Iowa Missouri river towns to possess a large share of the early Missouri River steamboat traffic. Missouri River's nine foot channel project is an inland commercial waterway, recalls the period when many whistling steamboats came regularly puffing up the river from St. Louis to the Council Bluffs levee. Ferry boats served as bridges in the transporting of passengers and freight over the stream.

Black-eyed, black-haired Pierre or Peter A. Sarpy vigorous pioneer, born in 1804 and educated at St. Louis, was the son of Gregoire Sarpy, a wholesale and retail seedsman of St. Louis, who imported his seed direct from Paris. Young Sarpy came up the Missouri at 19, and clerked for a year the American Fur Company's trading post at Bellevue, Nebraska. The next year, 1824, Sarpy followed John Cabanne as manager of the fur post and remained in the fur business thirty years.

The beautiful shore across the river attracted Sarpy and that same year he crossed over and founded the first settlement in Pottawattamie county, Iowa, which he called Trader's Point. It lay in the southwestern part of the county, on a bend in the river; a most convenient trading post for both whites and Indians, as well as an important gateway of the Missouri. "Point aux Poiles," the French called it for about a dozen years.

The "Frenchman Hart," also from St. Louis, came to the place now within Council Bluffs and started a trading post in 1824 under the western department of the American Fur Company called Hart's Station or Hart's Bluff. When the river moved itself a notch farther westward in 1832 the place became Hart's Cut Off. This Hart appears to have been Henry Hart the son of Moses Hart and Anna Quaguer Hart of St. Louis.

Audubon, the naturalist, on his Rocky Mountain trip with his party, made one of his stops at Hart's Cut Off.

Active young Sarpy started a ferry at Trader's Point. Sarpy gradually acquired such titles of distinction as general, colonel, don and that of white chief, bestowed by the Omahas. He was, however, best known by that of colonel. He had a faculty for getting along well with the Indians and took one of them, Nekomi, of the Omahas, a daughter of an Iowa Chief, as his wife, several years after her English husband, Dr. Marion F. Gale, agency surgeon, deserted her and their daughter, Mary. Nekomi had much influence with the Indians and was very devoted to Sarpy and his interests.

Samuel Allis, missionary to the Nebraska and Kansas Indians and a government interpreter, who lived at Trader's Point during his later years, knew Sarpy, as did the dashing Fontenelles and Stephen Decatur -- real name Bross -- highly educated and valued interpreter for Sarpy among the various tribes.

Stores prospered at Traders Point until the "wildcat" money of 1857 overcame them. Two sawmills were active. A stone schoolhouse had an average attendance of thirty children of pioneer white parents. Children of a number of settlers attended school in the old log schoolhouses just over the line in Mills County where seats were long benches of slabs and pupils stood at long, slanting desks to write.

Many who came to Trader's Point became permanent citizens of Council Bluffs, six miles north, and vicinity. They included Francis Guittar, who came from St. Louis in 1824-5; John Heywood, Vermonter, who arrived in 1846; J. A. Sylvester who came from Indiana up the river in 1859 and who remained at Traders Point for some time as "Hooiser school master;" Henry Delong who came with the first contingent of Mormans in 1846; Samuel Barstow and John Plumber, substantial settlers.

Chieftain leaders of the dignified Pottawattamies in their four principal villages in southwestern Iowa in 1836-37 were Billy Caldwell (Sagonash), Joseph Laframboise, Big Foot and Waubonsie. Laframboise located his band at Trader's Point, opposite the headquarters of the Council Bluffs Indian Agency at Bellevue and often served as official interpreter for Indian agents.

Uncle Sam distributed rations to the Indians at Trader's Point. Frequent visitors among the pioneers were the Pawnees and Otoes of Nebraska, who sometimes annoyed by begging at the homes. Sarpy made treaties with the Otoes and the Omahas and also managed the treaty with the Pottawattamies on June 5, 1846, at Trader's Point for the repurchase of the 5,000,000 acre tract on which they had been located by the government and for their removal to Kansas.

After a decade's sojourn the Pottawattamies were closely followed by the Mormons. Peter Sarpy in 1846 provided the first contingent of tenting Mormons going west under Brigham Young with supplies, assisted in sheltering them during the winter and afforded them transportation over his ferry at Trader's Point. Later they made boats for themselves.

It required a week by flat boat to convey families and belongings across the stream. Often the river would carry passengers a half mile from where they wished to land and they would have to help engineer themselves along.

Scrambling hordes of California gold seekers of '49 whose mail was addressed to Council Bluffs and distributed at Trader's Point were outfitted and carried over Sarpy's ferry. Trader's Point, by the way, had a post office under its own name from December 1852 to December 15, 1854. Many Pike's Peakers of '59 on their great trek for gold in Colorado and on the corresponding trek back again landed at Trader's Point.

Sarpy in the rush of immigration, in 1853 founded a new town of much natural beauty of scenery on a rise of ground, four miles farther down the river -- about ten miles south of Council Bluffs which he called St. Mary. Fine large groves of oak, hickory and walnut were near by. St. Mary had a hotel, dry goods store, grocery, meat shop, carpenter's shop, lumber yard and saw mill. Early steamboats stopped at St. Mary, Trader's Point and other stations for wood as fuel, often cut by the crew.

St. Mary, in 1855 was a station on the stage route between Council Bluffs and St. Joseph. The place had a newspaper, for the St. Mary's Gazette was published there for a time with C. Sexton as editor and Peter Sarpy as proprietor. The first fifteen thousand of the Platte Valley Advocate was issued at St. Mary, later at Bellevue. Rev. Moses Merrill, from Maine, Baptist missionary for seven years to the Indians across the river, was buried in St. Mary Cemetery, where both whites and Indians were interred.

Engaged in various enterprises, Sarpy bought in 1853 at a cost of $13,000 a fine large new steam ferry boat, Nebraska No. 1, which ran between St. Mary and Bellevue -- "licensed to run between sunrise and sundown" and considered "finest ferryboat ever used on the Missouri River." Other steam ferry boats sprang up and took the place of rafts, flat boats and canoes in transportation of freight and passengers.

The Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Company the same year (1853) bought a steam ferry boat, "The Marion" which ran for a year or so and was wrecked by wind on the bank, and in 1855 Nebraska No. 1 was rented and making regular trips between Council Bluffs and Omaha. Flat boat firms had been in operation between the two cities since 1849. Soon, too, another steam ferry, Nebraska No. 2 operated between Florence and Council Bluffs. Others followed.

Sarpy, together with his brother John and others, had invested heavily in the Bank of Fontenelle at Bellevue, with a capital of $100,000. He lost heavily in the panic of '57. He also felt keenly what he considered unfair competition in business and planned a big expedition to Salt Lake, Utah. In a long letter published in the Nonpareil he voiced his grievance and also advertised for many men, saddle horses and much elaborate equipment. The trip seems not to have materialized. Although he owned a half section of land in Iowa and spent much of his time in the state his later years were spent at Plattsmouth, Nebraska, where he died in 1865 and was buried at St. Louis.

Nekomi, his Indian wife, outlived him. His white wife at St. Mary, said to have been a beautiful woman, was buried in St. Mary cemetery, where Sarpy erected a mausoleum over her grave.

A tremendously swollen river in June and July of 1868 carved a big slice of earth from the little settlement of St. Mary and the three hundred families who scurried away did not return. Residents of Trader's Point the previous year moved their houses farther back from the river. Ben Marks, noted gambler, in 1891 acquired tax deed title to the tract of a little less than forty acres on which Trader's Point was located. St. Mary's bend was eliminated by engineers at the time of high water in the Spring of 1938.

Council Bluffs' river front, with a levee twelve miles in extent was a scene of much color and great activity for a period of about twenty years. In 1851 twenty or more steamboats were running regularly between council Bluffs and St. Louis, which had a twenty mile levee. In 1857 thirty more made landings.

[Written by Belle Sanford, Published August 25, 1938—submitted by Ann]

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