Captain Henry Smith: Part II. Steamships, Cholera, and Career

 Part II.

Captain Henry Smith:  Steamships, Cholera, and Career


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Captain Henry Smith

Ships and harbors played an important part in Captain Henry Smith’s life. A steamboat carried him and his bride to his post at Fort Howard in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and his career growth kept pace with the growth of the Great Lakes shipping industry. Schooner’s and steamboats carried Major General Smith to his last battle in the Mexican War.

In the early 1800s when Henry Smith was still a civilian, most Americans avoided the county’s scarce, scrappy roads and traveled and moved their baggage and freight along the many rivers crisscrossing the country. To make the river transportation even more efficient and far reaching, the United States Government instituted an ambitious canal building program to penetrate to the heart of the country and connect it with major river and ocean ports.

Shortly after Lt. Smith graduated from West Point and began to serve his military tours in various New York posts, contractors began building the Erie Canal which would provide a link from Lake Erie to the Hudson River and New York City. Built between 1817 and 1825, the Erie Canal connected people and markets from the far northern shores of the Great Lakes with New York and ocean commerce. The Erie Canal carried consumer goods from New York to growing communities and created a thriving economy for New York.

erie canal

Between 1820 and 1830, Captain Henry Smith’s military and maritime world traveled in parallel directions while the steamship industry on the Great Lakes grew. Captain Smith experienced the steamship world often.

The Detroit Gazette reported on a steamboat trip that Captain Smith’s future commander took with his wife.  On August 12, 1817, Major General Winfield Scott and Lady arrived in Buffalo. The next day they passed the Niagara and after viewing the area of British and American combat in 1814, they were embarked on the steam boat Ontario, bound for Sackets Harbor. The St. Clair was the first schooner built in St. Clair County, Michigan. and on June 22, 1926, she was the first vessel to pass from the Great Lakes to the ocean traveling on the Erie Canal. [1]

The Detroit Gazette of August 29, 1826, reported that the schooner St. Clair, Captain Ward, arrived in Detroit a week ago, with a cargo consisting of goods, groceries, crockery, pitch, salt. and other merchandise. Captain Ward has brought his cargo through the Erie Canal as an experiment to see if he could make profitable trips to New York. Despite the fact that boxes and barrels were marked “C. Ward, River St. Clair, Ohio,” Captain Ward decided that trips to New York would be profitable and he would continue to make them.[2]

Despite the success of the St. Clair, lake steamship builders lagged at least a decade behind the builders of canal and river boats.  According to The History of the Great Lakes, in 1820 there were four steamers on the Great Lakes, while 71 plied the Western rivers and 52 traveled the Atlantic Coast. Between 1820 and 1830, busy shipbuilders constructed eight steamers on the Great Lakes. In 1822 the Superior was launched at Buffalo, New York and in 1823 the Martha Ogden at Sacket’s Harbor. During 1825 and 1826, Buffalo again led the launchings with the Pioneer in 1825 and the Henry Clay and the Niagara in 1826.  The Enterprise made her maiden voyage from Cleveland in 1826 and the William Penn from Erie, Pennsylvania also in 1826. The steamer Sheldon Thompson built at Huron, Ohio, came out in 1830 featuring three masts, the first to be so rigged on the Great Lakes.[3]

The Erie Weekly Gazette of May 7, 1829, noted that the William Penn, built in 1826, had added a promenade deck for cabin passengers to enjoy in fair weather and for protection in foul weather. The Gazette called the promenade deck a great improvement to the William Penn.[4]

The Buffalo Emporium of August 19, 1826, added additional compliments when it noted that the steamer William Penn, Captain J.F. Wright, had recently arrived in the harbor and that it was a vessel of “beautiful model.”  The article noted that the William Penn carried a bust of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, on her stem. The citizens of Buffalo were invited to a recreational sail aboard the William Penn and many citizens accepted the invitation and they were pleased with the William Penn, the voyage, and the urbanity and manners of Captain Wight.[5]

The new Great Lakes steamers, especially the Henry Clay, Superior, and Sheldon Thompson played increasingly important roles in carrying troops and supplies from the East to the outpost forts in the North West. The Buffalo Emporium reported that on May 6, 1826, that a large crowd of citizens and strangers watched and cheered the launching of the new steam boat Henry Clay. The Henry Clay was the fifth steamboat launched on Lake Erie, four of them launched during the present season.[6]

The Henry Clay and its companion steamboat, Superior, were especially instrumental in transporting passengers, troops, and supplies from the east to the outpost forts at Mackinac Island, Sault Ste. Marie, and Green Bay. In June 1827, Thomas L. McKenney, of the Indian Department of the United States Government, traveled with Michigan Governor Lewis Cass and other officials aboard the Henry Clay to Fond du Lac with the goal of negotiating a treaty with the North-Western Tribes of Indians.

After arriving safely in Fond du Lac, Agent McKenney wrote on June 16, 1827, that his voyage from Buffalo had taken 37 hours to travel a distance of 337 miles, minus the time lost in stopping at various Lake Erie ports like Grand River, Cleveland, and Sandusky. He noted that the Henry Clay and Superior were nearly unsurpassed in size, beauty, and style. Agent McKenney and his party made their return voyage safely on the Henry Clay.[7]

On another trip from Green Bay, the Henry Clay carried General Winfield Scott and General Hugh Brady and other American officials along with other passengers. The Detroit Gazette reported that both steamship and passengers arrived safely in Detroit.[8]

In October 1828, the Henry Clay transported two hundred troops bound the northern posts including Green Bay, arrived in Detroit. The next morning the Henry Clay departed for Green Bay and on her return delivered another contingent of troops to Fort Gratiot.[9]

In early June 1830, the Erie Gazette reported that the Milan, Ohio, Free Press announced the launching of a new steamship, the Sheldon Thompson, built at Huron, Ohio. The number of spectators at the launching was estimated to be about 2,000 people and the Erie Gazette editor’s account noted that “the tavern keeper would be able to exhibit a very handsome reckoning of the loaves and fishes consumed on the occasion.” [10]

Two years later, the Cleveland Herald reported a significant improved to the Sheldon Thompson. The Cleveland engine shop of P.B. Andrews replaced the original inefficient engine with a new low-pressure engine of double the power of the old one. Her hurricane deck had been extended entirely over her main deck, which according to the Herald, “with her internal arrangements cannot fail to make her second to no boat on Lake Erie.”[11]

Captain Smith Travels Along with Steamboats on the Great Lakes

Captain Smith’s career progressed against the backdrop of the growth of steamship travel on the Great Lakes. His son Winfield wrote in a biography of his father that in 1828, the Army transferred Captain Smith east to Madison Barracks in Watertown, New York, where his daughter Harriette was born in 1829. In 1831, the Army again transferred Captain Smith, this time to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, where his second daughter Elvira Pamelia was born that same year.  In 1832, the Army ordered Captain Smith back to Watertown, New York. He and his family used steamboats to travel much of their journeys to his assigned posts, including Jefferson Barracks.[12]

jefferson barracks
Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri

Brigadier General Henry Atkinson, commanding officer of the sixth infantry regiment, and Major General John Jacob Brown, Commanding General of the Army, were involved in establishing Jefferson Barracks on the banks of the Mississippi River about ten miles south of St. Louis. Captain Lewis served under Brigadier General Henry Atkinson in the Black Hawk War of 1832, the first war that the soldiers stationed at Jefferson Barracks were called on to fight. They were deployed to push Black Hawk and his band who had left their village to plant corn in their former lands in Illinois back to their village in what is modern day Iowa.

Black Hawk

Captain Smith fought in the final battle of the Black Hawk War, the Battle of Bad Axe which took place near present day Victory, Wisconsin, on August 1 and 2, 1832.  As Black Hawk and his companions flew a flag of truce and attempted to cross the Mississippi River, American soldiers aboard a river steamboat fired on them with cannons and rifles. Hundreds of Black Hawk’s band were killed and the Eastern Sioux, who were U.S. government allies in 1832, killed those who managed to swim across the river. Survivors rejoined the Sauk and Fox tribes who had stayed in Iowa. United States soldiers captured Chief Black Hawk and brought him back to Jefferson Barracks. [13]

The United States government also used Great Lakes steamboats in the Black Hawk War. In his memoirs, Captain Augustus Walker, master of the Sheldon Thompson, recorded his experience with four Great Lakes steamboats in the Black Hawk War. He wrote that in 1832, the United States Government chartered four steamboats to transport troops, provisions, and war munitions to Chicago. The steamboats were the Henry Clay with Captain Walter Norton; the William Penn, Captain John F. Wight; the Sheldon Thompson, Captain Augustus Walker; and the Superior, Captain William T. Pease.

The government paid $5,500 to each steamer for their services as well as money for board of the officers belonging to the regiments.  On July 2, 1832, the Henry Clay and Sheldon Thompson sailed from Buffalo, New York, carrying officers, troops, and their equipment to Chicago. A few days later, the William Penn and the Superior began their voyage from Buffalo, carrying mostly provisions and stores for the Army.

Then not halfway through their voyage, the Henry Clay and Sheldon Thompson encountered a sudden and deadly halt to their voyage – not a fierce Lake Erie storm, but Asiatic cholera. The Henry Clay arrived at Detroit a few hours earlier than the Sheldon Thompson and while she lay at the dock two people on board died from cholera. Detroit authorities insisted that the Henry Clay leave the dock which she did, anchoring near the foot of Hog (now Belle) Island, about two miles above Detroit.

Captain Walker of the Sheldon Thompson reported that thus far no signs of cholera had appeared on his vessel, so after a short stop at the wharf to take on fuel and stores he steamed down the Detroit River and lay anchor alongside the Henry Clay. He wrote that at this point General Winfield Scott, commander of the expedition, came on board the Sheldon Thompson from the Henry Clay. General Scott brought his staff and a number of volunteer officers and cadets, numbering about 40 people with him, including General North and Colonel Cummings. A company of about 50 soldiers, Colonel Twiggs commander, also came aboard the Sheldon Thompson from the Henry Clay.

The Sheldon Thompson left the Henry Clay anchored at Hog Island and continued to Fort Gratiot at the head of the St. Clair River. At Fort Gratiot, the Sheldon Thompson landed Colonel Twiggs and his 50 soldiers and their baggage and continued on to Mackinaw Island.  Captain Walker wrote that the Henry Clay and Superior were forced to remain at Fort Gratiot because of the Asiatic Cholera. The Captain described the devastating effects of the disease on the crew of the Henry Clay, with many of them leaping off the ship as soon as it docked and fleeing into the woods, streets, and under the river banks “where most of them died unwept and alone.”[14]

Captain Walker wrote that no cases of cholera occurred on board the Sheldon Thompson until it passed the Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan, although they left three sick soldiers and two of the ship’s crew on Mackinaw Island, giving money to agent Michael Dowsman to defray their expenses. About 30 hours before they reached Chicago, a person on board the Thompson died and orderly sergeant named Davis and a few privates prepared his body and committed him to Lake Michigan.

In the next few hours, 12 other men including Sergeant Davis, age 40, died and were given a Lake Michigan burial. General Scott and his officers were devastated by the death of Sergeant Davis who had been in the Army 16 years and had earned the respect and affection of his fellow soldiers. Captain Walker wrote that General Scott ordered all mattresses and bedding belonging to the Sheldon Thompson except those for the crew, be taken for the sick and the General paid for new bedding. He said that the General’s action was a deed of mercy to the sufferers, and a favor to him in supplying necessary fresh bedding after cholera voyage.

After more than six days making the passage, the Sheldon Thompson anchored outside of Chicago on July 8, 1832. The crew immediately lowered the yawl boat and landed General Scott and several of his volunteer officers who had accompanied him on his expedition against the hostile tribes who with Black Hawk, had committed atrocities against the white settlers. Captain Walker noted that Black Hawk and his allies were “not without some provocation,” but their actions compelled many settlers to flee to the fort at Chicago. During the four days the Sheldon Thompson remained at Chicago, 54 people died of cholera, making a total of 88 for the Sheldon Thompson crew and passengers and refugees in Chicago.

The Sheldon Thompson wasn’t allowed to land at Mackinaw. Instead, the agent sent a batteau along the steamship with some provisions and the surviving crew member that he had left on the upward voyage. The Thompson took on fuel near Bois Blanc Island and while fueling Captain Walker observed the William Penn passing upward with stores and a few troops for Chicago. No new cases of cholera occurred on the trip to Detroit, and when the Thompson arrived, the captain found that the “excitement had abated,” so the authorities allowed the Thompson to land alongside the dock. When the ship arrived at Buffalo, the excitement and the disease had subsided there as well, after sweeping away a large number of soldiers and civilians. [15]

Captain Smith Addresses the Cholera Connection

In 1833, Captain Smith wrote an article about his experiences in the Black Hawk War, titled “Indian Campaign of 1832,” which appeared in the “Naval and Military Magazine” of Washington, D.C.  in 1833 and in other publications including the Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1909.

Captain Smith wrote that after the Battle of Bad Axe, the Army troops moved down the Mississippi River to Prairie du Chien where General Scott and his staff arrived from Chicago on August 9, 1832, A few weeks later General Eustis and his troops also arrived from Chicago and camped about four miles from the camp of General Atkinson.  Less than a week later, a few cases of cholera broke out among the soldiers and after a few days, four officers and 50 rank and file soldiers out of 300 had died. Captain Smith noted that the troops were camped in closely packed tents and cold rain and pestilence raged for several days. He wrote that the groans and screams of the sick and dying men permeated the horrific scene.

The Captain commented that the conduct of Major General Scott at Rock Island during the cholera epidemic was “worthy of the hero of Chippewa, Niagara, and Fort George.”  He said that General Scott’s example excited confidence and courage, “fearlessly exposing himself to disease and death in its most terrible form in his attentions alike to the officer and private soldier while exercising the most vigilant care in the strictest sanitary regulations.”[16]

Eventually, the Army moved the troops out of the camp and across the Mississippi River, and the cholera disappeared. The Indians signed a Treaty at Rock Island, ceding the entire territory east of the Mississippi called the “mining district” as well as a large tract on the west bank, about eight million acres in all. [17]

Winfield Smith’s Memories of Black Hawk

Henry’s son Winfield Smith recorded his first-hand memories of the Black Hawk War and Black Hawk from his vantage point of the Captain’s son at Jefferson Barracks. He wrote that Captain Smith had marched with his regiment from landing on the Mississippi at Rock Island.  across northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin to Fort Atkinson. From Fort Atkinson they marched west, pursuing Black Hawk and his allies until they overtook them near Victory, Wisconsin. The Army and Black Hawk and his allies fought the Battle of Bad Axe, and the Army drove Black Hawk’s forces back across the Mississippi River.

The American soldiers captured Black Hawk and some of his soldiers and imprisoned them at Jefferson Barracks. Winfield, about five years old at the time, remembered seeing Black Hawk and his men walking around the garrison for exercise, closely guarded by the troops. He also had a recollection of feeding the prisoners through the window of the lower room where they were imprisoned.[18]

At the end of the Black Hawk War, the Army transferred Captain Smith back to Madison Barracks in Watertown, New York, and then assigned him to Monroe, Michigan, to oversee building a harbor in La Plaisance Bay.

 (Continued in Part III)


[1] Detroit Gazette, Detroit, Michigan, September 5, 1817, page 2. St. Clair County Michigan, Its History and People.

[2] “The Schooner St. Clair.” Detroit Gazette, Detroit, Michigan. August 29, 1826, page 2.

[3] Maritime History of the Great Lakes, Chapter 23: Development of Lake Vessels

[4] Erie Weekly Gazette, May 7, 1829, page 3.

[5] Buffalo Emporium, August 19, 1826, p. 1

[6] Buffalo Emporium, May 6, 1826, page 2.

[7] Inland Seas, Fall 1996, p. 182.

[8] Detroit Gazette, August 21, 1827, page 1. Honorable George C. Bates wrote a biography of General Hugh Brady, the first commanding officer of the 22nd Regiment of Infantry, which was published in the Detroit Free Press of October 14, 1879.

[9] Army Movements. Detroit Gazette, October 16, 1828, page 2.

[10] Erie Gazette, June 3, 1830, page 1

[11] Cleveland Weekly Herald, April 12, 1832, page 2

[12] History of Monroe County, Michigan p. 336

[13] Historical Background of Chief Black Hawk, The Wisconsin Historical Society, The Black Haw War, 1832.

The steamboat was the Warrior. Joseph Throckmorton built and launched the Warrior in 1832 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and also served as its captain. The government conscripted the Warrior which Captain Throckmorton took to St. Louis and into the war zone. The Warrior played a key role in the decisive Battle of Bad Axe and after the Black Hawk War it continued to ply the Mississippi River with Captain Throckmorton.

[14]        Maritime History of the Great Lakes and an account of Captain Augustus Walker in the Buffalo Historic Society.

[15]   Captain Augustus Walker, Buffalo Historical Society.

[16]  Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Volume 10, 1909. “Indian Campaign of 1832,” by Captain Henry Smith of Atkinson’s Brigade.  Pages 150-166

[17] Black Hawk and the other captive chiefs were imprisoned at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis and in April 1833, President Andrew Jackson ordered them to be brought to Washington D.C. to impress them with American power.  Their Army captors took Black Hawk and his companions to Washington by steamboat, carriage, and railroad, and large crowds greeted them wherever they went. When they reached Washington D.C., they met with President Jackson and Secretary of War Lewis Cass and then they were imprisoned at Fortress Monroe in Norfolk, Virginia. On June 5, 1833,  Black Hawk and company took a circuitous route west, traveling mostly by steamboat. They visited large cities including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York where large, sometimes unfriendly crowed such as the one in Detroit who burned the prisoners in effigy, greeted them. Black Hawk died on October 3, 1838.

[18] History of Monroe County, Michigan. Talcott Wing, p. 336.

One thought on “Captain Henry Smith: Part II. Steamships, Cholera, and Career

  1. Pingback: Major General Henry Smith: Warrior and Waterworks Engineer-Part I – Monroe Memories and More: Celebrating the Bi-Centennial of Monroe and Monroe County, Michigan

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