Built in New Albany, Indiana, in 1832, the steamboat Heroine plied the Ohio and Mississippi from its launch in that year until a navigation disaster left it beneath the waters of the Red River in 1838. Early western river navigation was always dangerous, but it was a necessity in order to ship supplies to U.S. Army frontier posts and civilian settlements. The cargo carried by Heroine in 1838 was apparently loaded in Cincinnati, Ohio, and transported down the Mississippi and up the Red River to deliver at various towns along the way and at military installations, including Fort Towson in the Indian Territory. Only two months earlier, in March 1838, the river had been made passable by shallow-draft steam vessels above Nachitoches, Louisiana, when Henry Shreve cleared away the Great Raft, a 165-mile-long logjam that had persisted for centuries. Heroine was one of the first steamboats to navigate the upper Red River.
On May 7, 1838, leaving Jonesborough, on the Texas side of the river, and bound for a landing at the mouth of the Kiamichi River, on the Indian Territory side, Heroine hit a snag and sank a few miles from its destination. The hull quickly filled with sand, sealing off its contents. In the early 1840s the Red River changed course during a flood, burying the wreck under a pasture near Swink. Name and story forgotten, the steamboat Heroine and its sinking remained unremarked by Texas and Oklahoma historians.
In 1999 the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University learned that a wreck, name unknown, had been uncovered in the river bank during a period of flood earlier in the 1990s. With the assistance of a grant from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, the two institutions collaborated in an underwater excavation of the site.
By 2005 the identity of the steamboat Heroine and much of its history had been determined, using detailed drawings of the hull, engine mount, flywheel, wheel hubs, and rudder to identify and date the type of boat, and by conducting archival research to identify the specific craft that had wrecked in May 1838. Heroine is significant on many levels. It is the earliest example of a western river steamboat ever studied by archaeologists. While the superstructure quickly disintegrated (or was salvaged), the hull and propulsion machinery remained, well preserved through time. These indicate in precise detail the design, construction, and operation of a typical western steam-driven boat. The 160-ton vessel was 140 feet in length, had two decks above water, and was powered by a single engine that moved a central flywheel to turn a paddle wheel on each side of the craft. Although part of the cargo was salvaged immediately after the wreck, some remained to be excavated by archaeologists. Barrels, tools, shoes, and various other artifacts revealed information about manufacturing, agriculture, and trade during the nation's westward expansion during the early- and mid-nineteenth century. Excavation, analysis, and research continued into 2005.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Kevin Crisman, "The Last Voyage of the Red River Wreck: Identifying the Steamboat and Its Cargo," Draft Report (31 May 2004), in "Heroine," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City. Adam I. Kane, The Western River Steamboat (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004). Muriel H. Wright, "Early Navigation and Commerce Along the Arkansas and Red Rivers in Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 8 (March 1930).
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