A turbulent upriver flow: steamboat narratives of nature, technology, and humans in Montana Territory

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


For a 25 year period in the second half of the 19th century, steamboat travel was a critically important transportation technology which influenced the material, social, and cultural existence of people and landscapes in the Montana region. Building on methodological approaches developed in New Western History and Environmental History, this study argues that steamboats in Montana played a significant role in shaping cultural, demographic, and environmental changes in the area. Steamboats and their crews shaped the dynamic exchange of cultures, materials, and energy between people, landscapes, and technologies. This project stresses that the changes in human-environment relationships in the region influenced people in different ways depending on their race, class, gender, and ethnicity. This thesis argues that steamboats and their crews tapped-into and altered existing systems of material and energy exchange, reshaping energy regimes and augmenting environmental realities in the region. At the same time, steamboats influenced human actions and perceptions of the world around them. The layout of this project begins with an introduction chapter articulating methodological approaches and frameworks used in this analysis. The second chapter provides background on the changing natural and human geographies of the region, while the third chapter provides a history of steamboat technology as well as an overview of the labor, materials, and auxiliary technologies required to operate steamboats. Chapters four through seven present four chronologically organized case-studies and these narratives are used as lenses through which the broader implications of steamboat transportation in the region are examined. The final chapter briefly examines the steamboat Montana and the decline of steamboat travel in the early 1880s before offering a summary and conclusion of findings.




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