Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

A Journey Down the Missouri with Frank Fiske
The Pott Library recently acquired a photograph album documenting photographer Frank Fiske’s 1918 steamboat journey on the Missouri River. The 100 silver gelatin photographs provide viewers the intimate feeling of standing alongside Fiske, on the deck of the steamboat, as they make their way downriver. The album preserves seldom seen views of life along the Missouri River while documenting the lived experiences of one of America’s great western photographers. 

Frank Bennet Fiske was born in 1883 and grew up in Fort Yates North Dakota on the Standing Rock Reservation. In his youth Fiske worked as a cabin boy for steamboats on the Missouri River and apprenticed under fort photographer Stephen Fansler. When Fansler failed to return from one of his expeditions in 1900, Fiske assumed his role as fort photographer at the age of 17. In the following decades Fiske continued working on river steamers, even serving as an assistant steamboat captain, while also writing and practicing his photography. Over the course of his lifetime Fiske produced nearly 8000 photographs capturing everyday Lakota life and the changing frontier. Fiske grew up around rivermen, soldiers, trappers, and indigenous communities, all of which heavily influenced his work. The largest collection of his photographs is in the care of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. It is the most widely regarded collection of Lakota photographs in existence and is available for viewing on their digital library. Fiske also wrote two books The Taming of the Sioux (1918) and Life and Death of Sitting Bull (1933).

The Pott Library is proud to preserve this photograph album, making it available for the public to view on the Missouri Digital Library. The album documents Fiske’s two-week journey in the summer of 1918 aboard the steamer Scarab. Scarab was a sternwheel packet with a wood hull. The boat was originally named W.D. Walden and was built in 1906 to ferry trains across the river at Pierre. After the nearby bridge was constructed, the Scarab sat idle for several years before being purchased by Isaac Baker of the Benton Packet Company. The photo album was a gift from Fiske to Baker and bears a note from Fiske on the inside cover.
From the collections of the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library,
St. Louis Mercantile Library
The Scarab departed Fort Yates, North Dakota on June 16, 1918 and arrived in St. Louis, Missouri on July 2. The photographs are arranged in chronological order, taking viewers on a journey down the river and through time. As you flip through the striking images, several themes emerge. The photograph album captures scenes of the Missouri River nine years before the massive 1927 floods that dramatically altered the West. Communities along the river can be seen here struggling to develop and live in the river’s floodplain as the government fights to control the wild river.
From the collections of the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library,
St. Louis Mercantile Library
Fiske’s personal connection to the subjects of his photographs is also on full display in the album. He includes scenes of river communities, communities he had spent his life among. His photos depict the Marlin Kennel School just south of Fort Yates, formerly St. Benedict’s Mission; the Cheyenne and Yankton Indian Agencies; and Milltown, a nearby Mennonite community. The album also features images of passing boats, military outposts, river towns, historic sites, and even buffalo from the Scotty Philips herd, the herd widely regarded as having saved the American buffalo from extinction.
From the collections of the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library,
St. Louis Mercantile Library
Fiske never lost his connection to the river, even after riverboat culture waned and was superseded by railroads. He was a frequent reader of The Waterways Journal and had several letters to the editor published, particularly later in his life. In personal correspondence between Fiske and Donald Wright, long-time editor of the Waterways Journal, Fiske provided intimate detail about his 1918 trip. He also described contemporary river damage in 1943 that perfectly mirrored the damage seen in the photo album 25 years earlier. “Well, the river here is falling and I think the peak of the June rise is over. But the old river certainly made a reputation this year for doing damage. And the tributaries helped out handsomely. Here on the Standing Rock Indian reservation the loss is estimated at a half-million dollars, highways, bridges, homes, livestock lost."
From the collections of the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library,
St. Louis Mercantile Library
Frank Fiske was a remarkable riverman, historian, author, and photographer. His photographs provide invaluable insight into the changing lives of early 20th century Missouri River communities. The Pott Library is honored to preserve Fiske’s album of his 1918 Missouri River trip and make the images accessible to the general public and researchers around the world. The entire album can be viewed on the Missouri Digital Library here.
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