Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Timothy Reed's blog

The Wreck of the Abner O’Neal

“Shipwreck” and “North Dakota” are not words one might normally expect to hear in the same sentence. However, there is a well-documented historical use of the region’s waterways.

The first use of steamboats for trade and passenger transportation in the territory that would become the state of North Dakota occurred during the fur trade era of 1830-1867. At that time, steamboat traffic on the Upper Missouri was a common sight, as furs were moved to downriver markets in St. Louis and beyond. The use of steamboats by the military during the Plains Indian Wars (1860-1890) is also well documented, especially during the various punitive campaigns of the period. Later steamboat traffic in the Dakotas centered around providing transportation and facilitating commerce in the region. As the railroads expanded, steamboats increasingly found it more difficult to remain profitable as they were routinely outcompeted for the transport of both passengers and freight.

The story of the steamboat Abner O’Neal begins in these waning days of commercially viable steamboat traffic on the Upper Missouri.

White ship along a river with green trees and grass on the shore

Postcard of a colorized photograph of the steamboat Abner O’Neal (1884-1892). SHSND SA B0735-00001

The Abner O'Neal steamboat was built in 1884 in Freedom, Pennsylvania, for the Steubenville, Ohio/Wheeling, West Virginia-area steamboat trade. Her original namesake Capt. Abner O'Neal and his son, the boat owner Capt. George O'Neal, were well-known figures during the 1870s in the Steubenville/Wheeling steamboat industry. The Abner O’Neal operated successfully in that region for several years transporting freight and passengers. She was then sold to the Missouri River Transportation Company in March 1890, and Capt. Sam V. Williamson moved to extend his pilot’s license to operate on the Missouri River in North Dakota and South Dakota.

By November 1890, the Abner O’Neal had been operating in the passenger and freight trade on the Missouri for a few months. According to the Pierre Weekly Free Press, citizens in the town turned out “to see a real live steamboat” and marvel at “the practical demonstration of the navigability of the Missouri River” when the Abner O’Neal docked there. Soon the reality of the seasonal “navigability of the Missouri River” would become painfully clear, however.

A good many Pierre visitors went up to inspect the Abner O'Neal today and see a real live steamboat. During the present universal low stage of water it is a very practical demonstration of the navigability of the Missouri river.

A Pierre Weekly Free Press (S.D.) report from Nov. 11, 1890, reflected the interest the steamboat generated among locals.

We know the Abner O’Neal spent much of her time in this region transporting grain (usually wheat) between the cities of Washburn and Bismarck/Mandan. The nearby Painted Woods area of the Missouri River has long been recognized as a difficult spot for navigation. (It still is.) The area is known for treacherous sand bars and frequent tree snags that can rip a boat hull wide open. By late November 1891, the Abner O’Neal had become stuck in early-winter ice in the Painted Woods area with a cargo of grain on board.

Captain Sims, in charge of the Abner O'Neal, came down from Painted Woods Wednesday, where the Abner O'Neal is frozen in the ice with a cargo of wheat on board. Manager J. M. Turner said it would be impossible to get the boat to this point this fall unless the ice now in the river thaws out.

The November 20, 1891, edition of the Bismarck Weekly Tribune noted that the Abner O’Neal had become stuck in the ice in a treacherous part of the Missouri River.

The Abner O’Neal remained stuck there in the ice for another four months, until she was finally freed in early April 1892. We have further documentation that the crew of the steamboat labored to keep the hull free from the ice by chopping the ice in direct contact with the hull. Steamboats operating in the Bismarck/Mandan area were routinely hauled out of the river during the winter months to avoid this very situation. We could speculate what lasting effect wintering in the Painted Woods area may have had on the integrity of the Abner O’Neal’s hull, but by late April 1892, the boat was once again making trips transporting grain from Washburn to the Bismarck/Mandan roller mills for processing.

On Saturday, the 30th ul. the ice in the river at this place, and above began to move out and by Wednesday, the Abner O'Neal, which had wintered near Painted Woods, made her way toward Washburn, arriving in the evening, much to the joy of the youth of our city.

On April 9, 1892, The Washburn Leader (N.D.) recounted the steamboat’s joyful reception.

On the afternoon of July 17, 1892, the Abner O’Neal was transporting 9,000 bushels of wheat from Washburn to the Mandan roller mill when it struck a submerged snag or rock and began to sink. The crew attempted to patch the hole, but the damage was too extensive and the steamboat quickly went down in 8-to-10 feet of water. The boat and cargo were uninsured and considered a total loss.

As the steamer was plowing her way through the channel, a shock was felt by those on board, which was at first thought to result from the striking of the wheel on some unimportant snag. Upon investigation, however, it was discovered that the snag had made an immense hole in the bottom of the boat, which was rapidly filling with water. Tarpaulins were placed over the opening, and some of her cargo was thrown overboard, in an endeavor to lighten her, but these efforts were of no avail, and she went down, in from eight to ten feet of water. All of the crew escaped safely, but the boat and cargo will be a total loss. Although submerged in such a small depth of water, it is not thought possible to raise her. The machinery will probably be saved.

The July 22, 1892, Bismarck Weekly Tribune carried this description of the sinking of the Abner O'Neal.

For nearly 130 years, the steamboat survived seasonal exposures as a result of fall drawdowns at Lake Sakakawea and the subsequent winter freezes. In late September 2020, State Historical Society of North Dakota archaeologists received notification from the boating public that the Abner O’Neal wreck location was visible due to current low water conditions. Consent to access the wreck site was granted by an adjacent landowner, and images and video of the wreck location were obtained via unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) carrying visible light cameras and a 10-band multispectral sensor on Oct. 1-2, 2020. Researchers generated high-resolution orthophoto mosaics from the images collected by the visible light camera and multispectral sensor. A detailed analysis of the orthophoto mosaics, video, and multispectral images collected by agency archaeologists is ongoing.

a stip of sand can be seen underwater with the remains of a shipwreck

A high-resolution orthophoto mosaic of the Abner O’Neal wreck produced from images captured by the agency’s drone on Oct. 2, 2020.

Black and white view of a shipwreck

Near-infrared image of the Abner O’Neal wreck captured by the agency drone on Oct. 2, 2020.

The wreck of the Abner O’Neal was salvaged after the sinking, with the superstructure and paddle wheel removed. Much of the hull of the wreck has remained intact, despite being submerged in the Missouri River for 128 years. The wreck has been periodically subjected to non-systematic collecting by the public since the sinking. The State Historical Society has received a few artifacts donated by private collectors since 1958, but no artifacts were collected by our archaeologists during our October 2020 site investigations.

Rusty metal lantern

A lantern from the Abner O’Neal was donated to the State Historical Society by a private collector. SHSND 2014.A.3.1.

The Abner O’Neal is within the boundaries of state-sovereign lands managed by North Dakota. Several federal and state regulations protect the site and prohibit the collection of artifacts from the location. Boaters and other interested parties are encouraged to avoid the wreck as a navigational obstacle and reminded to take only pictures.

Orange, yellow, and blue sunset reflecting on the water. Sillouhets of trees can be seen in the background. Some dark pieces of shipwreck are poking up out of the water.

The sun sets on the wreck of the Abner O’Neal, September 2020. Image courtesy of Jesse Biesterfeld.


*This blog was co-authored with Andrew Clark.

Drone Mapping an Archaeological Site

Archaeologists have been seeking higher vantage points to photograph and map archaeological sites for decades. Cameras mounted under balloons or kites, cameras in aircraft or powered parachutes, or photos taken from ladders, mechanical lifts, or even a slight hill — archaeologists have used them all at one time or another to gain an aerial perspective and document site excavations.

black white image of farmers in field

Some early methods of photography used by archaeologists were not for the faint of heart. A fully extended ladder stabilized by wires was used to photograph excavations at the Oldham site located in Charles Mix County, South Dakota. (River Basin Survey photograph 39CH7-405).

two men working in a crane bucket

Stanley Ahler of the PaleoCultural Research Group and Lloyd Jensen of the State Historical Society of North Dakota use an articulating boom lift to photograph excavations at Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site in August 2005. (Note: Both men were wearing a protective safety harness.)

A relatively new method of mapping features at archaeological sites is drone mapping. Since 2017, I’ve written about flying the State Historical Society’s quadcopter (or “drone”) to photograph state historic sites multiple times. Most recently, I’ve written about using our drone to photograph Cannonball Stage Stop and Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Sites.

Fort Mandan Overlook offers a great example of using a drone to generate a highly detailed surface map of features (such as house depressions, fortifications ditches, or topography) present on an archaeological site. The aerial images are processed using specialized software. State Historical Society archaeologists drone mapped the Fort Mandan Overlook site on July 25, 2019.

Fort Mandan field overlooking forest

Aerial image of Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site in McLean County, North Dakota, taken by quadcopter on July 25, 2019. The fortification ditch visible in this image was a defensive structure constructed sometime in the late-18th to mid-19th century. The site was initially occupied as early as the 1300s. The site overlooks the former location of Lewis and Clark’s Fort Mandan, which was washed away by the Missouri River soon after the expedition passed through the area.

Drone map with 5 red GPS points

To prepare for a drone mapping mission, State Historical Society archaeologists established a series of “ground control points” at the site using a centimeter-level accuracy Global Positioning System (GPS) unit and ground targets. The targets help to accurately align the images captured by the drone and supplement the GPS coordinates tagged to each of the images.

white and black square checkered flag

Six of these targets were placed on the ground surface at the site, and centimeter-precise GPS coordinates were collected prior to mapping.

Prior to flying the drone at the site, a detailed “mission plan” was created using Pix4D capture, a software specifically designed for drone mapping. The mission plan directed the drone to fly in a grid pattern over the site area at a specific altitude and collect images of the ground surface that would be mosaicked or “stitched” together later. The resulting 356 images are at a very high resolution, and each image has extremely detailed locational information associated with it.

mapping software on tablet screen

An image of the Pix4D Capture software during our “mission” at Fort Mandan Overlook. An aerial image of the area serves as a basemap. The mission grid is visible, and the green dots indicate the position of collected images.

aerial view of a field with trees bordering it with 1 red GPS point

One of the 356 images collected by the drone at Fort Mandan Overlook. This image is in the southeast corner of the site. The original image was also tagged with GPS coordinates.

After the grid mission was flown, the images collected were processed using photogrammetry software called Agisoft Metashape. Photogrammetry is the process of obtaining information about objects or the environment by analyzing and interpreting photographic images. The software corrects the inherent distortion introduced when we photograph three-dimensional objects (like artifacts or the ground surface), and then displays the images on a flat surface (like a computer monitor or a printed page).

In this case, the images used in an analysis of the surface of the Fort Mandan Overlook site were those collected by our drone. Photogrammetric image analysis is an area of research the State Historical Society’s Chief Archaeologist Andy Clark is quite familiar with, and he processed the 356 overlapping images collected using this specialized software to produce measurably accurate three-dimensional models and photographs. I’ve included a couple brief descriptions below.

photogrammetric software screencap

An image from the photogrammetric software used to process images collected at Fort Mandan Overlook. The blue rectangles at top indicate the relative positions of the images collected by the drone. The three-dimensional image below is the result of “stitching” the images into a mosaic using a pixel-matching algorithm. The individual images collected by the drone are seen at the bottom of this screenshot.

digital surface model of Fort Mandan Overlook

A digital surface model (DSM) of Fort Mandan Overlook. DSMs contain elevation data of the terrain and other features present on the surface (like trees and structures). In this image, the red, orange, and yellow colors represent lower elevations at the site, so the bluff edge at the site can clearly be identified.

relief map of Fort Mandan Overlook

Image showing a relief map of Fort Mandan Overlook. A relief map is a 3-D representation of a surface, with the Sun’s position indicated. Relief maps tend to look realistic and can be useful in interpreting a three-dimensional surface. The fortification ditch and drainages present at the site are clearly visible in this image.

orthophotograph showing Fort Mandan Overlook

An orthophotograph showing Fort Mandan Overlook. Orthophotographs are aerial images that have been geometrically corrected to minimize distortion so that scale is uniform and features are measurable. Distances and area can be accurately measured using orthophotographs.

State Historical Society archaeologists have “drone mapped” five archaeological sites in this manner so far. While my focus has been primarily on using the drone to document and map archaeological sites, some of my coworkers have begun using similar techniques to model artifacts like stone tools, pottery, and even historic clothing. Keep an eye out for new 3-D projects described in future blog entries!