There is a certain cow pasture in the town of Swink, Oklahoma, that overlooks the cloudy waters of the Red River. When the water is low enough, you can see what looks like the roots and branches of a tree, but is actually Oklahoma's only known shipwreck. This wreck also happens to be the earliest and among the finest examples yet of the celebrated "western river steamboat".
The western steamboat was a marvelous amalgam of maritime technology, a product of native genius that profoundly affected the course of history. Prior to steam's arrival on the Mississippi River and its tributaries in 1811, the river was essentially a one-way route: the strong currents floated goods out of the interior, but prevented sailing ships from working their way upriver. Steamboats changed all that, speeding up the westward movement of the United States, transporting people and their goods, and transplanting their cultures, into the interior of the North American continent.
Steamboats rightfully serve as icons of nineteenth-century North American culture, technology, and western expansion, yet our knowledge of their design, construction, and propulsion machinery is surprisingly scanty. This is particularly true of the vessels produced in the early period of steam navigation, from 1811 to circa 1840. During a preliminary survey of the steamboat wreck in 1999, the vessel was found to have a center-mounted flywheel on the axle, a feature that passed out of use in the 1840s when twin-engined boats became the standard. Because navigation of the upper river by steamers was blocked until 1838 by an enormous log jam (known as the "Great Raft" in northwestern Louisiana, the likely dates for the steamer's sinking were thus narrowed to the late 1830s early 1840s. Further historical research has suggested that the wreck is that of the Heroine, which sank May 7, 1838.
The steamboat excavation is currently in its fourth season and is being jointly directed by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A&M University, and the Oklahoma Historical Society.