History of Capt. William Rodney Massie

Historic information and newspaper clippings by Dorris McKinney. Capt. William Rodney Massie is the great-great uncle of Dorris' husband.

WILLIAM RODNEY was born 5 November 1829 in Near Berger, Franklin Co., Missouri, Missouri to Captain Peter and Charlotte Rodney Massie. He died 29 January 1910 in St. Louis, St. Louis County, Missouri. He married FANNIE KEITH 12 May 1855 in St. Louis, Missouri, daughter of WILLIAM KEITH and ISABELLA MCLEOD. She was born 1839 in Newport, Kentucky, and died August 1924 in St. Louis, St. Louis County, Missouri.

WILLIAM RODNEY MASSIE was a steamboat Captain on the Missouri River. Boats: 1850's late to early 60's, sometime during, SPREAD EAGLE. 1855 April 10, Captain of EL PASO when she hit snag and sank. 1860 September 3, ASA WILGUS, and the ANTELOPE. The ANTELOPE was a sidewheel, wooden hull packet 180' x 32': Power: 18's – 6'. 2 boilers. Launched 1866 in Metropolis, Illinois . Destroyed in 1869 April 12, burned 5 miles below Bonhomme Island on Missouri River. Traveled on Long Island Sound, Sacramento, Ohio River and Uppper Mississippi River and Missouri River. It was owned by the Lightning Line and Captain and pilots were Captain "Bill" (William Rodney Massie). In 1860 it helped deliver the first PONY EXPRESS pouch. It was a gold boat. The SPREAD EAGLE plied trade from St. Louis to Omaha, and Council Bluffs, Iowa 1862, June 6: raced EMILIE on Upper Missouri from moorings near Ft. Berthold in Dakota Territory. Rammed EMILLIE'S bow to keep her from winning. Lost by 4 days. Captain Massie said years later that her wreck lies buried in sand a mile from the river.

The ELK was a side-wheeler and was small. It was destroyed in 1838, burned (?) at Massie's wood yard 5 miles below Herman, Missouri.

The EL PASO was a sidewheel – wooden hull packet,, 180' X 28' approximately. It had 18 1/2's-6 1/2', 3 boilers, each 22" X 38'. It was launched 1850 at St. Louis, Missouri. It was destroyed in 1855 April 10, Franklin Island, White's Landing near Boonville, Missouri, snagged and lost. It traveled the Missouri and Platte Rivers. The Captain at that time was William Massie. In 1853 it was the first steamer to reach Mile River.

He was Captain of the MONTANA when it hit a bridge piling on the Missouri River. He managed to get it to a sandbar, where it split in half and sank. (from "The Missouri Historical Review", dated October, 1926 – July, 1927 published by the State Historical Society of Missouri, page 241.)

His brother John Tarleton Massie was also a Steamboat Pilot and Captain.

St, Louis, St. Louis County, Missouri,
Marriage Records Missouri, page 289

I certify, that I have this day joined together in the holy estate of Matrimony William R. Massie and Fannie Keith certified by me this day May 12th 1855 – Robert A. Young
Posted and Recorded May 12th 1855 – Keemle Recorder

From newspaper clipping in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO
William Rodney Massie born November 5, 1829, died January 29, 1910. William Massie, a Missouri steamboat pilot, was playing poker with Wild Bill Hickock the day Wild Bill was shot and killed. The bullet passed through Wild Bill's head and pierced Captain Massie's left arm. It is thought by some that the bullet that killed Wild Bill Hickock is buried beneath this tombstone with the remains of Captain Massie.

Dead Man's Hand
On August 2, 1876, Wild Bill was shot from behind and killed while playing poker in Saloon #10 in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Legend has it that he died with a poker hand consisting of a pair of aces and a pair of eights–known thereafter as the "dead man's hand." "The old duffer- he broke me on the hand" were the last words Hickok spoke in reference to fellow gambler CAPTAIN MASSIE.

OBITUARY from The St. Louis Republic, Sunday February 6, 1910

Hero of Many Old River Stories Who Has Passed Away
Veteran Who Died Last Saturday Had Missouri's History at Fingers' Ends.

Stories of Life on Long Journeys in Early Days Were Thrilling.

A unique character to the steamboat history on the Central and Western rivers was Captain William Rodney Massie, who died last Saturday and was buried on Wednesday in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

While no figures are at hand to show definetly the time of service of any of the old men in the business, steamboat-men believe Captain Massie put in more years of active service on the rivers than any other man.

He was an authority on all matters connected with steamboat traffic on the upper Missouri River and the settlement of the Northwest. Born and reared on the banks of the Missouri River, in Franklin County, Missouri, he saw the rise of the traffic on that stream, assisted in the development of the business, was with it in the zenith of its fame, and witnessed its decline and almost total abandonment.

Captain Massie was also familiar with the steamboat business on the Mississippi, Arkansas and Red rivers, and is said to have had a more extended experience in the business than any other man.

Captain Massie had an excellent memory of events during the early years of steamboat traffic on the Missouri, a good command of language and could entertain an assemblage of men at any time with stories of early life in the West and Northwest.

In speaking of Captain Massie, Hunter Ben Jenkins said: I remember one case in which he was the benefactor of a man who afterward died with a quarter million dollars.

(the rest of the obituary torn off …)


from: Waterways Journal, Dec. 30, 1939, by William "Steamboat Bill" Heckman

History tells us that Bill Massie was born in Franklin county, Mo., but this is debatable. The first we hear of his parents is up on the head waters of Massie's Creek in Warren Co., MO. This picturesque, clear gravel stream was named after Capt. Massie's father. Later the family moved to Franklin County and lived in a long brick house about two miles below Hermann, MO. This couple had two sons who went on the river, John and Bill Massie; and it is in this home that these two boys grew to manhood or until they went on the boats.

In 1842 the steamer Big Hatchie blew up while leaving the Hermann wharf, maiming and killing many of the crew and passengers. John and Bill Massie, coming up to town in a skiff, helped save many of these unfortunate people and were the first to board the burning wreck after the explosion. Some 40 of these people (mostly immigrants going out West to seek a new home), are buried in unmarked graves in our Hermann Cemetery.

W. R. Massie, while owning several fine boats outright, and was master of many more, at heart was only a pilot. He made, with the possible exception of Capt. Joe La Barge, more trips to Fort Benton than any other pilot. His salary was as high as $2,500.00 per month for trip on Capt. Joe Kinney's CORA. When we consider that this man piloted wooden steamboats for 60 years and only sank one boat, the steamer MONTANA on the St. Charles Wabash Bridge, one can imagine the skill of this wonderful navigator.

In the year 1848 Capt. Bill went to the mountains on the steamer BERTRAND and by 1890 had made over 30 round trips to the upper Missouri on more than 50 different fine boats, among them some of the finest that ever navigated the Big Muddy. Massie claimed MORNING STAR was the most elegant that ever landed at St. Louis, although there were larger boats. He often said they had some larger boats, like the GRAND REPUBLIC and J.M. WHITE, but none better or as fine as the MORNING STAR. He went to mountains as pilot on MORNING STAR for Capt. Thomas Brierly in 1858. Bill was one of few men who ever held pilot's license from Fort Benton to New Orleans and also many tributaries of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers.

His favorite boat was the OMAHA and Capt. Andy Wineland favorite captain. In 1861 he went to the mountains on the SPREAD EAGLE. This boat sank at foot of Pinkney bend and now is in sand a mile from river channel. During gold rush to Black Hills, Massie left a boat in charge of Capt. Gates McGarrah at Fort Benton to go to gold fields. Leaving McGarrah to take the boat back to St. Louis by himself with a cub pilot, Massie got only adventure and a bullet in his shoulder (should be left wrist). His fame was such that boats with less experienced pilots, coming back to St. Louis on the tail end of the June rise would wait till Massie's boat started home, then owners and pilots both would pay him to follow his boat. People wondered to see six or eight boats coming down the river one behind the other. In 1855 annual trip to Fort Benton was on the steamer NEW LUCY, which Massie with other old rivermen, always claimed was the fastest boat the MISSOURI ever saw, not excepting the JAMES H. LUCAS and the POLAR STAR of the St. Louis – St. Joe runs.

Besides piloting boats, Capt. Bill's greatest pasttime was the great American game of poker. He always thought he was a great player, but he was honest and honesty in his Hey Dey on a steamboat did not win but lost money, and much more, among the card sharks in St. Louis.

Massie knew more noted men in his time than any other man. He was an entertainer de luxe and, ith Capt. Joe La Barge, knew the Missouri River like nobody before or since their time. From what I know of these two men I believe that Massie was the greatest pilot and La Barge the best captain.

After about 1880 Massie worked for Uncle Sam and Capt. Baker at Bismarck, and in the Lightning line from St. Louis to Kansas City on the MONTANA, DACOTAH, and WYOMING. When John Gonsallis sank the big sternwheeler DACOTAH on a stump in Providence Bend, Massie said: "Did Gonsollas not know an obstruction as prominent as that stump in Providence Bend?" and Gonsollas said tht the stump was not near as prominent as the St. Charles bridge where Massie sank the Montana.

In latter eighties and early nineties, Capt. Bill and Capt. George G. Keith,(Captain Massie's brother-in-law) the Missouri's greatest money-making captains, worked for the Eagle Packet Company, mostly in the St. Louis and Commerce, Mo., trade. Capt. Leyhe Sr, said they were the two best pilots ever in that trade even though both old men at the time.

In latter days Capt. Massie cursed the railroad, wishing it would wash into the river.

John Massie, his older brother, was also noted pilot and master. Both were Mexican War veterans.

William Massie contracted a cold in St. Louis, dying of it January 29, 1910, and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, age 79.

Sketch written by a grandson (son of Margaurite Stephens) of William Rodney Massie

I want to tell you about the greatest Missouri rivermen, a pioneer of pioneer blood, a stanch, ferless, keen-eyed man who lived between 1829 and 1910, the years of America's complete conquering of the Louisiana Territory, and who did his large part in that development.

Let me quote from the words of CAPTAIN WILLIAM RODNEY MASSIE to Paul W. Brown, former owner of the St. Louis Republic in an article in the Chicago Record – Herald: "To make a pilot a man ought to be born right, to begin with. Now I was born on the Missouri River in the edge of Franklin County. My father came to Missouri Territory before 1800. He had been a Lieutenant under Mathew Boone, Daniel's son and had fought along side of Boone, Simon Kenton, and Gerty. My uncle was the first white man to plant any ground in Missouri. He was killed by the Indians just across the river from our place on Massie's Creek, in Warren County. dangerous days those were. My folks settled right on the river bank; they saw Lewis and Clark go by.

William Rodney Massie's father was Peter Massie and his mother was Charlotte Rodney. Peter Massie was born in Madison County, Kentucky in 1795. He was a 3rd. Lieutenant in the War of 1812, the Mounted Militia company of Captain Hugh Tinneus, and was a Captain in the Blackhawk War. His line has been traced back to the pioneer Massie family in New Kenty County, Virginia. Peter Massie married in Cape Girardeau in 1814 to Charlotte Rodney. She was born in 1796 in Lexington, Kentucky, and was a pioneer in Cape Girardeau County in 1796. So of course, William Rodney Massie "was born right", pioneer of Pioneers.

William Rodney Massie was born 5 November 1829 in Franklin County, Missouri near present Hermann. I quote again his own words as to his boyhood; "The first steamboat went up the river in 1819. As there came to be more boats, my father established a wood yard and had wood boats that he could run along the side of the steamboats. When I was a small boy, I got used to handling them, so later piloting came natural to me. Well, I got into the pilot house in the course of time, and I've been on all the rivers of the West – the Mississippi, the Tennessee, the Red, and Atchafalaya, and the Quachita.

"I was with an "opposition" fur boat one trip, the Bertrand, and she belonged to Harvey Freman, Banyce & Co., a firm that was bucking the American Fur company. Matt Morrison was the pilot and I was with him." In a memorandum given to the Nebraska State Historical Society dated 1903, Captain massie said about this trip, "Went to the mountains on steamer Bertrand when Independence, Missouri was the fartherest white settlement on the south side of the Missouri River, and St. Joseph on the north side. In those days, independence was the starting point for overland transportation to Santa Fe, New Mexico. St. Joseph was at that time called Black Snake Hill, or Robideau. Trading posts, bears, wolves, buffalo and all kind of game and Indians were plentiful all the way up the Missouri River."

His trip on the Bertrand was made in the year 1846, the first identified boat piloted by him.

"In 1849, I went up on the Robert Campbell, Captain William Eads; in 1850 on Dan'l Hillman, Captain Sproat; in 1851 on Lightfoot, Captain Andy Wineland. I did a good deal of "tripping" in those days. Boats by the dozen would come up from the Ohio and other rivers loaded with freight and crowded with people for Missouri River points. In 1852 and 1853, (Omaha laid out 1853), I was on the Banner State, Captain Joe Holland. While on Banner State we landed first material at Omaha.

Years later, Captain Massie told the writer that there was a large encampment of Omaha Indians on the site of the first landing and they were very friendly at that time.

Let me continue with Captain Massie's narrative. "The lower Missouri was alive with boats from 1850 to 1865. There were between two and three hundred. As many as fourteen would leave St. Louis in a single day. Pilots were scarce and they didn't average more than a single one to a boat. In traveling between here and Kansas City, you were never out of sight of a boat, and they were loaded with freight and passengers like a bush with blackberries. Indians? Well, I guess so! I knew all the great western chiefs, Sitting Bull, Rain-in-the-Face, and Red Cloud. I knew 'em before Bill Cody did, and I was in that country when he came up there and got to be a scout.

It is recorded that in 1850, Captain Massie was pilot on the "EL PASO" which established a head of navigation at Milk River.

"In 1854 on the steamer "HONDURAS", Captain Louis A. Welton, and steamer "EL PASO", Captain Eads. In 1855 was on the steamer "NEW LUCY", Captain William Couley, and landed surveyors who laid out Leavenworth City.

In 1855 Captain Massie took time off from his busy career on the river to get married. This was on 15th May 1855, at the home of the bride's parents in Kirkwood, by Reverend Young. His bride was Fannie Keith, who was born in 1839 at Newport, Kentucky. Her father was William Keith, of Newport. Her mother was Isabella McLeod, who was reported to have been born in 1894 in either Quebec or Nova Scotia and to have been descended from John Bruce McLeod of the Royal Bruce family. Fannie Keith had two brothers, Captain Henry Keith and Captain George Germaine Keith, both men noted Mississippi River pilots of of St. Louis.

In 1856, I ran steamer "EDINBURGH" for Captain Dan Able, from St. Louis to Omaha. In 1857 had charge of steamer "OMAHA" for Captain Andy Wineland. Up to that time my work had chiefly been piloting. We made ten trips in one year to Sioux City, which was a big job for one season. Sioux city had just been laid out in 1856 and was a frontier town.


It was in the years after 1890 that the writer of this article came into close contact with Captain Massie. Being a grandson, the writer was taken on many trips both up the Missouri and down the Mississippi. The two most interesting things I remember of him were his extreme friendliness and talkativeness, and his uncanny knowledge of the river.

I once sat in the pilot house with him when he was on duty along the most treacherous parts of the river, for he was never away from his pilots when there was a tricky stretch to be navigated.

Those were wonderful days, he said, speaking of his pioneering days. We used to run from New Orleans up to the mouth of the Yellowstone River in Montana, and some of us knew the river for every inch of the way, but we used to have to look lively to watch the changing aspects of the river, for the channel would move with every flood or even when there was no flood. His keen eyes would sparkle as he would peer out and point to an almost indistinguishable shawdow or tinge of color on the water half a mile away and say; "See that little swirl on the river? That's just above the rock that wrecked a steamer last season." I could not see what he pointed at, but as we passed it within a dozen yards, I could look down into the water and see the dark shape of something below the surface and he had seen it half a mile away – or knew exactly where it was.

Later, he began showing me how he read the sub-surface by the surface of the water. Color was one of the most important indications. A sandbar will give a yellow tinge to the water as seen from a distance; great depth will give a transparent dark hue. Then the wind blowing over the surface makes different kinds of ripples for different depths. Over the surface above a sandbar the ripples will be very small, but quite large over the deep channel. Stream lines will show a marked difference in the channel and out of it. Reflections of the clouds will change their hue as seen reflected from the surface of shallow or deep parts. A snag, no matter how deep in the water it is, will always cause some upheaval of the water. The upheaval may be smooth or rough according to the shape of the snag. When seen at a distance it will always reflect a slightly different part of the sky or shore tree fringe than will the surrounding water, and a practiced eye can catch it instantly.

I remember distinctly a night watch I spent with him…….was behind us. After the bend was passed. etc.

He said he was in government service as a pilot.

Captain Massie spent most of a year in a hospital once from scalds from a bursting boiler, but recovered fully and resumed his river work without any permanent disability. In the summers I tripped with him, he seemed in his prime, for his eyes were bright, his hair shaggy dark and abundant, and his face round and full of color, in fact, bronzed almost to the color of an Indian by his long years on the river. His frame was strong and well-built, with none of the overabundant stoutness which comes of age, for his life had been and active one.

William Rodney Masie had six children, only two of whom married. His eldest, Cora Massie married William Edwards Stephens of the pioneer Stephen's family of Callaway and Boone counties, Missouri, of whom were eight grandchildren. The second, Fannie Massie, who married Joseph Wheeler McLellan of St. Louis, of whom were four grandchildren. He died 29 January 1910 and was buried first in Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri between Ohio and California Avenues and between Chouteau and Caroline Streets (now out of existence), and later reinterred in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri, 19 March 1945.

I have no doubt but that this splendid old pioneer swapped stories with Charon when he was ferried across the Styx to his eternal home.