Early in the autumn of 1842 a little steamboat christened the Maid of Iowa made her first appearance on the Mississippi. She had been built at Augusta, Iowa, an important landing on the Skunk River, and had been launched principally to compete in the trade conducted on the smaller rivers emptying into the Mississippi.
At the time the Maid entered the western river trade, steamboat merchandising had reached an enormous volume. Indeed, the rivers of the Mississippi Valley proved to be the country's busiest commercial highway for the greater part of the nineteenth century. It is estimated that from 1825 to 1850 alone, more than half of the products grown or manufactured in the United States were carried by steamboat along the Mississippi and its tributaries.
During that quarter century more than 350 different steamboats were operating above the Des Moines Rapids, the point on the Upper Mississippi generally considered the terminus of unobstructed navigation. Although a few were very large, having a gross weight capacity for boat and cargo of over 400 tons, the displacement of the average steam vessel plying that portion of the river was 168 tons.