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By the time the New Orleans wrecked and sank, the Fulton-Livingston partnership had put another steamboat on the Mississippi — the Vesuvius, one hundred and sixty feet long, thirty feet in the beam and drawing six feet of water. It was built in Pittsburgh under the supervision of John Livingston and while steaming down the Ohio on the way to New Orleans on its maiden voyage it achieved an average speed of ten and a half miles an hour. It arrived in New Orleans in May 1814. Fulton had intended it to run between New Orleans and Louisville, but when its hull, like that of the New Orleans, proved too deep for the vessel to regularly navigate the shallow waters of the Mississippi above Natchez, Fulton had to change the plan.
The proof of its inability to navigate shallow western waters came dramatically when Vesuvius ran aground off the Tennessee shore on its first trip from New Orleans to Louisville and lay like a beached whale for five months before it could be refloated. After that, its service was limited to the New Orleans-to-Natchez run, through deeper water. Despite all his engineering powers, Fulton was having difficulty understanding that boats designed like deep-hulled seagoing vessels, although satisfactory for rivers in the East, would not work well on the Mississippi and other western rivers. They simply drew too much water.
Fulton and Robert Livingston, even before the New Orleans made its historic maiden voyage, had gained from Louisiana the monopoly they wanted. They were granted exclusive rights to steamboat navigation on the Mississippi for eighteen years, and although their privilege did not extend beyond the limits of the present-day state of Louisiana, it did include the all-important stretch of river that gave access to the port of New Orleans, a situation that was only bound to be challenged. Daniel French, a Pittsburgh inventor and entrepreneur, was the first to do so.
French headed up a group of investors that built two small steamboats, the Comet and the Despatch. In an attempt to cope with shallow rivers, French built his boats small enough and light enough to avoid drawing a lot of water. The Comet was only fifty-two feet long and eight feet in the beam. He also put a more powerful engine in them. Unlike Fulton’s vessels, which used lowpressure steam engines, the Comet was driven by a high-pressure engine, which French had designed. In 1813 he launched the Comet into the Ohio and sent it down to New Orleans. Sources vary on whether the Fulton-Livingston partnership chased the Comet away with a threat of seizure or simply ignored it. In any case, the Comet withdrew to Natchez. It turned out that despite its small size it could not dependably navigate above Natchez, and French gave up on it, removing its engine and selling it to run a cotton gin.
French then built a bigger boat, the Enterprise, eighty feet long and twenty-nine feet in the beam,1 and in late 1814 he hired twenty-nine-year-old Henry Miller Shreve to captain it and take it to New Orleans, def ying the Fulton-Livingston monopoly.
Shreve had already shown himself to be a remarkable young man and in time to come, he would prove even more remarkable. Born October 21, 1785, he was one of four sons of Israel Shreve and the fifth child of Israel’s second wife, Mary Cokely Shreve. At the time of Henry’s birth, Israel and Mary and their family were taking refuge at Israel’s brother’s home on Rancocas Creek in New Jersey following a fire that had destroyed their house. In 1788 the family moved to western Pennsylvania to live on land bought from George Washington, with whom Israel had served as a colonel in the Revolutionary Wa r .
Near the family’s new homesite, southeast of Pittsburgh, flowed the Youghiogheny River, a tributary of the Monongahela, and young Henry developed a fascination for it and for the distant places to which it might take him. When his father died in 1802, Henry went to work as a flatboat crewman and learned how to handle riverboats and how to make money running one. In the summer of 1807, when he was twenty-one years old, nearly six feet tall, slender and sinewy, he began building a boat of his own, a keelboat with which he planned to go into business carrying trade goods on the Ohio and Mississippi. In October 1807 the boat, built at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, on the Monongahela, was finished, and Henry recruited a ten-man crew from the Brownsville riverfront to man the boat on a voyage down the Ohio and up the Mississippi to St. Louis. After stopping at Pittsburgh to buy an assortment of goods to sell in St. Louis, he began the descent of the Ohio. At the Ohio’s juncture with the Mississippi, his crewmen took to their sweeps and laboriously rowed upstream, reaching St. Louis six weeks after having left Pittsburgh. Shreve sold the goods he had brought to St. Louis, then bought a load of furs and headed his keelboat down the Mississippi, up the Ohio and back to Pittsburgh, where he loaded the furs onto wagons and shipped them to buyers in Philadelphia. That done, he took the boat back to St. Louis to repeat the process.
After three years of trading in furs, Shreve in 1810 tried a new venture, taking his boat up the Mississippi past St. Louis and into Indian country in Illinois, where white men other than British traders from Canada rarely traveled. With a shipload of goods he believed would appeal to the Indians — farming implements, metal pots and a variety of hardware — he and his crew slowly made their way up to the mouth of the Galena River, in the extreme northwestern corner of present-day Illinois, and entered the Galena. Fourteen days later, working the boat upstream, they arrived at a Sac and Fox Indian village that was the base of a Sac and Fox lead mine. Winning over the wary Indians, Shreve traded his goods for their smelted lead and loaded his boat with it. He built another boat there on the site, bought a third boat from another trader and loaded both of them with lead also. On July 1, 1810, he told his new Indian friends goodbye and shoved off for the Mississippi with his three boats and their cargo.
Riding the current, Shreve and his little flotilla swiftly descended fifteen hundred miles of the Mississippi to New Orleans. There he found a sailing ship that would take him and his cargo to Philadelphia, where he arrived that fall and sold the lead for an eleven-thousand-dollar profit. He then returned to Brownsville to have a new boat built and to win the hand of the girl with whom he had fallen in love, red-haired, nineteen-year-old Mary Blair. He married her in February 1811. Within a few months after the wedding he was back on the river, taking his new vessel, a capacious barge, and its freight to New Orleans.
It was apparently on that voyage that Shreve became keenly interested in steamboats. On his return trip from New Orleans he arrived in Louisville in time to see — and examine — the New Orleans, moored there while Nicholas Roosevelt waited for the Ohio to rise enough to pass the falls. Shreve was captured by the steamboat. Its possibilities were immediately obvious. No more would a riverboat have to be rowed, poled, warped or towed by crewmen trudging doggedly along the banks of the river, tortoise-slow, tedious and back-breaking work, but until the coming of the New Orleans, the only ways to move boats of size against the big river’s unremitting current.
Shreve made several more round trips between Brownsville and New Orleans in his own boat before he signed on to captain Daniel French’s Enterprise, a job that would give Shreve valuable experience running a steamboat, which was exactly what he wanted.
By that time, late 1814, the War of 1812 had been going on for more than two years, and the Mississippi River had become an important part of England’s strategy to contain — and perhaps regain — the United States. English warships were blockading America’s Atlantic and gulf coasts, and the Mississippi and its tributaries had become more vital than ever as a communication line and as a conduit for moving the nation’s goods. England’s plan in 1814 was to launch an invasion from the Gulf of Mexico and capture New Orleans, thereby gaining a stranglehold on the Mississippi. The British could then control the big river from Canada and the upper Midwest all the way to the gulf. The United States would be hemmed in, checked by enemy forces on all four sides — Canada to the north, the gulf to the south, the Atlantic to the east and the Mississippi to the west — and it would be forced to submit to whatever terms England might contrive.
On December 1, 1814, Major General Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans to take command of the city’s defense and soon set about assembling a rag-tag army made up of U.S. regular army troops, U.S. Navy sailors and Marines, Tennessee and Louisiana militiamen, Kentucky frontiersmen, free blacks, Choctaw Indians, an assortment of volunteers and Jean Lafitte’s buccaneers, the pirates of Barataria. To stop the invaders before they reached New Orleans, Jackson began erecting a first line of defense that would stand practically in the face of the enemy. He would position his infantry, including the long-rifle marksmen from Kentucky, and his artillery, including guns manned by Lafitte’s expert cannoneers, behind a protective wall of cotton bales and mud, stretching from the levee, across the cane field and into the swamp on the east side of the field.
On December 13 the fleet carrying the British invasion force arrived at Lake Borgne, a bay of the gulf, east of the mouth of the Mississippi. The British troops were disembarked into small boats and were rowed across Lake Borgne and up Bayou Bienvenue to reach the rear of the sugar-cane plantations that fronted on the Mississippi some ten miles below New Orleans. From there they planned to march on New Orleans.
Shreve had left Pittsburgh aboard the Enterprise on December 1, 1814, and he arrived at New Orleans on December 14. His cargo this time was artillery and ammunition for General Jackson’s army, still gathering in and around New Orleans. One of the first to learn of the Enterprise’s arrival was Robert Livingston’s younger brother Edward, who had moved to New Orleans from New York some years earlier. Robert Livingston had suffered a fatal stroke on February 25, 1813, and his death had thrown his steamboat interests into chaotic disarray, scattered among heirs and others. Out of the disarray eventually had come a new corporation that succeeded to the partnership’s Mississippi River steamboat monopoly and in which Edward Livingston was a major shareholder. A skillful lawyer, he immediately moved to have the Enterprise seized on the grounds that it was in violation of the corporation’s steamboat monopoly.
He was not quick enough. Before Livingston could obtain a court order for the boat’s seizure, General Jackson commandeered the Enterprise. He ordered Shreve, once its cargo had been discharged, to take the Enterprise up the river and find three keelboats that were supposed to be bringing a shipment of desperately needed small arms to supply Jackson’s army.
Preparatory to hunting down the three keelboats, Shreve was making repairs on the Enterprise when he was suddenly confronted by a number of marshals who boarded the vessel as it lay beside the wharf. They read a court order to him, told him they were seizing the boat and ordered him off. Shreve replied that he was unable to surrender the boat to them because it had been commandeered by General Jackson and he, Shreve, was under orders from the general to take the boat on a vital military mission upriver. If they wanted the Enterprise, they would have to see General Jackson. Defeated, the marshals withdrew. Livingston had been thwarted, for the time being.
Shreve then took the Enterprise up the river, searching for the errant keelboats, and found them north of Natchez. He brought their captains aboard the Enterprise, tied the keelboats to the Enterprise with tow lines and hauled them into New Orleans, arriving a week after he had left.
The all-out British attack came early in the morning on January 8, 1815, setting off a ferocious response from the American line. The defenders’ artillery and rifle fire cut like a scythe through the tight, European-style formations of the advancing British, easy targets as they marched forward without cover or concealment, and by the scores they fell lifeless or wounded onto the stubble of the muddy cane field. The battle quickly became a slaughter. Among the hundreds of British killed was their commander, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, shot off his horse and mortally wounded as he attempted to rally his disintegrating army. Finally, mercifully, a retreat was effected, and the fighting ceased. Jackson and his motley American army had won a huge victory, and New Orleans had been saved, as Jackson had promised its citizens it would be.
Shreve returned to the Enterprise to take on additional missions for General Jackson, moving stores and the wounded from the battlefield, transporting prisoners and returning American troops to their previous posts, all of which prevented Shreve’s return to Brownsville. In the meantime, Edward Livingston waited for the end of the emergency so he could make another attempt at the Enterprise. Actually the war had been over since December 24, 1814, when representatives of the United States and England signed the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium, but the news had not crossed the Atlantic in time to avoid the Battle of New Orleans.
On February 23 Robert Fulton died, succumbing to a series of illnesses and ailments. A little more than two months later, on May 6, Edward Livingston, now the man most interested in protecting the Mississippi River steamboat monopoly rights, sent marshals back to the Enterprise to seize it, and this time they succeeded.
Shreve, however, had retained another of New Orleans’s ablest lawyers, A.L. Duncan, who posted bond for the boat and had it returned to Shreve’s custody within hours. While Livingston was in the process of countering that move by filing a lawsuit against the Enterprise, Shreve fired up its boiler and shoved off into the Mississippi’s current, bound for home.
The river was at flood stage then and above Natchez it was out of its banks and pouring across low-lying areas. The deeper water proved a great help to the Enterprise, allowing Shreve to proceed without much worry of running aground and without the bother of continually taking soundings to avoid shallow water. Making good speed, the Enterprise arrived in Louisville on May 31, the first steamboat to complete the voyage from New Orleans to Louisville. The Vesuvius had tried it and failed. The New Orleans and the Comet had not even attempted it. All three had gone downthe Mississippi, with enough power going downstream to force their way across the sand bars that lay in the shallows, but going up the big river, against the current, they lacked sufficient power to drive themselves across the sand bars. Shreve guessed that the same would have been true for the Enterprise had it not been for the high water.
As he made the voyage from New Orleans, Shreve considered the problems of shallow water. In some ways more inventive than Fulton, who had encountered the same problems but had failed to create solutions, Shreve devised ways to overcome the problems. By so doing, he became the father of the historic Mississippi River steamboat, providing a design that was copied by most steamboat builders.
Shreve’s idea was to get rid of those deep-draft hulls that made sense for sea-going vessels but were impractical for use on the Mississippi and other western rivers. His long experience with flatboats told him that the sensible way to build a riverboat was to build it with a flat, shallow hull. That meant he would not be able to mount the boiler and engine down in the hull, as Fulton and others had been doing. Instead, Shreve proposed installing the machinery on the boat’s main deck. To accommodate passengers, he would build a second deck on top of the main deck. The boat would be like a floating two-story building, ungainly in appearance perhaps, but practical — and, he believed, successful in navigating shallow water.
Besides changing the fundamental design of the steamboat, Shreve wanted to give it more power. To do so, he redesigned the steam engine. Fulton’s boats were powered by low-pressure, condensing engines, heavy and inefficient, with stationary, vertical cylinders. Daniel French put in his boats a high-pressure steam engine with a cylinder that oscillated on trunnions — hollow shafts through which steam was received and exhausted — as the piston, connected to a crank that rotated the paddle wheel, moved back and forth. Altering French’s design, Shreve proposed using stationary, horizontal cylinders with oscillating pitmans — rods that connected the reciprocating action of the piston to the rotary action of the paddle-wheel crank. His design called for high-pressure steam that would be exhausted not into a condenser — as it was with Fulton’s engine and others’— but instead would be drawn off through flues in the boiler. Eliminating the heavy, bulky condenser would, besides providing more payload space, make the boat lighter and more suitable for shallow water. The water that the condenser saved for reuse would, with Shreve’s design, be replaced by river water, an inexhaustible supply of which, Shreve reasoned, would always be readily available to make steam.
When he arrived at Brownsville, having discharged the Enterprise’s cargo in Pittsburgh, Shreve turned the boat over to French and gave him a complete report of the voyage and the boat’s performance. He told him that the boat’s success in steaming up the Mississippi was owed to the high water, not the capability of the Enterprise. He said he had some ideas for a steamboat that would be capable of making the upriver voyage without the benefit of high water. French wasn’t interested. He let Shreve know that he had confidence in his own engine and boat designs and he would stick with them. Shreve then determined to build his own steamboat, incorporating his own ideas.
The result was the Washington, capable of bearing four hundred tons, built in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), its engine built according to Shreve’s specifications at a shop in Brownsville. The engine’s cylinder would have a twenty-four-inch bore, and its piston a six-foot stroke. Work began on the Washington in September 1815, and by June 1816 it was ready for its maiden voyage. At least two descriptions of it survive. One is from the trade paper, Niles’ Weekly Register, published in Baltimore :
She is 148 feet in length. Her main cabin is sixty feet; she has three handsome private rooms, besides a commodious bar room. She is furnished in very superior style. Gentlemen from New York who have been aboard of her, assert that her accommodations exceed anything they have seen on the North [Hudson] River.... Her steam power is applied upon an entirely new principle, exceedingly simple and light. She has no balance wheel, and her whole engine possessing the power of one hundred horses, weighs only nine thousand pounds. It is the invention of captain Shreve.2
The other account is from William Mercer, who was a passenger on the boat in 1816 and wrote about it in his diary:
The boiler is placed midships on the deck, and is heated by a furnace placed at either end. The steam is conveyed through two tubes to the machinery, which is under deck in the after part of the boat, and which, being set in motion, turns a single water wheel, placed near the stern and concealed from the view of persons on the deck by a gentle elevation of the flooring timber. The arrangement below is also different. A common cabin about 80 feet long extends from the centre to either end. In the stern it opens into two apartments, one of which is a drawing room, and the other a dormitory, both appropriated, exclusively, to the use of the ladies. Towards the bow there are also two rooms, one of which is the private apartment of the captain, and in the other, the bar is kept. In the large, common room, there are 20 berths above & below, on either side of which is calculated for the accommodation of two lodgers.3
According to Mercer’s description, the Washington was, unlike the boats designed by Fulton, but like French’s Comet, a stern-wheeler. However, its single paddle wheel, as on other early stern-wheelers, did not project beyond the stern of the boat. Its aftermost edge was more or less flush with the stern. The paddle wheel was contained within the sides of the hull, making sternwheel boats narrower and giving them some advantage over side-wheelers in straitened channels of the river.
On June 4, 1816, the brand-new Washington, under the command of Captain Shreve, steamed out of Wheeling, headed for New Orleans and whatever legal trouble awaited it there, passing curious onlookers who stood staring on the banks of the Ohio. The next afternoon it reached Marietta, Ohio, and remained there two days. It anchored again just below Marietta, off Point Harmor, and stayed there overnight. On the morning of June 9, while preparing to resume its voyage, the Washington suffered an explosion that killed thirteen persons, including crewmen and passengers, and injured several others.
The boat then began drifting without power toward the Virginia (West Virginia) side of the river and threatening to run aground when a kedge anchor was thrown overboard at the stern to stop the drift until sufficient steam pressure could be raised for the engine to power the boat. Once the pressure was raised, the crewmen were summoned aft to haul up the kedge, and while they were doing so, the end of the cylinder nearest the stern blew off, releasing a deadly stream of scalding water onto the crewmen. Captain Shreve, his mate and several others were thrown overboard by the force of the explosion. All but one of those men were rescued, although all suffered some degree of injury. The cause of the explosion, the first on western waters, was determined to be the failure of the boiler’s safety valve, which had become stuck.
Shreve and his boat survived well enough for him to take the Washington back to port and have repairs made on it and its machinery. By early fall of 1816 the boat was ready to begin again on its maiden voyage to New Orleans. During its stop in Cincinnati Shreve’s odd-looking vessel attracted a host of visitors to it, and Shreve patiently let them inspect it. He made another stop in Louisville, to take on more passengers, and on September 24 the Washington passed its first big test by successfully negotiating the Falls of the Ohio, where not long before, the Enterprise, on its second descent of the Ohio, had wrecked on the rocks. On October 7, 1816, Shreve landed the Washington at the wharves of New Orleans.
Edward Livingston learned of its arrival and promptly went down to the riverfront to see it and its captain. Evidently impressed with the boat’s innovations, he told the thirty-year-old Shreve, “I tell you, young man, you deserve well of your country, but we shall be compelled to beat you in the courts.”4 Livingston immediately had the boat seized and held for ten thousand dollars bail.
Shreve’s canny lawyer, A.L. Duncan, was prepared for that move. Refusing to let Shreve pay the bail, Duncan one-upped Livingston by asking the court to demand a ten-thousand-dollar bond from Livingston to compensate Shreve for any loss in revenue or damage he might suffer while the boat was being held in seizure, in the event Livingston, suing to assert his monopoly rights, should lose his case in court. The court granted Duncan’s request. Livingston then hastily decided he didn’t want to gamble ten thousand dollars and he released the Washington back to Shreve. A week later, with a load of passengers and cargo, Shreve headed the Washington back upriver.
He was prevented from reaching Louisville, however, by an early freeze that had filled the Ohio with ice that blocked the boat’s passage. He docked the Washington at Shippingport, Kentucky, below the falls, about two miles from Louisville, and left it there to await the spring thaw while he waited in Louisville, close to his ice-trapped steamboat. He sent for his wife, Mary, and their children to join him in Louisville, where he would later establish his residence. It was shortly after they arrived that the Shreves suffered the death of their baby son, Zane.
When the ice in the Ohio broke up, Shreve was ready to restart operations, and on March 3, 1817, the Washington shoved off with freight and passengers, bound for New Orleans.
At New Orleans, which the Washington reached on the night of March 12, the legal battle resumed. Livingston again had the boat seized, and Duncan again petitioned to require Livingston to post a bond against possible loss. Livingston argued against the bond, but the court ruled against him. Livingston returned custody of the boat to Shreve and then huddled with his staff of lawyers. From that conference came a new tactic . Seeing that Shreve and Duncan would not be intimidated into giving up, Livingston decided on a move that was very much like a bribe. The monopoly would press its lawsuit against Shreve and the Washington in federal court, while its suit against the Enterprise still languished in the Louisiana appellate court, and the monopoly holders would offer Shreve a half interest in their monopoly rights on condition that Shreve would arrange with Duncan to lose the case in federal court, thus protecting the monopoly. It was a shrewd maneuver, since bringing Shreve into the monopoly’s operations would not only keep the monopoly rights intact but would bring Shreve and his boat into their business, providing the monopoly holders with a boat that could reliably steam upriver beyond Natchez, something they did not have.
It was a tempting offer, representing a windfall to Shreve and the end of his legal hassles as well. But, more concerned with a free Mississippi, open to all comers, than a good deal for himself, Shreve turned the offer down.
Through the federal court Livingston quickly struck back at Shreve’s refusal. Shreve was arrested and held on ten thousand dollars bail and ordered to appear before the court on the third Monday of April to answer Livingston’s complaint. After twenty-four hours in jail Shreve was freed and he quickly steamed off aboard the Washington on March 25, just two days behind its scheduled departure.
On April 2 1, 1817, a hearing was held in the District Court of the United States for the Louisiana District, presided over by Judge Dominick A. Hall. Shreve as well as the monopoly holders were represented by their attorneys. The court record tells the disposition of Livingston’s case against Shreve :
It appearing, after arguments of counsel and the examination of the record in the case, that the court has no jurisdiction of the same, it is therefore ordered, adjudged and decreed that the petition of Pltffs [plaintiffs Livingston and his wife, Elizabeth] be dismissed with costs.5
Edward Livingston and the monopoly had been defeated again. Even so, Livingston clung to the monopoly owners’ claim of exclusive rights to steamboat navigation at the port of New Orleans. Shreve meanwhile made regular trips to and from New Orleans, not only with the Washington(which had made the run to Louisville in twenty-one days, less than a quarter of the time taken by keelboats and barges), but with new steamboats that he and a set of partners built — the Ohio, built in 1817, the Napoleon, built in 1818, and the Post Boy, built in 1819. Whatever hopes Livingston held while he waited for a decision from the Louisiana State supreme court, where his appeal in the Enterprise case was bottled up, were finally exhausted in 1819, and the company that had succeeded to Fulton and Livingston’s steamboat monopoly on the Mississippi at last withdrew all claims to an exclusive right to operate steamboats on the Mississippi.
Persistent, determined, unafraid, Henry Shreve had won his fight — and not just for himself. Judge Samuel Treat, later writing about the historic victory in a nineteenth-century magazine article, “Political Portraits With Pen and Pencil,” remarked, “At this day, the enthusiasm with which the news was received cannot be duly appreciated ... the western country owes a vast debt to Captain H.M. Shreve.”6
Shreve had broken the stifling monopoly and freed the Mississippi for the entrepreneurial spirit of the growing nation.
The Washington continued to make round trips between New Orleans and Pittsburgh until it became worn out and obsolete and was scrapped in 1822. Shreve never stopped trying to improve on it. He figured out a way to eliminate the main disadvantage of side-wheelers, notorious for their wide turning radius. He connected a separate engine to each of the two paddle wheels, so that one wheel could be reversed while the other rotated forward, allowing a boat to turn about within its own length. He also decided that additional decks could be stacked atop the second deck he had already introduced, and when he built the George Washington in 1824, he added two decks to provide more cabins — making it a four-story structure, with a pilothouse atop it — and a promenade to give passengers more room to move about. A passenger named Bullock voyaged on the George Washington two years after it was put into service and described the vessel:
On the third of April we left New Orleans in the beautiful steam-boat George Washington of 375 tons, built in Cincinnati, and certainly the finest fresh-water vessel I have ever seen.... The accommodations are excellent, and the cabins furnished in the most superb manner. None of the sleeping rooms have more than two beds. The principal [rooms] are on the upper story, and a gallery and verandah extends entirely round the vessel, affording ample space for exercise, sheltered from the sun and rain, and commanding from its height, a fine view of the surrounding scenery, without being incommoded by the noise of the crew passing overhead. The meals served ... are excellent, and served in superior style. The ladies have a separate cabin, with female attendants, and laundresses; there are, also, a circulating library, a smoking and drinking room for the gentlemen, with numerous offices for the servants &c . &c ....7
The George Washington had set the standard for riverboats, and not just those on the Mississippi, but on rivers everywhere. Shreve made the Mississippi River steamboat an American institution and in so doing played a huge part in the development of the nation. “To him,” the St. Louis Republican declared when it published his obituary following his death in 1851, “belongs the honor of demonstrating the practicability of navigating the Mississippi with steamboats.”