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Henry Miller Shreve

Captain Henry Miller Shreve
Personal information
Nationality American
Birth date October 21, 1785
Date of death March 6, 1851
Parents Israel Shreve, Mary Cokely
Significant advance steamboat

Henry Miller Shreve (October 21, 1785 – March 6, 1851) was the American inventor and steamboat captain who opened the Mississippi, Ohio and Red rivers to steamboat navigation. Shreveport, Louisiana, is named in his honor.

Shreve was also instrumental in breaking the Fulton-Livingston monopoly on steamboat traffic on the lower Mississippi. He was the first riverboat captain to travel the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans and back, as well as the first to bring a keelboat from the Ohio River up the Mississippi to the Fever River in Illinois. Shreve also made significant improvements to the steamboat and the steam engine, such as separate boilers to power side paddlewheels independently, horizontal cylinders, and multiple decks to allow for passengers and entertainment.


Early life

Shreve was born to Israel Shreve, a Quaker who had served with honor in the American Revolution, and the former Mary Cokely in "Mount Pleasant", the family homestead near Columbus, New Jersey. On July 7, 1788, the Shreves left New Jersey for their new home on property owned by George Washington in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Young Henry's new home was close to the Youghiogheny River near the present day borough of Perryopolis.[1] After his father's death in 1799, Shreve served on several riverboats to help support his family. After purchasing his own boat Shreve began trading between Brownsville, Pennsylvania and ports as far away as New Orleans. On a voyage in 1814, Shreve's barge was registered at New Orleans on February 11.[2] After his boat was loaded with cargo, Shreve and crew hauled and poled the vessel 2,200 miles against strong river currents, probably reaching Brownsville before July, 1814.[3]

The Enterprise

Plaque commemorating the epic voyage of the Enterprise from New Orleans to Brownsville.

During the winter and spring of 1814, a new steamboat, with an engine and power train designed and built by Daniel French, was being built at Brownsville. Between June and December, the steamboat Enterprise, under the command of Israel Gregg, made two successful voyages transporting passengers and cargo to ports between Brownsville and Louisville, Kentucky.[4] In December, Shreve became captain of the Enterprise. The Enterprise departed Pittsburgh on December 21, 1814, with a load of munitions for General Andrew Jackson to defend New Orleans against an invasion of British forces.[5] The Enterprise passed the Falls at Louisville on December 28, 1814.[6]

After the American victory at the Battle of New Orleans, a lawsuit was brought by the heirs of Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston against Shreve and the owners of the Enterprise for violating the formers' monopoly against any unauthorized navigation of Louisiana waters by steamboat.[7] Soon after being released from jail, Shreve commanded the Enterprise from New Orleans to Louisville, the first time a northbound steamboat was able to reach that city.[8] Then he navigated the Enterprise to Pittsburgh and finally to her homeport of Brownsville.[9] This long and difficult voyage by the Enterprise, more than 2,200 miles against the currents of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, demonstrated the ability of steamboats to navigate the western rivers.

The Washington

Shreve and four partners commissioned George White to build a new steamboat, named the Washington, at Wheeling, Virginia (later West Virginia).[10] The engine and drive train of the Washington were built by Daniel French at Brownsville.[11] The Washington was first launched in 1816. It was the first steamboat with two decks, the predecessor of the showboats of later years. The main deck was used for the boiler, and the upper deck was reserved for passengers.

Shreve, for the second time, piloted a steamboat to New Orleans where he once again was sued by the heirs of the Fulton-Livingston monopoly. Shreve took the Washington from New Orleans to Louisville and returned to the Crescent City on March 12, 1817. Shreve and several counterparts were subjected to lawsuits initiated by the monopolists. On March 25, Shreve departed New Orleans and piloted the Washington upriver. He reached Louisville in twenty-five days, equal to the record set by the Enterprise nearly two years earlier.[12] On April 21, Judge Dominic C. Hall declared that the court did not have jurisdiction and hence dismissed all of the suits.[13] This decision eliminated any enforcement of the Livingston-Fulton monopoly in Louisiana courts. Hall's decision and the Washington's recent voyage from New Orleans to Louisville heralded the forthcoming steamboat era on the western rivers.

Clearing the Great Raft

The American rivers were still difficult to navigate, however, because of the presence of dead wood called snags, sawyers [1], or log jams. Shreve was appointed Superintendent of Western River Improvements in 1826 and charged with finding a solution to this problem. He had been working on a design for a "snagboat" since 1821, and he finally had it built in 1837. This craft, the Heliopolis, had a steam-powered windlass used to pull large concentrations of dead wood from the water. As a result of the success of his design, Shreve was ordered in 1832 by Secretary of War Lewis Cass to clear the Great Raft, 150 miles of dead wood on the Red River. Shreve successfully removed the Raft (despite inadequate funding) by 1839. The area of the Red River where the Raft was most concentrated is today his namesake city of Shreveport. Shreve helped to establish Shreveport via the Shreve Town Company. In 1841, Shreve was relieved of his superintendent's duties by the nominally Whig U.S. President John Tyler. He hence retired to his farm near St. Louis.

Later life

Shreve was twice married. There were three children from his first marriage to the former Mary M. Blair on February 28, 1811, and two children from his union with the former Lydia Rogers of Boston. Shreve spent his final years with his daughter Rebecca's family in St. Louis. He died in the home of his son-in-law, Walker Randolph Carter, and is interred in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.


  1. ^ Ellis, p. 710-711
  2. ^ New Orleans Public Library, 219 Loyola Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70112-2044, New Orleans Wharf Register: One barge, its captain recorded as Henry Shrive, was registered at New Orleans on February 11, 1814.
  3. ^ The date is based on two facts: the 2,200-mile return trip reportedly took about four months to complete, and Hampden Zane Shreve, his son, was born on April 8, 1815.
  4. ^ Pittsburgh Gazette, 10 June 1814: "The Elegant Steam Boat, Enterprize, Captain Israel GREGG, arrived here on Wednesday last, from Bridgeport, on the Monongahela,... She is handsomely fitted up for passengers for Louisville, Falls of Ohio, for which place she will sail on Saturday or Sunday morning next."
  5. ^ Major Abraham Edwards to Secretary Monroe, 11 February 1815: "Report of the departure of boats, loaded with munitions of war, from this place [Pittsburgh] to Baton-Rouge and New Orleans and the names of persons in charge of the stores." National Archives DNA-RG 107, E-1815, microfilm 222, reel 15
  6. ^ Western Courier (Louisville, Ky.), 4 January 1815: "Passed the Falls on the 28th ult. the Steam Boat Enterprise, loaded with public property, consisting of 24 pounders, carriages, shells, small arms &c. for Gen. Jackson's army."
  7. ^ Duncan, Abner L., 22 January 1816, "Answer to the petition of John Livingston including the name of each shareholder and the company which owned the steamboat Enterprise", Calendar of the Mississippi Set, Le Beouf Collection, New York Historical Society
  8. ^ Western Courier, 1 June 1815: "Arrived in this port, in 25 days from New-Orleans, the Steam-Boat Enterprize, capt. SHRIEVE."
  9. ^ American Telegraph (Brownsville, Pa.), 5 July 1815: "Arrived at this port on Monday last, the Steam Boat Enterprize, Shreve, of Bridgeport, from New Orleans, in ballast, having discharged her cargo at Pittsburg. She is the first steam boat that ever made the voyage to the Mouth of the Mississippi and back."
  10. ^ Davis, p. 393
  11. ^ Steubenville Western Herald, 10 November 1815
  12. ^ Hunter, p. 17-20
  13. ^ Maass, p. 56-57


  • "Henry Miller Shreve", A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Vol. II (1988), p. 741
  • Allen, Luther Prentice (1901), Genealogy and history of the Shreve family from 1641, Greenfield, Illinois: Privately printed, 672 pages; reprinted by Higginson Book Co., Salem, Massachusetts, 1999, ISBN 07404 10024
  • Davis, Edwin Adams and John C. L. Andreassen (1936), "Diary of William Newton Mercer", Journal of Southern History (Mercer's account of his voyage aboard the Washington in 1816.)
  • Ellis, Franklin (1882), History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, with biographical sketches of many of its pioneers and prominent men, Philadelphia: L. H. Everts and Company
  • Hunter, Louis C. (1949), Steamboats on the western rivers, an economic and technological history, Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Maass, Alfred R., "The right of unrestricted navigation on the Mississippi, 1812-1818", The American Neptune, 60: 49-59
  • Puneky, Claire (1970), Louisiana Leaders
  • Rand, Clayton (1953), Stars in their Eyes


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