A particular stroke of genius of American inventors was applying steam power to a boat to create the steamboat. In the late eighteenth century John Fitch, James Rumsey, and Oliver Evans produced different types of steamboats. Fitch tested his boat in 1787 on the Delaware River. This ungainly craft had engines that powered six paddles on each side; it was never a commercial success. Robert Fulton produced a paddle wheel steamboat, which was the first viable craft. Fulton had met Robert R. Livingston, U.S. minister to France, while in Paris, where Fulton was working on the development of a submarine. Livingston persuaded Fulton to return to the United States and build a steamboat. The wealthy Livingston also provided the financial resources for Fulton's work. In 1807 Fulton successfully tested the North River Steamboat of Clermont on the Hudson River. Although the North River had sails, it did not use them during the 150-mile voyage from New York City to Albany. Fulton's boat quickly became a commercial success because it was practical and stressed passenger comfort.
Fulton and Livingston also succeeded in gaining the exclusive right to operate steamboats on the waters of New York State and within the territory of Lousiana, but their monopoly was short-lived. Fulton's success and the relatively low cost of building a steamboat encouraged rivals to enter the business, and after a period in which a number of conflicting grants were given to individuals by local authorities, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) that the commerce clause of the U.S. constitution gave the authority for such agreements only to the U.S. government. This formally negated the agreements that Livingston and Fulton had obtained, although competitors had in fact been challenging their control for over a decade.
As more builders entered the steamboat industry, they improved the overall design of the boats, manufactured better engines, and strengthened hulls. Northeastern steamboats were most noted for their passenger and tourist trade, although they also carried some cargo.
Steamboats had their greatest impact on the waters of the Mississippi River system. Nicholas Roosevelt, the grand-uncle of Theodore Roosevelt, piloted the first steamboat on the Mississippi in 1811. The boat was a product of the Mississippi Steam Navigation Company, a partnership of Roosevelt, Fulton, Livingston, and Livingston's brother Edward, a prominent attorney and legislator. Henry Shreve, a former flatboatman from Pennsylvania, brought his own steamer to New Orleans in 1814. Shreve and others modified the traditional structure of steamboats, widening and lengthening the deck, reducing the draft, placing the engine on the main deck, and adding several stories. This is the design most familiar to twenty-first century Americans. These improvements enabled western steamboats to operate in shallow waters (sometimes as low as six feet) but still carry enormous amounts of cargo.
Steamboats produced a revolution in commerce in the Mississippi River valley. In 1810 river travel from New Orleans to Louisville took at least four months. By 1830 goods and passengers could make the same trip in a mere eight days. The cost of shipping goods plunged, too. In 1815 it cost five dollars to ship 100 pounds of freight from New Orleans to Louisville; the cost in 1860 was twenty-five cents. Westerners used steamboats to ship an amazing array of items. Surviving manifests reveal that steamboats carried everything from farm implements to pianos. Steamers also carried live cargo: cows, mules, chickens, and slaves. The boats stopped at towns, farms, and plantation landings along the river, making it easy and affordable for westerners to purchase just about anything.
Steamboats were also a catalyst for the development of the Cotton Kingdom. It was difficult to stack cotton bales on flatboats, but western steamboats accommodated the cotton trade well. When steamboats stopped at a plantation, roustabouts wrestled the five-hundred-pound bales onto the boats. The wide decks of the western steamers meant that cotton could be stacked as high as the pilothouse before being tied down. By 1830 it was common for these "cotton boats" to carry over four hundred bales (about eighty tons) of cotton on a single trip.
These economic advances encouraged westward settlement: the steamboat brought both migrants and civilization to the Mississippi River valley. Wealthier customers traveled as cabin passengers. Staying in individual rooms, they ate sumptuous meals and spent their days conversing, reading, listening to music, or playing cards. Most steamboat travelers, however, were deck passengers, who slept and ate alongside the cargo. They prepared their own food in what was essentially a floating barn and slept wherever they could find room. Deck passengers usually participated in wooding, which involved scrambling ashore with the crew to carry several cords of wood on board for fuel.
Steamboats also changed the lives of slaves. Many bond servants worked on steamboats, being either owned by crewmembers or hired from owners on a yearly or monthly basis. Slave porters served meals to the cabin passengers, while slave firemen tended steamboat furnaces—work that was difficult and dangerous. Bond servants sometimes took advantage of their work on steamboats to escape or locate lost family members. Milton Clarke, a slave who had been hired to work on a steamboat, found his sister in New Orleans after she was sold to an interstate slave trader.
Buchanan, Thomas C. Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Hunter, Louis C. Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History. New York: Dover, 1993.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream. New York: Free Press, 2001.
Robert H. Gudmestad