Henry Miller Shreve was the American inventor and steamboat captain who opened the Mississippi, Ohio, and Red Rivers to steamboat navigation. He was born on 21 October 1785 in Burlington County, New Jersey, into the Quaker family of Colonel Israel Shreve, an officer with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and Mary Cokely. In 1788, the Shreve family left New Jersey and moved to Fayette County, Pennsylvania, near the Youghiogheny River. After his father’s death in 1799, Henry began what would become a lifelong career on the rivers of America.

Robert Livingston, then U.S. minister to France, had received a monopoly right to navigate New York’s Hudson River. In 1803, Robert Fulton invented the steamboat and Livingston afterward contracted with Fulton to build a commercial steamboat, the Clermont. In 1807, they received a joint monopoly on all steamboat traffic.

In 1814, Henry Shreve built the Enterprise, which he used to transport passengers and cargo between Brownsville, in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, and Louisville, Kentucky. Later that year Shreve piloted the boat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans with a cargo of munitions for General Andrew Jackson’s troops to defend the city against the British during the War of 1812. Shreve was then sued by the heirs of the Fulton-Livingston monopoly for violating their monopoly. Shreve was jailed, but he later piloted the Enterprise back to Brownsville, a trip of 2,300 miles upstream.

By 1816, Shreve had built a second boat, the Washington, which he again piloted to New Orleans and then back to Louisville the following year. He was again sued for violating the monopoly. A Louisiana court dismissed the suit, effectively eliminated any enforcement of the Livingston-Fulton monopoly in Louisiana courts.

America’s rivers were full of debris—trees and branches and man-made objects—which seriously hindered safe navigation. Henry Shreve invented the steam-powered snag boat for the removal of this debris. Shreve also made significant improvements to the steamboat and the steam engine, such as separate boilers to power side-paddlewheels independently and multiple decks to allow for passengers and entertainment.

Shreve founded a camp that eventually became the city of Shreveport, Louisiana, named in his honor after he led the United States Army Corps of Engineers in clearing the Red River of a 180-mile-long natural log jam to open the port.

Henry Miller Shreve and Mary Blair (1791–1846) were married on 28 February 1811 in Brownsville, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. They had three children, all born in Brownsville: Harriet Louisa Shreve, born 28 November 1811; Rebecca Ann Shreve, born 3 October 1813; and Hampden Zane Shreve was born on 8 April 1815. After Mary’s death, Henry married Lydia Rogers and they were the parents of two children, both born in St. Louis: Mary Shreve, born in September 1847, and Florence W. “Florie” Shreve, born in 1849.

Late in his life, Henry moved to St. Louis to live with his daughter, Rebecca (Shreve) Carter. He died on 6 March 1851 at the age of sixty-five in St. Louis with burial at Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Written by Ted Steele
June 2021

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Last Modified: 28-Jan-2022 16:03