Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt and the First Mississippi River Steamboat
The Roosevelt Route to New Orleans- Wikimedia Commons
by Kathy Warnes
Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt defied her father to marry and accompanied her husband Nicholas Roosevelt on a hazardous Mississippi River voyage to New Orleans- twice.
Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt, the great grand aunt of Theodore Roosevelt, made two trips down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans and both times she was pregnant. She made these voyages at a time when the role of woman in her society was changing, but she had anticipated and acted on these changes since her youth.
Sturdy Pioneer Women Wanted Gentility As Well
The rise of wealth and the middle class in the cities helped make the “idle” wife a symbol of success and promoted an exaggerated ideal of the “lady.” In some quarters, society’s respect for the sturdy pioneer woman laboring alongside her man and the wife spinning wool or raising chickens to sell to supplement the family income was declining. The average frontier wife herself struggled for gentility. Husbands arranged to have pianos carried across mountains and even rough hewn frontier cabins included one parlor item, even if it were only a china figurine like Ma in Little House on the Prairie treasured.
Lydia Latrobe and Her Father, Benjamin Latrobe, Defied Convention
Born in 1792 and a daughter of architect Benjamin Latrobe, Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt didn’t struggle for gentility because she had been born into a middle class life. She did defy conventional behavior standards for the women of her time, but then she was used to defying convention. Her very marriage defied convention as strongly as her 1,500 mile trips during two pregnancies.
Lydia’s father, Benjamin Latrobe, wasn’t exactly conventional. He was well known for his work on the United States Capitol building and his designs for the porticos on the White House. His influence on Washington D.C. also includes working as the chief surveyor for the Washington Canal. He designed the main gate to the Washington Navy yard and consulted on the building of the Washington Bridge across the Potomac River. A few of his other distinguished works included the Bank of Pennsylvania and the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia. Benjamin Latrobe earned and lost fortunes and redefined and reinvented himself all of his life.
Nicholas Roosevelt and Lydia Latrobe Marry
Nicholas Roosevelt was a member of the Oyster Bay branch of the Roosevelt family, the side that produced Theodore Roosevelt three generations later. Born in New York in 1767, Nicholas was a partner of Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston who are credited with building the Claremont, the first commercial steamboat, in 1807.
Bright, artistic, assertive, and fearless, Lydia Latrobe first met Nicholas who was her father’s business associate and friend, when she was nine years old and he was 34. When she was 13 years old, she and Nicholas became engaged, over her father’s objections. Lydia married Nicholas Roosevelt in 1809, when she was 17 and he was 42.
Lydia Roosevelt Designs a Barge for the Voyage Down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers
In 1809, keelboats usually took at least a month to make the trip from the Ohio River at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, Louisiana. The return trips took a minimum of four weeks of arduous labor against uncertain currents. His partners Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston asked Nicholas to make a survey voyage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to determine the feasibility of building a steamboat to travel the rivers with people and freight.
Despite the fact that Lydia was pregnant, she decided to accompany Nicholas on the 2,500 trip down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The Roosevelts left on their flatboat voyage in the spring of 1809. Lydia not only decided to go with Nicholas on his trip, she designed and furnished the barge that they would use to make the trip.
Drawing on array of skills that she had learned from her father, Lydia included a bedroom on the barge as well as a dining room, pantry, a room for the crew in front, and a fireplace for cooking. She also provided a flat area for sporting seats and an awning for sultry days on the Mississippi River. Their crew included a pilot, three hands, a male cook, and a maid for Lydia.
Life on the Mississippi
The Roosevelts spent the hot summer nights on the deck while the crew worked around them. One night two Indians came aboard, demanding whiskey. Nicholas finally managed to find a bottle of whiskey for them and both he and Lydia were glad to see them disappeared into the forest. A few weeks later, fever slithered onboard the flatboat and infected all of the passengers except Lydia. For the next three weeks, she cooked, scrubbed and nursed the crew back to health. When they recovered, they again took to the river on the Natchez course.
Adventures in Natchez
By the time the flatboat reached Natchez, the crew anticipated a night on the town. They left Lydia and Nicholas who was still sick and her maid onboard. After the crew left, the level of the Mississippi River suddenly dropped, and the decreased water level caused the bottom of the flatboat to hit the mast of a sunken boat. The flatboat would have sunk straight to the bottom of the Mississippi if Lydia hadn’t constantly bailed water for the next four hours until the crew came back.
Rowing Days and Alligator Nights
Now, the Roosevelts and their crew were only a week away from New Orleans, and the voyage from Natchez to New Orleans actually took about nine days. The Roosevelts and their crew had to finish their trip downriver in a large rowboat instead of the flat boat. They had nightly visitor to distract them from the hardness of their bed on the rowboat. On their first night out of Natchez, a large alligator trying to climb over the edge of the rowboat and join them inside interrupted Nicholas’s sleep. Nicholas whacked the alligator with the pilot’s cane and he left for the evening. The next four evenings, the alligator returned for another whack. The fifth evening, the crew and the Roosevelts found rooms on shore.
Different Nights Under Different Roofs
Their pilot had assured the Roosevelts that it wouldn’t be difficult to find lodging for the night if they needed it, but many of the people that lived along the Rivers were reluctant to offer the hospitality of their homes. When they finally reached Baton Rouge, rain poured down and the Roosevelts and their crew could find only a dilapidated public house for shelter. Lydia saw their sleeping room and wished herself back on the boat. She described it as a forlorn place off the bar room which was full of men resembling cut throats. Throwing their cloaks on the bed, Lydia and Nicholas laid down to rest but the fighting and the noise in the bar room kept them from sleeping. The next day they got up at dawn and made their way back to the boat, feeling, as Lydia put it, “thankful “that we had not been murdered in the night.”
The Roosevelts spent the second night on shore with an old French couple who allowed them to spread their Buffalo skins on the floor in front of a large fire. They were safe, but the old Catholic couple coming into the room once or twice a night to kneel in front of a crucifix on a shelf interrupted their sleep. They spent three apprehensive nights on sandy beaches.
New Orleans At Last
On December 1, 1809, the Roosevelts reached New Orleans. They had learned firsthand that the fledgling United States of America had to find a better way to transport goods and people up and down the Mississippi River. Lydia Roosevelt had enjoyed the adventure of the voyage and she would never forget it, but the Roosevelts sighed with relief as they booked passage on the next ship that would take them to New York.
Yellow Fever and a New Baby
Lydia and Nicholas had anticipated an easier return trip, but yellow fever accompanied them on their return voyage. It struck down the captain first and then spread to the passengers and crew, including Nicholas. Nicholas was still recovering when the Roosevelts went ashore at Old Point Comfort, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay. They traveled by stagecoach from Virginia to New York, reaching there in mid-January 1810. They had arrived home just in time for Lydia to deliver a daughter that they named Rosetta.
A conventional woman would have refused to do any more river voyaging after the flatboat and rowboat adventure that the Roosevelts had just finished. Lydia Roosevelt wasn’t a conventional woman. She rested for a few months while Nicholas Roosevelt completed his detailed report for Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston. Then with their baby Rosetta, the Roosevelts left for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Fulton, Livingston, and Roosevelt dream of a steamboat traveling up and down the Mississippi River was about to become a reality.
Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt Steams to New Orleans in the Steamboat New Orleans
In 1811, Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt made a second voyage to New Orleans, this time in her husband’s steamboat New Orleans. This voyage proved to be more dangerous than the first.
On October 20, 1811, Lydia and Nicholas Roosevelt and their toddler Rosetta, left Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on the steamer New Orleans bound for New Orleans. This would be Lydia’s second trip in two years down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans in a boat.
She and Nicholas had made the trip in 1809 in a flatboat when Lydia was pregnant with Rosetta. This time, they were going in a steamboat and Lydia was again pregnant, eight months pregnant, and again she shrugged off the disapproval of the proper ladies of the town for traveling when she was “in the family way.” They also loudly wondered how she could take an innocent toddler like Rosetta along.
Nicholas Roosevelt’s Steamboat New Orleans Departs for New Orleans
After Nicholas and Lydia had returned from their 1809 trip to see whether or not a steamship route to New Orleans was feasible, Robert Fulton arranged for the steamboat New Orleans to be built at Pittsburgh. The New Orleans was built at a shipyard on the banks of the Monongahela River in 1810 and 1811, below the bluff on which Duquesne University was later built.
When it was finished the New Orleans, measured 26 feet wide and 148 feet long, which made it whale-sized compared to the canoes and flatboats that traveled the rivers and streams. A 34 cylinder steam engine that could burn wood or coal that produced heavy white or black smoke propelled the New Orleans and it had large paddle wheels amidships, one on each side of the ship hull.
The New Orleans featured a single smoke stack standing 30 feet above the water. When the New Orleans was finally completed, in the summer of 1811, its cost had soared to $38,000, an enormous amount of money for the times. The Pittsburgh Gazette on Friday, October 18, 1811, informed its readers that once the New Orleans left Pittsburgh, it would never return.
“We are told that she is intended as a regular packet – a regularly scheduled boat carrying mail, cargo, and passengers-between Natchez and New Orleans,” the Pittsburgh Gazette said. The New Orleans carried her captain Andrew Jack; engineer, Nicholas Baker; a pilot, six crewmen, two female servants, a waiter and a cook. The Roosevelt family included Lydia, Nicholas, their two year old daughter, Rosetta, and Tiger, their Newfoundland dog.
The Great Comet and the Noisy Engine
While the steamboat passed scattered communities on its more than 1,100 mile inaugural trip, most of the territory through which it traveled was wilderness. This trip proved to be more eventful than the 1809 trip for natural as well as practical reasons. The Roosevelts and the rest of the steam boat New Orleans crew could see the Great Comet of 1811.
It also took them some days to become accustomed to the eccentricities of the New Orleans. The ship could travel at ten miles an hour downstream, and the engine noise could be heard for several miles in all directions.
Did the British Just Invade Kentucky?
The noisy passing of the New Orleans caused a stir on the Kentucky shore of the Ohio River. During the past few years, the United States and Great Britain had been inching closer and closer to war, as the British continued to impress American sailors into their own Navy, claiming that they were deserted British sailors.
Hearing the noise that the New Orleans made and seeing her mammoth size, Kentuckians were certain that the British were invading. Some of them fled, some of them fought, and others threw stones at the New Orleans as she passed.
The Falls of the Ohio and Henry Latrobe Roosevelt
The Falls of the Ohio River are located at a large bend in the river near Louisville, Kentucky and the rapids just below the falls featured eddies, islands, and rocks that ripped hulls along a two and a half mile passage. The Roosevelts had instructed the captain and the pilot to steer the New Orleans through these treacherous waters. The New Orleans had to wait for the autumn swell or for the river to rise as level to the falls as possible, before it could hope to navigate the falls of the Ohio.
The New Orleans tied up outside of Louisville to wait for the autumn swell. While the Roosevelts and the crew of the New Orleans waited for the autumn swell, Lydia’s baby decided not to wait any longer. On October 29, 1811, the New Orleans lay off of Louisville, Kentucky, and Lydia went into labor. The Roosevelt’s son, Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, was born on October 30, 1811.
Finally, on December 8, 1811, the captain and pilot decided that the autumn swell had reached as high as it could, and they decided to guide the New Orleans through the rapids and eddies. Nicholas begged Lydia to take the children and travel by buggy around the treacherous passage. Lydia send Rosetta and Henry ashore with two maids to round the rapids in a buggy, but she stayed with her husband on the New Orleans.
Lydia stood in the stern of the New Orleans with Tiger, the Roosevelt’s Newfoundland dog. She watched the rapids racing along at fourteen miles an hour and she realized the New Orleans would have to go faster than the rapids or the they would grab the ship and toss it like a rubber ball. Would the New Orleans be dashed to pieces on the rocks or would the strong, icy water fingers pull her apart?
Lydia and Tiger held stood quietly while the captain and pilot, with Nicholas anxiously standing by, steered the ship safely through the passage, although with a draft of less than six inches. The buggy brought the children back on board and the New Orleans resumed her journey.
Earthquake in New Madrid!
The Roosevelt’s trip on the Ohio River had been peaceful, but the trip down the Mississippi River proved to be eventful and dangerous. A little over a week after the New Orleans safely negotiated the Falls of the Ohio, its passengers and crew noticed an ominous change in the atmosphere. The sun rose as a dim ball of fire over the forests and the air felt thick and oppressive.
On December 16, 1811, the New Madrid Earthquake, centered near New Madrid, Missouri, shook the earth violently, reversed the course of the Mississippi River, and rang church bells in far away Boston. One of the strongest North American earthquakes ever recorded, seismologists estimate that it ranked an 8 on the Richter scale.
The pilot of the New Orleans confessed that he was lost because the river channel had changed and where he had known deep water, now countless trees emerged with their roots upwards. The river waters roared and gurgled horribly and occasionally they heard the rushing earth sliding from the shore and the commotion as the river swallowed up the falling mass of earth and trees. As the New Orleans passed small river towns, citizens begged the captain to take them aboard to escape the earthquake and its aftermath.
The New Orleans Reaches New Orleans
Next, a band of Chickasaw Indians in canoes attacked the New Orleans, but she outraced them. She finally reached Natchez, Mississippi, on December 30, 1811. As the New Orleans passed through Louisiana, a rare snowfall blanketed the landscape. Finally, the New Orleans reached New Orleans on January 10, 1812. The journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers had taken 12 weeks.
The New Orleans was the first steamboat to operate on the western rivers and her voyage began the era of the Mississippi River steamboat. Shortly after her maiden voyage, the New Orleans began regular runs between Natchez and New Orleans. On July 14, 1814, the New Orleans sank near Baton Rouge, setting the pattern for the average lifespan of a steamboat which was about three years.
The Roosevelts and their two young children went back home to New York and Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt continued her unconventional ways throughout the rest of her life.
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Latrobe, Charles Joseph, The Rambler in North America: 1832-1833, London, 2nd edition, 1836