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Bixby, Horace Ezra (08 May 1826–01 August 1912), steamboat pilot, was born in Geneseo, New York, the son of Sylvanus Bixby and Hannah Barnes, farmers. After running away from home when he was thirteen, Bixby made his way to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he first worked in a tailor shop. Like many river-town youths, he was attracted to steamboating, which was rapidly expanding in the 1840s. He started as a second, or mud, clerk on the ...

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Grimes, Absalom Carlisle (22 August 1834–27 March 1911), Confederate mail runner and steamboat pilot, was born in Anchorage, Kentucky, the son of William Leander Grimes and Charlotte Platt Wright. He was born while his parents were visiting his father’s hometown relatives. After he was one month old, his parents took him to their home at Saverton, Missouri (near Hannibal), where his father worked as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot. During his youth in St. Louis the rambunctious Grimes disliked school intensely and at the age of twelve stowed away on a steamboat to New Orleans, only to be retrieved by his anxious parents before he could carry out his plan to go to sea as a cabin boy. When he was sixteen, he worked briefly as a messenger boy for the Morse Telegraph Company when its service was first introduced to St. Louis, but later in the year he was introduced to steamboat piloting by his father. Ab, as Grimes was familiarly known, was so short at the start of his apprenticeship that he had to stand on a box to see over the boat’s steering wheel. After obtaining his first annual license in 1852, he piloted various steamboats in the lively upper Mississippi trade between St. Louis and St. Paul until the start of the Civil War in 1861....

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Rogers, Moses (1779–15 November 1821), shipmaster and steamboat promoter, was born in or near New London, Connecticut, the son of Amos Rogers, a Groton, Connecticut, lumber- and brickyard owner, and Sarah Phillips. Born into a seafaring family claiming some forty sea-captain ancestors, Moses Rogers as early as 1800 commanded a vessel sailing on Long Island Sound. He already was a prosperous and well-regarded shipping operator by the time of his 1804 marriage to Adelia Smith; they had five children over the next ten years....

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Sellers, Isaiah (1802–06 March 1864), Mississippi River steamboat pilot, was born in Iredell County, North Carolina. Nothing is known of his parentage, and according to later comments by his contemporaries, he received only a limited formal education. In his classic Life on the Mississippi...

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Shreve, Henry Miller (21 October 1785–06 March 1851), steamboat captain, army engineer, and steamship designer, was born in Burlington County, New Jersey, the son of Israel Shreve and Mary Cokely, farmers. During the American Revolution British forces had destroyed the Shreve home, so Shreve’s father took his family to the frontier in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, when Henry was about three years old....

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Mark Twain Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-28785).

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Twain, Mark (30 November 1835–21 April 1910), author and lecturer, was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri, the son of John Marshall Clemens, a lawyer, and Jane Lampton. Though he would intimate in good faith that his father descended from the gentry, his paternal grandparents were slave-owning farmers in Virginia, and his maternal grandparents in Kentucky, while better educated and more prosperous, were not wealthy. His father, having moved to Kentucky, was licensed to practice law in 1822. His parents moved in 1823 to Tennessee, where John Clemens accumulated a huge tract, perhaps as much as 75,000 acres, that would for decades figure in family councils as a potential fortune. He had minimal success as an attorney and speculator. In 1835 he embarked on various ventures in tiny Florida, Missouri, the home of John Adams Quarles, a capable farmer and storekeeper married to Jane Clemens’s younger sister....

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Cornelius Vanderbilt. Daguerreotype from the studio of Mathew B. Brady. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZC4-4160).

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Vanderbilt, Cornelius (27 May 1794–04 January 1877), steamship and railroad promoter and financier, was born in Port Richmond, Staten Island, New York, the son of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Phebe Hand. His father, a poor farmer with nine children, increased his income with some boating around the New York harbor. In 1795 the family moved to Stapleton, on the eastern shore of Staten Island. Cornelius hated both schools and books and had no formal education past the age of eleven, when he became his father’s helper. The husky, robust boy was an expert swimmer and adept at identifying most types of sailing ships. At an early age he helped his father transfer farm produce by boat to New York City. At the age of sixteen his parents lent him $100 to purchase a small sailboat. Cornelius Vanderbilt at once set up a ferrying and freight business between Staten Island and New York City that earned more than $1,000 in the first year. The fare for the trip to New York City was eighteen cents one way or a round trip for a quarter....