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Joel Barlow. Watercolor on ivory, 1806, by William Dunlap. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joel Barlow.

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Barlow, Joel (24 March 1754–26 December 1812), businessman, diplomat, and poet, was born in Redding, Connecticut, the son of Samuel Barlow and Esther Hull, fairly well-to-do farmers. Barlow was born the second-to-last child in a large family. Given the size of the family and their farm, Barlow could receive formal education only from the local minister, an education probably interspersed with farm chores. When Barlow was eighteen, his father arranged for his schooling at Moor’s Indian School (now Dartmouth) in Hanover, New Hampshire. Barlow began his studies there in 1772, yet his father’s death shortly thereafter made it necessary for Barlow to return home. He entered Yale College with the class of 1778. At Yale Barlow began to give evidence of an interest in poetry, in moral and political philosophy, and in science as a key to the improvement of the human condition. His first published poem, a broadside publication, was a satire in pseudobiblical verse about the bad food served in Yale commons. Although he wrote poems throughout his college days, Barlow’s best-known college verses were verse orations delivered at two Yale commencements, ...

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Julius H. Barnes. Right, with Thomas Lamont, left, and Silas Strawn. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92371).

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Barnes, Julius Howland (02 February 1873–17 April 1959), industrialist and government official, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of Lucien Jerome Barnes, a banker, and Julia Hill. Moving with his family, he attended public schools in Washington, D.C., and Duluth, Minnesota. Following his father’s death in 1886, Barnes left school to take a job as office boy with the Duluth grain brokerage firm of Wardell Ames. There he rose rapidly, becoming president of the company in 1910 and subsequently reorganizing it as the Barnes-Ames Company. By 1915 Barnes-Ames was the world’s largest grain exporter, and Barnes acquired other business interests, principally in shipbuilding and Great Lakes shipping. In 1896 he married Harriet Carey, with whom he had two children....

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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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Burns, Otway, Jr. (1775–25 October 1850), privateer, shipbuilder, and state legislator, was born on Queen’s Creek, Onslow County, North Carolina, the son of Otway Burns and Lisanah (maiden name unknown), farmers. Little is known of Burns’s education or youth. Apparently he went to sea at an early age and became a skilled seaman. In 1806 the Onslow County Court apprenticed an orphan lad to Burns to learn navigation. Prior to the War of 1812, Burns was master of a merchantman engaged in the coastwise trade between North Carolina and New England....

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Bushnell, David (30 August 1740–1826), inventor, was born in Saybrook, Connecticut, the son of Nehemiah Bushnell and Sarah Ingham, farmers. By the time Bushnell entered Yale, he had developed concepts for both a submarine and an underwater explosive. At college, he experimented with gunpowder and proved that it could explode underwater. During the summer of 1775, the year he graduated, the thirteen colonies were in the throes of revolt against Great Britain, and Bushnell felt that an offensive weapon would be a useful tool against the Royal Navy in the ensuing conflict. With that in mind, he constructed his submarine in Saybrook during the spring and summer of 1775. Although he was secretive about his work, several colonial notables knew of it, including ...

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Butterfield, John (18 November 1801–14 November 1869), western pioneer, express company operator, and investor, was born in Berne, near Albany, New York, the son of Daniel Butterfield (his mother’s name is unknown). His formal education consisted of intermittent attendance at local public schools. As a young man he became a stagecoach driver in New York State and later an investor in barges plying the Erie Canal....

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Casey, James E. (29 March 1888–06 June 1983), corporation executive, was born in Candelaria, Nevada, a small mining town where his father worked as a part-time prospector and part-time innkeeper. While Casey was still an infant, his father moved the family to Seattle, Washington. With his father in poor health, Casey had to leave school at age eleven to support the family. After working in Seattle as a delivery boy for a department store and as a messenger for the American District Telegraph Company, Casey went to Nevada and prospected for gold. He returned to Seattle where, in August 1907, he and fellow teenager Claude Ryan began a messenger service, which they called the American Messenger Company. Ryan’s uncle allowed the boys to establish an office in a space 6 feet by 17 feet beneath a tavern that he operated at Main Street and Second Avenue in Seattle....

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Cheney, Benjamin Pierce (12 August 1815–23 July 1895), transportation executive, was born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, the son of Jesse Cheney, a blacksmith, and Alice Steele. Born into an impoverished family, he attended local common schools until the age of ten and then went to work in his father’s shop. After nearly two years working with his father, he relocated to Francistown, New Hampshire, where he took a job in a tavern and later worked in a local store....

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Claghorn, George (06 July 1748–03 February 1824), army officer and shipwright, was born in Chilmark, Massachusetts, the son of Shubael Claghorn, a soldier, and Experience Hawes. He was a great-grandson of James Claghorn of Scotland, who was captured at the battle of Dunbar and deported to the colonies by Cromwell. His father was a veteran of the Louisburg expedition of 1745. Claghorn himself eventually settled in New Bedford and in 1769 married Deborah Brownell of Dartmouth. They had eight children....

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Edward Knight Collins. Daguerreotype from the studio of Mathew B. Brady. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-109875).

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Collins, Edward Knight (05 August 1802–22 January 1878), merchant and shipping operator, was born in Truro, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the son of Israel Gross Collins, a sea captain, merchant trader, and ship owner, and Mary Ann Knight, an Englishwoman who died soon after Edward’s birth. After his mother’s death, his father moved to New York City, leaving Edward to be raised by the Collins family. Edward’s uncle (and later business associate), John Collins, was an important influence....

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Cramp, William (22 September 1807–06 July 1879), shipbuilder, was born in Kensington, Pennsylvania, a suburb later incorporated into northeastern Philadelphia; his parents’ names are unknown. After attending public schools, he studied under the naval architect Samuel Grice. He married Sophia Miller in 1827; they had eleven children. In 1830 Cramp established his own shipbuilding firm on the Delaware River, first in Kensington and then in a larger facility in Richmond. Over the next decades this shipyard grew to become one of the most important in the United States, constructing wood, ironclad, iron, and eventually steel ships. He remained president of the firm for forty-nine years, from its founding until his death in Atlantic City, New Jersey....

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Eckford, Henry (12 March 1775–12 November 1832), naval architect and shipbuilder, was born at Kilwinning, near Irvine (Clyde district), Scotland, the son of John Eckford and Janet Black, whose occupations are not known. At the age of sixteen Eckford was sent to Quebec, Canada, to study shipbuilding under the aegis of an uncle, John Black. He next relocated to New York City in 1796 and for three years labored in a boat shop. In 1799 Eckford married Marion Bedell of Hempstead, Long Island; they had nine children. That same year he established his own boat yard and from 1803 to 1806 enjoyed a profitable relationship with Captain Edward Beebe. Eckford soon became a designer known for ships possessing both strength and speed. Whenever a vessel he constructed completed its maiden voyage, he would personally interview the captain about its performance and make desired modifications at his own expense....

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Ericsson, John (31 July 1803–08 March 1889), inventor and engineer, was born in Langbanshyttan, province of Wermland, Sweden, the son of Olof Ericsson, a mine proprietor and inspector, and Brita Sophia Yngstrom. His earliest education was instruction by his parents and private tutors. John often spent his days drawing and building models of the machinery in his father’s mine. His father was well educated, but John’s strong character traits were attributed to the influence of his mother. Sweden’s war with Russia ruined John’s father financially, but he was able to secure a position as an inspector on a canal project and to obtain appointments for his two sons as cadets in the Corps of Mechanical Engineers. Thus at age thirteen John began his first formal education, and his natural aptitudes for mechanical drawing and solving engineering problems were encouraged and developed....

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Fargo, William George (20 May 1818–03 August 1881), business leader and mayor of Buffalo, New York, was born in Pompey, New York, the son of William C. Fargo, a farmer and mail contractor, and Tacy Strong, a farmer. The eldest of twelve children, Fargo grew accustomed to steady work at an early age. He had little formal education and at the age of thirteen secured a job carrying the mail on horseback twice a week over a thirty-mile route. Since Fargo’s father was also a mail carrier, Fargo may well have owed this opportunity to his father’s influence. He supplemented his income as a mail carrier by running a variety of errands for his neighbors, for which he was paid a small commission. These errands included carrying parcels and messages and purchasing goods at local stores. It is likely that this experience helped to shape Fargo’s later determination to establish a business that would perform these tasks on a regular basis and on a greatly extended geographical scale....

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Fink, Mike (1770–1823), scout, keelboatman, and trapper, was born at Fort Pitt, part of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His ancestry was probably Scotch-Irish and Pennsylvania German. It is hard to separate fact from fiction concerning Mike Fink. Early in his life he was an expert marksman with his Kentucky rifle. While still a teenager, he was probably a hunter who sold meat to Pittsburgh butchers and was surely a scout who gathered information for the settlements about Indian activities beyond the western frontier. The battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, followed by the Treaty of Greenville a year later, guaranteed the security of the Northwest frontier and established a boundary in the Northwest Territory between Indian lands and areas open to further white settlement. So Fink moved into his second career, that of a keelboatman....

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Fitch, John (21 January 1743–June or July 1798), inventor and craftsman, was born in Windsor, Connecticut, the son of Joseph Fitch and Sarah Shaler, farmers. His father came from neighboring Hartford and his mother from Bolton. His mother died before he was five; his father married Abigail Church of Hartford two years later. Most of what is known about Fitch comes from an autobiographical sketch written between 1790 and 1792, when he was alone and embittered, convinced that he had been cheated by life. Although he had by then put aside the Calvinistic Presbyterianism of his upbringing and replaced it with a rationalistic deism, he still tended to pass judgment on those he felt had failed him. His memories of childhood were few and unhappy. He described his father as uncaring, even tyrannical. Unjust treatment by an older brother “forbode” his “future rewards,” he reminisced—with the irony intended ( ...

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Robert Fulton. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-102509).