Nicholas Jacobus (or James) Roosevelt was born on 27 December 1767, in New York City. He was the son of Jacobus Roosevelt (1724–1777) and Annatje (née Bogart) (b. 1728), who were married on 2 December 1746.
During the American Revolution, Nicholas lived in Esopus since New York City was evacuated and occupied by the British. After the war, Nicholas returned to New York. While in Esopus, he had made a small wooden boat, across which was an axle projecting over the sides with paddles at the ends, made to revolve by a tight cord wound around its middle by the reaction of hickory and whalebone springs.
Once back in New York City, Nicholas rediscovered his boyhood interest in steam engines and opened his Soho plant to develop them in 1794. He earned a reputation for being knowledgeable in this burgeoning industry, and was contacted in 1797 by Robert Livingston, who assisted in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Livingston held the promise of a twenty-year Hudson River monopoly if he could produce, in time frame of one year, a steamboat capable of moving upriver at a speed of four miles an hour and he needed Nicholas's expertise to construct such a boat. In the end, however, Livingston refused to consider Nicholas's critiques and suggestion of two paddle wheels dropped over the sides of the boat. Livingston did not meet his deadline, and the two men parted ways.
Shortly thereafter, Robert Livingston was named minister to France where he met Robert Fulton. At the time, Fulton was trying to interest the French in a submarine he had successfully built. When the French declined to continue backing Fulton’s design, Livingston convinced Fulton to return to the United States to perfect a steamboat.
When Fulton’s steamboat became the first to successfully navigate the Hudson River, Nicholas could not help noticing that the boat had two wheels lowered over the side as he had once suggested to Livingston. Evidently, Livingston dictated the idea to Fulton without telling him of the design’s originator. The Roosevelt family has proudly maintained that Nicholas was the true inventor of the steamboat. In actuality, there were many inventors working simultaneously to develop steamboat designs and methods of operation, many of them moderately successful. Fulton, however, became the first to experience complete success and claimed the subsequent patent for its design in 1809.
Nicholas Roosevelt first met the bright, artistic, assertive, and fearless Lydia Sellon Latrobe when she was nine years old and he was 34. Born in 1792, she was the daughter of his best friend and business partner, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, well known for his work on the United States Capitol building and his designs for the porticos on the White House. Nicholas and Lydia had an unusual relationship. They first discussed marriage when he was 37 and she 13, and they did finally marry four years later on 15 November 1808.
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. Nicholas' partners Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston asked him 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.
So, just a few months after the wedding, Nicholas and Lydia began a six-month flatboat trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans to determine whether a steamboat could also travel that route. Despite the fact that Lydia was pregnant, she decided to accompany Nicholas on the 2,500 trip down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. She had not only decided to go with Nicholas on his trip, but designed and furnished the barge that they would use to make the trip. Drawing on an 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.
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 disappear 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.
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 had not constantly bailed water for the next four hours until the crew came back.
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. They had to finish their trip downriver in a large rowboat instead of the flat boat. They had nightly visitors to distract them from the hardness of their bed on the rowboat. On their first night out of Natchez, a large alligator tried to climb over the edge of the rowboat and join them inside, interrupting Nicholas’ sleep. Nicholas whacked the alligator with the pilot’s cane until it 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.
Their pilot had assured the Roosevelts that it would not 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.
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, arriving home just in time for Lydia to deliver a daughter that they named Rosetta.
Along the way, Nicholas discovered natural coal deposits and had coal gathered and left on the bank of the river for later use by the steamboat. He also skillfully charted lurking dangers in the Mississippi River.
Lydia rested for a few months while Nicholas Roosevelt completed his detailed report for Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston. Robert Fulton then arranged for the steamboat New Orleans to be built at Pittsburgh. Then, with their baby Rosetta, the Roosevelts left for Pittsburgh where Nicholas began supervising the ship's construction. The Fulton, Livingston, and Roosevelt dream of a steamboat traveling up and down the Mississippi River was about to become a reality.
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, 18 October 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.
On 20 October 1811, the New Orleans, left Pittsburgh. This time, Lydia was eight months pregnant. 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.
It 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. 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 River were 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 29 October 1811, as the New Orleans lay off of Louisville, Kentucky, Lydia went into labor. The Roosevelt’s son, Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, was born on 30 October 1811.
Finally, on 8 December 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 sent 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 their dog Tiger. 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 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.
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 16 December 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.
Next, a band of Chickasaw Indians in canoes attacked the New Orleans, but she outraced them. She finally reached Natchez, Mississippi, on 30 December 1811. As the New Orleans passed through Louisiana, a rare snowfall blanketed the landscape. Finally, the New Orleans reached New Orleans on 10 January 1812. The journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers had taken 12 weeks. The Roosevelts and their two young children went back home to New York.
Shortly after her maiden voyage, the New Orleans began regular runs between Natchez and New Orleans. On 14 July 1814, the New Orleans sank near Baton Rouge, setting the pattern for the average lifespan of a steamboat which was about three years.
When the New Orleans completed her journey from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, it marked a turning point in the Transportation Revolution. It was the first steamboat to operate on the western rivers and showed that it could be done. Steamboats then proliferated on the Ohio and the Mississippi and their tributaries and helped create a national economy, opening markets for farm goods and drawing people and commerce to cities along the rivers.