Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:
Celebrating Women in River History
It is an unfortunate fact that women and minorities have largely been overlooked in popular American history. Reviewing a century’s worth of river scholarship, one would think women had relatively little to do with our young nation’s waterways, outside of lending their names to the sides of boats. Many highly regarded texts scarcely mention women at all, and when they do, it is often in the context of a male relative’s achievements. Women are often described as present, much in the way one would describe furnishings or architectural features on a boat. Common sense tells us this is not a realistic representation of history. Women are, and have always been, active participants in the world around them. Libraries and archives, like the Pott Waterways Library, seek out and preserve documents that capture stories of individuals otherwise lost to history. These sources recast women and other underrepresented groups from supportive roles, to leaders, adventurers, and innovators in their own right.
Women lived and worked on the river alongside their families since the earliest days of steamboat travel. It was not uncommon for wives to travel with their husbands, or for daughters to grow up in the pilothouse alongside their fathers. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a surge of licensed female riverboat pilots. Many families found they could save money and avoid hiring a second pilot if husbands and wives worked together. Mary Millicent Miller is widely accepted as the first woman to earn her steamboat pilot’s license, in 1884. She co-captained the steamer Saline with her husband, George Miller. Mary was quickly followed by Callie Leach French who earned her first-class license in 1888 and her master's license in 1892. Callie and her husband operated five different Mississippi River showboats called New Sensation. In addition to captaining, Callie cooked, sewed, wrote jokes for the showboat’s players, and even joined the troupe as one of the actors. After her husband died in 1902, Callie assumed total control of the business.
Photograph of boats along the St. Louis levee. Callie French’s showboat
New Sensation is in the center. From the Ruth Ferris Collection of River Life and Lore,
Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library.
Another early steamboat captain was Blanche Douglass Leathers, who earned her license in 1894 and captained the second Natchez alongside her husband. Mary Becker Greene earned her license in 1897 and started the Greene Line with her husband, Gordon C. Greene.
News clipping from American Weekly describing an incident where Captain Mary Greene saved the steamer Showboat. The boat broke away from its moorings during its matinee performance and was dangerously heading down stream without steam in its boilers. Mary, who's packet Greenland was tied to a neighboring pier, sprang into immediate action. She used her boat to skillfully catch the other and push it to safety. From the Ruth Ferris Collection of River Life and Lore, Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library.
Photograph of cabin aboard the steamer Greenland, 1918. Mary captained the
sidewheeler from Pittsburgh to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair.
Photograph of Captain Mary Greene piloting the steamer Tom Greene, March 28, 1934. From the Ruth Ferris Collection of River Life and Lore, Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library.
Vera Mae Kennedy of Evansville received her pilot's license in 1904 at the age of 21. Mrs. Nannie E. Hull of Vicksburg received her license in 1904 as well. Nannie’s application listed over 20 years of general river experience including service aboard the steamer City of Warsaw and the towboats John F. Walkton, Smoky City, and J.B. Williams. A Waterways Journal article from June 11, 1904 describes her examination. "She was attended by a small child who, becoming restless, expanded his lungs and made things lively for quite a while, but the lady went through the trying ordeal with the patience that only a mother could display." Belle Johnson of Leavenworth Indiana earned her pilot's license in 1906. She piloted the Grace Vielle, which towed provision barges on the lower Ohio. The sheer number of women captains and pilots refutes the historical trope of the singular extraordinary woman who defies social norms and rises to success atypical of her gender. Instead, we see women were simply an ordinary part of waterways life and industry. Women were not confined to piloting and captaining either. They were also mates, clerks, cooks, maids, lighthouse keepers, investors, stakeholders, business executives, naval constructors, and engineers.
Two maids, Emma and Kitty, aboard the steamer Golden Eagle. From the Ruth Ferris Collection of River Life and Lore, Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library.
The Pott Library’s Waterways Journal collection can be used to trace the history of women in waterways. In the latter part of the 19th century, articles celebrated early river women. Over the following decades, female figures came to appear regularly throughout the publication, including the Personals and General River News sections. The journal even had a woman editor, Kathleen Smith, from 1902 to 1919. Portions of the library’s Waterways Journal collection have been indexed and can be searched online here and selections have been uploaded to the digital library here. Hundreds, if not thousands, of stories of amazing waterways women are waiting to be discovered. A simple keyword search of “women” in the index yields over 200 relevant results.
A final point to explore, is the significant contribution of women to documenting, collecting, and preserving river history. Women like Dorothy Heckmann Shrader and Ruth Ferris grew up on the river and developed a lifelong love for rivers and river communities. They passionately sought to capture the history and culture of these communities. They kept personal diaries and collected personal correspondence, photographed hundreds of boats, took copious notes and collected newspaper clippings, authored books and shared their resources as educators, and produced expansive collections now preserved in the Pott Waterways Library. The collections these women, and others like them, compiled are invaluable resources that are regularly used by researchers around the world. You can explore digitized selections from the Ruth Ferris Collection of River Life and Lore and the Dorothy Heckmann Shrader Collection on the Mercantile’s digital library
Ruth Ferris spent 35 years as a fifth-grade teacher and assistant principal of the Community School in St. Louis. Ruth used the river as a teaching tool to inspire hundreds of eager young students. She often arranged field trips to the waterfront to tour boats. This photograph depicts a fifth-grade field trip aboard the steamer Golden Eagle. From the Ruth Ferris Collection of River Life and Lore, Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library.
It is easy to assume, because women are mentioned less often than men in popular history, the few who do appear are extraordinary rarities. Through diverse collections like the Pott Waterways Library, we are able to correct this mistaken belief, recentering women in the historical narrative, and acknowledging their true role and contributions to river history and waterways development. By doing this, we not only expand our understanding of what women were capable of in the past, but also we reimagine what they are capable of now and far into the future.
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