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The Contenders

James Rumsey portrait

James Rumsey (1743–1792)

This inventor, born in Maryland, began experimenting with using steam to propel boats in the early 1780s and demonstrated on the Potomac, in 1787, what many believe was the first steamboat in the United States.

After witnessing a demonstration of Rumsey's steamboat on September 6, 1784, George Washington provided him with a certificate stating that he considered the discovery to be of "vast importance."

Image source: James Rumsey: Pioneer in Steam Navigation. Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1930.

John Fitch portrait

John Fitch (1743–1798)

This metal craftman and inventor was born in Connecticut. He constructed four different steamboats between 1785 and 1796, demonstrating, in part, the feasibility of using steam to propel boats in water. In 1787, he obtained from New York the exclusive privilege, for 14 years, of building and operating steamboats on all the waters of the state (see excerpt from Laws of New York, 1787).

He published published a description of his steamboat in the December 1788 issue of The Columbian.

Image source: Lloyd's Steamboat Directory, and Disasters on the Western Waters, Containing the History of the First Application of Steam, as a Motive Power; the lives of John Fitch and Robert Fulton, Likenesses & Engravings of Their First Steamboats ... (Cincinnati, Ohio: James T. Lloyd, 1856). C,387,L73

Robert R. Livingston portrait

Robert R. Livingston (1746–1813)

This chancellor of New York, statesman, diplomat, farmer, and experimenter was born in New York City. In 1770 he married Mary (Polly) Stevens, sister of John Stevens . He became interested in steamboats in the 1790s, and funded Robert Fulton's experiments.

He secured the grant of a monopoly on steam navigation in New York State in 1798. His renewal of the monopoly in 1803 and supplementary laws in 1808 and 1811 led to the filing of a number of lawsuits to break the monopoly. The legal conflict was ended only by the decision in the case of Gibbons vs. Ogden in 1824.

Image source: NYS Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections, PRI834

John Stevens portrait

John Stevens (1749–1838)

John Stevens was an engineer, inventor, promoter of steam transportation on water and on land (steamboats and railroads), born in New York City. He was a brother-in-law of Robert R. Livingston. His petition to the U.S. Congress resulted in the Patent Law of 1790, the foundation of the present U.S. patent system.

Image source: A History of the Growth of the Steam-engine. (New York: D. Appleton, 1878). Z,621.1,T54a3

Robert Fulton portrait

Robert Fulton (1765–1815)

Robert Fulton was an artist, civil engineer, and inventor, born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Initially, he supported himself in Philadelphia painting miniatures. Robert Fulton went to England in 1786 to develop his skills as an artist, but he soon became interested in science and engineering projects, including canals, submarines and torpedoes. He published books in both England and France to advance his ideas and raise funds to put his ideas into more concrete formats.

In 1796 he published A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, with illustrations he himself had drawn. Believing that if he could develop a weapon that could destroy warships, all the nations, seeing that navies were highly vulnerable, would abandon war and an era of freedom and trade and peace would result. Thus, he experimented with torpedoes and submarine mines, trying to sell his ideas to the governments of England, France and the United States.

While in France he met Robert R. Livingston.

Image source: Portrait of Robert Fulton from the original painting by Chappel.

Nicholas J. Roosevelt (1767-1854)

Nicholas J. Roosevelt was an inventor and engineer, born in New York City. About 1797 he entered into an agreement with Robert R. Livingston and John Stevens to build a steamboat, the engine for which was to be constructed at his foundry in New Jersey.

James Van Ingen (d. Feb. 22, 1843?, Albany?)

James Van Ingen was an Albany lawyer, one of the twenty-one men who built two steamboats, the Hope and the Perseverance, which started to ply the waters of the Hudson in 1811. He and his partners became plaintiffs in the first court case challenging the Livingston-Fulton monopoly: Livingston vs. Van Ingen (9 Johnson 506, 1811).

A New York chancery court ruled against Fulton and Livingston, who appealed the decision to the New York Court of Errors, "the court of last resort in the state." The three judges of that court, Yates, Thompson and Kent, ruled unanimously in favor of Livingston and Fulton, declaring that their "exclusive right to navigate the waters of this state by boats propelled by fire or steam, is constitutional."

Aaron Ogden portrait

Aaron Ogden (1756-1839)

Born in New Jersey, Aaron Ogden was a lawyer, United States senator, governor of New Jersey, steamboat operator, and defendant in Gibbons vs. Ogden.

In 1811 he built the steamer Sea Horse to run between Elizabethtown Point, New Jersey and New York City.

In 1813 the New York legislature upheld the monopoly so he agreed to pay Fulton and Livingston for a ten-year monopoly to run between the two points, which eventually brought him into conflict with the line operated by Thomas Gibbons.

Image source: Biographical Encyclopaedia of New Jersey in the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia: Galaxy Publishing Co., 1877) RR,974.9,qZA

Thomas Gibbons (1757-1826)

Thomas Gibbons was a lawyer, politician, steamboat operator, and the plaintiff in Gibbons vs. Ogden.

In 1810 he purchased a summer house in Elizabethtown Point, New Jersey. In 1817 he acquired a little steam ferry, the Stoudinger, and in 1818, the Bellona, of which Cornelius Vanderbilt was captain.

He eventually entered into a partnership with Aaron Ogden, but in 1818 Gibbons broke with Ogden and started competing with him. Ogden thereupon secured an injunction on Oct. 21, 1818; Gibbons appealed and the case eventually ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the Library's collection: Thomas Gibbons Papers, 1821-1829
New York State Library call number: SC21205 (1 box, 0.25 cu.ft.)

Papers consist chiefly of accounts and invoices related to the operation of steamboats BellonaThistleSwan, and Linnaeus. Includes details of wages paid to the crew, food and other provisions for crew, and the general maintenance of the boats. Also includes many detailed accounts of freight shipments and costs.

James Kent portrait

James Kent (1763-1847)

James Kent was a jurist and legal commentator born in what is now the Town of Southeast, Putnam County, New York.

He issued many of the decisions related to the cases tried in New York State courts that eventually culminated in Gibbons vs. Ogden.

Image source: NYS Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections, PRI3753.

portrait of John Marshall

John Marshall (1755-1835) John Marshall was chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and principal founder of judicial review and of the American system of constitutional law. Born in Virginia, he was appointed chief justice in 1801.

He was serving in that capacity at the time of Gibbons vs. Ogden (1824) and was the namesake of the 1825 steamboat Chief Justice Marshall.

Image source: Beveridge, Albert Jeremiah. The Life of John Marshall, Vol. 4. (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916-1919). C340.92,M36b

All biographical information is from the Dictionary of American Biography (New York State Library call number: A,920.073,qD55a)

Last Updated: September 21, 2021