Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Steamboat Belle: Harriet Livingston Fulton

The romantic engagement of Harriet Livingston and Robert Fulton has become the fairy tale part of the steamboat story. But the marriage itself was nothing like a fairy tale, and it ended on a sad note for her children.



In August of 1807, Robert Fulton made his storied trip up the North River on his monstrous "tea kettle," the first practical steamboat. And according to Alice Crary Sutcliff, narrating some 100 years later, it was on this journey that, "Just before the boat was about to cast anchor off Clermont, the Chancellor announced the betrothal of Robert Fulton to his young kinswoman, Harriet Livingston."

Everybody loves a wedding, and this story has become part of the rich mythology that surrounds the historical turning point of the first steamboat ride.

Harriet Livingston was a pretty lass of twenty four years in 1807. One of the Manor Livingstons, she had grown up at the family's country estate of Teviotdale (shown at right) outside the present-day town of Germantown. She was one of nine children, though her father died when she was fourteen, leaving her imposing mother to see to them all. Nevertheless, Harriet was given a notable education; she spent two years in boarding school at the Moravian Seminary in Pennsylvania, which put her head and shoulders above many of the other girls she would have encountered. She was artistic, musical, and possessed of both lovely blonde hair and a fashionably-strong profile.

For Fulton she was a good catch. Harriet's second cousin was Robert the Chancellor (though she was actually the age of his daughters), and adding the seal of marriage to the business deals they were already engaged in could only strengthen the relationship. Fulton was also a bit of a social climber. He was born to a common farming family in Pennsylvania, and ever since leaving home with Benjamin West to learn portrait painting, he had been looking for new ways to improve his social status. Adding a Livingston bride to his pocket would serve that goal admirably.

For Harriet, 42-year-old Robert Fulton was a bit of a gamble as a husband. Those humble family beginnings would do nothing to augment her social status. His background as a painter and inventor were not yet earning him widespread fame either (though his tales of European art and paintings seem to have dazzled her). And with no Fulton family money to fall back on, she was banking on the success of the steamboat to finance her lifestyle and the lives of any future children. Nevertheless, the steamboat stood to make a very tidy sum of money very quickly, and she seemed ready to jump at it.

But when was the courtship? How did the two meet? What on earth brought them together?

These details seem to be largely lost to history. One story suggests that Harriet was among those invited to ride on the first trip of the steamboat in August of 1807 (making that engagement announcement the same day quite sudden). Some scholars refute the likelyhood of a bunch of ladies being brought along on the trip however. Perhaps Harriet was among those invited to celebrate the steamboat's success with dinner at the Chancellor's mansion on the evening of August 17. Perhaps other Livingston gatherings provided the setting.

Alice Crary Sutcliff's book relates the following:

An early newspaper clipping is authority for the statement that Fulton had previously asked the Chancellor, “Is it presumptuous in me to aspire to the hand of Miss Harriet Livingston?” “By no means,” the distinguished Chancellor is said to have replied, “her father may object because you are a humble and poor inventor, and the family may object —but if Harriet does not object,—and she seems to have a world of good sense,—go ahead, and my best wishes and blessings go with you.

At any rate, with Fulton having spent most of that summer in New York City building the steamboat, while Harriet was enjoying the summer at Teviotdale, it is unlikely that they spent a great deal of time together prior to August 17.

There wasn't much time to get to know each other after the experimental steamboat ride either. In October, Fulton left for Washington DC with his intimate friends the Barlows at their house Kalorama.

With little fanfare, the two were married on January 7 in the parlor of Teviotdale. Nowhere in Fulton's correspondance from this time are their mentions of any wedding planning. Harriet's brother Robert (married to the Chancellor's daughter Margaret Maria) was away in Paris, and even he simply received the news from the Chancellor as "I give you joy of the marriage of Harriet and Mr. Fulton." (He also, according to family legend, presented the couple with the Duncan Phyfe dressing table at right)



They moved into Teviotdale with Harriet's mother, and in a few weeks Harriet was pregnant and Fulton was "scurrying backwards and forwards between his mother-in-law's and Red Hook," rebuilding the Steamboat (as quoted in a letter from competitor John Stevens).

In April, when any morning sickness Harriet had would likely be subsiding, the steamboat (now called the North River Steamboat of Clermont) began making trips between Albany and New York City, earning the money that they needed for their growing family. And in June, Fulton began making plans to leave behind the Hudson Valley (and his mother in law) to stay back down in Wahsington with his beloved Barlows:

You have not told me Mrs. Barlow's plan for the Summer...Will she wait until our arrival and then form a plan? Say how shall it be ruthlinda [Mrs. Barlow]? Shall we unite our fortunes to Make Kalorama the centre of taste, beauty, love, and dearest friendship...

Harriet was not entirely forgotten in this lovey-dovey letter, though she seems like she is treated as quite the outsider in the group, "She [Harriet] is very desirous to know whether I think you will love her and I always tell her that depends on how She behaves," Fulton wrote at the end of the letter.


Soon after this letter, Fulton whisked Harriet down to spend the remainer of her pregnancy with the Barlows. Hopefully her "behavior" was enough to earn her their love.


On October 10 she gave birth to a son named for his father and his father's best friend: Robert Barlow Fulton. He was called by his middle name. According to Fulton, a few weeks later Harriet was "charmingly up running about, please to the soul, gay as a lark, laughing, singing, dancing, playing and plaguing my soul out while I am making these long letters and calculations."

But this seems to have been a pretty picture painted for the Chancellor. According to Cynthia Owen Philip, Harriet was ill for several weeks after the birth of her baby boy, and the household was closed to the tide of winter visitors, suggesting something was amiss. Perhaps having the two families share a household was not all that they had hoped. By February, Fulton was gently trying to extricate himself and his bride without hurting the Barlow's feelings. The Fultons bought a house in New York City and risked the blustery cold trip with a three-month- old baby in the midst of winter (they apparently made quite the pricey shopping stop, purchasing many pretty sundries for Harriet, in Philadelphia on the way).

They rented a large house near City Hall for $750 plus taxes. They found the appropriate servants and purchased a young slave woman (to whom he apparently promised her freedom after six years).

In 1810, Harriet gave birth to a daughter Julia (pictured at left with her brother Barlow), and in the summer of 1812 she was pregnant with her third child--though not too tired to give a "splendid entertainment" on the East River with a band and an eighteen-gun salute.

Things were not going so well between she and Fulton any longer, and money seemed to be the trouble. In July money arguments between she and her husband were coming to an ugly head. In desperation, she wrote a rather sarcastic and hot-headed letter to the Chancellor:

As my husband in his good nature and thoughtless was has been disposing of my property without consulting me...I must appeal to you for justice. Know then that when the Steam Ferry boat was commenced he gave to me for present pin money and future support of my Children in case of accidents the whole of the Patent rights to the ferry...Yesterday on claiming this right I was surprised to hear him say he had given you half of it and he was so delicate on this point that I am forced to negotiate with you.Say my dear Sir, have I not a prior right? in honor is it not mine?...indeed my heart is so set on it that your generosity must meet my wishes...

Money can really muck things up. Harriet was accustomed to income derived from passive collection of land rents, and she could not understand Fulton's need to reinvest his revenue in order to grow his business.

Not only that, but Fulton's affections were being lavished on his beloved Barlows. The couple had returned to France (from wence they'd originally come), and despite the distance involved, they continued to exchange gifts and necessaries on a regular basis. According to Cynthia Philip, "Ruth begged Fulton to send sugar because it was so expensive in France. She expected Harriet to buy English cambirc [a fabric] for her, since none was available there... Still, Fulton comissioned the Barlows to buy French carpets, chandeliers, dinner plates, and other embellishments..." But whenever Harriet got involved, the exchange never seemd to go right: the wrong product was purchased or requests were ignored. The relationship with the Barlows simply became an antagonism in her already dismal marriage to the dashing inventor.


Harriet gave birth to her fourth and final child in 1813. She was finally freed from her marriage when Fulton died in 1815, and Harriet found herself left to sort out Fulton's affairs. She had $9,000 per year left to her from her husbands will (this would reduce to $3000 per year if she remarried) and additional money for chid support. She and Ruth Barlow (the darling of her husband's affections) now quarreled over payment for the many articles he had asked for from France. Both women accused the other of attempting to sell the materials for profit.


Things seemed to be looking up for Harriet when, less than two years later, she married an "avaricious English charmer" named Charles Dale. They bought Teviotdale from her brother John, and set up housekeeping, but in 1820 the martgaged their country property and went to cavort about in England. They did not take her four children, but instead left them with a widowed sister-in-law in nearby Claverack.

They finally returned in 1825, Harriet died the next year, and her teenage children were left as orphans. Dale did little to care for them, and the only son Barlow (who was also the oldest) was left to fight for every penny to care for his sisters. "Money have they none," he wrote, "even to buy garments, & what I can save from my small sallary is by no means sufficient for even one of them."

Eventually, a governement settlement and decent marriage provided enough money for all three girls, thought Barlow died a batchelor at 32 (thus any living Fulton decendants do not share his surname).


The fairy tale engagement on board the first steamboat ride (or where ever it was originally announced) disolved into a miserable marriage for Harriet. And when she was finally free of it, she left her children and went to Europe to clear her head. In the end it sadly seemed to be her chldren who suffered most for the gamble she took in marrying Fulton. Left to scramble for themselves, Dale's final act of cruelty was to take everything of value from Teviotdale and order the servants to burn the rest. All the children managed to save from their mother was her harp, a few of her paintings and portraits, and some personal affects.

All of the high hopes and waving hats and handkerchiefs on that hot August day when the steamboat made its first journey up the Hudson did little for its inventors, who both died before a decade had past. And it did still less for their decendants who squabbled over the money and finally lost the monopoly that had promised to make the venture so very profitable.

In the long run, the people who benefited most from the steamboat were the many patrons and merchants who made use of the invention for shipping and for personal transportation. Although both Fulton and Livingston had hoped to improve their wealth with the project, it was their secondary goal of improving the lives of the public that was truly accomplished.

1 comment:

  1. Can clear up the mystery concerning Harriet and Robert’s romance. They had known each other for a number of years. Robert’s benefactor and “moneyman” was Harriett’s relative Robert R. Livingston, whom Fulton met through their mutual friend Joel Barlow while Fulton was in Paris, and Robert the US ambassador. Fulton made his steamship trials on the Hudson beginning in 1805.

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