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  • Building CommerceOhio Valley Shipbuilding during the Era of the Early American Republic
  • William Lewis (bio)

On January 2, 1812, Henry Clay related a story in the United States House of Representatives that he had heard several years prior about a ship captain trying to convince a customs officer in Livorno, Italy that Pittsburgh was a port city. In the story, Captain John Brevoort of the Western Trader presented the papers for his vessel and its cargo of flour and pork to an Italian customs officer. The official looked at the documents and angrily accused the captain of giving him forged papers and threatened to have the vessel and cargo seized. The customs officer contended that no such port as Pittsburgh existed and he would be more inclined to believe that the Western Trader had “performed a voyage from the moon” rather than the interior of the United States. Nervously, Brevoort asked for a map of the United States and then proceeded to chart a course from Italy to the Gulf of Mexico and then up the Mississippi River to the Ohio River with his finger. When the captain’s finger reached the headwaters of the Ohio River, he stopped and exclaimed this is “Pittsburgh, the port from which I sailed!” Now, somewhat convinced that Breevort had not lied or forged papers and that Pittsburgh was indeed a port city, the Italian customs officer allowed captain, ship, and crew to continue on their way.1

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Henry Clay (1777-1852).

filson historical society

Despite the disbelief of a rude and presumptive Italian customs officer, Pittsburgh is a port city, just as Wheeling, Cincinnati, Marietta, Louisville and many other locations along the Ohio River provide access to the world via the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, during the era of the early American Republic, a significant number of ships were constructed in the Ohio [End Page 24] valley that sailed the Atlantic Ocean carrying goods and natural resources between the United States and Europe. Visitors to the Ohio valley during this period often commented on the vibrancy of its ocean-going shipbuilding industry. Henry Clay hailed shipbuilding on western waters as the embodiment of his home region’s “spirit of commercial enterprise.” In just a few years, residents of the Ohio valley learned to deal with the difficulties of river travel and without any precedent developed a thriving shipbuilding industry. Between 1800 and 1808, well over 10,000 tons of ocean-going vessels were built and launched in the Ohio valley. The total value of these ships, excluding cargoes, exceeded $1.5 million.2

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River traffic at Pittsburgh.

filson historical society

The construction of ocean-going vessels developed commerce and created an economic gateway between the Ohio valley and the rest of the world. Local merchants spearheaded the region’s shipbuilding activities because the industry connected them to the larger Atlantic World, provided access to markets across the globe, and most importantly, produced profit. Historian Elizabeth A. Perkins defined the Ohio valley and the trans-Appalachian West as a “consumer frontier.” Most settlers arrived in the region with a capitalistic ideology and an affinity for European goods that made the Ohio valley part of the global economy. In both a colonial and post-colonial context, powerful nations with more established and sophisticated economies quickly absorbed peripheral regions, such as the Ohio valley, into the larger “European economic sphere.” In particular, both before and after the American Revolution, Britain viewed America as part of its economic empire. During the colonial era, the British government attempted to maintain commerce as a one-way flow of trade with wealth flowing from the margins of its empire to the center. In the earliest years of the post-colonial era, British merchants operated in the same manner. They arranged the exportation of the Ohio valley’s natural resources, such as agricultural commodities, timber, [End Page 25] mineral deposits, and animal skins and furs to Europe, and the importation into America of manufactured goods, such as glass, home furnishings, clothes, guns, hardware, and farming equipment. American merchants on the Eastern Seaboard...


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pp. 24-44
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