Blanche Douglass Leathers, Steamboat captain

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Blanche Douglass Leathers (1860 - January 26, 1940) was the first woman master and a steamboat captain on the Mississippi River in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her nicknames include "little captain," the "angel of the Mississippi" and the "lady skipper."

Leathers was born in Tensas Parish, Louisiana and her father, James Stuart Douglass, was a cotton planter. She married Captain Bowling S. Leathers in 1880 and had her honeymoon on his boat.  Her husband taught her how to pilot and navigate the river.

Leathers earned her master's license in 1894. Then Leathers began her historic voyage as the first woman steamboat captain on the Mississippi. As the Natchez steamed away from New Orleans, tugs, ferries and freighters whistled in salute. Newspaper reporters interviewed her and she gave out autographs. She would make regular trips from New Orleans to Vicksburg and was the only woman captain of a large Mississippi river packet. Leathers said that she often managed the employees, performed boat inspections and then took over as captain when her husband needed. In 1896, the Public Ledger wrote that Leathers had taken command of the Natchez.  She worked on the river for 18 years and then retired in New Orleans after the death of her husband. In 1929, she came out of retirement and started piloting a steamboat, the Tennessee Belle. The last time she renewed her pilot's license was in 1935.

Leathers died in New Orleans on January 26, 1940 of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 79.

A children's book, Steamboat! The Story of Captain Blanche Leathers was published in 1999 by Judith Heide Gilliland and illustrated by Holly Meade. In 2009, Leathers was inducted into the National Rivers Hall of Fame.

Blanche was the daughter in law of Captain Thomas Paul Leathers and wife of Bowling Starke Leathers who were steamboat captains of the famous Natchez Steamboat.  The three of them were all steamboat captains on the Mississippi River.

from Mississippi River Routes, "Blanche Douglass Leathers : Mississippi Riverboat Captain" by Sue B. Moore

"The burial place of Blanche has been a mystery in recent years, with much misinformation circulated on the subject.

This was due to the partial information the funeral director included in her death certificate stating that her "remains were sent to Memphis, Tenn."

Researchers naturally assumed that she was buried there, and present day family members did not know where she was interred.

Based on information in her husband Capt. Bowling Starke Leathers obituary stating that he was buried at Masonic Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans, Sue B. Moore of Longview, TX, James Earl "Sam" Price and William Sanders, both of Vicksburg, MS, pieced together the facts concerning Blanche's last resting place.

Blanche's body was sent to Memphis, as her death certificate indicates, but not for burial there, simply to one of the few crematoriums in the country at the time. Her ashes were eventually returned to New Orleans for burial and were placed in Masonic Cemetery, No. 1 in the plot alongside her husband.

She is buried in Lot 10, Square 8, on Dudley Walk.

Capt Bowling Starke Leathers born 4 Oct 1855, died 27 Apr 1919 (aged 63) in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA was the son of Thomas Paul Leathers 1816–1896 and Charlotte Celeste Claiborne Leathers, 1832–1913 .  It was Thomas who commanded the Natchez VII in the historic race with the Robert E. Lee from New Orleans to St Louis in 1870.

Blanche assumes comand Packet master dies Funeral of James S. Douglass

Ballad of Captain Blanche Leathers
Words and tune composed by Charles Ipcar

Now I got to know the river when I was a young girl
I got to know the river, and the river was my world;
Every steamboat, every captain, on the river I did know;
Yes, I got to know the river and I learned to love her so.
I got to know the river, got to marry a steamboat man;
He taught me all he knew and helped fulfill my plan;
I got to know the river, her shifting channel and her shores,
And I got my pilot's license, back in eighteen-ninety-four.

You've got to know the river, yes, you've got to know the river,
You've got to know the river, as she swirls and flows;
You've got to know the river till you have no more to give her;
Yes, you've got to know the river as a friend, as a friend,
Yes, you've got to know the river in the end.

I got to know the river and I got to know my boat;
She was the flying Natchez, the fastest boat afloat;
I got to know the roustabouts, I got to know the crews,
And how to stow the cargo, it's what I had to do.
I got to know the river, and know just where to look;
I got to know the river and read her like a book;
The shallows and the deeps, every snag and every log,
And I loved her in the moonlight and I cursed her in the fog. (CHO)

I got to know the river, and I got to learn her song,
Every verse and chorus, we'd be singing all day long;
I got to know the river, by the levees in the towns,
The roustabouts a-singing, "Roll the Cotton Down."
Now my steamboat days are over and I make my life ashore,
But I still love the river and I'll love her ever more;
And if there comes a time when they need someone to steer,
I still have my pilot's license and renew it every year. (CHO)

These notes probably refer to Blanche's grandfather:
Buck Ridge Plantation, Tensas Parish, Louisiana, USA, Founded ca. 1837
Listed in the 1860 Slave Schedules with seventeen slaves.

James S. Douglass Sr. left the plantation in his will to his wife, Emeline Evans Douglass and his brothers, Stephen Douglass and Archibald Douglass. In 1840, a parish judge ordered the sale of Buck Ridge Plantation, slaves, cattle, corn, etc. The property was purchased by Emeline Evans Douglass and Archibald Douglass, James' brother.

Shady Grove Plantation, Tensas Parish, Louisiana, USA, Founded ca. 1837

James S. Douglass Sr. left the plantation in his will to his wife, Emeline Evans Douglass and his brothers, Stephen Douglass and Archibald Douglass.

BUILT: 1891 at Jeffersonville, Indiana by Howard Ship Yard
FINAL DISPOSITION: Dismantled, 1918
OWNERS: 1891: Captain T.P. Leathers; 1896: Captain Bowling S. Leathers and Captain Blanche Douglass Leathers; May 1915: Captain William A. Duke
OFFICERS & CREW: 1891: Captain Bowling S. Leathers (commander); 1894: Captain Blanche Douglass Leathers (clerk); 1899: Captain William A. Duke; 1902: Captain William A. Duke (master), T.C. Sachse (clerk)
RIVERS: Mississippi River
OTHER INFORMATION: Ways - 4111; Original price of Natchez was $43,000 and her home port was New Orleans, Louisiana. Owned by the aging T.P. Leathers, the Natchez was commanded by his son, Captain Bowling S. Leathers and his daughter-in-law (Captain Bowling's wife), Captain Blanche Douglass Leathers. Captain Blanche obtained her license in August 1894 and she was a no-nonsense executive and ran a tight ship. Captain T.P. died in New Orleans, June 1896. The Natchez was the only sternwheeler ever owned by the Leather's fleet and was their last boat. The Natchez had several accidents over the years: November 1896, three miles above Natchez, Mississippi she sank with 1,700 bales of cotton and 8,757 sacks of seed. Accident occurred as a result of dried hull seams. In early February, 1897 she hit the shore at Cottonwood, 20 miles below Vicksburg. Mississippi and tore away the jack-staff and stages and toppled her chimneys. She also sank at Ford's Crossing, 12 miles below Natchez in November, 1899. In 1902, Captain William A. Duke became master. She received new boilers in July 1914 and in 1915 was sold by the U.S. marshal for $6,500 to Capt. Duke. Captain Duke ran her in the New Orleans-Cariola-Grand Lake trade where she was often laid up for long periods. In 1918, she was dismantled.

See also:
•  The Many Lives of the Steamboats Natchez, By: Sally Reeves, which also tells the story of the Leathers family



Sources for this article include:
  • G. William Nott,  1927 interview with Blanche Leathers
  • Mississippi River Routes, "Blanche Douglass Leathers : Mississippi Riverboat Captain" by Sue B. Moore

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    Last modified: Monday, 25 March 2024