Henry Miller Shreve was born on October 21, 1785 in New Jersey. He moved with his family to Pennsylvania when his father bought some land from George Washington. The new home was located close to the headwaters of the Ohio River, and Shreve took to the river at an early age. After his father's death in 1802, Shreve served on several riverboats to help support his family. At age 21, he purchased his own keelboat and began trading with partners as far away as St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1811, Shreve joined a number of steamboat builders who were trying to break the monopoly on steamboat traffic that Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston had been granted by the state of New York and the territory of Louisiana. He hired a New Orleans lawyer, Abner Duncan, to oppose Fulton and Livingston. In the meantime, Shreve essentially ignored the Fulton-Livingston monopoly and used his earnings from his early ventures to finance his first steamboat, the Enterprise. He used this craft in 1814 to travel from Louisville to New Orleans and back . This was the first demonstration of the steamboat's power to travel against strong currents. Shreve met resistance in New Orleans, however, from various people affiliated with Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston. Nevertheless, Shreve was able to pay off the right people in order to make his trip a success.
Shreve built a new steamboat in 1816, the Washington, a craft he used as a testing ground for several new inventions. First, he laid the engine cylinders horizontally, a move that increased their efficiency and cut down on machinery weight by nearly ninety percent. This was the first effective high-pressure steam engine. He also built separate decks for machinery and passengers, a move that anticipated the showboats of later years. Finally, Shreve placed a separate engine and paddlewheel on each side of the craft, creating the first sidewheeler. Shreve again piloted his new craft to New Orleans where he once again ran afoul of the Fulton-Livingston monopoly. Due to Shreve's persistence and invention, a court threw out Livingston's case against the inventor in 1817. The Mississippi was free for trade by anyone.
The American rivers were still difficult to navigate, however, due to the presence of dead wood called snags, sawyers, or log jams. Shreve was appointed Superintendent of Western River Improvements in 1826 and charged with finding a solution to this poblem. He had been working on a design for a "snagboat" since 1821, and he finally was able to have it built in 1827. This craft, the Heliopolis, had a steam-powered windlass used to pull large concentrations of dead wood from the water. Due to the success of his design, Shreve was ordered in 1832 by the Secretary of War to clear the Great Raft, 150 miles of dead wood on the Red River. Shreve successfully removed the Raft (despite inadequate funding) by 1839. The area of the Red River where the Raft was most concentrated is today the city of Shreveport, Louisiana.
Shreve spend his final years with his daughter Rebecca's family in St. Louis, Missouri. He died in the home of his son-in-law, Walker Randolph Carter, in 1854 and was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.