Without a Paddle or an Oar, Billy-boy?

The prompt for Week 30 of 52 Ancestors is Colorful.

William Longstreet led quite a colorful life. He was an inventor, often mocked for his dreams, filing early patents for a steam engine and a cotton gin. He was always just a moment behind inventors that earned the credit in the end. He appears to have been devoted to public service, but on one occasion, willing to look the other way when there money to be made. He was my 5th great-grandfather.

William was born in Allentown, Monmouth County, New Jersey, 6 October 1759 to Stoffel Longstreet and Abigail Wooley. His parents were quite different from one another – his father was of Dutch decent and religion and his mother was an English Quaker1. William had 3 brothers and 2 sisters.

Between 1783 and 1785, William married Hannah Randolph, also of the same place, in New Jersey. Their first son, James (who was later the father of Confederate General James Longstreet), was born in New Jersey. The rest of their five children – Gilbert (my 4th great-grandfather), Rebecca, Rachel, Augustus Baldwin, and William – came after William and Hannah moved to Augusta, Georgia about 1785.

William was an inventor. He seems to have had a great mind for the technology of the time. In Johnston’s Universal Encyclopedia, it describes William as a genius by nature, had he only had more money, he would have found himself in more fortunate circumstances1.

Longstreet Patent

William’s patent

William was interested in steam power. In 1788, the Georgia Assembly granted William Longstreet and Isaac Briggs a patent for a “newly constructed steam engine invented by them2.” The patent was recorded in the office of Georgia’s secretary of state. The index refers to the patent as “Briggs and Longstreet: Steam Nothing, 245.” It was the first patent issued for a steam engine and the first and only patent issued by the state of Georgia. A few months later, the Federal Constitution was ratified and patents were then issued by the federal government4.

William went on to invent a steamboat “almost entirely with wooden materials and by such workmen as may be gotten here [in Georgia]1.” He often did the work himself to save money. People made fun of him for his ideas. They couldn’t decide if he was stupid or crazy. According to David Rachel, editor of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s “Georgia Scenes” Completed, William went to the theater one evening and the actor sang the following song for him:

Can you row the boat ashore,
Billy-boy, Billy-boy?
Can you row the boat ashore,
Gentle Billy?
Can you row the boat ashore,
Without a paddle or an oar,

Rachel continues the story: “Many in the audience laughed. William Longstreet did not. The story has it that he ‘rose from his seat, fixed a glance on the son of Thespis, which caused the notes to die away in his throat and majestically strode out of the building3.'”

In a letter to Georgia Governor Edward Telfair dated 26 September 1790, William solicits the governor’s “assistance and patronage.” William believed that he could perfect his plan if he just had the means to do so. The governor ignored his request for funds. William’s letter was written three years before Robert Fulton (the man who is credited with inventing the steamboat) wrote a letter to the Earl of Stanhope declaring his own ideas of moving ships by steam1.

William was eventually able to secure private funds and develop his boat, a boat that would move against the current at five miles per hour. It’s unclear when William first put his boat in the Savannah, some sources state it was 1806 or 1807, some claim he had been putting steam boats in the river for years before that. The Augusta Herald didn’t publish an article about William’s success until 10 November 1808:

We are happy to announce that Mr. Longstreet’s experiments with his new invented steamboat have answered most sanguine expectations. The lovers of the arts in this place, and the spectators who have been extremely gratified by the different essays he has made, and no doubt remain in their minds, but his labors will be crowned with success, and that it will, were it necessary, add another proof that Americans are endowed with genius.

In addition to these discrepancies, William allowed his patent to expire. In 1807, William and his friends were about to go to Washington to renew the patent when news of Fulton’s successful steamboat trip on the Hudson had reached them.

Of these inventions, the historian Lawton Evans, says:

[William’s] idea was to have the boat propelled by a series of poles so arranged on a shaft that as the shaft turned on its axis the poles would strike the bottom of the river and push the boat along. This was certainly very clumsy, but a boat of this kind was made and put on the Savannah River in 1806 and moved by steam power. Robert Fulton’s boat, the Clermont, made its trial trip on the Hudson River in August 1807. He made use of paddle wheels to strike the water instead of poles to strike the river bottom. Paddle wheels were a great improvement and Robert Fulton is called the inventor of the steam boat. To him belongs the idea of paddle wheels while to William Longstreet belongs the honor of having first made a boat run by steam power4.

William also invented an improvement to the cotton gin. His patented design was known as the “breast roller.” Previous gins had used small rollers which caught the cotton fibers and pressed out the seeds, producing clean cotton for the ginner to collect and deposit in a bag on his person. William’s improvements used horse power. According to Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography, this method “entirely superseded the old method5.”

An item in the 11 February 1797 Augusta Chronicle asks for subscribers to William’s cotton gin6. Subscribers could order a gin and pay for it in three installments or pay the entire amount of $150 up front.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have much luck here, either. Again, according to Appletons’ Cyclopædia:

He set up two of his gins in Augusta, which were propelled by steam and worked admirably; but they were destroyed by fire within a week. He next erected a set of steam mills near St. Mary’s, Ga., which were destroyed by the British in 1812. These disasters exhausted his resources and discouraged his enterprise, though he was confident that steam would soon supersede all other motive powers5.

William is also credited with inventing the precursor to the sewing machine. He also designed other ways to use his steam engine, including for a water pump7 and for a sawmill8.

He served in the state legislature during the Yazoo land scandal in 1784. The scandal involved the governor and many legislators, including William, selling land in what is today Alabama and Mississippi, to political allies at a discounted rate9. There is an account of William trying to encourage a fellow legislator to vote for the Yazoo Act by offering him certificates for the land being sold by the act.

While it is unclear what he did for a regular income, he served, at different times, as a justice of the peace, an alderman, and in the Richmond County militia. His wife, Hannah, ran a boarding house as early as 1806.

William died 1 September 1814 and is buried in Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Augusta, Georgia. His headstone stands directly next to the church building, inscribed as follows:

to the
memory of
William Longstreet
who departed this life
September 1st, 1814
aged 54 years,
10 months and 26 days
All the days of the afflicted are evil but he
that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast.

His epitaph is a good summary of what is known of his life. William must have found great happiness in his dreams, ideas, and inventions to continue his work in spite of heckling, set backs, and perhaps disappointment. His reward must have been in the creation of the thing, allowing him to live a colorful life.


  1. Mayes, Edward. Genealogy of the Family of Longstreet Completed. Edited by Clark T. Thornton, Clark T. Thornton, 2009.
  2. A Patent Granted by the Georgia Assembly to Isaac Briggs and William Longstreet for Their Steam Engine, 1789.” Digital Public Library of America. Web. 25 July 2018. http://bit.ly/2AeAYsr
  3. Longstreet, Augustus Baldwin. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s “Georgia Scenes” Completed: a Scholarly Text. Edited by David Rachels, University of Georgia Press, 1998. Google Books. Web. 24 July 2018. http://bit.ly/2LtsHWV
  4. Knight, Lucian Lamar. A Standard History of Georgia and Georgians, Volume 1. Lewis Publishing Company, 1917. Google Books. Web. 24 July 2018. http://bit.ly/2mIToYF
  5. “Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography/Longstreet, William.” Wikisource, the Free Online Library. Web. 25 July 2018. http://bit.ly/2LEn1Zo
  6. The Augusta Chronicle. 11 February 1797. N.p. Georgia Historic Newspapers. Web. 25 July 2018. https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/
  7. The Augusta Chronicle. 3 November 1792. N.p. Georgia Historic Newspapers. Web. 25 July 2018. https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/
  8. Austin, Jeannette. “OLDE SAVANNAH.” William Longstreet, Steamboat Inventor, 7 June 2013, http://bit.ly/2Aarbn4
  9. “The Yazoo Land Scandal.” Wikipedia. Web. 25 July 2018. http://bit.ly/2Ajz4qe

4 thoughts on “Without a Paddle or an Oar, Billy-boy?

  1. Eilene Lyon says:

    What a fascinating ancestor to have. Great story! I find so many who had great ideas, but for whatever reason just couldn’t figure out how to capitalize on them. It’s a little sad.

    Liked by 1 person

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