The Mississippi River dominated Blanche Douglass Leathers’ life. Although we don’t know exactly where she was born in 1860, it was probably along the river basin. She married the son of famous steamboat captain T.P. Leathers. Captain Leathers commanded the Natchez in its historic race with the Robert E. Lee. The Lee won the race, besting the Natchez’s time from St. Louis to New Orleans by three hours and forty-four minutes.
In 1894, at the age of thirty-four, Blanche Leathers decided to earn her steamboat pilot’s license. She became captain of eighth Natchez. By then, steamboats were on the decline as trains multiplied. Trains provided faster and more dependable modes of transportation, and by the end of the nineteenth century, had eliminated much of the steamboat trade.
I discovered Blanche Leather’s story while I was investigating steamboat traffic on the Rio Grande River. Steamboats attained grew to prominence during the war with Mexico in 1846 but dwindled by the beginning of the 20th century.
Steamboats could only navigate a small portion of the Rio Grande. The river flows from Brownsville at on the Gulf Coast, then dips south through Big Bend National Park before it reaches El Paso and beyond. However, the steamboats only traveled as far as Roma, 110 miles from the mouth of the river.
Roma, the Rio Grande and steamboats, Blanche Leather and female steamboat captains—fertile ground for a writer’s imagination. In A Bride’s Rogue in Roma, Texas, my Blanche inherits a steamboat from the father she never met—along with the resident gambler. And yes, she earns her pilot’s license.