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Interpreting the Evidence

Lake Erie Water Keg

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Expansion and Reform (1801 - 1861)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School

  • Topics:

    Erie Canal

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    Western New York
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Photograph of one of two kegs that carried water from Lake Erie to New York Harbor in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Historical Context: 


Enlisting National Support

Ronald E. Shaw, Miami University of Ohio


Many New Yorkers believed that a canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie would benefit the nation as a whole. They hoped that other states would contribute to its construction or that congress might finance the project. 

In 1807 to 1808, Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant from the Finger Lakes region, published his visionary essays outlining plans for such a canal. Soon thereafter, Joshua Forman, a New York Assembly member from Syracuse, submitted a legislative resolution for a canal. At the same time, the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company (WILNC) was trying to expand its canal project from the Mohawk Valley to Lake Erie. Thomas Eddy, the company’s treasurer, and Jonas Platt, state senator from the Western District, enlisted De Witt Clinton, the former mayor of New York City, to secure a resolution in the New York Assembly. This resolution appointed a board of commissioners to survey possible routes for a canal. An engineer, James Geddes, and Benjamin Wright, a New York Assembly member from Rome, carried out the surveys. 

The canal commissioners submitted a favorable report on March 2, 1811. Their report opposed construction by private companies because “too great a national interest is at stake.” They especially opposed a shorter canal route to Oswego on Lake Ontario and then to Lake Erie, because cargo “once afloat on Lake Ontario, will, generally, go to Montreal” in Canada. Some, however, may have feared that the commissioners’ proposed canal design was too fantastic. They envisioned a canal on an inclined plane, built over “mounds and aqueducts,” rather than a “waving course ascending and descending by locks.”

The commissioners’ report led to the Canal Act of April 11, 1811. This legislation gave canal commissioners a number of responsibilities: to appoint engineers, continue surveys, receive land grants and loans, buy out the interests of the WILNC, and seek the aid of other states and Congress. 

The commissioners were prominent New York and national figures. Governeur Morris was a Federalist who had helped draft the U.S. Constitution. De Witt Clinton had been mayor of New York City and was a leading Democratic-Republican in the state senate. Simeon De Witt was the state surveyor general. William North and Thomas Eddy were Federalist directors of the WILNC. Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton were new additions to the board of commissioners, famous for their steamboat inventions, the Clermont, which first ran up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in 1807. Livingston had been chancellor of New York and had helped the United States negotiate the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Fulton had written a treatise on canal navigation in 1796. 

In October 1811, the commissioners appealed to New Hampshire for aid. They pointed out that the Erie Canal would benefit the entire nation. They noted, too, that New York held “in her own hands the best communication between the Territory around the Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean” and had the enterprise to build such a canal. The commissioners suggested that financial aid from other states might allow the canal to be free to all users; otherwise, New York might have to charge tolls. In any case, they hoped New Hampshire would provide support in Congress for national financing of the canal. The commissioners quoted from the Canal Act of 1811: The canal would “encourage agriculture, promote commerce and manufacturers, facilitate a free and general intercourse between different parts of the United States, tend to aggrandizement and prosperity of the country, and consolidate and strengthen the Union.”

In their report of 1812, the commissioners did not mention a reply from New Hampshire. They did receive support from Massachusetts and Ohio. New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, and Michigan Territory, however, all refused support. Two commissioners sent to seek Congress’s aid were also rebuffed. The War of 1812 halted further efforts to gain national political support for a New York Canal. 

After the war, between 1817 and 1825, New York built the Erie Canal at its own expense. Congress passed a bill granting national aid, President James Madison vetoed it on constitutional grounds. Although New York built the canal and charged tolls, the Erie fully justified the commissioners' predictions that it would benefit the nation and squelch Canadian rivalry for western trade. It promoted commerce, settlement, and prosperity, as they had foreseen. Other states soon wished to imitate New York’s success. The Erie Canal also helped bind together and strengthen the northern states in the decades leading up to the Civil War.


De Witt Clinton and the Erie Canal 

F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta


It is difficult to name the originator of a canal between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. The list of early canal advocates includes George Washington, Elkanah Watson, Philip Schuyler, George Clinton, Jesse Hawley, Thomas Eddy, Joshua Forman, Stephen Van Rensselaer, De Witt Clinton, and Governor Morris. Some historians feel that Morris deserves the honor, since he apparently advanced the prospect of a canal as early as 1777. In any case, many individuals thought it was a good idea. Of these, De Witt Clinton alone is preeminently linked with the Erie Canal. 

During his long and distinguished career, Clinton served the people of his state in a variety of offices, including U.S. senator, Mayor of New York City, and governor. But it is his driving presence on the Canal Commission that so strongly associates his name with successful completion of the Erie. 

In 1808, two Federalist members of the New York Assembly, Joshua Forman of Syracuse and Benjamin Wright of Rome, introduced a resolution to survey a canal route between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. The legislature named James Geddes, an engineer, to conduct a survey, and he reported favorably on the possibility of a canal. Two years later, the legislature, influenced by Clinton, a Democratic-Republican, authorized a second route survey, to be overseen by a seven-member commission. In addition to Clinton, members included Morris, Van Renselaer, Eddy, Simeon De Witt, William North, and Peter B Porter. The following year, Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton, builders of the first successful steamboat, joined the commission. 

In 1811, Geddes and Wright made additional surveys. Although interest in a canal was increasing, the onset of the War of 1812 interrupted the activity. During the war, problems in moving military supplies from New York City to Lake Ontario and Lake Erie further emphasized the need for improved transportation. In April 1816, more than a year after the war ended, the state legislature passed an act naming a board of five commissioners and authorizing them to build a canal between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. It also authorized a second canal, connecting the Hudson and Lake Champlain. The following April, the legislature approved construction of the two canals and named Wright chief engineer of the Erie. Geddes was appointed chief engineer for the Champlain Canal. 

In 1817, Daniel D. Tompkins was elected vice president of the United States and resigned as governor of New York. Clinton was then elected to serve in his place. As governor, Clinton continued his crusade to complete the Erie Canal. By the time he left office at the end of 1822, construction of the canal was moving ahead steadily. Clinton’s reappointment to the Canal Commission following his two terms as governor ensured that the canal’s chief supporter would continue his close association with the project. Re-elected governor in 1824, Clinton was accorded the place of honor at the grand opening of the Erie Canal. 

In October 1825, Clinton was aboard the Seneca Chief as it entered the Erie Canal at Buffalo, leading a flotilla in celebration of the canal’s completion. Ninety minutes later, the citizens of New York City learned of the event from a relay of cannon fire along the banks of the canal.

As the boats proceeded eastward along the canal, speeches were delivered at towns and cities along the way. In Albany, at tables set up on a long bridge across the canal basin, 600 diners toasted the accomplishment. On November 4, the fleet of canal boats, towed down the Hudson by steamboats, reached New York City. The boats assembled off Sandy Hook, where Clinton poured a keg of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean to symbolize the “wedding of the waters.” A magnificent ball was held on November 7 to complete the festivities. The center of attention in the ballroom was a scale model of a packet (passenger) boat made of maple sugar, floating in a large vat of Lake Erie water. Presiding over the gala, Clinton proudly celebrated the culmination of a project for which he had fought long and arduously. 

De Witt Clinton was elected to his fourth term as governor in 1826. Less than two years later, in February 1828, he died in office.