Photograph of children playing ice hockey on the canal, c. 1870
Suggested Teaching Instructions
The Yankee Invasion
Kathleen Smith Kutolowski, Suny Brockport
In the 1820s, broadsides advertising “farms and lots of land” appeared regularly in the Genesee region north and south of the Erie Canal. Such broadsides sought buyers eager to reap not only wheat, but also the benefits of the low-cost shipping the canal promised. In many cases, however, such advertisements also meant that the farms’ previous tenants had failed.
These farms, now being sold as improved - that is, with houses, barns, and cleared fields - had been settled as “raw lands.” Between 1790 and 1820, the Genesee wilderness had drawn waves of emigrants. Mostly they came from overcrowded New England, where half the male population was under 16 years of age. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island alone yielded some 800,000 residents wrestling in the beckoning lands of central and western New York. BY 1820, this “Yankee Invasion” made New York State number one in population,
A laggard colony despite its strategic location and natural waterways, New York ranked only seventh in population in 1790, in the first census of the fledgling United States. Before the Revolutionary War, the manorial land system of the Hudson Valley was unattractive to would-be pioneers. The Iroquois Indian Confederacy skillfully played off British and French interests to retain the lands west of Albany. Defeat of the French in 1763 and the British in 1783 doomed the Iroquois, and thus opened the rich interior of New York to American settlers. There, fertile soil, vast stands of valuable timber, abundant water, a relatively benign climate (particularly temperate near the many lakes), and numerous water-power sites all appealed to Yankee farmers, artisans and young professionals. Many of these surplus Yankees had struggled with thin, stony soil and short growing season endangered by killing frosts. In addition, post Revolutionary New England suffered from high taxes and runaway inflation.
Land speculators played a crucial role in opening the Genesee region. They had bought large tracts wholesale and campaigned actively in New England to resell them. Men like Oliver Phelps, Charles Williamson, James Wadsworth, and Joseph Ellicott not only flooded the backcountry with handbills but also held “Genesee Meetings” in taverns. There they described the attractions of their holdings and often displayed their bounty: tall stalks of grain, fat ears of corn, large apples and pears. Terms of sale were generous, with little or no down payment and many years to pay the full amount. Some speculators even offered to trade their fresh Genesee lands for worn-out New England farms, giving full market value for the latter. This was actually a clever marketing strategy. Although the speculator took a loss on the initial exchange, he received an overall gain once the settlement of a few families raised the value of the surrounding acres. In addition, after the first settlers moved in, otherwise hesitant emigrants felt safer to head for this far-off territory.
Speculators like Phelps and Ellicott also plowed money into the economic and social infrastructure of their tracts. By subsidizing roads and mills, stores and taverns, schools, and courthouses, they enhanced the attractiveness of their lands and guaranteed a critical mass of population at carefully selected places, such as Canandaigua and Batavia. From there, of course, the population would fan out into the hinterlands.
The land proved as fruitful as promised, but one barrier to successful pioneering remained. Although natural waterways abounded, New York’s interior streams and rivers mostly ran the wrong way (north and south). The cost of moving goods, even prime Genesee wheat, to Montreal, Canada; Baltimore, Maryland; or New York City exceeded the market value of the goods several times over. Thus, only the Erie Canal, New York’s bold experiment in public works, rescued the population of the interior from a near-subsistence economy. Successful market farming arrived with the canal’s radically lower shipping costs, and the Genesee region entered a sustained boom period.
But why sell improved Genesee lands, such as the fine farms listed in the 1823 broadside from Charles Seymour? Especially farms only two miles from the canal, now opened for shipping from Rochester east? Typical of failed pioneers, many of the earliest Genesee settlers had never actually owned their land. Arriving with little or no capital to purchase land outright, they had gone into debt by contracting with agents such as Seymour for their farms. Clearing, fencing, and constructing buildings, along with yearly taxes, had likely taken all of their meager proceeds from early crops. Once hopeful emigrants often found themselves unable to pay anything on the principal - and sometimes not even on the interest - of their land contracts. Then, with land values rising in the wake of the canal’s opening, investors holding the contracts (in this case, the State of Connecticut) began to repossess and resell the farms. At that point, the failed dreams of one generation gave way to the high hopes of a new generation of settlers, eager to put their plows to the land and ship Genesee wheat along new York’s new artificial river.
F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta
In 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, the British drew a proclamation line to keep European settlers and Native Americans apart. The main purpose of the Proclamation Act was to save the British government the cost of a large military presence to enforce the peace. In New York, the line ran generally southwest from Fort Ticonderoga to the state border near what is now Elmira. Most of the Genesee and Finger Lakes regions were on the Iroquois side of the line. The Proclamation Line of 1763 existed for two decades, until the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, when Britain’s defeat nullified the line. Vast lands were thereby opened for westward expansion and agricultural settlement.
Western New York was no exception. Millions of acres between central New York’s Unadilla River and the Niagara frontier suddenly were opened to speculators and settlers. Speculators bought the land, usually in large tracts and often on borrowed money, for resale in smaller parcels to actual settlers.
The area north of the Mohawk Valley and Oneida Lake also opened for settlement. The Adirondack Mountains covered much of the eastern part of that region, making it only marginally suitable for agriculture. However, the land along the eastern shore of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River was level and potentially good for farming. (The exception was the Tug Hill Plateau, a rugged upland area between the Lake Ontario plain and the fertile Black River Valley.)
In the late 1700s, a speculator named Alexander Macomb purchased roughly four million acres in northern New York. Macomb’s Purchase was primarily north and west of the Adirondacks. Macomb went broke; he could not get rid of the land fast enough to cover the loans he had taken to finance the purchase. His creditors took possession of Macomb’s Purchase and appointed William Constable, an Irish immigrant living in New York City, as their agent. Constable used his European contacts to assist him in selling off the immense parcel. Noblemen and others in France fleeing the guillotine of the French Revolution sought refuge in what became Jefferson County. They named their purchase Castorland. It is said that Joseph Bonaparte, the deposed king of Spain and brother of Napoleon, acquired land in the former Macomb’s Purchase. Constable was so successful in disposing of much of the parcel that he was able to build an estate in Constableville in the Black River Valley; the estate is now open to visitors.
One document, translated from German, illustrates an attempt by Hezekiah B. Pierpont, Constable’s son-in-law and partner, to bring settlers from Germany and Switzerland to the vicinity of Turin, New York. As was often the case, the document contains some exaggerations and omissions. For example, it claims that the German and Swiss settlement at Turin was 20 miles from the Erie Canal at Rome; the distance to Turin is actually closer to 25 miles, almost two hours farther away at a walking pace. At the time, the closer a settlement was to the Erie Canal, the less costly it was for its residents to ship their produce. Prospective buyers were also told that “ the climate is perfectly healthy during all seasons.” They were not told that the area probably receives more snow than any place east of the Rocky Mountains, or that subzero winter temperatures are more the rule than the exception. The promoter described the land as “high and pleasant,” having “no steep hills, no torn land.” The land certainly is high, but since it is on the edge of the Tug Hill Plateau, it is quite rugged. Claims that the region was developing “into one of the country’s best cattle and dairy districts” were accurate for the Black River Valley; unfortunately, the valley is east of the advertised tract. To his credit, Pierpont claimed that he did not want “to sell land to the immigrants until they have looked at the settlement themselves” and wisely cautioned settlers to have enough resources to carry them through the first year.
In his travel instructions to prospective buyers, Pierpont admitted that it could be as far as “ 24 miles” from the Erie Canal at Rome to Turin. Before the widespread existence of railroads in New York State, transportation over land was extremely slow and expensive. It was possible that the initial 240 miles of the journey by boat from New York City to Rome might have been easier to accomplish than the final 24 miles overland to Turin.
F. Daniel Larkin. SUNY Oneonta
They were known as canallers. They were the people who were part of the Erie Canal, made their living from the canal, and more often than not lived on the canal. Some of them crewed on the packert boats. Others drove the teams as they plodded along the towpaths. Many owned or operated freight boats. If the freight boats were family owned, the family lived in quarters in the stern, behind the cargo hold. Since horses or mules pulled canal boats, boatbuilders located stables in the bow of freight boats. The stables provided shelter for the team at rest while another team pulled the canal boat. Packet boat companies kept replacement teams at various points along canal routes, so packet boats did not need stables on board.
Businesses sprang up along the banks to serve canallers. Establishments that catered to canal traffic included general stores, blacksmiths, saloons, hotels, and boatyards. At least one such general store survives, along the old Erie Canal route a short distance east of Fort Hunter.
When several businesses located near the canal, they created a canal town. The short-lived Canal Village near Rome illustrates this pattern. The village of Rome existed long before the coming of the Erie Canal. It had been the location of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company (WILNC) canal built in the 1790s. The Erie Canal was not built through Rome because of the privately owned WILNC canal. The half-mile distance between the Erie Canal and Rome caused new businesses to cluster along the canal banks and not in Rome, since transferring goods from the canal to the village would have added to the total cost of the merchandise. As early as 1820, at the spot where the Rome Turnpike (Now South James Street) crossed the Erie Canal, an entrepreneur opened the first business, a tavern. Later that year, a toll collector’s house was built near the tavern. Prior to the opening of the entire canal in 1825, a bakery and a coffeehouse followed. The completion of the Erie Canal stimulated construction during the following five years of a grocery store, a blacksmith shop, a boot and shoe store, a butcher shop, a storehouse, and as many as 12 houses. By then the little community was known as Canal Village.
The buildings of Canal Village had a less permanent look than those of Rome. Many of the Canal Village structures were raised on piles or stilts because of the area’s marshy soil. Also, few people from Rome went to live in Canal Village. Nevertheless, the citizens of Rome were rightly concerned that their location a half-mile north of the canal would be detrimental to the prosperity of their village, so they petitioned the state legislature to make a change. When the Erie Canal’s first enlargement began in 1836, the legislature rerouted the Erie Canal through Rome. As a result, Canal Village stagnated and Rome grew.
Life in the canal towns could be boisterous, particularly on Saturday nights, when the canallers sought relaxation after a long work week. It was not unusual to read in local newspapers of weekend fights and drownings. It was fairly common for someone to stagger out of a saloon, fall off a bridge, and drown in the canal on the way home. (Keep in mind that most canal bridges were relatively low and that the original Erie Canal was only four feet deep. It would have been difficult for most adults to drown in the early canals unless they had lost all control of their faculties.) It is not surprising that other residents in canal communities sometimes looked down on the canallers and their rough and transient lives.
Because many of the canallers moved along the canals as part of their jobs, it was difficult to formally educate their children. While working on the canal, many parents could teach their young children the basics of reading, writing, and ciphering, as mathematics was called at the time. However, it was important for parents to decide before the annual canal closing whether to send the children to school. Then the family could move its canal boat for the winter to a community in which schools were located. Often, the port of New York City was the winter destination of canallers. Steamboats towed the canal boats several at a time down the Hudson River from the Erie Canal Basin at Albany. Once the canallers arrived in New York, the children would have access to schools and their parents could find work for the winter season.
Preserving the Sabbath
Carol Sheriff, College of William and Mary
In 1828, a dismayed Elisha Dean informed his business acquaintance Lyman Spalding that a particular boat company along the Erie Canal was operating on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. It was bad enough for any company to violate the Lord’s Day. But it was particularly disturbing to Dean that the Pioneer Line - a company established with the mission of respecting the sabbath - would also conduct business on a Sunday.
Dean and Spalding were Quakers, but many non-Quaker residents of the upstate region shared their concerns about the moral degradation the canal caused. Yet, like Spalding himself, many of these same people also amassed personal fortunes from canal-related businesses.
Many middle-class men and women feared that the Erie Canal posed a threat to civilized society. They thought that the waterway had become a haven for vice and immorality. The towpath attracted workers who drank, swore, gambled, and worse. Because some middle-class business owners felt responsible for the moral welfare of their workers, they placed some of the blame on themselves. The biggest culprit, they believed, was the poor example they set by conducting business on the Sabbath. From this belief emerged an active “Sabbatarian” movement, which tried to halt business on Sundays. Some Sabbatarians wanted the state to shut down the locks, so that boats could not progress along the canal. Others believed that this issue was one for men’s consciences, not for governmental policy. These people called upon businessmen to respect the Sabbath and to favor boat lines like the Pioneer Line that promised not to operate - not even to shoe horses - on Sunday.
The Sabbatarians met with a great deal of opposition. In fact, the Pioneer Line folded in 1829, the year after Dean wrote to Spalding. But the debate over whether the canal should operate on the Sabbath would continue for at least several more decades. Proponents hoped that workers would attend church on Sunday if the canal were closed. Opponents argued that the boat workers would simply use the day of rest to pursue additional ungodly activities. Some argued that the state had no business meddling in religious affairs. Others said candidly that they feared the loss of revenue if the canal were shut down for one day out of seven. Still others argued that the most important issue was not the size of one’s purse but rather the extent of one’s devotion to God. [See Paul Johnson’s A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revival in Rochester, New York, 1815 -1837 ( New York: Hill and Wang, 1978) for the best treatment of the Sabbatarian movement.]
If Spalding was devoted to God, he was also devoted to profit-making. Yet it would be unfair to dismiss Spalding, and others like him, as mere hypocrites. Middle-class businessmen often supported reform movements that generally denounced them. By supporting reform movements, such men and their wives confirmed their standing as upright citizens. In a time of boom and bust, economic mobility could be downward as well as upward (as Spalding would find out when he declared bankruptcy in 1841). Members of the commercial middle classes thus wer eager to define their own status in cultural as well as economic terms. Although an economic collapse might deprive them of their money, it could not take away their piety or social concern.
Ideally, of course, these businessmen hoped to be both pious and wealthy. In fact, they often saw wealth as an affirmation of divine favor. When they argued for Sabbatarian laws and other reforms, they did not mean to stop commercial expansion. They hoped instead to remove the “vice” from the commercial revolution. Perhaps they could even improve their own profits at the same time, by encouraging their workers to adopt more reliable and temperate habits. By working toward earthly perfection, they, together with their workers, would hasten the onset of the millennium, the thousand years of peace on earth before Christ’s second coming. In God’s kingdom, they believed commercial progress and moral virtue would surely coexist.
The Freeman Family
Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, Director, Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies
Who worked on the Erie Canal? Where did they live? What do we know
about them? Unearthing the lives of everyday people is one of the most difficult tasks for historians. The people who dug the canal and worked on its boats did not amass a great deal of property or leave a large number of family papers. As a result, they are not easily found in historical records. Many of them were immigrants or members of ethnic or racial minorities whose histories until recently were not preserved in archives and museums. How, then, do we learn about the ordinary people who helped build this nation?
One valuable source that assists historians in finding information about working men and women is the census. The practice of officially counting each U.S. citizen began with the first federal census of 1790. The Constitution requires that the federal census be taken every 10 years to determine the number of representatives that each state is permitted in the House. The census also provides a portrait of the country: where people live, the backgrounds from which they come, whether or not they attend school, and what they do for a living. Some state governments, such as New York, eager to find out specific information about their citizens, also conducted state census counts in off years.
The data in the New York State census of 1855 provides answers to some questions about workers on the Erie Canal but leaves other questions shrouded in mystery. Take, for example, the 1855 census record from Fort Plain, New York.
Abram Freeman lived in this small town along the canal with his wife, Nancy, and his two sons, Abram, Jr., and Hiram, ages 19 and 17, respectively. Abram's occupation was listed as boatman, a common trade for those living along the canal's route. The family lived in a modest home compared with those of their neighbors. Constructed of wood, the house was valued at only $60. Other families on the same block lived in homes valued at $300 or sometimes much more. What makes the Freeman family particularly unusual is that they were black. Indeed, they were the only African American family listed in this neighborhood of middle-class artisans and farmers. In 1855, the entire Montgomery County town of Minden, of which Fort Plain is a part, included 4,671 residents; only 53 were African American.
Slavery had been ended officially in New York State more than 25 years earlier. Slavery's scars — prejudice, exclusion from education, and segregation by custom remained deeply ingrained in American life. Most African Americans in upstate communities clustered together in small enclaves, where they offered one another support and kinship. Abram and Nancy Freeman were longtime residents of Fort Plain, having lived there 20 years. Both were born in Montgomery County, so it is probable that they had resided in this community all their lives. The existence of slavery in the state was surely within their memories. Their last name, Freeman, was probably an indication of how much they or their ancestors valued their status as free people. They might have been former slaves themselves or the descendants of slaves. Or they might have had a long family history of freedom dating from the 17th century. We cannot learn this from the census data.
Abram's sons, Abram and Hiram, were barbers, which also indicates that the family was middle-class. More affluent members of the African American community often took up barbering. Until the Civil War, it was the only well-paying service that white Americans would accept from black Americans. A good barber could make a nice living coifing and shaving white townsmen. Barbers also sold collars, cravats, and hair pomades to their customers for additional revenue. The census does not tell us whether the two brothers owned their own shop. However, it is likely that as teenagers they were working as apprentices in the shop of an experienced barber.
The census tells us that Nancy had no occupation, an indication that she stayed at home and kept house. This was a rare occurrence. African American women often needed to take in laundry or work as domestics to help make ends meet. Abram and his sons made enough money to enable her to be a homemaker, another indication of the family's middle-class status.
Abram was a boatman - one who steered a canal boat. That was a skilled occupation with some authority. It was unusual for African Americans to be hired to fill such jobs. Boatmen were paid more than drivers, who walked or rode a horse or mule along the towpath. Similarly, the boatman earned more than the bowsman, whose job was to watch for obstacles ahead and shout warnings to passengers and crew, as described in the popular song lyric “Low bridge, everybody down." Although it was unusual that Freeman was a boatman, that fact suggests that his neighbors knew him to be a reliable and probably likable man who could handle responsibility and supervise others.
The Freeman family also stands out in their literate, middle-class neighborhood because Abram was illiterate and Nancy does not appear to have been able to read, although she could write. (It was not uncommon for people to learn to write their names while remaining essentially illiterate.) Because the Freeman sons were under 21, the census does not reveal whether or not they were literate. The Freemans' lack of lit eracy may be attributable to slavery and the difficulties faced by free blacks seeking an education in this era. However, Abram and Nancy were children in the 1810s and 1820s. This was prior to Nat Turner's rebellion in Virginia, which precipitated many laws restricting education of slaves and free blacks. It was also a time when fewer people (regardless of race) received a formal education, especially women. The Freeman family's neighbors included several clerks, a lawyer, a merchant, and craftsmen - men whose occupations required a high level of literacy. They may not be representative of adult literacy in New York in 1855.
Finally, none of the members of the Freeman family were listed as voters, but all were identified as “persons of color not taxed." Although they were free inhabitants of New York, the Freeman family was in a legal limbo rather like that of Native Americans. They were neither defined nor excluded as citizens of the United States under the U.S. Constitution. Free black men were entitled to vote under the New York Constitution of 1777, provided that they met certain property requirements. The state constitution of 1822 liberalized property requirements for white men while making them more restrictive for free black men. Because Abram Freeman's $60 home did not meet the $250 property requirement and he was not taxed, he could not vote. New York voters defeated three statewide referenda on whether black men should have the same voting rights as white men in 1846, 1860, and 1869. The second-class citizenship of free blacks in the United States was not remedied until the adoption of the 14th and 15th amendments, which clarified their citizenship and granted men over the age of 21 the right to vote regardless of race. However, because states have wide discretion in the conduct of elections, discriminatory state practices persisted, perpetuating the disenfranchisement of black citizens.
The four handwritten lines on the 1855 census page may be the only remaining record of Fort Plain's Freeman family. Yet, read between the lines, the 1855 census suggests a good deal about Abram, Nancy, Abram, Jr., and Hiram Freeman, and piques our imaginations and our desire to learn more.
An Outrage on the Canal
Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, Director, Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies
Imagine what it must have been like to be an enslaved person. You were someone's
property with no right to make decisions about your own life. What would you do? Would you accept your lot, or would you rebel? Would you run away north to Canada and freedom? Flight would not be easy under any circumstances, particularly if you were old or very young or had a family with small children. In 1860, there were four million enslaved African Americans in the U.S. This was the dilemma they faced every day. Here is the story of one family and their race for freedom on the Erie Canal.
William and Catherine Harris and their child were slaves in South Carolina. They decided to end their ordeal and began a harrowing journey to freedom. The most dangerous part of the trip was the journey alone through the southern slave states. Fugitive slaves had to find their own way on the initial part of the journey. Once they reached the northern states, they traveled on the Underground Railroad. Of course, the Underground Railroad was not really a railroad, but a secret transportation system operated by black and white abolitionists to help slaves reach freedom in the northern United States and Canada. Of necessity, fugitives used every mode of transportation
- foot, horseback, wagon, train, or boat - to escape and to confuse slave catchers. One fugitive even shipped himself north in a large crate.
After a long trip, the Harrises were relieved to arrive in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Founded by Quakers, many of whom were abolitionists, the city was a refuge for many fugitive slaves. Philadelphia had a large free black community into which fugitive slaves might blend comfortably and be less conspicuous to slave catchers. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, however, changed things. This law allowed slave catchers to come into free states and return escaped African Americans to the South and bondage. Like hundreds of other fugitives, William and Catherine Harris had to fear once again for their safety. They decided to move to Canada to ensure their freedom.
Leaving Philadelphia, the frightened family traveled first to New York City and then up the Hudson River to Albany. There they boarded a boat on the Erie Canal. According to later police reports, they traveled in the hold of a canal freight boat from Albany, riding with the oysters and the clams.” The early part of the trip was uneventful. But when they were outside Utica, the boat's captain (a man named Webster), an oyster peddler named Cowells, and a passenger named Cluny began to taunt them. They told the Harrises that their master was in pursuit and would catch up with the slow-moving canal boat. The men hurled racial slurs at the couple and threatened them.
Terrified, the Harrises decided to kill themselves rather than be taken back to the South. Drawing a razor, William Harris slit his own throat, cutting through his windpipe. Catherine jumped into the Erie Canal with their child in her arms.
The reasons that Webster, Cowells, and Cluny decided to torment this family are unclear. The newspapers speculated that they were trying to drive the family from the “boat" or simply decided that this cruelty was a matter of personal amusement.” Whatever the reason, the price was high. William was horribly wounded and was rushed to a Syracuse physician, who saved his life. Catherine was rescued from the canal, but the child drowned. The canal boat captain and his accomplices continued on their way, but they were arrested in Rochester and returned to Syracuse to answer for their crimes. The Harrises were placed in the care and protection of Syracuse's "friends of the slave.” The Underground Railroad was very active in western New York, and Syracuse was a major “station.” Many daring escapes and rescues took place in this community.
A newspaper article describing the incident appeared in the New York Tribune on October 26, 1850. In the 19th century, newspapers were the primary form of mass communication. Some newspapers were very sympathetic to the abolitionists' cause and ran articles like the Tribune's, which referred to slave catchers as "diabolical," or evil. This article does not simply report the facts of the case but expresses an opinion about the incident. Newspapers that supported slaveholding did not run this story. Instead, they chose stories about happy and cooperative slaves. Those who opposed slavery and those who supported it used their newspapers to share their opinions with thousands of readers.
Job Mattison Looks for a New Home
Carol Sheriff, College of William and Mary
In 1845, Job Mattison traveled along the Erie Canal, a decade after Clarissa
Burroughs made a similar trip (see Chapter 5). Mattison took note of very different things. Burroughs described the "pleasant association of the beauties of nature and the works of art" at Little Falls. Mattison merely noted that he arrived at “Littlefalls” on the afternoon of September 19, 1845. Whereas Burroughs described the businessmen, honeymooners, and tourists who took passage on her boat, Mattison mentioned the gamblers ("black legs”) and immigrants ("Englishmen”) who made the journey with him. Whereas Burroughs complained about the dirty sheets in which she had to sleep, Mattison made no mention of where he spent the night. The differences in their accounts point out the dangers of making generalizations about Erie Canal travel.
When 24-year-old Mattison took the Erie to visit his cousin Ephraim in Wisconsin Territory, he did so with an eye toward emigrating there. He made virtually no mention of the landscape in upstate New York, but he became a keen observer of his surroundings once he arrived in the Great Lakes region. There, he carefully recorded the types of trees, game, and crops he encountered. Such details would be of use to him and his family as they decided whether to leave their farm in South Berlin, New York, and head west. Mattison also noted the prices that various crops and commodities would fetch. This information, too, might help his family determine whether to stake its future on the economic opportunities for which the West was becoming famous.
Unlike the rare explorer or mountain man who headed west to escape civilization, most settlers wanted to maintain connections with family and friends. Like Mattison, they often considered moving to places where they already had relatives, who could help them set up homesteads and provide them with some of the more intangible comforts of home. Once settled in the West, pioneers eagerly sought news of friends and events in their former communities. One of the great advantages of the Erie Canal was that it enabled western settlers to exchange regular and timely news with family and friends left behind.
The people who ventured west with thoughts of settling there often came from modest economic circumstances. This helps explain why Mattison encountered a different set of passengers from Burroughs. Emigrants from the East and from Europe often had more time than money. Rather than riding the relatively speedy and luxurious packet boats, they took passage on westward-bound freight boats. In exchange for cheap fares, they often camped on deck or on top of crates, which may explain why Mattison did not mention sheets or the appearance of servants at bedtime. Freight boats took longer than packets to make the journey from Troy to Buffalo. Mattison was on the canal for eight days, whereas a packet boat would have made the same trip in five. Unlike Burroughs, who could relieve the tedium of her trip by transferring to a stagecoach or railroad for part of her journey, emigrants generally made the entire trip by boat. Yet life on the freight boats was not entirely dull. Mattison writes to his family not just about gamblers but about a fiddler as well.
For Mattison, the trip continued long past Buffalo and the end of the Erie Canal. There, he boarded another boat, to continue his journey to Wisconsin, a territory that few settlers had visited before the opening of the canal. Without a water connection between the Great Lakes and the Hudson River, the Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin territories established by the Northwest Ordinance were simply too isolated. The expense and difficulty of land transportation meant that potential settlers could neither market their goods in the East nor receive the comforts and luxuries of home. As a result, few white Americans settled in the upper Midwest before the Erie Canal's completion in 1825. Shortly thereafter, though, emigrants streamed into the Great Lakes area. By the time Mattison arrived in Wisconsin, the territory would soon bid to become a state. It achieved statehood in 1848.
Mattison returned to South Berlin, New York, before Wisconsin entered the Union. The stories that he told his family and friends about the Erie Canal were quite dissimilar from those that Burroughs had related to her mother a decade earlier. This stems partly from their differences in education, gender, and temperament. Moreover, because Mattison traveled a decade later than Burroughs and was writing to people from New York State, he may have felt that the Erie Canal itself was less extraordinary and therefore less worthy of comment. What Burroughs saw as an artful work of the Enterprise and industry of man," Mattison may have just taken for granted. The waterway, to him, seemed like a natural part of the landscape. But more than anything else, whereas Burroughs was seeking a respite from the ordinary bustle of her life, Mattison was heading for a new place with an eye toward one day calling it home.
Author's Note: Background information on Job Mattison was graciously supplied to the author by one of his descendants by marriage, Katherine Graves Wells.