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Erie Canal: New York's Gift to the Nation. A Document Based Teacher Resource

F. Daniel Larkin, Julie Daniels & Jean West



The beginning of the 21st century is a time of great expectations. Certainly, the expectations placed on teachers have never been higher. We ask that they prepare their students not only to perform well on assessments and to meet higher learning standards, but also to perform as good citizens of this new century. We want students to be equipped with the skills to analyze information, synthesize data from a variety of sources, and think critically when faced with the complex issues of an increasingly diverse and technology-rich world. 

Similarly, our expectations for information are extraordinarily high. We want clear, accurate, and complete information, and we want it quickly. There is little tolerance and even less support for organizations that treat information as the purview of the select, available only to individuals with certain credentials. This insistence on accessibility is coupled with an increasing interest in information about our past as well as our present. A recent survey of 1,453 Americans revealed that more than a third had investigated the history of their families in the last year and two-fifths had worked on a hobby or collection related to the past. In their 1998 book, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, researchers Roy Rosenweig and David Thelen concluded that the past has a “ubiquitous presence" in our everyday lives. 

Virtually every community in New York State has historical records — primary sources that tell how New Yorkers lived their lives from the days of the Dutch Colonial period to the present. Increasingly, educators understand that these records are sources of knowledge, and they are eager to access them and bring their contents to their students. 

The New York State Archives is in a unique position to help meet these expectations. With holdings exceeding 130 million records and programs that connect it to 4,300 local governments and 3,000 community organizations around the state, the Archives' mission is to make sure that everyone has access to the essential recorded evidence- past, present, and future — of New York's governments, peoples, and events. As a program of the New York State Education Department, the Archives has a particular interest in encouraging teachers and students to use these rich documentary resources as a foundation for learning. 

Erie Canal: New York: Gift to the Nation helps address the expectations placed on educators and the organizations holding historical records. This volume brings together historical records from a cross-section of organizations from around and outside New York State and enriches them with interpretive essays by expert historians and learning activities developed by master classroom teachers. The book is a continuation of the Archives' efforts to increase the educational use of historical records that began with Teaching With Historical Records (1981) and Consider the Source: Historical Records in the Classroom (1995), both of which were general in historical content and served as primers for both educators and archivists. 

In contrast, Erie Canal: New York's Gift to the Nation is a richer, more in-depth examination of one of the most significant events of the early days of the American republic. New York's decision to build the Erie Canal, the greatest public works project of its day, resulted in a gift to the entire nation. It spurred the phenomenal growth and development of the young country and transformed New York into the Empire State. 


The title of the book was suggested by Mary Dickerman, former director of development, who was inspired by Thomas Jefferson's comments about the significance of New York's achievement. 

This book is the most ambitious educational project the Archives has ever undertaken. Quite simply, it would not have become a reality without the generous support of the Archives Partnership Trust, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to sustaining the excellence of the New York State Archives. The Partnership Trust secured funding by successfully articulating to foundations the educational importance of archival collections relating to the Erie Canal. 

The Partnership Trust's vision of the project's possibilities and promise served as an inspiration to everyone involved and motivated them to strive for high standards of achievement. The Partnership Trust's support also made possible the collaboration with Cobblestone Publishing, a highly regarded company known for its quality educational publications. The collaboration has enabled Erie Canal: New York's Gift to the Nation to benefit from Cobblestone Publishing's expert guidance, making the book visually attractive and appealing to teachers, as well as making it possible to reach a national audience. 

The success of this book will be determined in many ways. Certainly, the Archives is interested in seeing that the archival records of the Erie Canal are used to enrich a variety of classroom settings and to teach a range of disciplines. However, the Archives has great expectations that use of this book will motivate teachers to seek out historical records in their own communities and integrate them into their classroom teaching in imaginative and stimulating ways. 

Judy P. Hohmann Director of Public Programs and Outreach 

New York State Archives



A book of this scope and magnitude is not possible without the generosity and 

cooperation of many individuals and organizations. We are deeply appreciative that the H.W. Wilson Foundation and the Publication Program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund understood the significance of this project and saw the promise it held for teachers and students in New York State and across the nation. They provided generous and important initial support for this project. We are also most grateful for the gifts from the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc.; the Education Project Fund created by the Hearst Foundation, Inc.; the Booth Ferris Foundation; and the J.P. Morgan Charitable Trust. Their support, provided through the Archives Partnership Trust, made it possible for us to invite nationally recognized scholars to contribute historical essays, recruit expert teachers to prepare the learning activities, and provide high quality reproductions of historical documents for classroom use. As a result, we realized our vision to bring expert knowledge and unique archival materials into classrooms across the nation to celebrate and study the rich heritage of the Erie Canal. We are especially appreciative of Carl T. Hayden, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, for his important facilitation of our funding requests. 

The quality of this publication reflects the high caliber of skill resident within the Archives and particularly the Archives' Public Programs unit. The Public Programs unit, under the leadership of Judy Hohmann, began this project three years ago and was able to put together an expert team of leading scholars, educators, and cultural professionals to produce the final work. Julie C. Daniels, coordinator of educational programs for the New York State Archives, compiled this book and managed the myriad day-to-day details associated with the numerous authors, teachers, and historical organizations that contributed to the book. Daniels is an exceptionally talented archivist and educator and leads the Archives' statewide outreach to New York's education community. She brought to the project a special insight from both of those worlds, as well as years of experience. The result is a work that surpasses her previous nationally acclaimed endeavor, Consider the Source: Historical Records in the Classroom (1995), in both content and scope. 

We owe a special debt of gratitude to Dr. F. Daniel Larkin, a State University of New York distinguished service professor and interim provost and vice president of academic affairs at SUNY Oneonta, and Jean West, formerly an educator with the National Archives. Larkin served as managing editor for the book and author of many of the essays. He is one of the foremost authorities on canals in New York State and is co-author of a textbook on New York State history. His assistance in making the final selection of documents as well as his help in identifying other scholars who could contribute essays has resulted in a book that deepens our understanding of the significance of the Erie Canal. West's excellent editing skills and prowess in writing imaginative learning activities have enlivened the book and broadened its appeal to a wide variety of classroom teachers. Her expertise also is evident in her contributions to Cobblestone Publishing's Teaching With Primary Sources series and the New York State Archives' Consider the Source: Historical Records in the Classroom. 

The expertise and support of many individuals within the State Education Department, Office of Cultural Education and Elementary, Middle, Secondary, and the Continuing Education Division, were essential to the completion of this work. Anyone interested in researching the Erie Canal knows that a font of knowledge and a generous spirit coexist in Craig Williams of the New York State Museum. He is a canal aficionado, whose knowledge of existing New York canal resources - physical and recorded — is second to none. Williams manages the collections of the Canal Society of New York State and is thoroughly familiar with the Erie Canal holdings of the New York State Archives and New York State Library. He volunteered countless hours of his time to recommend historical records for the project, locate difficult-to-find records, and fact-check the smallest of details. Philip Lord, Jr., another colleague at the New York State Museum, not only wrote an essay for the book but proved to be especially valuable as a very accessible and accurate source of information throughout the project. We also are indebted to Gary Warren, associate in social studies education, who helped us align this publication with the New York State Education Department's Learning Standards. 

It seems that at one time or another, virtually every member of the Archives reference staff was called upon to assist with this project, and their talents and skills were exceptional. However, archivist Richard Andress deserves special mention. His background as a teacher, coupled with his personal enthusiasm for the project and his ability to locate the “educational jewels” of the Archives' holdings, was an important asset to this project. A serendipitous addition to the project was Gary Bugh, a doctoral candidate at the State University of New York at Albany, who joined the Archives as an invitational scholar at about the time the project was in its final, pressure-ridden phase. He did not hesitate to add locating and scanning records to his already full work schedule to ensure that we would make our deadline, and we are grateful. The entire project and its participants enjoyed the high level of support we have come to know and appreciate from Ellen Szmyr, secretary in the Public Programs and Outreach unit of the Archives. 

An additional mention must be made of a group of five teachers invited to participate in the Archives' first-ever "Erie Canal Teacher Institute” in 1998. Belinda Jackson, Glenn Johnston, Keith Lunn, Erlyn Madonia, and Anne Trojnar helped us to mine the Archives' vast holdings of more than five million Erie Canal documents to identify records suitable for classroom use. 

Last but not least, a special thank-you to the contributing scholars, teachers, organizations, and individuals whose documents, knowledge, expertise, and time made this ambitious project possible and whose names appear on page 2. 

V. Chapman-Smith New York State Archivist and Executive Officer 

Archives Partnership Trust 

Archives Partnership Trust Board John Hanna, Jr. Chair James R. Tallon, Jr. Vice-Chair James G. Natoli Treasurer Dr. William G. Andrews Secretary Nedda C. Allbray, Ph.D. A. Laurie Brosnahan Dr. Ann L. Buttenwieser Hon. Saul B. Cohen Hon. Charles D. Cook 

Dr. Richard W. Couper Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel Arnold B. Gardner, Esq. Anthony H. Gioia Hon. Kemp Hannon Huyler C. Held, Esq. Harold Holzer John J. Jerome, Esq. Hon. John J. McEneny

About This Book


This book is divided into five sections. The first part consists of 10 chapters, each 

containing an essay or essays on a particular subject, accompanied by related primary source documents as illustration. Activities and worksheets make up the second section. The third part is devoted to several document-based questions, and the fourth section provides transcriptions of some of the less legible documents. The final section contains appendixes. Any part of this book may be copied for classroom use. Essays and Documents The essays in this book have been written by historians, professors, and museum personnel. The essays are organized along chronological and thematic lines, creating 10 chapters that range from early attempts at canal building prior to the Erie Canal, to the building and maintenance of the canal, to the role of the canal in the 21st century. Accompanying each chapter and following the essays are related primary source documents, ranging from handwritten letters and broadsides, to photographs and sketches, to maps and journal entries. Often, the essays specifically refer to information included in that chapter's series of documents. To make them as large as possible and to provide the closest reproduction of them as primary sources for student use, the documents are designed to fill the page and are simply identified by a tag in the upper outside corner. The tag contains a chapter number and a letter indicating the document's order within the chapter. For example, 3D means that the document can be found in Chapter 3 and is the fourth document after the essays. This is important to remember as the documents do not include any pagination. In the case of 10L, which is a folded map, it can be found on the inside front cover. 

Each chapter begins with its own table of contents. These pages include a list of essays followed by a list of identifiers and document descriptions. However, for the teacher's convenience, a concise running list of all the documents can be found on page 301. The list includes identifying numbers and letters and brief titles providing information on the types of documents and any dates associated with them. 

Activities and Worksheets The second part of the book is made up of 37 activities and seven worksheets. The activities have been written by experienced and knowledgeable classroom teachers. Each activity states a list of objectives for the students, provides discipline links for the teacher, and has a list of materials needed to follow the activity, including documents, writing utensils, maps, books, and other items. The activities pull from essays and documents across all 10 chapters and encourage both independent work and group participation. Students may be instructed to analyze a document, write an essay, define specific terms, or delve into further research. The discipline links mentioned above provide suggested levels (elementary, middle school, secondary), as well as different subjects (history, language arts, math, etc.) for each activity. 

Five of the seven worksheets are general sheets that have been adapted from material from the National Archives and Records Administration. They provide questions to help students analyze and gather information from a written document, photograph, poster, map, or cartoon. The other two worksheets are to be used with two specific activities, Activity 24 and Activity 34. Those activities include a reference to the pages on which their related worksheets can be found. 

Document-Based Questions This section includes three document-based questions, with accompanying scaffolding questions and rubrics for the second and third questions. These activities also recommend the use of essays and documents from the first part of the book and provide standard alignment information for teachers. 

Transcriptions In some cases, the documents chosen may be difficult for students to read. This part of the book provides transcriptions and translations of 12 letters and announcements in which the handwriting is illegible or the information is in a foreign language. (The table of contents contains a complete list of transcribed documents.) As on the original document, a tag in the upper right corner identifies these pages. The transcription page for document 3B, for example, also has a tag label of 3B, but it includes a rule across the top of the page identifying it as a transcription. Appendixes The final section of this book contains the concise list of documents and some general information about the Archives Partnership Trust and Cobblestone Publishing.