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Instructor in History at Vassar College.

Copyright, igio, by L. K. Mathews.
All rights reserved.





Instructor in History at Vassar College.

The story of the advance of the frontier in this country
has but just begun to be told. So many factors, so many
different peoples, so many routes are involved, that the
necessity for many separate studies is obvious. At last
some master will combine them all, and give us on an im-
mense canvas a picture of the whole movement by which
the frontier has been thrust on toward the west and the
northwest until now it has disappeared. The building of
the Erie canal was only one of the several factors operative
between 1825 and 1840 in peopling the territory between^-—
the Hudson river and the Mississippi. 2 Moreover, it af-
fected only insignificantly, if at all, the movement of popu-
lation below a line cutting across the middle of Pennsyl-
vania west of the Alleghany mountains, Ohio, Indiana and
Illinois. For our present purposes, then, the tract most
vitally affected by the opening of this waterway lies west

1. Paper read at the Conference on Western History, meeting of the American
Historical Association in New York City, December 30, 1909.

2. See "History of the Canal System of the State of New York," edited
by Noble E. Whitford, I, 213, quoting a report of a committee of the New
York Assembly, 1854. Too much stress is laid there by local patriotism on
the effect of the canal.



of the Hudson river, east of the Mississippi, and north
of the fortieth parallel. It is the purpose of this paper to
show first, contemporary opinion as to the necessity for the
canal; second, by contrasting maps of settlement in 1820,
1830 and 1840, to show the tract aftected by its construc-
tion; third, the altered conditions in those tracts because
of the influx of New Englanders and New Yorkers ; and,
fourth, the nature of the traffic and its bulk, with quotations
of prices and rates.

It is not necessary here to take up the controversy as to
who was the real progenitor of a plan for connecting the
Great Lakes with the Mohawk river and the Hudson. At
least as early as 1784 1 , clear-visioned New Yorkers saw the
necessity for better facilities to market those surplus prod-
ucts which were raised in central New York; and in 1791
Elkanah Watson put himself on record af'.er a journey
through the state of New York as to the necessity of "com-
pleting the work of nature." 2 Only in this way did he feel
that any great and substantial development could come to
the land lying back from the Mohawk and bordering on
the Great Lakes. Timothy Dwight on a journey to Niagara
Falls in 1804 confided to his diary that

"The commerce of this country has hitherto struggled, and for
an indefinite period must continue to struggle, with difficulties."
. . . [The distance from Canandaigua to Albany is 205 miles ; from
Buffalo 300.] "The transportation of goods over the whole distance,
except seventy-five miles, must be by land. From Utica they may
be conveyed to Schenectady on the Mohawk; but the navigation is
so imperfect, that merchants often choose to transport their com-
modities along its banks in waggons. Notwithstanding this incon-
venience, Albany is the port, to which they must hold, and probably
for a long time hereafter, resort. Now their trade is wholly carried
on in this channel. . . . The trouble and the expense of conveying
the produce to New York, are always considerable; and, when the
commodities are bulky, must ever amount to no small part of their
price in the market. Thus grain of all kinds, their principal produce,

1. See Sparks's "Life of Gouverneur Morris," I, 497. The question is
taken up fully in the "History of the Canal System ... of New York,"
cited above, I, 16-47.

2. Elkanah Watson, "Summary History of the rise, progress and exist-
ing state of the grand canal," 78 (Ed. of 1820).


can be carried to market, only when it commands an extraordinary
price." 1

Dwight spoke of the route to Baltimore via the Susque-
hanna; but added that the swiftness of that river and its
numerous rapids and shoals necessitated a long and tedious
return overland, and thus condemned any great use of that
market. 2 He was inclined to believe that Montreal would
be the great port ; and the large emigration of New Eng-
enders to the lands lying between the northern boundary
of the New England states and New York, and the St.
Lawrence river for a quarter of a century after the Revo-
lution, together with the gigantic plan for waterways, con-
ceived by Albert Gallatin, makes one feel that many persons
shared his view. James Flint, traveling in Pennsylvania
and New York in 1819-1820, noted the large areas of fertile
land in both these states which were either sparsely settled
or passed over entirely, for want of easy routes for settle-
ment and facilities to market surplus products. 3 Many
other instances might be summoned to support the convic-
tion of Governor Clinton and his contemporaries that the
future prosperity of New York was dependent upon the
building of the Erie canal.*

In 1820 the frontier line in the tract w T e are considering,
lay as the map indicates. 5 The routes by which settlement
was entering that tract were by way of the Hudson (to
the north); the Mohawk river; up the Susquehanna and
then branching out; up the Delaware, and spreading into
the interior ; by the Braddock road to Pittsburg ; down the
Ohio, and penetrating northward by its tributaries into
Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as southward into Ken-
tucky ; up from the southern states into the counties bor-
dering the northern shores of the Ohio; and up the Miss-
issippi to the lead-mining regions of Illinois and Wiscon-

1. Timothy Dwight, "Travels," IV, 124, 125 (Ed. of 1822).

2. Ibid, 124, 125.

3. James Flint, "Letters from America," Edinburgh, 1822, pp. 26, 33;
also in Thwaites, "Early American Travels," IX, 183.

4. "History of Canal System ... of New York," I, 609, citing an As-
sembly committee report of 1824.

5. See accompanying maps.

Cotyright, 1910, by I. K. Mathews.




sin. The character of these districts had been determined
by the available means of entering the country, and we find
New England settlers flocking at this time into New York,
western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio, along with
their cousins from those parts of New Jersey and Pennsyl-
vania, which had been peopled originally by New England
stock. Outside of the Western Reserve and Marietta there
was as yet but little direct New England influence in Ohio ;
Virginians and Carolinians had been crowding in ever since
the bounty lands were opened after the Revolution, while
Symmes' Purchase had drawn largely from New Jersey
"Yankee stock," now several generations away from its
original Puritan background. Indiana and Illinois were
practically wholly southern, as the laws and customs plainly
testified. Michigan was still almost unknown outside of
Detroit and a few frontier villages to the west of the old
French posts; while Wisconsin had not yet been invaded
save in the southwestern corner, on the Illinois border.

Such was substantially the situation in 1825, the year
when "Clinton's big ditch" was opened its entire length,
and the historic cask of water brought from Lake Erie
was solemnly emptied into New York harbor. A glance
at the map of settlement in 1830 will show in a graphic way
the changes in the frontier line since 1820. The Erie canal
was not responsible for it all, but it was a potent factor.
The rise of such cities and towns as Buffalo, Black Rock,
Tonawanda, Lockport, Middleport, Medina, and Albion
was due directly to their relation to the canal, as the names
of two of them indicate. 1 But many villages sprang up in
the "back country" as the adjuncts of increasing farming
communities, where the difficulty of transporting household
goods and food, in the first place, and later to market grain
or cattle, had been a deterrent to anything but the sparsest
population. What was left of the Holland Purchase, 2 the
Morris tract, and the Phelps-Gorham district was picked
up at once, and an influx of merchants and of artisans of
all descriptions raised the figure for population of all the

1. O. Turner, "History of the Holland Purchase," 653-658.

2. "G. W.," in Niles's Register, 21 Dec, 1822, p. 249.

Copyright, 1910, bj L. K. Mathews.




cities and towns along the canal. 1 The gain in Rochester be-
tween 1820 and 1830 was 421 per cent., of Buffalo 314 per
cent., of Syracuse 282 per cent. Utica had 2,972 inhabitants
in 1820; in 1830, 4,366. Lockport had 3,007 in 1825;
6,092 in 1835. The population of the state of New York
jumped from 1,372,812 in 1820 to 2,428,921 in 1840. That
the Erie canal was an important factor in this growth is

Western Pennsylvania was affected also, but less di-
rectly. The map shows the growth of settlement, but does
not record its increasing density. Crawford county, in the
western part of the state, had but 2,346 inhabitants in 1800 ;
9,379 in 1820; in 1830, 16,030. The population of the
whole state increased from 1,049,458 in 1820 to 1,724,033
in 1840. Here, as in New York, merchants and artisans
flocked into towns already settled, and changed their char-
acter completely. 2 The Scotch-Irish and the Germans
moved on to join the tide of emigration to the West and
South, leaving to more recent comers the possession of the

In Ohio, the movement is more clearly marked, especially
after 181 5, when the Peace of Ghent opened up lands to
the west of Cleveland. Here again the map does not show
the increasing density of population. But such towns as
Oberlin, founded in 1833, gave a distinct New England
character to northwestern Ohio, as the peopling of the
Western Reserve had to the northeastern portion of the
state since about 1800. Here, again, the Erie canal played
its part, for many of the newcomers of 1825 went from
Albany to Buffalo by boat, and by steamer to Lake Erie
ports. The lands along the south shore of the lake were
settled rapidly, and by 1830 were so fully occupied that the

1. "History of the Canal System ... of New York," I, 900, 901, 902.
Authorities are cited there. Also tables at the end of the volume. Also Ellis
O. Roberts, "New York" (American Commonwealth Series), II, 548, 549.
Also Julius Winden, "The Influence of the Erie Canal upon the population
along its course," cited fully by A. B. Hulbert, "Historic Highways of
America," XIV, Pt. II, 152-177.

2. See authorities cited in L. K. Mathews, "Expansion of New England,"
note on p. 152.

Copyright, 1910, by L. K. Mmthetoi.




homeseekers passed them by for cheaper lands in Michigan
and Wisconsin.

Indiana was never a favorite stopping-place for emi-
grants from the East, and the typical Hoosier has always
been a composite portrait of southern emigrants. Timothy
Flint, writing in 1832, said:

"Nearly half the counties [on the upper Wabash] have been
constituted within the last five years. ... In consequence of the
great change produced by the opening of the New York canal, and
the canal connecting Lake Erie with Ontario, the north front of
Indiana, along Lake Michigan, which a few years since, was re-
garded as a kind of terminating point of habitancy in the desert,
has begun to be viewed as a maratime [sic] shore, and the most
important front of the state." 1

But he found the greater part of commercial intercourse
from the old Northwest Territory was still "with New
Orleans, by the rivers and the Mississippi, in boats." The
population of the State, 147,178 in 1820, was in 1840,

Illinois grew very slowly in point of population from
1820 to 1825. Ihe tide of emigration from the states south
of the Ohio river had been diverted across the Mississippi
by the Missouri Compromise, and Illinois was, for a short
period, passed by. Governor Coles, in a message of January
3, 1826, says that the tide of emigration to Illinois had been
checked for several years, but had then set in, and 1825-6
had seen an influx greater than for the preceding years.
From 1820 to 1825 the population of Illinois increased
17,655; from 1825 to 1830 it increased 84,628; from 1830
to 1840 it increased 318,73s. 2

With the opening of the Erie canal, however, New Eng-
enders and New Yorkers began to arrive in such numbers
as to dismay the inhabitants of the southern portion of the
state. 3 Southerners opposed the Illinois and Michigan ca-
nal because of the fear that if completed "it would flood

1. Timothy Flint, "History and Geography of the Mississippi Valley,"
I, 38s, 386 (Ed. of 1833).

2. Twelfth Census, abstract of, p. 32.

3. Arthur C. Boggess, "The Settlement of Illinois," 187, 188; see also


the State with Yankees. "* The influx of settlers increased
steadily after 1825, and with 1830 a change in the character
of the new state began to be evident. New Englanders
came between 1830 and 1840 alone, in groups of two or
three families, and by colonies as well, accompanied by
emigrants from New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, oftener
than not of New England stock themselves. The records
are full of such stories as this : A colony from New Hamp-
shire bound for the vicinity of Princeton, Illinois, set out
in 1837, proceeding by canal-boat from Albany to Buffalo,
by steamer from Buffalo to Detroit, and overland from
Detroit by wagons to their destination. 2 Other colonies
went down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi and the
Illinois. 3 But the majority of those from New England
seem to have followed the Erie canal, Lake Erie, and
wagon roads onward. So great was the influx of Puritan
stock, that the personnel of representatives and senators
fiom Illinois had by 1850 changed greatly, and the revision
of the State Constitution in 1847-8 provided for the adop-
tion of the township system or the county system, as the
majority of voters might decide. 4

As late as 1830, Michigan was passed by for better
known lands to the south and west of her boundary. The
real "boom" for Michigan lands began in 1830, when the
sale of John Farmer's map (first published in 1825)
reached its largest proportions. Freight rates between
Buffalo and New York had dropped from $5 a barrel in
181 5, when the only competitors of sailing vessels were
pack-horses, to $4.50 per hundred weight from New York
to Detroit in 1818 by steamboat, to $2.50 per hundred-
weight in 1826 from New York to Columbus, O. The
popular feeling with regard to the part the Erie canal

1. Ford, "Illinois," 281.

2. E. H. Phelps, in Bradsby, "History of Bureau County, Illinois," 127.
See Patrick Shirreff on the future of Chicago as he foresaw it in 1833, ("Tour
through North America," etc., Edinburgh, 1835, p. 226;) also in A. B. Hart,
"American History told by contemporaries," III, 475, 476.

3. See "History of Henry County," 138; Carr, "History of Rockton,"
39; Bradsby, "History of Bureau County," 619.

4. Peck, "Gazetteer of Illinois," 109; E. B. Greene, "Government of
Illinois," 36; Albert Shaw, "Local Government in Illinois," 11.


played in peopling the Michigan prairies is well shown in
a couple of verses of the song "Michigania," on every
emigrant's tongue about 1837 '}

"Then there's old Varmount, well, what d'ye think of that?
To be sure, the gals are handsome and the cattle very fat :
But who among the mountains, 'mid cloud and snow would stay :
When he can buy a prairie in Michigania?
Yea, Yea, Yea, in Michigania.

"Then there's the State of New York, where some are very rich ;
Themselves and a few others have dug a mighty ditch,
To render it more easy for us to find the way,
And sail upon the waters to Michigania.
Yea, Yea, Yea, to Michigania."

A pioneer moving from Woodstock, Connecticut, in
1835, took his family to Norwich, where they boarded a
vessel for Albany, and then went out on the Erie canal
to Buffalo. From Buffalo they went by steamer to De-
troit, arriving a little more than three weeks from the day
they left Woodstock. 2 Another pioneer started from Cas-
tleton, Vermont, in 1838, went by stage road to Albany,
by train to Utica, by canal-boat to Buffalo, and by steam-
boat to Detroit. 3 The story might be repeated almost in-
definitely. Lanman, writing in 1839, 4 said that the Eric
canal "unfolds a new avenue to the prosperity of Michi-
gan. . . . The territory [had been] . . . obliged to
grapple with the obstacles springing from its remote posi-
tion, and the want of convenient modes of transportation of
articles of large bulk over the land between Albany and
Lake Erie." . . . [With the opening of the canal] . . .
'"'emigrants could ... be provided with cheap and easy
transportation for themselves and their merchandise, and
this line of communication continued to be crowded with
settlers who broke up their establishments in the less gen-

1. See Silas Farmer, "History of Detroit and Michigan," I, 335, 336.

2. Johnson, "Hillsdale County," 272.

3. J. P. Hinman, in Mich. Pioneer Society Coll., vol. XIV, 513-570.

4. J. H. Lanman, "History of Michigan," 231-2 (Ed. of 1839).


erous soil of the East, and were advancing to plant them-
selves in the land of promise on the Lakes." That the ma-
jority of the newcomers were from New England and New
York, Lanman also testified. 1

It was to these New England emigrants that Michigan
owed its New England character. Of the first fourteen
governors of the state, six came from New England, and
six from New York. Its educational system was shaped
largely by such men as S. F. Drury, a native of Spencer,
Massachusetts ; John D. Pierce, a graduate of Brown Uni-
versity, and Isaac Crary, born in Preston, Connecticut.
The preponderance of Congregational churches in Michi-
gan points to its New England character, as does the town-
ship system, more nearly like that of Massachusetts than
is the institution of local government in any state outside
of New England.

In Wisconsin, as in Illinois, the earliest settlers came
from the south by way of the Mississippi river and its
tributaries. Galena, in the heart of the lead-mining region
of Illinois and Wisconsin, was important long before
Milwaukee and Chicago had passed beyond the pioneer
village stage of their history. 2 In 1830, the whole popula-
tion west of Lake Michigan was less than 3,000; in 1840,
it was 30,945. 3 These new-comers were for the most part
from the East — from New England, New York, and the
settled portion of what had been the "Old Northwest Ter-
ritory." They made constant use of the Erie canal as far
as Buffalo, proceeded by steamboat to Detroit, from there
followed the old Chicago road around the end of Lake
Michigan, and then went by the various trails to Wisconsin. 4
The early history of the territory was marked by the same
development in local government that we have noted in
Illinois — the southerners of the lead-mining region adopted
the county system, the eastern emigrants around Milwaukee,

1. Ibid., 295, 296. Also Judge Cooley, "Michigan" (American Common-
wealth Series), 240 if.

2. Tenney and Atwood, "Fathers of Wisconsin," 14.

3. Ibid., 13.

4. Thwaites, "Wisconsin" (American Commonwealth Series), 246, 247.


Racine, Kenosha,

and Madison adopted

the township

method. 1

A few figures as

to the tonnage of the Erie canal are

significant :


No. tons

No. tons

coming to


tidewater from

tidewater for















A table of prices ;

it Cincinnati gives : 3



Flour, per barrel



Corn, per bushel



Lard, per pound




That there was a wider market, an increased demand,
and consequent rising prices, is evident.

Figures concerning the character of the traffic over the
canal during the years from 1824 to 1834 also repay ex-
amination. The tonnage of agricultural products increased
greatly, especially of wheat and flour; of manufactured
products, the quantity was small; but there was a large
traffic going west, 4 of furniture and merchandise. The
traffic of less than 100,000 tons passing West Troy in 1824
grew to about 500,000 tons in 1834, and increased steadily
thereafter, in spite of the panic of 1837.

The influence of the Erie canal in directing commerce
across the country instead of down the Mississippi and
Ohio rivers was a decided one; the railroads which were
later built parallel to its route probably only emphasized a
movement already on foot. That this movement was ac-
celerated by the fact that the new-comers by way of the

1. "History of Grant County," 507.

2. Whitford, "History of Canal System of New York," I, 909, Table 3.

3. Ibid., I, 821.

4. Ibid., I, 898, 899.


canal were from New York and New England was at once
a cause and an effect: they knew their eastern markets as
the southerner knew New Orleans and Baltimore, and they
desired to send their surplus products to the former rather
than to the latter. The effect of the canal in binding the
old Northwest Territory, especially the parts last settled,
to the East rather than to the South, had its effect probably
by 1850, and certainly by i860.

Moreover, the Erie canal played a large part in deter-
mining the New England and the New York-New England
character of those same states. Had conditions continued
and crystallized as they were in 1820, the stream of New
England emigration would have poured into the uninhab-
ited or sparsely peopled portions of Maine, New Hamp-
shire, and Vermont; the eastern half of Pennsylvania and
New York; and then have been diverted to Upper and
Lower Canada. The New Englander has never been
especially eager to expatriate himself; the situation has
had to be desperate before he has done so. The tide which
flowed over the northern border of the northern states just
after the Revolution was stayed by the opening up of New
York and Ohio, but the Erie canal settled, temporarily, at
least, the question of diverting the stream to Michigan and
the other states bordering on the Great Lakes. 1 The South
might have received acquisitions along the Ohio and the
Mississippi in far greater numbers, had not these lake
states been opened to the New England stream in the
decades between 1820 and 1840.

The Erie canal, then, was a very substantial aid in
pushing the frontier farther to the west and the northwest.
Owing its inception to a time when New York and Penn-
sylvania were on the frontier, its completion was the signal
for making the more sparsely inhabited portions of those
states as densely settled as the banks of the Hudson. It
was by this route that the descendants of those Pilgrims

1. The Erie canal was used, however, by English emigrants bound for
Canada. A family now living in Hamilton, Ontario, has the story of the
mother and her parents arriving in New York, going to Albany and over the
canal route to St. Catharines, Ontario, with other English families, about



and Puritans who had been frontier-builders in 1620 and
1630, pushed on to build states on new lines in the old
Northwest. Here they met descendants of that other line
of pioneers who began their frontier-building upon the
James river in 1607. Forced to yield in some points, the
New Englanders could force their own standards in some
other respect, and so preserve certain of their traditions,
such as the free public school, almost in their original form.
To the Erie canal, then, may be ascribed, in no uncertain
measure, certain distinctive Puritan traits and characteris-
tics which have entered into the making of what is today
the northeastern portion of our great "Middle West."



CANAL, IN 1829.



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