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Erie Canal Lock 32

The Erie Canal in New York allowed boats from New York City on the Hudson River to reach rural upstate New York and Lake Erie. Eventually the Great Lakes were also connected to the Ohio River and Mississippi River systems by other canals. As canals developed in America settlers were attracted to nearby communities because the canals provided access to markets. They could sell their products at distant markets, and buy products made far away. If an ancestor settled near a canal, you may be able to trace back to a place of origin on a connecting waterway.

Historical Background[edit | edit source]

The construction of the Erie Canal began in 1817. As more Irish laborers arrived the pace of construction picked up and overcame significant barriers. For example, during summer construction in a marsh, 1,000 workers died of swamp fever, so survivors were moved to another part of the canal until winter when it was safer to work in the frozen marsh. Sections of the canal opened as follows:

  • 1819 Rome to Utica
  • 1820 Utica to Syracuse
  • 1823 Brockport to Albany (Champlain Canal connecting the Hudson River to Lake Champlain was completed at the same time)
  • 1824 Lockport locks
  • 1825 Onondaga Ridge finishing the entire canal.

The Erie Canal contributed to the wealth and importance of New York City, Buffalo, and New York State. It increased trade throughout the nation by opening eastern and overseas markets to Midwestern farm products and enabling migration to the West. New ethnic Irish communities formed in towns along the canal, as Irish immigrants were a large portion of labor force involved in its construction.[1]

The Erie Canal website and the Family History Library Catalog have more information about the history of the Erie Canal.

Settlers and Records[edit | edit source]

Because so many immigrants traveled on the canal, many genealogists would like to find copies of canal passenger lists. Unfortunately, apart from the years 1827-1829, canal boat operators were not required to record or report passenger names to the New York State government. Those 1827-1829 passenger lists survive today in the New York State Archives.[1]

Prior to the building of the Erie Canal the settlers in upstate New York were often from New England, especially Vermont. Once the Canal was finished, setters along the canal and farther west into Ohio would have reached the Erie Canal from New York City, or from along the Hudson River in New York, or from Vermont via the Champlain Canal. Most of the men who labored to build the Erie Canal were from Ireland and many of them settled near it.


Most Significant United States Canals Used by Settlers
Champlain Canal · Erie Canal · Schuykill Canal · Union Canal · Ohio and Erie Canal · Louisville and Portland Canal · Beaver and Erie Canal · Pennsylvania Canal (Main Line) · Delaware and Raritan Canal · Chesapeake and Ohio Canal · Wabash and Erie Canal · Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal · Miami and Erie Canal · Illinois and Michigan Canal
Canals in the United States.png

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Most Significant United States Canals Used by Settlers
Champlain Canal · Erie Canal · Schuykill Canal · Union Canal · Ohio and Erie Canal · Louisville and Portland Canal · Beaver and Erie Canal · Pennsylvania Canal (Main Line) · Delaware and Raritan Canal · Chesapeake and Ohio Canal · Wabash and Erie Canal · Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal · Miami and Erie Canal · Illinois and Michigan Canal

Historic Background ===

Transportation canals in the United states helped connect isolated rural areas to urban population centers. The golden age of historic transportation canals was from 1820 until railroads began to replace canals in the 1850s. Settlers flooded into regions serviced by such canals and the waterways they connected because they could use the waterways to sell their agricultural products and obtain manufactured goods. The Erie Canal connected New York City to the Great Lakes. The Illinois and Michigan Canal connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system. The short two mile Louisville and Portland Canal by-passed some waterfalls to make the entire length of the Ohio River from the Mississippi River to Pittsburgh available to boats or rafts. Pennsylvania combined canals and railroads. New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, and Indiana also built canals that were enticing to settlers.[2]

Understanding the transportation systems available to ancestors can help genealogists better guess their place of origin. Connect the place where an ancestor settled to the nearby canals, waterways, trails, roads, and railroads to look for connections to places they may have lived previously.

List of Significant Canals[edit | edit source]

Some of the most significant transportation canals to affect American settlement were:

Chronological List of Most Significant United States Canals Used by Settlers
Name Opened Origin Destination
Champlain Canal 1818/1823 Hudson River (Troy, New York) Lake Champlain (Whitehall, New York)
Erie Canal 1819/1825 Hudson River (Albany, New York) Lake Erie (Buffalo, New York )
Schuykill Canal 1825 Delaware River (Philadelphia, PA) Union Canal (Reading, Pennsylvania)
Union Canal 1828 Schuykill Canal (Reading, Pennsylvania) Susquehanna River (Middletown, PA)
Ohio and Erie Canal 1828/1832 Lake Erie (Cleveland, Ohio) Ohio River (Portsmouth, Ohio)
Louisville and Portland Canal 1830 Ohio River (Louisville, Kentucky) 2 mile (3.2 km) waterfall by-pass
Beaver and Erie Canal 1831/1844 Ohio River (Beaver, Pennsylvania) Lake Erie (Erie, Pennsylvania)
Pennsylvania Canal (Main Line)  1834 Delaware River (Philadelphia, PA) Ohio River (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
Delaware and Raritan Canal 1834 Raritan River (New Brunswick, NJ) Delaware River (Bordentown, NJ)
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal 1836 Georgetown, District of Columbia Cumberland, Maryland
Wabash and Erie Canal 1837/1853 Lake Erie (Toledo, Ohio) Ohio River (Evansville, Indiana)
Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal 1840 Beaver and Erie Canal (New Castle, PA) Ohio and Erie Canal (Akron, Ohio)
Miami and Erie Canal 1845 Ohio River (Cincinnati, Ohio) Lake Erie (Toledo, Ohio)
Illinois and Michigan Canal 1848 Lake Michigan (Chicago, Illinois) Illinois River (Peru, Illinois) type Family History Library Catalog

Links[edit | edit source]

=== Sources

Most Significant United States Canals Used by Settlers
Champlain Canal · Erie Canal · Schuykill Canal · Union Canal · Ohio and Erie Canal · Louisville and Portland Canal · Beaver and Erie Canal · Pennsylvania Canal (Main Line) · Delaware and Raritan Canal · Chesapeake and Ohio Canal · Wabash and Erie Canal · Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal · Miami and Erie Canal · Illinois and Michigan Canal
 ===


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Erie Canal" in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (accessed 15 April 2011).
  2. Wikipedia contributors, "Canal" in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canals (accessed 22 June 2009).

References[edit | edit source]