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The Erie Canal

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

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 Onondago 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.

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

Settlers and Records

  • 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.

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.


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