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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

River Traffic, Canals and Railroads[edit | edit source]

Steamboats, canals, and railroad transport came very late in this period. The early pioneers entering the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys had fewer choices than those who followed later. Water transportation was favored over roads which were barely passable.

Water travel along streams was by canoe, ordinarily a dugout and occasionally a bark canoe. A dugout, usually about 20 feet long, was hollowed from the trunk of a tree, and could usually be constructed by four men over four days. Larger ones might be as long as 30 feet, with a 3 1/2 foot beam and a square sail. Cargo was placed in the center, the front was for paddling, the rear for steering. A modified canoe, called a pirogue, had a square stern. Sometimes, two canoes would be lashed together, floored over, with a sail for power.

The Mackinaw boat was about 50 feet long, resembling a large rowboat, carrying cargo in a watertight center compartment. The light-weight bullboat could be navigated by two men with poles; about 30 feet long, it was made of caulked buffalo hides stretched over a willow frame. (Riegel and Athearn, America Moves West, 212.)

Most popular of all water transport was the flatboat. At Pittsburgh, families who purchased a flatboat for transportation had an advantage in that a second function was that upon arrival at their new location, they could disassemble it and use the wood and nails in constructing a home.

The box-like flatboats varied in size, from 20 to 100 feet long, and from 8 to 15 feet wide; the depth of these flat-bottomed boats was seldom over 3 feet. Power was supplied simply by river current; each flatboat had four oars for steering. The keelboat was the principal upriver craft. Usually it measured about 50 feet in length and 7 to 10 feet in width. It had pointed ends and a regular keel with a draught of between 20 to 60 inches. It could carry between 20 and 40 tons of freight protected from sun and rain by a roof. (Riegel and Athearn, America Moves West, 116, 212-213.)

Steamboats[edit | edit source]

Commerce was the impetus for the development of steamboat traffic on the navigable streams of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers Valleys. Passenger traffic often included families.

In May 1809 Nicholas Roosevelt was sent West to check out steamboat possibilities. He built a flatboat at Pittsburgh and journeyed to New Orleans, from which he returned to the East by ocean. His discussions along the way resulted in the construction in 1811 of the steamboat New Orleans, built in Pittsburgh. It started down the Ohio River in October of that year and reached New Orleans January 10, 1812. Along the way, Roosevelt conducted short demonstrations of the steamboat’s upriver power capabilities to the citizenry of the towns along the river.

The prototype of later steamboats was the Washington, built for Henry M. Shreve at Wheeling in 1816. Serious steamboat accidents occurred over the years, largely due to mechanical failure of the dangerous, high-pressure boilers used to get more power with less weight. Moreover, since the steamboats were constructed largely of wood, they were highly combustible; sparks from the smokestacks often ignited fires. The height of steamboating came during the 1850s, at which time the Mississippi and Ohio were the most important rivers, although the Missouri and other tributaries carried part of the business.

Canals[edit | edit source]

As early as 1807, Robert Fulton forecasted, “On a road of the best kind, four horses, and sometimes five, are necessary to transport only three tons. On a canal one horse will draw twenty-five tons, and thus perform the work of forty horses."

Between 1820 and 1840 most of the canals were in the Old Northwest rather than in the early Old Southwest. The South had a sparser population and lesser wealth; the prevalence of the plantation system didn’t lead to the urban centers necessary for canal promotion.

The Erie Canal was 350 miles in length with 35 locks which lifted the water 500 feet. The cost was $7,000,000 or $19,250 per mile. The Erie Canal was begun at Fort Stanwix (Rome) in 1817 and opened for traffic in 1825. It was significant in the development of central and western New York, directly responsible for the cities of Herkimer, Utica, Syracuse, and Lockport. Harbor improvements that began in the late 1820s contributed to the significant growth of Buffalo.

The Erie Canal with its barges towed by animals, its locks and low current, was highly successful. Shipping profits were so large that plans were made immediately to enlarge the canal and its carrying capacity. Connecting New York City with the Great Lakes, it took over the westward movement of people and at the same time, the eastward movement of heavy trade commodities. It brought in immense business to New York City. And it led to the growth of all the Great Lakes country, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

New York’s rival city Philadelphia quickly recognized the commercial value of canals, but due to the mountains, Pennsylvania’s efforts were far more costly and less practical. Their canal work was started in 1826 and completed in 1834. The route was followed later by the Pennsylvania Railroad, chartered in 1846, which virtually replaced Pennsylvania’s canal system.

The first western state to build canals was the highly populated state of Ohio. In 1825, it authorized two canals to connect the Ohio River with Lake Erie. The Ohio-Erie Canal connected Cleveland and the iron ore area in southeast Ohio. The Miami-Erie Canal connected Toledo to Cincinnati. A second project was begun the same year but not completed until 1845—the Miami Canal, which followed the historic Maumee-Miami route from Toledo to Cincinnati. Still more canals were proposed in 1836, but those plans were delayed by the Panic of 1837. Within the next ten years, however, feeder canals established a canal network in Ohio.

Indiana considered canals as early as 1820, but only after viewing Ohio progress did they begin construction seriously. Indiana finished its Wabash and Erie Canal in 1842.

Railroads[edit | edit source]

In the late 1820s the transportation novelty in America was the railroad. Eastern cities looked at Europe’s early railroads and pondered the possibilities of developing railroads to acquire western business.

In 1830, a primitive railroad began operating on 13 miles of track laid west from Baltimore. The next year a line west from Charleston began to operate. Soon other eastern cities began to construct short railroad lines. By 1840, there were more miles of railroad in the United States than there were miles of canals.

The decades after 1840 were to bring stunning achievements in a network of railroads across the North American Continent.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States: Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.