Did Your Ancestors Work or Travel on the Erie Canal?

The Erie Canal played so many important parts in opening up America that it is hard to count them all.

First of all, the Nay-Sayers said that it could not be done.  Fortunately there were strong proponents that were able to win out in the rough and ready political climate of the early years of New York State and we have all benefited greatly.

The Erie Canal took the path of least resistance right across the central part of New York State and through a series of so called feeder canals or natural watershed, and using a highly engineered system of locks to raise or lower the boats this largest canal in the U.S was able to connect Albany to Buffalo.

This natural path across the state follows what I like to call in my talks about Upstate New York Genealogy migration patterns as following the western corridor, or the natural route to follow the setting sun.

Primarily the canal was for transporting large quantities of bulk freight, slow maybe but at a very cheap rate in comparison to any other method.  You may have in mind the images of people riding on packet boats, and they did of course, but these were almost always very wealthy people.

I have heard it said that to ride on the Erie from Albany to Buffalo would cost an average working man’s salary for a month.  Most of our ancestors walked across the state usually with an ox team pulling a sledge in the winter or a cart in better seasons.

There are always exceptions and some of you may have proof of ancestors transporting their homestead property by way of the canal, but they would be in the majority.  Many of these people only had a bowl and spoon and a few hand tools and a change of clothing.

It is said by historians that the Erie Canal was dug by New England farmers that worked for what was considered very high wages paid by the state and they primarily worked in the off farming season.  For those of you that have heard that “The Irish dug the Erie Canal” you would be referring to the 1850′s period of the canal widening, which of course attracted many of the recent famine immigrants to good jobs.

erie canal map

I want to call your attention to an excellent website that is all about the Erie Canalway and part of the  National Heritage Corridor of New York.

One excellent resource on this site is some very detailed maps that you may download for free, such as:

Erie Canalway Eastern Region – Albany up to Whitehall, NY and westward to Oneida Lake area.

Erie Canalway Central Region- Utica to Rochester

Erie Canalway Western Region – Jordan to Buffalo

Download these excellent maps at the official website of the Erie Canalway National Corridor website at:


You will find many items of interest on this website, things to do, get involved, plan your visit, and much more.

12 Responses to “Did Your Ancestors Work or Travel on the Erie Canal?”

  • Ann:

    HI, Thank you so much for this article and information. My Grandparents lived across the street from the Erie Canal. My Mother-In-Law’s parents lived on the Canal a few miles East of my Grandparents. I remember ice skating on the Canal as a child and in the summer some of the boys caught carp in it. There is a lot of personal history here. The website is very interesting, I will keep this newsletter for further use. Sincerely Ann

  • nygenes1:

    Hi Ann, Thanks for letting us see the canal through your eyes also. My dad used to tell me that the canal days were just about over when he was a kid but in the summer he and his buddies would risk getting arrested for taking a dip in the canal on those hot summer days. He said the water was stinky and dirty but thy didn’t care. Glad you liked the article and thanks again for leaving a comment. Dick

  • Joanne Pezzullo:

    Thought I would add this little tidbit. ” In the fall of 1821, when Mr. Swain was fourteen years old, contracts were let, and the great work of constructing the Erie Canal commenced. The news spread that the contractors would pay a man with a team and scraper one dollar per day in cash ; and Mr. Swain persuaded his father to fit him out for the work, to which he went alone, and did good service. He returned, when the frosts prevented further labor, with his team and scraper in perfect condition, and all his wages in silver coin, which he placed in his mother’s lap. Mr. Swain takes pride now in the fact that he was enabled to assist, even in so obscure a way, in the great work that served to make the products of the West accessible to the markets of the world.” American biographical history of eminent and self-made men: Part 1 – Page 135 F. A. Barnard – 1878 Isaac N. Swain was son of William Swain and Martha Seamans.

  • Bobbie Lyon:

    Yes, my g-great grandfather was a lock keeper. The following article was clipped and saved. I inherited it 5 years ago. Death-accidental drowning near the Jacksonburg locke where he was a lock keeper. (The Herkimer Citizen 15 July 1890.) July 8, 1890-a newspaper clipping records the death of William. “About one o’clock Tuesday night the body of Wm. P. Stauring was found in the canal a few feet below the Jacksonburg lock, and life was extinct. Stauring was one of the lock tenders, and was last seen alive about 12 o’clock, when he started to cross the foot bridge to the other side of the lock. The supposition is that he fell into the lock and was drowned. Not returning, search was made, and the body was found as above. Stauring was 69 yrs of age, and has one son living (3 sons died previous). Coroner Nellis was summoned yesterday morning and held an inquest. The verdict of the jury was that death was accidental”. Family lore relates William to be the only one to drown in the Canal but I find that hard to believe. William lost his wife, Magdalena Seeber)& a very young daughter (or 2) to a plague, Feb 1867, kept his 4 sons but gave his daughter to a family by the name of Guiwits. That daughter, Nora (aka Lenore Guiwits)Stauring, had nothing to do with him from then on, per Cameron family lore. His Palatine family (Staring, Stauring, etc.)ruled along boths sides of the Mohawk, participating with distinction in the Revolution, other Indian skirmishes, War of 1812, etc. They lived life to the fullest with large families, politics, farms, and religious life.

  • A.Cooper:

    My gt grandfather was a mule-driver as a boy in the town of Phoenix,NY, on the Oswego Canal. His uncle was a carpenter and canal boat captain.

  • nygenes1:

    Quite often the whole family would have a job together. They would work hard, savce their money and take the winters off. Thanks for sharing.

  • TP Rogers:

    Several of my ancestors in the Henry Hull family were “Boatman” on the Erie or Oswego Canal. One, Oren Henry Hull, was lock-master for Lock number 6 on the Oswego Canal near Hinmansville, Oswego county, NY about 1903.

  • nygenes1:

    It’s great that you give your family evidence because so much of this canal history is just not able to be located in state records. Thanks for commenting.

  • Roy Clement Jr:

    My Great Great Grandfather Stephen Bush born in 12 Sept. 1800 in Bolton Worcester Mass. followed the Erie Canal looking for a place to settle he finally chose Lockport, New York a major lock on the Erie canal. His trade was as a Cooper. He had two sons that worked the Erie canal Stephen Gardner Bush who was murdered on the canal and John Edward Bush who owned three barges. John Edward Bush died somewhere on the old canal around 1900 but nobody seems to know where if anyone knows contact me at royclementjr@gmail.com. John also spent time at Andersonville POW camp in Georga. He was also one of the leaders at the P.O.W. camp that broke the back of the fiends that controlled everything with in the prison. We can’t prove that because he enlisted in someone elses name.Who we don’t know.

  • Roy Clement Jr:

    I’m sorry but what do you mean moderation do you want more detail or have I said something I shouldn’t have.

  • Jo:

    My 2nd cousin 2x removed, Frederick F. Harrison of Amsterdam, NY, was employed by the New York State Barge Canal System as the chief at Lock 12 in Tribes Hill for 22 years, retiring in 1983. Sadly, he passed in 2009 at the age of 88 and I never did get around to interviewing him on tape, which he kept wanting me to do, but he did love to tell canal stories. I believe he volunteered as a tour guide or something similar for many years after his retirement.

  • nygenes1:

    Hi Jo, Too bad about not getting him recorded. I located an old lady once that turned out to be a second direct cousin of my 3rd great grandmother! I know that sounds unlikely but is true, due to very long generations in her line where she was a very late in life child, so was her father and grandfather so even though they could not have known each other she lived in almost the same location that my 3rd g grandmother would have. I talked with her for about an hour with no tape recorder and had it all set up to go back and interview the next spring, unfortunately her time had expired during the winter. Important point here is to get the memories recorded people. Many times they are hazy with time but there will ALWAYS be some gems to polish in the stories. Thanks for commenting Jo. Dick Hillenbrand

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