On the Water:
Stories from Maritime America

The United States grew up on the water and remains a maritime nation to this day.

For more than 300 years, waves of new Americans arrived by sea. In that time, the nation’s seacoasts, rivers, lakes, and canals became avenues of exploration, communication, and commerce. These waterways linked people and communities with the rest of the country.

Stories of life and work on the water—from fishers to passengers to seafarers—unfolded at the same time, through immense challenges and achievements, and occasional disasters. Ships today connect Americans to a complex web of international trade. In the age of flight, it’s worth remembering that the nation still thrives on the water.

The exhibition is organized into the following main sections:


On the Water - Living in the Atlantic World

Living in the Atlantic World


Over nearly four centuries, Atlantic-based trade shaped modern world history and life in America.


On the Water - Maritime Nation Section Header

Maritime Nation


Shipbuilders, mariners, and maritime merchants helped the new nation defend itself and grow.


On the Water - Fishing for a Living Section Header

Fishing for a Living


The bounty of the waters has sustained people of North America for centuries.


On the Water - Inland Waterways Section Header

Inland Waterways


The country’s vast system of rivers and lakes has helped people settle the land and create communities.


On the Water - Ocean Crossings Section Header

Ocean Crossings


Ocean liners were ships of transport for immigrants and machines of leisure, status, and national prestige.


On the Water - Answering the Call Section Header

Answering the Call


Merchant seamen and ships played a vital role in winning both world wars of the 20th century.


On the Water - Modern Maritime America Section Header

Modern Maritime America


Maritime activity is as important as ever, and it affects the lives of people everywhere.


Learning Resources

Lesson and activity plans teach kids about maritime history in America.


Explore the Collection

View our collection of maritime objects and artifacts.

This exhibition was made possible through the support of many generous donors.