On the Water

River Towns, River Networks

People followed waterways, from canals to great rivers, to build businesses, communities, and new lives.

The Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and other rivers knit together the American nation over the course of a century. In an era before widespread highways and railroads, the farms and industries of the Midwest poured their goods downriver to markets around the world. The boomtowns of the century—New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and many others—thrived and grew on this waterborne commerce. Waterways were so valuable that the nation began building them. The Erie Canal was one.

An Artificial River

In the early 1800s, most Americans moved themselves and their goods by water, rather than on the nation’s rough, limited roads. To extend the water’s reach into the nation’s interior, they began decades of canal building.

The Erie Canal was the nation’s most successful example. Built between 1817 and 1825 to link Lake Erie to the Hudson River and New York City, the canal brought together goods and people from across New York State and from the far reaches of the Great Lakes. Area farms and industries benefited from the traffic on the canal. And New York City thrived in the 1800s in part because it was the leading market for the canal’s commerce.

Reproduction of watercolor by John William Hill

Courtesy of the I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection, The New York Public Library

View on the Erie Canal, 1829

The Erie Canal provided an easy way for farms in upstate New York to transport their products to market. It also carried the farm products of the American and Canadian west from the Great Lakes to the port of New York. On return trips from the city, the canal brought consumer goods to growing communities.

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Canal Builders

The Erie Canal’s labor force numbered 3,000 men in 1818 and 9,000 in 1821. The men dug the 4-foot-deep by 40-foot-wide canal largely by hand, aided by draft animals, explosives, and tree-stump-pulling machines. Their wages of 50 cents a day or about $12 a month sometimes included food and a bunk. Local residents and new immigrants all found work on the project.

Lithograph by J. H. Bufford after W. Wilson, 1836

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

View of the Upper Village of Lockport, Niagara County, New York

Along the Erie Canal, small towns like Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester grew into cities. And between 1823 and 1825, canal construction transformed a three-family settlement at Lockport into a town of 3,000 residents, not counting almost 2,000 canal workers.

Courtesy of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester Libraries

The Erie Canal in downtown Rochester, N.Y., about 1900

The canal connected the cities of upstate New York to markets across the Atlantic and justified the expense of expanding manufacturing. Rochester dominated flour milling in the region until mid-century, then grew into a national leader in making men’s clothing.


Passenger list from canal boat Montezuma, 1828

Many immigrants traveled on the canal. In 1839, Johann Pritzlaff of Germany described how “we went from New York by steamship to Albany and from there, partly by train, partly by canal boats that were pulled by horses, we finally arrived in Buffalo...and from there, again by steamship (across Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan) to Milwaukee.” Capt. William Rogers Jr., compiled this list of his passengers for ten days in October 1828.

Pennsylvania Main Line Canal

Business leaders and lawmakers in other states rushed to compete with the Erie Canal. Few of their projects met with the same success. In 1826, Pennsylvania began a canal to link Pittsburgh to the port city of Philadelphia. The Allegheny Mountains blocked the route, forcing engineers to design a railroad to lift freight from one part of the canal to another. The canal opened in 1833, and was for sale 10 years later. It was largely abandoned by the 1870s, and closed in 1903, having never paid off its investors.

Courtesy of the New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections

The Erie Canal, 1820s

The 363-mile canal was a technological achievement. It was also a commercial success, generating $121 million in tolls from 1825 to 1882, four times what it cost to operate. It carried so much traffic that it was enlarged only ten years after it opened and twice more by 1918.

Invitation, 1825

Erie Canal Celebration, New York, 1825

The official completion of the Erie Canal was marked with a celebration in New York City. Some 20,000 people gathered to watch a fleet of vessels greet the Seneca Chief, the first canal boat to travel the entire distance of the new canal.

Erie Canal Medals, 1825

At the canal’s opening celebration in October 1825, New York governor DeWitt Clinton poured a keg of fresh Lake Erie water into salty New York Harbor. This “Wedding of the Waters” symbolized his confidence that “the great ditch” would enrich America. The invitation and medals here celebrate the promise of the canal.

Canal Carriers

Canal boats needed jars, jugs, crocks, and pots for the food, drink, and other perishable cargo they carried. Almost overnight, potteries sprang up in canal towns to turn out practical stoneware. Each piece was made distinctive by its glaze, decoration, and shape, and proudly stamped with the name and city of the potter, some of whom were immigrants. These examples date from the early years of the Erie Canal.

Stoneware Water Cooler [1825-1847]
Stoneware Water Cooler

Fish and beehive cooler

Moses Tyler, Albany, New York, pottery, 1822

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Stoneware Jar [1827-28]
Stoneware Jar

Flower jar

David Roberts, Utica, New York, pottery, 1829

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Stoneware Water Cooler [before 1830]
Stoneware Water Cooler

Goddess water cooler

A. Drown, Troy, New York, pottery, 1832

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Stoneware Crock [1839-1870]
Stoneware Crock

Butter crock

John Burger, Rochester, New York, pottery, 1850s

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Stoneware Jug [1816-26]
Stoneware Jug

Sailing ship jar

Calvin Boynton, Troy, New York, pottery, 1826

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Stoneware Jug [1824-50]
Stoneware Jug

Bird jug

Israel Seymour, Troy, New York, pottery, 1829

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Seymour advertisement and price list, 1827

Courtesy of the McLallen Family Papers, Helen M. McLallen

Downriver to New Orleans, 1820–1890

New Orleans was a seaport as well as a river port, and a vital connection between the American heartland and the rest of the world. By the 1820s, cotton, grain, pork, and other agricultural products floated down the Mississippi River to the city’s docks. The rise of the steamboat brought trade upriver and opened the Midwest to settlers and goods. By 1850, New Orleans was the second busiest port in the United States and the fourth largest in the world.

At various points in its history, France, Spain, and the United States had all claimed the city. Its residents and visitors created a rich mixture of languages, religions, foods, and traditions.

New Orleans is both the exporting and the importing mart of the Mississippi valley.
Historical Sketch Book and Guide to New Orleans and Environs, 1885
As for the confusion of tongues in the market, it was simply delicious. French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and “Gumbo” contended with each other for supremacy; but French predominated...
—English visitor George Augustus Sala, writing about New Orleans in America Revisited, 1882

Hydrographic Survey, Mississippi River, Cairo to the Gulf, 1879–1880

Courtesy of the Mississippi River Commission

Sunday in New Orleans—The French Market

Alfred R. Waud, from Harper’s Weekly, August 18, 1866

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

Web of Cotton

By the mid-1800s, the United States produced more cotton than any other nation in the world. Most of it left the country through New Orleans—to be spun, woven, cut, and sewn into clothing and countless other products. The cotton industry linked millions of lives. Its sprawling network included enslaved workers on cotton plantations, merchants in New Orleans, sailors and shipowners, textile workers in New England and Great Britain, and customers around the world.

Rigged Model, Packet Ship Ohio [1961]
Rigged Model, Packet Ship Ohio

Packet Ship Ohio

Built at Philadelphia, 1825

Packet Ship Ohio

View Object Record

Coastal traffic between New Orleans and cities along the East Coast reflected the growing economic connections between American people and industries in the early 1800s. The Ohio carried passengers and cargo between Philadelphia and New Orleans. Cotton was the most common cargo shipped out of New Orleans in coastal packets like the Ohio in the 1830s.

Sold “Down River”

This reproduction of part of a ship’s manifest names and describes 83 enslaved African Americans taken aboard the schooner LaFayette in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1833. Bound for Natchez, Mississippi, via New Orleans, the people had been sold “down river” into the domestic slave trade that brought some 1.5 million people south to work the fields of the Cotton Belt. The Franklin and Armfield firm, which was responsible for this transaction, was a well-known and wealthy slave trading business in Alexandria.

Detail from lithograph by D. W. Moody

Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection

New Orleans from the Lower Cotton Press, 1852

Ocean sailing ships tied up next to river steamboats in the busy port of New Orleans. To reach the city, seagoing vessels sailed roughly 100 miles up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico.

Patent Model of a Power Loom
Patent Model of a Power Loom

Fancy power loom patent model

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William Crompton’s invention allowed weavers to create more elaborate designs on power looms. Widely adopted in textile mills on both sides of the Atlantic, the power loom was used to produce fancy designs in silk, wool, and even in cotton.

Patent No. 491, November 25, 1837

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

On the Levee, 1875

A steamship carrying 6,000 bales of cotton and 4,000 sacks of cottonseed could have its entire cargo unloaded and reloaded in as few as eleven hours. Gangs of African American dockworkers performed most of this work both before and after the end of slavery.

Cotton’s Harvest, about 1892

The cotton shipped through New Orleans came from thousands of plantations throughout the South. Until well into the 1930s, it was laboriously planted, tended, and picked by hand, often by sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

From a stereoview published by J. F. Jarvis, Washington, D.C.

Patent No. 203,401, May 7, 1878

Transfer from U.S. Patent Office

Cotton bale-tie patent model

Curran Battle of Warrenton, Georgia, submitted this model of a cotton bale when he applied for a patent in 1878. The model demonstrates how his “new and useful improvement in bale-tie fastenings” worked.

Cotton Aboard, 1878

Cotton was processed through a cotton gin, pressed, and baled at the plantation. For the trip to the “factors” or merchants in New Orleans, the bales were stacked into every available space aboard a river steamer. A staggering 7,818 bales of cotton were carried aboard the sternwheel steamer Chas. P. Chouteau, shown here in Natchez, Mississippi, in December 1878.

From John M. Woodworth, The Cholera Epidemic of 1873 in the United States, 1875

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Deck Passengers

Deck passengers usually outnumbered cabin passengers three or four to one. The fares were cheap but the comforts few: without beds or shelter, they found room among the cargo crates. Diseases spread in such close quarters and were carried to unsuspecting communities along the steamers’ routes. The deck passengers in this image are suffering from cholera, an epidemic that spread along the Mississippi in 1873.

Rigged Model, Sidewheel Cotton Packet J.M. White [1974]
Rigged Model, Sidewheel Cotton Packet J.M. White

Steamboat J. M. White

Built at Jeffersonville, Indiana, 1878

Gift of John H. Leslie

A Mississippi Riverboat

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The sidewheel steamboat J. M. White was designed for passenger service between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Greenville, Mississippi. The vessel was a masterpiece of the gaudy, glamorous style known as Steamboat Gothic and was one of the largest, most expensive, and most powerful river steamers ever built. The boilers produced 2,800 horsepower and the ship could carry 250 first-class passengers and 10,000 bales of cotton. Yet it sat only 6 feet 6 inches deep in the water fully laden. The J. M. White burned at a Louisiana landing in December 1886.

Main Cabin of the J. M. White

First-class passengers traveled in luxury aboard the J. M. White. Like most large riverboats, it was covered with painted wood ornament, particularly on the inside. Such elaborate decoration was both fashionable and relatively inexpensive. It decorated middle-class homes as well as riverboats.

Show Boat and Popular Theater, 1900s

Life along the Mississippi River inspired one of the greatest American musicals, Show Boat. The plot follows a family of performers who travel up and down the river on the Cotton Blossom Floating Theater. But much of the story’s drama lies in the daily lives and complex racial relations of people along the river. “Ol’ Man River” and other songs from Show Boat are American classics and poignant reminders of how rivers wind their way through people’s lives as well as the American landscape.

The Floating Palace, 1888

The Floating Palace consisted of a museum of oddities, a menagerie, an aquarium, and a showboat. The “Great Moral Show” slogan on the side of the boat reflected the role of showboats as family destinations. Advertisements emphasized “clean” shows and a refined atmosphere.

Courtesy of Manuscripts Department, Tulane University Libraries

Sheet Music, "Ol' Man River"
Sheet Music, "Ol' Man River"

“Ol’ Man River” Sheet Music, 1927

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The musical Show Boat premiered in 1927 at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. This sheet music is for the song about one of the play’s main characters—the river itself.

Bryant’s New Showboat [1976]
Bryant’s New Showboat

Bryant’s New Showboat

Built at Point Pleasant, Illinois, 1918

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Sternwheel Steam Towboat Valley Belle

Built at Harmar, Ohio, 1883

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Bryant’s New Showboat and the Valley Belle

Bryant’s New Showboat, launched in 1918, could seat almost 700 people. Its stage was home to dozens of plays like Hamlet, Little Nell of the Ozarks, and even the antics of a trained bucking mule named January. A steam packet turned towboat, the Valley Belle pushed the Bryants and their boat up and down the Kanawha, Ohio, Monongahela, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers. They brought entertainment to mining towns and farming communities along the way until the end of the great showboat era.

Upriver to Cincinnati, 1840–1860

The Ohio River brought prosperity and people to Cincinnati—and carried away pork. By the 1850s, Cincinnati was the Midwest’s leading commercial and manufacturing city, almost four times the size of Chicago. Through the early 1800s, the city supplied southern plantations and towns with flour, whiskey, manufactured goods, and especially pork. The city’s location also profited from the goods shipped upriver and destined for northern Ohio by canal.

Cincinnati’s rapid growth attracted many free black people and immigrants. In 1850, almost 30 percent of the city’s population was German-born.

Cincinnati Riverfront, September 1848

Detail, Plates 1 and 4, of Daguerreotype View of Cincinnati. Taken from Newport, Ky., by Charles Fontayne and William Porter

Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

The entire riverfront was filled with flatboats loading cargoes for New Orleans and all waypoints... Only pork was packed, as the south did not feed beef to its slaves.
—John P. Parker, describing Cincinnati in the 1840s

Pork packing in Cincinnati

Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 9, 1873

Courtesy of the Mariner’s Museum

[Pigs are] brought in from the country in large herds, on the outer edge of the city there are large buildings where about 1,000 a day are slaughtered and cleaned, then they’re brought into the city where they are cut up and salted and put in barrels, that’s how they’re sent from here to other countries.
—Prussian immigrant Ernst Stille, Cincinnati, July 1848

Adapted from “Map of Rail Road Line between Loveland and Cincinnati . . .,” 1860

Courtesy of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Cincinnati’s Water Connections

The Ohio legislature approved construction of two canals in 1825, including one linking the Ohio River at Cincinnati with agricultural lands to the north. The Miami and Erie Canal eventually extended as far as Toledo on the Great Lakes. Four hundred boats operated on the canal at its height in 1851.


Keelboats like this carried traffic on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the early 1800s. They could move upstream or down—sailed, rowed, poled, or hauled with tow-lines. Keelboats stayed in service into the 1850s.

Typical keelboat packet barge, about 1810

Ship Model, Steamboat Buckeye State [1963]
Ship Model, Steamboat Buckeye State

Sidewheel Steamboat Buckeye State

Built at Johnstown, Ohio, 1849

The Buckeye State

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During the 1850s, steamboats carried much of the commerce on the Ohio River. Faster boats like the Buckeye State could demand higher freight and passenger rates. In May 1850, with 200 people aboard and no cargo, the Buckeye State ran 480 miles upstream from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh in 43 hours, the fastest time ever.

Maritime Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a loose system of abolitionists who provided food, shelter, clothing, and safety to countless people escaping slavery for freedom.

Many fugitive slaves stowed away on steamboats and sailed to freedom, often with the help of African Americans on board. Others escaped along the banks of waterways that led north.

“There was no stopping”

John P. Parker of Ripley, Ohio, was once enslaved. He helped other people escape north across the Ohio River. One night he and several others heard about a group of five hiding along the riverbank in Kentucky:
Early in the night, seven of us armed with muskets in a little flotilla of three boats quietly rowed across the river to the spot where the people we were to rescue were seen. We found them all right, scared and hungry. Just as quietly as we came, we stole away... After that there was no stopping until we delivered our charges at Red Oak Station of the Underground Railroad.

Slaves fleeing by boat under the light of a full moon, 1864

This image of people escaping slavery is a romanticized view of what was actually a terrifying and dangerous journey.

From Harper’s Weekly, April 9, 1864

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

Into the West, 1860–1880

The Missouri River led explorers, trappers, and migrants into the American West. From the 1820s on, the river was the starting point for tens of thousands of people looking for new lives along the California, Mormon, Oregon, and Santa Fe trails.

Many travelers on the Missouri encountered the Hidatsa and Mandan peoples, who lived in villages along the river. They grew corn, beans, and tobacco and used the river for trade and travel. In the late 1840s, the town of Mua-iduskupe-hises, a Mandan term that means “like a fishhook,” had more residents than any nearby white settlement.

Reproduction of drawing by Edward Goodbird, 1913

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Buffalo Bird Woman gathering wood by boat

Gathering wood for fuel was important work for Mandan and Hidatsa women. The hours spent paddling bullboats along the shorelines made them expert boat handlers. When steamboats arrived on the Missouri, the women began selling wood to the vessels. Buffalo Bird Woman noted that “Near Like-a-Fishhook village, wood was rather scarce because we sold so much of it to steam-boats.”

Encampment of the Travellers on the Missouri

Swiss artist Karl Bodmer was part of an expedition on the Missouri River from 1832 to 1834. His sketches and paintings recorded views of the people, watercraft, and landscapes along the river.

Reproduction of engraving by Karl Bodmer

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Mih-Tutta-HangKusch. A Mandan Village

Mandan Indians maneuver bullboats on land and water. Their village stands on the bluff above the river.

Reproduction of engraving after Karl Bodmer, 1834

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Mandan Bull-Boat, 1908

Photograph by Edward S. Curtis

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Bullboat, 1860

Native peoples along the upper Missouri made small boats like this to travel along the shoreline, carrying wood and other supplies. Formed by stretching animal hides over a supple wood frame, bullboats were typically made by women. French, British, and American fur traders also used bullboats to bring their furs down the Missouri.

Lent by the National Museum of Natural History

The Fire Canoe, Ft. Berthold, North Dakota

A steamboat chugs toward a Mandan village on the Missouri River. The Mandan people called the vessels “fire canoes.”

Reproduction of painting by William de la Montagne Cary, 1874

Courtesy of the Gilcrease Museum

Rigged Model, River steamboat Far West [1977]
Rigged Model, River steamboat Far West

Stern-wheel steamboat Far West

Built at Pittsburgh, 1870

The Far West

View Object Record

The U.S. Army chartered steamboats to supply outposts in Montana and the Dakota Territory during its Indian campaigns. In the summer of 1876, the Far West covered 700 miles of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers in only 54 hours. It bore the news of the Sioux and Cheyenne victory over Gen. George Custer’s cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The two tall spars at the front of the boat could be lowered into the river bottom and, with the aid of the capstan and engine power, lift the vessel over shallow areas or obstructions, a bit or “hop” at a time. This practice was called “grasshoppering.”