Essay About the Erie Canal
Job Mattison Looks for a New Home
by Carol Sheriff, College of William and Mary
In 1845, Job Mattison traveled along the Erie Canal, a decade after Clarissa Burroughs made a similar trip. Mattison took note of very different things. Burroughs described the "pleasant association of the beauties of nature and the works of art" at Little Falls. Mattison merely noted that he arrived at "Littlefalls" on the afternoon of September 19, 1845.
Whereas Burroughs described the businessmen, honeymooners, and tourists who took passage on her boat, Mattison mentioned the gamblers ("black legs") and immigrants ("Englishmen") who made the journey with him. Whereas Burroughs complained about the dirty sheets in which she had to sleep, Mattison made no mention of where he spent the night. The differences in their accounts point out the dangers of making generalizations about Erie Canal travel.
When 24-year-old Mattison took the Erie to visit his cousin Ephraim in Wisconsin Territory, he did so with an eye toward emigrating there. He made virtually no mention of the landscape in upstate New York, but he became a keen observer of his surroundings once he arrived in the Great Lakes region.
There, he carefully recorded the types of trees, game, and crops he encountered. Such details would be of use to him and his family as they decided whether to leave their farm in South Berlin, New York, and head west. Mattison also noted the prices that various crops and commodities would fetch. This information, too, might help his family determine whether to stake its future on the economic opportunities for which the West was becoming famous.
Unlike the rare explorer or mountain man who headed west to escape civilization, most settlers wanted to maintain connections with family and friends. Like Mattison, they often considered moving to places where they already had relatives, who could help them set up homesteads and provide them with some of the more intangible comforts of home.
Once settled in the West, pioneers eagerly sought news of friends and events in their former communities. One of the great advantages of the Erie Canal was that it enabled western settlers to exchange regular and timely news with family and friends left behind.
The people who ventured west with thoughts of settling there often came from modest economic circumstances. This helps explain why Mattison encountered a different set of passengers from Burroughs. Emigrants from the East and from Europe often had more time than money. Rather than riding the relatively speedy and luxurious packet boats, they took passage on westward-bound freight boats.
In exchange for cheap fares, they often camped on deck or on top of crates, which may explain why Mattison did not mention sheets or the appearance of servants at bedtime. Freight boats took longer than packets to make the journey from Troy to Buffalo. Mattison was on the canal for eight days, whereas a packet boat would have made the same trip in five.
Unlike Burroughs, who could relieve the tedium of her trip by transferring to a stagecoach or railroad for part of her journey, emigrants generally made the entire trip by boat. Yet life on the freight boats was not entirely dull. Mattison writes to his family not just about gamblers but about a fiddler as well.
For Mattison, the trip continued long past Buffalo and the end of the Erie Canal. There, he boarded another boat, to continue his journey to Wisconsin, a territory that few settlers had visited before the opening of the canal. Without a water connection between the Great Lakes and the Hudson River, the Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin territories established by the Northwest Ordinance were simply too isolated.
The expense and difficulty of land transportation meant that potential settlers could neither market their goods in the East nor receive the comforts and luxuries of home. As a result, few white Americans settled in the upper Midwest before the Erie Canal’s completion in 1825. Shortly thereafter, though, emigrants streamed into the Great Lakes area. By the time Mattison arrived in Wisconsin, the territory would soon bid to become a state. It achieved statehood in 1848.
Mattison returned to South Berlin, New York, before Wisconsin entered the Union. The stories that he told his family and friends about the Erie Canal were quite dissimilar from those that Burroughs had related to her mother a decade earlier. This stems partly from their differences in education, gender, and temperament.
Moreover, because Mattison traveled a decade later than Burroughs and was writing to people from New York State, he may have felt that the Erie Canal itself was less extraordinary and therefore less worthy of comment. What Burroughs saw as an artful work of the "enterprise and industry of man," Mattison may have just taken for granted.
The waterway, to him, seemed like a natural part of the landscape. But more than anything else, whereas Burroughs was seeking a respite from the ordinary bustle of her life, Mattison was heading for a new place with an eye toward one day calling it home.
Author’s Note: Background information on Job Mattison was graciously supplied to the author by one of his descendants by marriage, Katherine Graves Wells.