Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
A More Perfect Union

Understanding Primary Sources:
The Erie Canal

Objective: Students analyze primary sources to understand the effects of a public project on private citizens.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
1-2 hours over 2-3 days

Building Background:
The construction of the Erie Canal came about for political as well as economic reasons. DeWitt Clinton, who in 1815 pushed the idea (first proposed by Gouverneur Morris in 1800) of a waterway to link the Hudson River and Lake Erie, wanted to revive his political career. It worked, too, because Clinton's role in building the canal led to his serving several terms as governor of New York. The canal, which was completed in 1825, also worked economically. By linking Buffalo to New York City, the waterway decreased freight costs. Towns along the canal -- such as Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse -- boomed. The canal boats were slow but could carry thousands of passengers each year. The success of the Erie Canal set off a burst of canal building throughout the country.

What To Do:

1. Print and distribute copies of "Low Bridge, Everybody Down (The Erie Canal)" lyrics and have students read them. Ask students to recall songs that workers sang to make tedious tasks easier, such as "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and "Haul Away, Joe." Tell students that "The Erie Canal" song made the long trip on the canal seem to pass by more quickly. Have students read the lyrics. If any students know the song, encourage them to sing it. If you have a recording of the song, play it for the class.

2. Print and distribute An Excerpt from the Journal of Thomas S. Woodcock and have students read the entry. You might want to point out that the cry "All Jackson men bow down" refers to Andrew Jackson, who was President at the time of Woodcock's entry. "Jackson men" refers to Jackson supporters. Ask students what Woodcock means when he says "After such commands we find few aristocrats." (Jackson supporters will bow down and non-supporters, the aristocrats, will be hit by the upcoming bridge. Be sure students understand this is a joke!) Explain that the excerpt, like the lyrics to "The Erie Canal" song, is a primary source. Both were written at a time when the Erie Canal was prospering. Help students understand that the sources are written from two different points of view: Thomas Woodcock's letter from the point of view of a passenger and the song from that of a canal-boat mule driver. Tell students that they can use songs, diaries, letters, and other primary sources to learn how the construction and operation of the Erie Canal affected people's lives.

3. Print and distribute the What Did I Learn? worksheet. Tell students to use the two primary sources to fill in the details in the worksheet. Then have students use a secondary source, such as a history textbook or an encyclopedia, to check the accuracy of their notes from the primary sources and fill in the last column.

Erie Canal OnLine
This site explains the history of the Erie Canal through maps, travel journals, a timeline, and descriptions.

The Erie Canal: A Brief History
This short article tells the story of the construction and use of the canal and links to resources from the New York State Archives.

4. Have students use the primary and secondary sources to write a brief paragraph about the Erie Canal. Students might focus on building the canal, traveling on the canal, or the impact of the canal. Encourage students to read their completed paragraphs to the class.

Have students discuss what they learned about how the Erie Canal affected the lives of ordinary people. Ask students how what they learned from the primary source differed from what they learned through the secondary source. Point out that historians get much of their information from a wide variety of primary sources. Ask students to suggest other sources they might have consulted to learn about life on and near the Erie Canal. (Answers should include newspaper articles, letters to the editor, paintings, and both public and private documents.)


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