Sunday, February 14, 2021

My Ancestor Was a Canal Boatman

William Armstrong's signature on promissory note, 1849
In the 1850 U.S. census of Putnam, Muskingum County, Ohio, William Armstrong, my great-great-great grandfather, is listed as a canal boatman. In the 1840 U.S. census of Putnam, one person in the household (William) is listed at being engaged in "navigation". William would have worked on the Muskingum River, which was part of the Ohio and Erie Canal system, built between 1825-1832. He was born in England (which had an extensive canal system) in 1788, and it's entirely possible that he was brought up as a canal boatman. William's wife, Ann Alexander (1799-1878),  and their three oldest children were born in Pennsylvania, and the family moved to Putnam around 1825, just as canal construction was beginning in Ohio.

Plans for two Ohio canal systems, the Ohio and Erie Canal and the Miami and Erie Canal, began in 1822, when the Ohio legislature created the Ohio Canal Commission. Construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal began on July 4, 1825.  Hundreds of miles of trenches were dug, then lined with sandstone. Water storage reservoirs also had to be dug to insure a water supply for canals during times of drought. Buckeye Lake in Licking County began as a canal reservoir. All this digging was done by hand with picks and shovels and wheelbarrows. Thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, worked from dawn to dusk for 30 cents an hour, which was a very decent wage in the 1820's. 

Erie Canal packet boat, about 1830
  The residents of Putnam and of Zanesville, its neighbor across the river, were linked to the Ohio and  Erie Canal via a feeder canal known as the Muskingum Side Cut. This 2.6 mile feeder canal gave Muskingum County farmers and manufacturers access to markets from  Portsmouth to Cleveland and the towns in between. It also gave them access to Pennsylvania and points east via the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal, and to the Ohio River and points south, all the way to New Orleans. Canal boatmen moved people, and more importantly produce, livestock, manufactured goods, dry goods, and medicines, all around the state and beyond.

Many canal boatmen, especially those who ventured far and wide, lived with their families on their boats, and were part of a tightly-knit, rough and tumble culture. Canal boatmen were vital to commerce, but were considered by many citizens to be disreputable and sometimes dangerous, and were shunned by "respectable" people.

Then there were the canal boatmen like William who worked on the water but lived on the land. William and his family lived between 3rd and 4th Streets in Putnam, along a main road then known as Seminary Street. I can't be certain from the real estate records I've seen, but since William and Ann bought and sold at least five lots in Putnam between 1828 and 1841, they probably owned their house. They also owned and worked some farmland in the area of Shannon, Ohio. So while William identified as canal boatman, he wasn't part of the culture. In fact, the personal items assessed for Probate in November 1851 show that William and his family were well-off and probably regarded as quite respectable.

Probate case no. 3095
Muskingum County, Ohio
Probate Court

Itemized bills submitted by six local merchants are a large part of the papers in William's Probate file. They suggest that William's canal boat may have been a floating store. This type of canal boat was common on the Ohio River, and there's no reason to think one or more didn't float along the Muskingum River as well. It might not hold the romance of narrowboats or keelboats, but floating stores--square, flat-roofed boats fitted with shelves and a counter--provided essential (and sometimes luxury) goods to small communities and isolated settlers who lived near the river. William probably received a merchant's discount, and then marked up the items for sale so he could make a profit, and he may have filled specific orders for customers. In at least one case, William took items on consignment. T. Wilbur & Sons submitted a bill to the estate for three water jugs and six spittoons, adding "The above bill was taken to be Solde and [he was to] pay us one half [of what] he got for them."

Those itemized bills give us a glimpse into what William's customers needed and wanted. For example, between March 13 and July 5, 1851, in separate lots, William purchased a total of 9 3/4 lbs. of butter, 9 yds. of poplin, 4 yds. of nankeen, 8 yds. of lawn, 15 yds. of calico, and 6 1/4 yds. of ribbon from L. & P. Wiles. From E. A. Farquhar, medical doctor and druggist, William purchased such items in quantity as liniment, cholera syrup, and chocolate. William evidently acted as a proxy for Dr. Farquhar for those with specific health concerns. William's Probate file includes a scrap of paper in Farquhar's handwriting, advising that two pieces of patient information be answered: "1st the name & age of the patient and how long sick 2nd If a breast complaint, state the particulars of the cough." 

Interestingly, among the estate papers, there is no mention of a boat. However, William's sons might have been part owners of the boat and possibly William turned it over to them just prior to his death. There is evidence that two of his sons, Alexander T. Armstrong (1818-1859) and William Armstrong (1825-1874), worked with their father. In 1850, Alexander told the census-taker that he was a "Trader", and William said he was a "Boatman".

The exact date of William's death isn't known, but can be narrowed down. His last known merchant transaction was dated July 5, 1851, and on August 9, 1851, Jonathon Brelsford submitted a bill to the estate for "digging grave for dec'd". William is buried with his wife Ann in Woodlawn, but there are no markers, even though a receipt in the Probate file shows that Ann paid for a gravestone for her husband. 

Rivers and canals continued to be sources of transportation for goods and people until the early part of the 20th century, but even at the time of William's death, railroads had begun to cut into canal boatmen's revenues, and forecast the end of an era.

The Muskingum River with Putnam in the background, 1846

1 comment:

  1. Being a canal boatman must have been like a land peddler on water. An interesting job. Wonder where he go his boat.