Water is Life

Human migration and settlement patterns in New York State have been consistently influenced by geography. The Erie Canal, and subsequent rail lines and highways, followed the earliest migration and trade routes of the people of Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) in territory that is now the State of New York. From earliest pre-contact settlements to present day communities, most people have always lived along the "L" shaped curve, from Greenwich Village at New York Harbor up to Albany, then westward towards Syracuse and on to Buffalo at Lake Erie. The myriad rivers and lakes along this route avoid the Northeast Appalachian ranges of the Hudson Highlands, the Taconics, the Catskills or the Adirondacks.

Controlling access to the water routes in New York was a critical aspect of ongoing land and trade disputes between various native and European groups from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries: between the Haudenosaunee and the Algonquin peoples; the French and the British; the Americans and the British. Continuing through the War of 1812, conflicts centered on controlling the use of major waterways, from the Atlantic Ocean at the port of New York to the Great Lakes at Buffalo Harbor and Irondequoit Bay.

This 1912 physical map of New York State shows the geographic features that informed the proposed canal route. Courtesy of New York State Archives via Empire State Digital Network.

This relief map indicates the territories of the Six Nations or Haudenosaunee people who inhabited the geographic area that is today the State of New York. Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee via Recollection Wisconsin.