The Artificial River The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862

Carol Sheriff

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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Winner of the New York State Historical Association Best Manuscript Award

The story of the Erie Canal—the 363-mile "artificial river" built to connect the Atlantic seaboard to the Great Lakes—offers a rich perspective on the tumultuous era between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Completed in 1825 as part of the nation's larger transportation revolution, the Canal opened the Midwest to commerce and settlement, helped make New York City the nation's greatest port, and accelerated the pace of American industrial and economic change. The history of the Canal's impact on the nation's economy has been told skillfully by other historians, and Carol Sheriff considers instead the human dimension of the revolutionary changes that the Canal helped set off: widespread geographic mobility; rapid environmental change; government intervention in economic development; market expansion; the reorganization of work; and moral reform. Among the middle classes, these changes would be grouped together as signs of progress or improvement.

With innovative archival research, Sheriff documents the social and cultural responses of men, women, and children—farmers, businessman, government officials, tourists, workers—to the Erie Canal and the progress it represented. For them, progress meant taking an active role in realizing a divinely sanctioned movement toward the perfectibility of the natural and human worlds. This conception of progress would play a central role in defining Northern sectional identity in the decades leading to the Civil War.


Praise for The Artificial River

"The Artificial River is deeply researched, its arguments are both subtle and clear, and it is written with grace and an engagingly light touch. The book merits a wide readership."—Paul E. Johnson, The Journal of American History

"A beautifully written and unpretentious book that reveals how little historians have known about something they have written so much about: the Erie Canal . . . [The book] becomes a means to follow ordinary American men and women—business people, workers, and farmers—as they dramatically rearranged the American landscape and with it, in anticipated and unanticipated ways, American nature."—Richard White, Stanford University

"[Sheriff] renders the Erie Canal's history from a fresh point of view . . . the everyday lives of ordinary people who lived along the waterway."—Paul Grondahl, The Albany Times Union

"Broadly conceived, imaginatively researched, incisively argued, and gracefully written. It's a genuine pleasure to learn from Carol Sheriff's outstanding study of culture and class at the very center of early-nineteenth-century America's exploding commercial society."—Robert H. Wiebe, Northwestern University

"An excellent study of an important, all too often neglected period."—Lee Milazzo, The Dallas Morning News

"A richly textured, colorful tapestry of social history that weaves together the elements of technology and finance, politics and religious zeal, workers' lives and businessmen's schemes which made up the transforming corridor of the Erie Canal. A fine and revealing piece of historical research, both readable and well documented."—Anthony F.C. Wallace, author of Rockdale

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Read an Excerpt

The Artificial River
1Visions of ProgressON JULY 4, 1817, at daybreak, cannons boomed as a crowd assembled near Rome, New York, to watch the digging of the first spadeful of Erie Canal dirt. The honor fell to Judge John Richardson, who had been awarded the first contract to build a section of the waterway. Richardson addressed the gathering, proclaiming, "By this great highway unborn millions will easily transport their surplus productions to the shores of the Atlantic, procure their supplies, and hold a useful and profitable intercourse with all the marine nations of the world." He then drove
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  • Carol Sheriff

  • Carol Sheriff, a native of Bethesda, Maryland, received her B.A. from Wesleyan University and her Ph.D. from Yale University. She is assistant professor of history at the College of William and Mary. She lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.