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Goods Shipped Downriver

A boat going downriver.

This following section is a partial list of the goods shipped between Canajoharie and Schenectady, a brief historical background statement for each, and some ideas on how items representative of these goods could be found and incorporated into an educational project.

Corn/whiskey

A flint corn, or "Indian" corn was grown to be used for cornmeal. Eating corn on the cob or soft corn as we know it today was not as common. Corn was grown in hills, spaced about 3 or 4 feet apart. A number of seeds were planted in each hill and the earth was hilled up when the corn emerged.

Corn was used locally. It was also shipped to urban areas. If a water mill had been built in the region, corn was ground into meal and shipped in barrels. If not, corn was shipped in kernel form, having been stripped from the cob when it was dried.

Some farmers found it more profitable to convert the corn into whiskey in small stills, shipping this product in barrels and kegs. It took less space in the boat and sold for more money per pound.

How to locate or replicate: Dry kernel corn of either flint or dent type can be used here. It is preferable to use Indian corn, which can be obtained from decorative ears sold at farm markets. Corn was shipped in bags or, as meal, in barrels.

Interpretive suggestions: Talk about the difference between flint and dent corn, and the way Native Americans, and settlers, could strip the hard skin off the kernels of flint corn by soaking them in lye [wood ashes and water] producing hominy. Canned hominy can be bought in some markets. Use this hominy, or make your own, to demonstrate different ways to use corn and also talk about how the word "corn" in the 18th century often referred to wheat - an old English usage.

Wheat/rye/grain

A variety of grains were grown from seed imported into the area from other parts of the Northeast. Grain production depended on rich land. The earth revealed by the clearing of the virgin forest produced bumper crops, and once grain farming was established, these lands provided a major source of grain for New York's urban areas as well as some to European markets, where exhausted soils meant poor crops.

Grain was ground to flour if a mill was available in the region. Otherwise it was shipped in bulk to the mills in the upper Hudson region. Since water powered grist mills were among the first commercial establishments in the Mohawk valley, most grain was shipped in barrels as flour to the port at Schenectady.

How to locate or replicate: Whole grain can be collected for educational purposes, but any whole wheat flour would meet the needs here.

Interpretive suggestions: Discuss why export of grains from the western territories was so profitable and tie it to the concept of land fertility and the monumental yields one could get for a few years off newly cleared virgin land.

Potash

The major product, both in terms of volume and distance to market, that first came down the river to Schenectady from the western frontier was potash.

Potash is produced from the heaps of ashes that result from burning down the virgin forest to open it up for settlement and agriculture. Farmers would gather up the ashes and leach them with water, producing a lye solution. This solution was then boiled down in big iron kettles right on the farm or very close to it. The dry powder produced by this process was potash. Many farmers paid for the expenses of clearing their land with cash income from the potash they produced. The liquid residue from leaching the wood ashes [lye] was also used in making soap.

Potash was in demand in Europe as a reagent used in various types of manufacturing and processing. Most of the potash sent down to Schenectady was destined not for markets in Schenectady, Albany, or New York, but for Europe, particularly France. Refined potash, known as pearl ash, was also used locally as a form of baking powder. Pearl ash was produced by heating the potash in a kiln to drive off the impurities.

How to locate or replicate: You can make potash in small amounts. Be careful, however, as the substances are caustic and the process is dangerous. Burn a pile of wood to ashes. Hardwood makes more potash than softwood. Gather up the ashes as soon as they are cool. Do not let it rain on them. Put the ashes in a nail keg, small barrel, or wooden box that has a few holes about pencil size in the bottom. Set the container over a pan to catch the liquid that runs out the holes. Wet the ashes as you add them to the container, then pour water over them until a quantity of lye water has been produced running out the holes into the pan. Place this lye water in a heavy duty metal pot or pan. [Do not use normal thickness cast iron as it will break.] Carefully boil down the liquid until it is dry. This is potash in its most basic form, ready to ship.

Interpretive suggestions: Talk about the process of clearing land for farming 200 years ago. How have our attitudes about the forests changed since the 1790s? [1792: The forest is an enemy that prevents your family from obtaining a living from the land. You have no money and have to grow or hunt the food you will eat. Burning down the forest is a good thing. 1992: The forest is a friend that gives you recreation, beauty and fresh air. You work for money that you use to buy the food in stores that you will eat. People who burn down the (rain)forest are doing a bad thing.]

Salt

Salt was a vital commodity, yet was not readily available. It was used in cooking, but more important was used to preserve food [particularly meats] when there was no refrigeration and canning had not yet been invented. Meats were coated with salt and then smoked to preserve them or were submerged in a salt brine in barrels.

In the 1790s salt was primarily produced from salt springs at Onondaga Lake [Syracuse]. Significant salt production from these springs had only begun the decade before. Sheds were set up where the salty water was boiled down in large kettles. This dry salt was packed in barrels and shipped to market in boats. Salt was shipped downriver on the Mohawk after it had been brought out of Onondaga Lake to the Seneca River, then down river to the Oneida River, then up the Oneida to Oneida Lake, then up Wood Creek to Fort Stanwix [Rome], then into the Mohawk River. Salt could be sold to anyone along the way, but a large amount of the salt shipped was destined for the big urban areas like Albany and New York City.

Salt was one commodity that could not be produced in the average frontier community yet was produced in the frontier region and shipped downriver to Canajoharie [unlike everything else we see coming upriver to Canajoharie] and was sent to Schenectady through, rather than from, Canajoharie.

How to locate or replicate: Any coarse, white salt will do. Do not use table salt. You can get a coarse sea salt from some natural foods stores, and you could even use rock salt sold to melt snow. Just sift it so that it is about the size of Grape-Nuts. If you can get canning salt or the salt used to make home-made ice cream, that will work too.

Interpretive suggestions: Salt remains a standard component of our diet and has many other uses [canning, medicine, etc.]. It comes from underground, just like 200 years ago, and some of the largest deposits are in Western New York. It is mined, however, and not derived from springs that dissolve the underground deposits. Take a map of New York and stick a pin into Syracuse. Then run strings to pins in every other market for salt in the 1790s [Niagara, Rochester, Kingston, Ont., Montreal, Quebec and Europe via the St. Lawrence, Oswego, all the communities along the Mohawk, Schenectady, Albany, New York and Europe via New York. Note how this product distribution system is like spokes on a wheel, while the distribution paths of other goods are more linear - either up, or down, the river.

If the settlers could not get any salt, how would that impact their lives - their meat supply?

Furs and leather

The fur trade was not as critical a component in the economy of the 1790s as a half century earlier, but animal pelts and leather from both wild and domestic animals were sent downriver from collection areas to the west. As trapping exhausted the animal supply, trappers moved farther and farther west. In the 1790s the bulk of furs sent east came from around the Great Lakes Region far to the west. It was often easier to ship directly down the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic than to come through the twisting and difficult inland waterways to Schenectady and then New York. So furs made up a smaller element of the Mohawk River cargo by this time.

Domestic hides [cattle] were often processed at local tanneries that took advantage of the water power [to run machines], water supply [to fill and flush the vats in which the hides were soaked], and hemlock bark supply [to grind up to make tannic acid for tanning]. If no tannery was available, raw hides could be shipped to processing plants downriver.

How to locate or replicate: Obtain a pelt or deer skin section from a local tannery or leather supply shop, or from family or friends who are hunters.

Interpretive suggestions: Discuss the uses for leather 200 years ago, including harness, gloves, shoes, and the uses today. Look at how the use of furs has changed. This would be a good place to talk about the beaver, our State animal, and the use of its fur for felt.

Cheese

The primary products of the mid-Mohawk Valley in the 1790s were agricultural in nature. After the forest had largely been cleared, and before manufacturing [mills] became commonplace, all that the settlers had to export in exchange for the goods they needed from others was the surplus of their farm production.

When cattle became established, it was typical to have cycles of milk overproduction, and one way to save that milk for future use was as cheese. Since there was a demand for produce in the populated urban areas, where people were not all farmers, and since cheese kept and traveled well and had a wide variety of uses, it was a natural for export downriver.

How to locate or replicate: Find a small, cured cheese in the supermarket.

Interpretive suggestions: Has anything much changed with cheese as a market commodity since 1792? In 1792, cheese was a cottage industry, with each family producing its own in the rural areas and shipping the product to the urban areas. So many rural people had cows and made cheese, there was no local market in the countryside for cheese. It had to be sent to the urban areas. In 1992, milk is still produced in rural areas, but the cheese is no longer produced by the farmers, except as a hobby. Cheese is now produced in big processing plants, and then it is sold back to the people in the rural areas [as well as the city], including even the farmers who produced the milk.

Lumber

The need for lumber in the rural areas was easily met with a few trees saved out from the forest, which was burned. Many early travelers were dismayed that the landowners did not think more for the future by saving timber for lumber.

As the cities grew, and more and more houses and buildings had to be built, the demand for lumber grew also. Sawmills were among the first mills built, and many existed in the Mohawk Valley even before the Revolution.

Lumber was bulky and heavy, and a boat could not carry a great deal of it. More often whole logs were floated to mills, and the boards were then taken to building sites close-by by wagon. Boats may have carried lumber orders short distances down river from the mill, but it is not likely lumber was taken all the way to Schenectady by boat from the mid-Mohawk region.

One market for forest products that may have increased after the Revolution was for fine hardwoods used in furniture production. As American shops began to compete with and replace imported furnitures, the demand for quality woods increased. Given the wholesale devastation of the forest during the first wave of settlement, it was increasingly necessary to look to the remaining virgin stands upriver for the best first growth hardwoods.

However, since even the heaviest Hudson Valley settlement remained limited to the margins of the river, good timber was usually available in the highlands adjacent to the Hudson Valley, or could be brought in large quantities to the furniture makers in New York City by sloop from New England.

How to locate or replicate: Some representative short boards could be obtained from a lumber yard for this purpose.

Interpretive suggestions: Discuss the types of woods and what they were good for. Talk about the ways in which wood was converted from log to end product on the farm without using sawn lumber as we do today [splitting, squaring with axes, carving, etc.].

Flour

As stated above under grains, flour was made and shipped in barrels whenever there was a mill at hand. There was more profit shipping the finished product than the unprocessed grains. It also took up less space.

How to locate or replicate: Obtain a sack of flour.

Interpretive suggestions: Discuss the physics of shipping. Why would you get more of your product in a barrel as flour than as whole grain?

Bacon/Ham

As swine herds became established, surplus pork was produced. Again, since almost everyone in the rural areas had livestock, and most had pigs, you could not sell your surplus pork locally. You had to ship it downriver to the urban populations.

Hams were smoked to preserve them, and pork was salted down in barrels for the same reason. Bacon slabs were smoked and shipped as well. Pork was a traditional component in Colonial American diet, and continued in popularity in the 1790s as well.

How to locate or replicate: A small smoked slab of unsliced bacon would serve for this product.

Interpretive suggestions: Look at the ways meat was preserved before refrigeration. What did you need to preserve meat [salt, wood, smokehouse, barrels] and where could you get it?

Barrel staves

One of the most widely used containers 200 years ago was the barrel. Barrels were strong, water-tight, and came in all sizes. Liquids, such as wine and rum, were shipped in barrels, as were dry goods such as flour, potash, gunpowder, and salt. But barrels also served as "crates" for all sorts of breakable goods, such as dishes, glassware, and smoking pipes.

Barrels required fine, straight-grained white and red oak from which the staves [or slats] could be made. In urban areas, such as New York City, it became more difficult to obtain the finest woods for making barrels. Finished oak staves were often made at mills and shops near the virgin forests of the mid- Mohawk region and sent in bundles to cooperage shops in the urban centers downriver where they could be assembled into final form.

How to locate or replicate: Find a living history museum with a coopers shop [Cooperstown or Sturbridge] and ask them to donate a couple new staves, or find a junk barrel in an antique shop or barn sale and knock it apart.

Interpretive suggestions: What were barrels used for and what containers do we use today to fill this need? What makes a barrel an ideal container?

Flax

To off-set the need for, and cost of, imported cloth, local fabrics were developed from linen [flax] and wool. Flax was often grown in quantities only sufficient for the needs of the local community, where fibers were processed, spun and woven in the home or in small shops.

As the demand from larger urban manufactories increased and greater acreage was put into flax production, fiber was shipped in processed form downriver for spinning and weaving.

How to locate or replicate: About the only place to get flax and processed fiber is at a living history museum such as Cooperstown or Sturbridge.

Interpretive suggestions: What were the drawbacks of linen? Why did people insist on imported fabrics, such as cottons? What role did tradition, style and status play in the use of fabrics in the mid-Mohawk region?

Peas

A common food item, easily produced in the new settlements, was the pea. It was mostly used in dried form, like the dried beans used to make baked beans today, not in the green, soft vegetable form we think of it. Peas [or pease] kept well and shipped well.

The only use of dried peas we are familiar with today is split pea soup, which uses a smaller variety. French Canadians, however, use dried peas more commonly in their diet than we do, and some varieties of Canadian pea dishes may resemble the traditional diet of many 18th century New Yorkers, urban and rural alike.

How to locate or replicate: About the only place to get dried peas is from a seed distributor. Be sure to get untreated seed. You might be able to find culinary dried peas in a health food store or in a well stocked ethnic grocery.

Interpretive suggestions: Get a bag of dried peas and boil up a pot of thick pea soup. What are the advantages of foods in dried form? If you had extra green [soft] peas from your farm, how could you save them for later? Do you remember the nursery rhyme "Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold...?"

Onions, potatoes ...

Root vegetables produced by the settlers might be shipped downriver, although little acreage is needed to supply an urban population, and such production could be had close at hand. Much produce of this type would be shipped by land, often brought to market by the farmer in his own wagon.

On occasion, however, large shipments of produce, such as potatoes and onions [both of which store well for winter use] might have been sent down to market by boat.

How to locate or replicate: Locate in produce section of supermarket.

Interpretive suggestions: How were vegetables stored for winter use? This might be a good place to discuss the seasonality of production. If local produce from the upriver farms could not be preserved for winter use, the populations would go hungry, except for hunting. Yet there were no freezers, refrigerators, or canned goods. What techniques could be used? Root vegetables could be kept in a root cellar - an underground chamber where cool temperatures preserved the food without letting it freeze. Some produce was cured, pickled, or dried. Some was preserved in alcohol, particularly fruit.


Back to the beginning.
The goods shipped upriver.
More information.


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