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The Passengers

Philip Schuyler's signature.


Age: 58

Philip Schuyler was born into one of New York's oldest and wealthiest families. Although plagued with poor health all his life, he enjoyed one of the most active and productive careers of his time. He saw military service in the French and Indian War and in particular with Colonel John Bradstreet, who organized a campaign against the French at Niagara using a fleet of batteaux and following the same route west out of Schenectady Schuyler would again traverse as President of the canal company in 1792. He was later involved in organizing a military supply and transport service along this route. These experiences, as well as his service as a General in the American Revolution, gave Schuyler detailed knowledge of the western navigation route and an acute awareness of its importance and its limitations.

Prior to the Revolution, Schuyler expanded his holdings to include a grand mansion in Albany [Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site] and another estate in old Saratoga [Schuylerville]. His manor and his ties to New York merchants eventually led him to have several rivercraft built for shipping on the Hudson.

He became a member of the New York Assembly briefly in 1768 and also was actively involved in land speculation,32 acquiring tens of thousands of acres in the upper Hudson and upper Mohawk regions. As such, he is but one example of the link that often connected land speculation to an interest in the development of improved inland transportation. As transport improved, the value of the lands improved, settlement expanded more rapidly, goods reached markets with more efficiency, and more profit.

During the Revolution, Schuyler became a Major General with command of the Northern Department, including those regions of New York and Canada which later would be the focus of his canal company. In this capacity, Schuyler was constantly concerned with logistics33 and transport, which of necessity was primarily in watercraft.

During the closing years of the Revolution, Schuyler played a significant role as manager of the Board of Indian Commissioners and as such convened a conference at Johnstown in 1778. The failure of this conference led Schuyler to push for a punitive campaign against the Iroquois in 1779 - again utilizing a fleet of batteau dispatched out of Schenectady and up the Mohawk.

Witness during the war to increasingly effective incursions by British, Loyalist and Indian forces down the Hudson and Mohawk valleys, Schuyler no doubt formed a very particular impression of the significance of transport along these corridors as a component of national defense. In 1781 he organized an effort to build and repair boats at Albany and Schenectady to support General Washington's campaign against the British in New York City. In 1782, Schuyler assisted Washington in arranging supplies for northern army posts, and joined him on a tour that included the harbor at Schenectady. Perhaps the two conferred on their shared interests in canal navigation. It was Washington, who, in the following years, would push his Patowmack Canal enterprize to fruition in Virginia34 and who, with Schuyler, saw the Mohawk/Oneida corridor as an avenue of western transport of national significance.

After the war, Schuyler addressed the problem of establishing peace with the Indians. It should be remembered that at the close of the Revolution, only the margins of the lower Mohawk, the Hudson Valley, portions of the Finger Lakes, Genesee Valley and an area around Oswego could be considered "settled." The rest of what was to be New York State remained a semi-wilderness with an ebb and flow of Native American "title."

Schuyler continued his role as Indian Commissioner, and in 1784 a treaty conference at Fort Stanwix started a process ending with the establishment of a line between Native and non-Native lands that split Upstate New York in half.35 In that year Schuyler went to the State Senate for a term expiring in March 1791. He continued public service in both the national and state legislatures as a promoter of penal law and prison reform, state aid to education, hospital appropriations, a general road bill, and, of course, inland navigation improvements.

Under his tutelage, the Inland Navigation Act of 1792, creating the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, was passed and through his support for State loans to the company, its survival was underwritten.

From the start, Schuyler undertook direct field involvement in all aspects of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company. In 1792, at an age when most men sought a comfortable retirement, he stepped into the batteau himself to head the first survey of the Mohawk/Oneida corridor. He acted as his own engineer at Little Falls in 1793, not only designing the canal but frequently superintending its 3-year construction. In 1802, 69 years old, in poor health and near the end of his life, Schuyler encamped in the semi--wilderness on Wood Creek [Oneida County] and directly supervised the construction of the timber locks and dams which removed the last obstacle to large boat traffic between Schenectady and the West.

By his death in 1804, Schuyler had seen to completion the construction of all the intended improvements to the western navigation corridor, including the extensive rebuilding, repair and expansion program completed in 1803. He had shepherded into being the canal era in New York and had created, in the process, unprecedented works of revolutionary engineering that lay the groundwork for the Erie Canal. Significantly, no major construction was undertaken by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company after his death.

Elkanah Watson's signature.


Age: 35

Elkanah Watson was a world traveler, merchant, land speculator, canal promoter and agriculturist during his lifetime. Born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, he was noted for extensive journals recording his travels.

As early as 1778, Watson exhibited an interest in canal building. He served as a courier to France for Benjamin Franklin and for a while was partner in a French mercantile house until 1782, when an economic depression forced them to bankruptcy. Returning to America in 1784, he spent a year touring the United States, settling in North Carolina in 1785. A second business venture fell victim to a recession and in 1789 he moved to Albany, where he engaged in land speculation, acquiring numerous land holdings in the unsettled areas of western and northern New York. With Goldsbrow Banyar, he was involved in organizing the Bank of Albany. These interests alone would have probably motivated him to become involved in the initiative of Schuyler's company and to participate in the batteau survey in 1792.

But in 1788, Watson travelled by land up along the Mohawk to Fort Stanwix to observe the signing of an Indian treaty. It was during this trip that he claims to have first conceived the idea of a system of artificially linked waterways. In the autumn of 1791, Watson undertook a batteau expedition of his own from Schenectady into western New York to purchase land and explore a possible canal route between the Hudson River and Lake Erie, claiming thereafter to have originated the idea of the Erie Canal, which was begun a quarter century later. His observations on the 1791 expedition, his knowledge of, and interest in, the western territories, and his enthusiasm for canals, no doubt recommended him for a seat in Schuyler's batteau the following year.

During 1791 and 92 he met frequently with Schuyler when both were residents of Albany and provided Schuyler with a copy of his journal and a report on his observations. His connection with the Bank of Albany could not be overlooked by Schuyler, as private capital investment would have to take the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company from concept to construction.

Because of his "radical" ideas, Watson was dismissed from the Bank of Albany in 1795, only to form the profitable State Bank of Albany in 1803. By 1807 Watson was able to retire to a farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he devoted his energies to experimental agriculture and created, in 1810, the first county fair.

In 1816 he returned to political life in Albany to promote the development of agricultural societies. In 1820, Watson published The History of the Rise, Progress, and Existing Condition of the Western Canals in the State of New York. which documented the subject, but also attempted to confirm his role as originator of the idea.

He continued, to his death 22 years later in 1842, to travel, speculate in land, and promote controversial transportation projects.

Goldsbrow Banyar's signature.


Age: 68

By the time of the Mohawk River expedition, Goldsbrow Banyar had enjoyed a full and conspicuous career. Considered the richest man in Albany, Banyar had served as the Deputy Secretary of the Colony of New York, Deputy Clerk of the Council and of the Supreme Court, Register of the Court of Chancery and Judge of Probate, all between 1746 and the opening of the Revolution. His services ended with the end of British rule, and he withdrew to Rhinebeck until the end of the war, at which time he returned to Albany.

He cultivated a sincere interest in internal improvements in the state and played various fiscal roles, including Director of the Bank of Albany. This combination of affection for the types of development which Schuyler's new company promised, and his status in the financial world, recommended him to the cause of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company.

However, given his advanced age at the time of the survey, one may question his wisdom in actually going along on the journey. In retrospect, we can only assume a vigorous constitution sustained him in this expedition, as he survived to age 90, having lived, by 1815, to see the successful completion of the inland navigation improvements which he so favored, and which, no doubt, were the subject of long discussion during that batteau voyage 23 years earlier.

Abraham Lighthall's signature.


Age: 40

The man identified in Schuyler's report merely as "Mr. Lightall, a Carpenter" was in fact Abraham J. Lighthall of Schenectady, as confirmed by the signature on his receipt for wages for the expedition, September 4th, 1792.

Born in 1753, Lighthall is first recorded as living in the 4th Ward of Schenectady in 1800, and an occupation list from 1805 indicates he was a carpenter. By 1780 he had married twice, and in 1800, 4 of the nine children he fathered were living with him.

Lighthall may have been brought merely to serve as maintenance support for the batteau. But more likely his expertise as a joiner of wood, perhaps even a housewright,36 was sought by Schuyler as sites for the building of timber dams and wooden locks were examined and techniques of construction discussed.

One must remember that in 1792 there were no other canal engineers in New York, except for Nisbet, and he was a millwright37 by training. Schuyler had to rely on those who built mill dams, mills, houses and bridges for insights into the constructions he foresaw rising on the Mohawk. Since virtually all these craftsmen executed their structures in timber, a carpenter was as much a canal engineer in 1792 as anyone.

We have no correspondence between Schuyler and Lighthall to suggest his duties, nor does his name again appear in association with the company's projects. His signed receipt at the end of the expedition merely states: "For my wages for 12 days attending the Committee of the Western Lock Navigation to Wood Creek - upper end of the Mohawk River ending this day -."

But given the numerous requests from Schuyler's agents in the field during the 1790s for a supply of carpenters from Schenectady, it may be that the sole purpose of attaching Lighthall to this expedition was to familiarize him with the sites and proposed works of the company in order to solicit his aid in providing such a work force in the future.

Whatever the motivation, after this brief brush with events of pending greatness, Lighthall again slips into the relative obscurity characteristic of his trade and we can state no more about his professional life. Apparently he continued to live and work in Schenectady and died in the spring of 1831 at 77 years of age.

Moses DeWitt's signature.


Age: 25

Moses DeWitt served as the surveyor on the expedition. Trained by his uncle, he had served as assistant to his cousin, Simeon DeWitt, surveying the Pennsylvania border in 1785. A few years later, when Simeon became Surveyor General of New York, Moses was appointed surveyor in charge of field operations for the survey of military bounty lands38 in what is now Western New York. This special knowledge of the lands to be served by the new company may have influenced his selection.

By 1791, Moses had established a homestead in the Onondaga country, near present-day Syracuse, and was appointed Surrogate Judge. In Albany on business, he wrote his brother on August 15th, 1792, complaining of the delay in returning home. One of his mares had died and he intended to come by wagon, as the river was very low. Invited that day by General Schuyler to join the expedition, he expected he might as far as Fort Stanwix.

From his own journal of the August 1792 expedition, we surmise that his primary duties involved surveying the ground at Little Falls and Fort Stanwix [Rome], where the first of the canals proposed by the company were to be built. His computations, which appear in the journal, were intended in part as a check against those made by General Schuyler.

DeWitt left the batteau on its return trip at Old Fort Schuyler [Utica], where he remained with General Schuyler until September 4th, refining surveys and observations. He then undertook the three day overland journey to his home at Onondaga. Joining the survey seems to have largely been a matter of convenience, the route being on his way.

Exactly two years after this expedition, on August 25th, 1794, Moses DeWitt was dead.

Archibald Nisbet's signature.


Age: 45

Archibald Nisbet was born in Scotland in 1748 of a wealthy family and was apprenticed as a millwright at the age of 13. He apparently became familiar with canal engineering while in Holland and later gained practical experience working on the construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal39 in Scotland in the 1770s. Nisbet then applied his millwright's training in his own business for seven years, building various water, wind and steam driven machines.

While thus engaged, Nisbet encountered an "unavoidable misfortune." Having undertaken a contract to erect a large distillery for a company that later failed, Nisbet became bankrupt. Not wishing to work for someone else after having managed his own business for seven years, and unwilling to ask his father, "a man of great prosperity," for an advance to start over, Nisbet determined to seek his fortune in the New World.

Nisbet arrived in Albany on July 20th, 1792, with a letter of introduction to General Schuyler. In this letter it was suggested Nisbet could also procure for Schuyler "very able hands from Scotland" to help construct the proposed navigation works of the new canal company.

Ten days later, Nisbet and Schuyler met for the first time on the east bank of the Hudson River, near Ransellaer's Creek [Rensselaer] and spent the day examining the river from there to Lansingbourgh [Lansingburg], where Schuyler intended to build a dam and lock to facilitate navigation into the upper Hudson. On July 31st, Nisbet, now staying in Albany, received a request from Schuyler for a detailed report on the proposed construction.

On August 8th, Nisbet wrote Schuyler, promising the report the following day. But by August 13th the report remained incomplete. In a flurry of notes on that day, Nisbet twice postponed the delivery date, due to illness, while Schuyler complained that lack of the report was holding up progress. On the morning of the 14th Nisbet again begged postponement, and later that day finally delivered an extensive engineering analysis, complete with materials lists and construction drawings, into Schuyler's hands.

Perhaps out of guilt, Nisbet next wrote a lengthy letter to Schuyler, recounting his life and experience, admitting of severe illness, which he attributed to the "change of climate," and expressing concern for being represented by others as "a complete engineer." But Schuyler appeared, by mid August, to have accepted Nisbet as his canal engineer.

A few days later, Nisbet accompanied Schuyler on the Mohawk River expedition, and is described by Moses DeWitt in his journal as "a Gentleman from Scotland who is also to accompany this committee - pretending40 to understand the building & planning of locks, etc."

Whether Nisbet failed to live up to his own recommendations, or Schuyler's expectations, or himself lost interest in the project, he is never mentioned again in company records, even though no other professional engineer would be employed by Schuyler for years. Having failed to establish a role for himself in the emerging canal building era, Nisbet returned to New York City, applied his millwright's skills, and lived another 40 years, dying in 1833 at age 85.

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