Erie Canal – the Woodworth family, 1835 (part 1)

We’ve been looking at the influence of the Erie Canal on the early lives of both Jonathan M. Clark and the Peter and Rachael (Gay) Turck family (here and here), and the Bonniwell family (here), I thought I’d share more stories of Mequon settlers that used the canal to make their way westward to the wilds of the Wisconsin Territory in the 1830s and ’40s. Today’s focus is on immigrants from Nova Scotia, particularly the Woodworth brothers, Ephraim and James.

We’re going to need a bigger map!

We’ve had numerous occasions to quote from the memoirs of early Mequon pioneer—and Turck and Clark family friend—James W. Woodworth. Unlike many pioneers who came west, bought land, and never returned home, James W. Woodworth and various members of his family made the round-trip journey between Nova Scotia to the newly opened lands of the midwestern U.S. several times in the 1830s and ’40s. Descriptions of three separate trips can be found in Rev. Woodworth’s book, and they give additional color and detail to our understanding of what immigration to “the West” was like in that era. But to give you a proper feel for the hardiness of these 19th-century migrants, we’re going to need a bigger map!

Eastern Canada and the Northeast United States, c. 1835

Walker, John and Alexr. Map of the United States; and the Provinces of Upper & Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, compiled from the latest Surveys and other authentic information, J. & A. Walker, 47 Bernal Street, Russell Square, London, and 33 Pool Lane, Liverpool, June 1st, 1827 [NE sheet]. Credit, David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries, non-commercial use permitted under Creative Commons license. Click image to open larger map in new window. 1, 2

If you grew up west of the Alleghenies, as I did, you may find your knowledge of the history and geography of the area north and east of, say, Boston to be sketchy or non-existent. Which is unfortunate, as the rich and complex history of this area figures prominently in the lives of many of Mequon’s immigrant families. This map is an excellent illustration of many places important to our Mequon pioneers: New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts. Lower Canada (Québec), the St. Lawrence River and Nova Scotia.

Nova Scotia to Washington/Ozaukee county

A surprising number of early Washington/Ozaukee county immigrants came from Nova Scotia. Between 1763 and 1867, Nova Scotia was a colony of Great Britain, separate from the other British colonies that would ultimately unite into the modern, independent nation of Canada. Nova Scotia has a long and interesting history of settlement, beginning thousands of years ago with the  Miꞌkmaq people, and then the French (1605-1763), and the British.

Among the families that came to old Washington county—including Mequon and other parts of the future Ozaukee county—during the early decades of settlement were the Woodworth, Strickland, Loomer, Bigelow and West families. Catherine (Reeves) Bonniwell, wife of Henry V. Bonniwell, was also born in Nova Scotia. (But Henry and Catherine came west to Mequon after meeting, marrying and living in New York City. More on that another day.)

The first Woodworth migration, 1835

Different members of the Woodworth family made a total of three separate trips on the path between their original home in Cornwallis, Kings Co., Nova Scotia and their eventual home in Wisconsin. Today we look at that first trip, made by brothers James W. and Ephraim K. Woodworth in 1835. James W. Woodworth recorded that trip in his diary:3

‘Twas on the 27th of March, 1835, that my brother and I took passage for Boston, Mass., in a brig called Joham, sailed by Capt. Merrill, a little sceptical soul, who came near sinking us all in the sea. On this voyage the vessel “shipped a sea,” as the sailors say, which threw her on her beam ends. Our captain knew not what to do; but Peter Tulluck, his mate, having great presence of mind, spoke respect­fully to the captain, and said: “We are in a dangerous situation, sir. Had we not better get the jib on her, and wear her round?” to which he replied, “I don’t know but we had, I don’t know but we had.” And as quick as possible ’twas done, but not a moment too soon, for another half-minute would surely have sealed our fate. and left none to tell the tale. […] After a three weeks’ voyage we arrived in Boston, and on the Sabbath one of the sailors took us to the Sail­or’s Bethel, where we heard Father Taylor preach; ’twas an extraordinary treat.

After a brief rest in Boston, James and Ephraim set out for the West.

May 3. My brother Ephraim and I took passage in a stage coach for Albany, over the mountains of Vermont, two hundred miles from Boston. After two days and two nights travel we were in the City of Albany, state of New York; thence we walked to Schenectady, and there engaged a passage on a canal boat for Buffalo; thence took a steamer for Huron, Ohio, and walked from there forty miles to G[ideon] Bigelow’s, Richland county, where we were treated with great kind­ness and courtesy, as we brought a letter from his brother Isaac in Cornwallis, N. S.4

Land in “Ohio”

Ohio was appealing to the Woodworths. After a few days with Gideon Bigelow, the brothers went in search of Ohio land to purchase:

We tarried a few days with them, and finding that there was a company going to look [for] land in the western part of the state, we set out with them on the 20th day of May; and in Lenawe5 county we found land of most excellent quality, that was vacant, seventy miles from the land office in Monroe; and on the 1st day of June we left the woods for the land office, and got there on the 3d of the month, and entered at the office 120 acres of land, not leaving enough cash in pocket to half pay our bill home.

It turns out that the Woodworths purchased 120 acres of land in what would become known as the Toledo Strip, 468 square miles of land claimed by two neighboring governments. The confusion was caused by conflicting official boundaries that had been surveyed and mapped by various federal authorities in the first half-century of the Republic. The result was a parcel of land claimed both by the state of Ohio and by the Michigan Territory, the so-called Toledo Strip. In 1835, as Michigan approached statehood, it became essential that its boundary with Ohio be settled once and for all. This provoked strong feelings in Ohio and Michigan and led to the basically bloodless “Toledo War” of 1835. Whether the Woodworths were aware of this, or whether or not they cared, they bought 120 acres of federal land anyway. Patent No. 5979 was issued to Ephraim K. Woodworth of Providence County [sic], Nova Scotia. (Why the patent says “Providence, Nova Scotia,” is a mystery. As far as I know, there is no place named “Providence” anywhere in Nova Scotia.)

Click to open larger image in new window.

Return to Nova Scotia

In a little more than two months, James and Ephraim Woodward had traveled from Nova Scotia to Ohio and had purchased 120 acres of land there. With their new deed in hand—and more than half their funds exhausted—the Woodward brothers decided it was time to head home to Nova Scotia. It would be an interesting—and arduous—trip:

From [the land office in Monroe, then Ohio, now Michigan] we started on foot, and travelled through the black swamp6, and got to Mr. B’s., in Richland county, the 7th [of June], and on the 15th set out for our home in N. S. We footed it from Buffalo to Albany, mostly: and to New York on a boat, down the Hudson River […]

Then as now, it’s tough to get by in New York City when you’re short on cash. What to do?

[…] finding ourselves in a tight place, in the great city, almost without money, [we] concluded to go whaling on the Pacific, as our last resort, persuaded to it by a run­ner of the New Bedford Whaling Co. But on our way to New Bed­ford a sailor advised us not to go, but to go to Rhode Island and work, and get some money; and offered to give us money to get there if we had none. We declined the money, but took his advice, and in the evening this kind-hearted sailor, James Simpson, put us on the road for the Island, where we soon got work with Peter and William Underwood.7 This was on July 3, I think, and next day we walked some two or three miles, to Newport, and wrote to our father, in N. S., to let him know our whereabouts. After our time [working in Rhode Island] was out we walked to Boston, where we found a vessel, and shipped for home; came to St. John, N. B., where we found Capt. D. Loomer, and came in his vessel to Spencer’s Island, and took an open boat across the bay to Cornwallis, having been gone four and a-half months; some wiser for our experience.8

“Some wiser for our experience,” indeed.

This is turning into a big post, so I’m going to leave our story here for today. Next time: mapping the Woodworth’s 1835 trip, and more.

Stay safe. Be well.



  1. This is another fabulous map from the David Rumsey map collection at Stanford University. It covers a very large geographical area, and yet has many, many details and place names that you usually expect to find only on smaller-scale maps. I recommend you find the largest screen or monitor you can find and click to open the larger version of the map in a new screen, and then zoom in more for the details.

  2. According to the curators of the Rumsey map collection the date of the map is estimated at 1835 based on additions to the Erie Canal, improved mapping around Lake of the Woods and northern Lake Superior, and the coastline east from Alaska. Map in outlined color by state, region or territory. Highly detailed map showing county boundaries, court houses, the homes of doctors, and explanations of the topography (“These Rivers head in Flat Glady Land.”) Includes two inset maps: one of the southern part of Florida, and the second of North America from Columbia in the south to Greenland in the north. On 4 sheets, dissected. See our other copy 1827 in full color, 5574.000

    The Rumsey Map Collection archivist’s estimated date of 1835 may or may not be quite correct. The map only includes part of the Champlain Canal, from Albany to St. Anne, New York. But as I understand it, the full canal, from Albany to Whitehall, New York, was open for business by 1823. So the full Champlain Canal should be on the map; apparently it is a mapmaker’s oversight.

  3. All block quotations in today’s post are from Woodworth, Rev. James W., My Path and the Way the Lord Led Me, Milwaukee, 1878, pages 9-11.

  4. About a year and a half later, in late-1836, Gideon Bigelow’s brother Isaac Bigelow—accompanied by his family and the Daniel Strickland family—would emigrate from Nova Scotia to Mequon, Wisconsin. I’ll have more on this shortly, but see this earlier post focused on the Daniel Strickland family’s migration.

  5. Correct spelling is Lenawee. As a result of the Toledo Strip War (see above), Lenawee County is now part of the State of Michigan.

    UPDATE: However, if you are looking for Ephraim K. Woodworth’s land patent parcel, the current official description of the parcel at the General Land Office website is: Section 5 of Town 10-South, Range 1-East of the Michigan-Toledo Strip meridian, in Fulton Co., Ohio. So there ya go. It’s Ohio after all.

  6. Did you know northwestern Ohio had a Great Black Swamp? Me neither. Click the link for more. And for the record, according to Google Maps walking from Monroe, Michigan, to Richland Co., Ohio, is a journey of some 110 miles on foot. In 1835 took the Woodward’s only four days (or less) to make the trip—June 3 to 7. Assuming they left for Bigelow’s house immediately after purchasing their land on June 3rd, that’s an average of about 27 miles per day, including passage through the Great Black Swamp.

  7. A quick scan of federal census returns for 1830 and 1840 shows that a Peter Underwood lived (and worked, presumably) in Newport, Rhode Island. This makes Woodworth’s next sentence a bit confusing: if the Underwoods were in Newport, then why did the brothers have to “walk some two or three miles to Newport” to post a letter to their father? A minor point, anyway, and certainly not the first time the James Woodworth’s diary is a bit confusing.

  8. “Gone four and a-half months” suggests that the Woodworths returned home to Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, sometime around mid-August, 1835. A quick and very rough Google Maps calculation suggests James and Ephraim traveled around 1,300 miles each way, a round-trip of approximately 2,600 miles. If we assume “four and a half months” equals (rounded up a bit) about 140 days, that makes a daily average distance traveled of about 18.5 miles. And we know they didn’t travel every day. They had at least short stays in Gideon Bigelow’s home in Ohio as well as Boston, Newport, New York, and other places along the way. Amazing.

UPDATE: Revised February 24, 2021 to correct a few errors and infelicities and to provide the current official location of Ephraim Woodworth’s “Ohio” land patent; see note 5, above, for details.