How’d they get here? – Steamboats!

How the early settlers came to Mequon, c. 1835-1850 (part 2)

This is part 2 of a series focused on how our Mequon pioneers traveled to southeast Wisconsin in the early days of white settlement, between roughly 1835 and 1850. If you missed part 1, it’s here at Monday: Map Day! – How’d they get here?, plus a short post with bonus image at Steamboat’s coming!

From the late 1820s until about 1850, if you wanted to get from the settled American northeast to the open frontiers of the West, the fastest, safest, and cheapest way to get there was by water. Thousands of New Yorkers, New Englanders, Canadians, and overseas immigrants that had come from Europe to America’s eastern ports, found the Great Lakes route—west on the Erie Canal to Buffalo, and then by water through the Lakes to Chicago and Milwaukee—was their preferred route to new homes on the western frontier. And many of those settlers traveled on the newest, fastest craft afloat: the steamboat.

View of Detroit…1837

Here’s something really special for Clark House history lovers, a detailed drawing of the various kinds of sailing ships and steamboats as they passed by Detroit, Michigan on a sunny day in 1837, as seen from the Canadian side of the Detroit River. Take a close look; this is the view Peter Turck and his family—including daughter Mary, the future spouse of Jonathan M. Clark—would have seen as they traveled to Milwaukee in August of the same year1:

Bennett, William J., after a sketch by Frederick K. Grain, City of Detroit, Michigan. Taken from the Canada shore near the Ferry., hand-colored aquatint on engraving, ca. 1837. National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Public Domain. Click to open larger image in new window.

Schooners, brigs, steamers and more

How did they travel? There were many types of ships on the Great Lakes route, mostly schooners, fitted out with various numbers and arrangements of masts and sails, and steamboats.

After the War of 1812, schooners became the predominant vessels on the Lakes. Most of the merchant ships between 1800 and 1830 were two-masted schooners of about 70 feet in length and 100 tons register. They carried approximately 150 tons, or 1,500 barrels of cargo with a crew of three or four men. Brigantines combined the best features of both square and fore-and-aft rigs, and became popular in the 1830s and 1840s. They required crews of eight to ten men and were not as maneuverable as schooners. As a result, few brigs or brigantines were built after 1850 because they were too expensive to outfit and operate when compared with the simpler schooners. The most practical and profitable rig was the topsail schooner, designed for fast trips with heavy payloads (characteristic of square rig) and maneuverability with limited crew. Topsail schooners had the ability to sail close to windward that was characteristic of fore-and-aft rigged ships. Topsails in one form or another were a carryover from the days of the Baltimore Clippers. They added speed to otherwise sluggish Lakes schooners, especially when running before prevailing westerly winds.

As the rigs of Lakes craft became somewhat standardized in the 1830s and 1840s, a similar trend developed with the hulls. Hull form was determined by geographical conditions and by the configuration and dimension of navigation locks in places like the Welland Ship Canal. Sturdy ships were built with full shapes and flat bottoms to squeeze through the shallow spots and the locks with as much cargo as possible. They were invariably fitted with “centerboards” to improve their sailing qualities. With straight sides and box-like forms, they resembled canal boats and earlier coastal packets. The ships were the models for the early 20th century bulk freighters. The distinctive “canallers” were characterized by their shapes and their dimensions, which conformed to those of the locks themselves. The first Welland Canal, completed in 1832, had locks 100 feet long and 16 feet wide. The “Second Welland,” opened in 1845, had 150-foot by 26-foot locks. Canallers built for the second Welland were probably the first distinctly “Lakes” vessel type. In the early 1860s there were reportedly more than 750 canal schooners on the Lakes out of a total of nearly 1,300 sailing craft. The canallers were the backbone of the Great Lakes fleet.

Minnesota Historical Society, adapted from National Register’s Multiple Property Documentation (MPDF) “Minnesota’s Lake Superior Shipwrecks A.D. 1650-1945” by: Patrick Labadie, Brina J. Agranat and Scott Anfinson. Accessed online July 1, 2021.

Steamboats – the latest in technology and comfort

Great Lakes steamboats of the era featured the latest technical improvements and amenities. The steamboat Illinois was one of the new breed of Great Lakes steamers:

Steamboat technology developed quickly in the 1830s and 1840s. The steamers Illinois (1837) and Great Western (1838) were the largest and finest of their day. The 185-foot Great Western was the first steamer on the Lakes to be fitted with a spacious upper cabin. The entire hull was occupied by the boilers, with holds for freight and wood. On the main deck aft was the ladies’ cabin and staterooms, while on the hurricane deck the main cabin extended almost the entire length of the boat. On this deck there were also a ladies’ saloon aft, the dining room next, and the saloon or bar-room forward. Staterooms, 60 in number, were arranged on either side of these cabins, the whole length, with three berths in each, making in all about 300 berths.

Minnesota Historical Society, adapted from National Register’s Multiple Property Documentation (MPDF) “Minnesota’s Lake Superior Shipwrecks A.D. 1650-1945” by: Patrick Labadie, Brina J. Agranat and Scott Anfinson. Accessed online July 1, 2021

[The Illinois] was built by the late Commodore Oliver Newberry, for the Detroit and Buffalo trade, at a cost of about $112,000, in 1837. Her engine was from the Altair Works, New York City and the engine of the steamer BUFFALO, built shortly afterwards, was exactly like it. The officers of the ILLINOIS were Com. Blake and Wm. Hinton, now pilot of the U. S. Steamer MICHIGAN, and Wm. Conley, first and second officers […]

Buffalo Daily Courier July 9, 1861 

(Maritime History of the Great Lakes)

These were large ships and—as long as the Great Lakes weather was favorable—fast. They usually made the trip from Buffalo to Milwaukee in five or six days. For example, page 2 of the Milwaukee Advertiser of June 3, 1837, announced:

Steamboat Arrivals.—On Sunday last the splendid steamer James Madison came into port in six days from Buffalo, being the first arrival of a steamboat from the lower lakes this season. She brought up a great number of passengers (over 1000) and about 4000 barrels bulk freight.

Charles Bonniwell remembers the Illinois

In 1839, the Bonniwell family decided to leave their trades behind in New York state and try their hands at farming in Wisconsin. They steamed from Buffalo to Milwaukee on…the Illinois. Sixty years later, brother Charles Bonniwell recalled the voyage:

In the spring, we started west by way of Albany and the Erie Canal. The party consisted of my mother, Mr. & Mrs. Moss, my brothers James, William, Henry, George, Alfred and Walter Bonniwell, my wife and child and myself. When we reached Buf­falo, we found that the steamer Illinois, under command of Capt. Blake, was waiting for a trip and we took passage for Milwaukee. We had rough weather on Lake Huron and ran under the lea of Mackinaw Island for shelter.2

Bonniwell, Charles in The Milwaukee Sentinel, April 23, 1899, quoted in Bonniwell, George, The Bonniwells: 1000 Years, p. 67.

There could be…drawbacks

In the 1830s and ’40s, steamboats were the latest, largest, and fastest way to travel the lengths of the Great Lakes. If you could afford it, they were also the most comfortable way to travel, with tidy cabins to sleep in, food service onboard and, on some ships, live entertainment in the “saloon.”

But steamboat travel had its dangers. The Great Lakes, then as now, were capable of highly variable and sometimes violent weather. Many ships and much freight never made it to their destinations—and many passengers lost their lives—because of sudden, fearsome storms on the Lakes.

Foul weather was not the only danger. Steam engines were powerful and constantly evolving, and the government was reluctant to regulate the new technology. During the early decades of steam power there were a troubling number of occasions when a ship’s boilers exploded, with great loss of life.3

N. Currier. Awful conflagration of the steam boat Lexington in Long Island Sound on Monday eveg., Jany. 13th , by which melancholy occurrence; over 100 persons perished / drawn by W.K. Hewitt ; N. Currier. lith. & pub., N.Y. Connecticut New York Long Island Sound, 1840. [New York: published by Currier & Ives]. Library of Congress. Click to open larger image in new window.

Coda: the Illinois averts disaster

Milwaukee music lovers of 1842 owed the Illinois and her crew a debt of gratitude. If not for the ship’s sturdy design and the crew’s able seamanship, Milwaukee might never have enjoyed the performances of its newly-formed Beethoven Society.

A Card, Milwaukee Weekly Sentinel, November 30, 1842, page 2, first signature (and author?) L. T. Zander. ( Click to open larger image in new window.

According to this “Card,” in mid-November, 1842, the steamer Illinois decided to brave the “perilous” wintry weather of the Great Lakes for one last trip from Buffalo to Milwaukee (and back?), and the passengers were impressed with the performance of the ship and her crew. In gratitude, 28 passengers signed their name to this message on November 23, 1842.

The first to sign the “Card,” and possibly its author, is none other than L. T. Zander. Zander, as we discovered late last year (here, here, here, and here), was a singer and music conductor. On March 23, 1843, a mere four months after surviving this rough, late-season voyage on the Illinois, Zander would go on to found and lead the initial performance of Milwaukee’s first classical music organization, the Milwaukee Beethoven Society.

Without the “superior sea quality” of the Illinois and the “caution, skill and untiring exertions” if her crew, L. T. Zander and his shipmates might have been lost, and Milwaukee might not have enjoyed concert music for many years to come.

It’s a small world.

Postscript & Disambiguation – the U.S. Mail Steamer Illinois:

Except for today’s lithograph of ships passing Detroit in 1837, I have found it nearly impossible to locate any images of specific Great Lakes steamboats or sailing-ships, circa 1835-1850. Pictures of Mississippi River steamboats? Sure. Historic Hudson River steamers? You bet. Sleek, ocean-going steamers? Oh, yes. Quite a few fine images exist for these ships. But ships making the Buffalo to Chicago and Milwaukee run on the Great Lakes? Not one single drawing, print or lithograph, until I found today’s View of Detroit…1837.

Well, I thought I found one image. I thought I had hit the jackpot when I located this hand-colored lithograph, U.S. Mail Steamer “Illinois.” in the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum collection:

Parsons, Charles, U. S. Mail Steamer, Illinois. Published by Endicott and Co., 1835-1861. Hand-colored lithograph on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase. Public domain, CC0 license. Click to open larger image in new window.

Even better: it might be another very special image for Clark House Historian readers, if this U. S. Mail Steamer Illinois was the same as the steamboat Illinois that brought Mequon’s Bonniwell family west in 1839 (and, perhaps, brought the Peter Turck family—including Jonathan Clark’s future spouse, Mary Turck—to Milwaukee in 1837).

Well, it was too good to be true. The dating of the print in the National Gallery’s catalog was promising, but vague, and possibly a decade too late: 1831-1861. And something seemed a bit “off” about this ship if it was an early Great Lakes steamer. Its lines were too “modern,” the prow seemed too sleek, and was that an iron hull?. Those would all be signs of later, possibly ocean-going steamboats.

Above the title of the lithograph was another clue: the caption “Engraved for Stuart’s Naval & Mail Steamers U. S.” A little searching led to a GoogleBooks scanned copy of this book, The Naval and Mail Steamers of the United States, by Charles B. Stuart, Engineer-in-Chief of the United States Navy, second edition, New York, 1853.

Long story short, this U. S. Mail Steamer Illinois was built for the federal government for the Atlantic Ocean portion of the New York to California mail service, sailing from New York to Panama, via Havana and New Orleans. It appears the ship SS Illinois served on the New York to Chagres, Panama, service from August 26, 1851 until foundering off Havana in 1859. This was not the Bonniwell—or Zander—steamboat Illinois. Alas.

Next time

Coming up: more ships—including a deeper look into the Detroit, 1837 lithograph and the Turck family migration to Milwaukee—and then a look at various modes of travel on land, including a few choice bits about early railroads.

See you soon.



  1. I’m going to discuss the Turck family’s Great Lakes trip and how this lithograph brings much of it to life, in a separate and more detailed post, coming shortly.

  2. There are many more details about the Bonniwell family’s 1839 migration to Wisconsin Territory in our earlier post, Erie Canal – the Bonniwell Family 1832-39, and in George Bonniwell’s book, The Bonniwells: 1000 Years.

  3. If you’re interested, there is a free, 15-page article on the subject: From Steamboat Inspection Service to U.S. Coast Guard: Marine Safety in the United States from 1838‐1946, by PACS Barbara Voulgaris. Here’s the link.

9 thoughts on “How’d they get here? – Steamboats!

  1. Fascinating, and great detective work, Reed. You are adding so much to the history of the early settlers in the Mequon, Milwaukee areas. We all appreciate your fine efforts, and the well-documented Bonniwell family history.

    I do note one J. Morrill as a signer of the appreciation card to the captain of the steamer Illinois. Worth looking at his lineage, for any connection to Jonathan Morrill Clark? Liz Hickman


  2. Here’s an excerpt from Gretchen Kletzien’s “Early History of New Holstein” (!948): (The first group) had chosen the shorter, more expensive route to the west that had taken them from New York to Albany, thence to Buffalo by train and from that point by steamship through the Great Lakes to Sheboygan….
    (The second group) had chosen the longer, less expensive passage, having taken a horsedrawn canal boat from Albany to Buffalo. It was a slow journey that permitted passengers to walk along the shores, and often with gun in hand to engage in the hunt for wild fowl and small game, and, then, at designated points to reboard the vessel. They arrived in Sheboygan eight or ten days later. (May 1848).
    Regards, Sam


    • Interesting info. Thanks, Sam!

      You’re correct, the combination of water and rail travel becomes more available—and affordable—toward the later 1840s and beyond. I didn’t realize that by 1848 the Erie Canal was already considered the more “leisurely” way to go to Buffalo, compared to taking the train. In 1825, the 7-day canal trip from Albany to Buffalo was considered a marvel of speed and convenience. That’s an amazing amount of change in the dozen years since the canal opened.

      I’m not an expert on early American railroads, but my impression is that rail options open up first in the states of the eastern seaboard—especially New York and adjacent states—and then in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and further west, including Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. But for our early immigrants, traveling from elsewhere to Wisconsin, rail is not much of an option until at least the very late ’40s and early ’50s. Stay tuned for details.


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