How’d they get here? – Westward on Lake Erie to Detroit

Our series of “How’d they get here?” posts is written to illustrate the nuts and bolts of how our early Mequon pioneers travelled from their original homes or ports of arrival in North America to the newly opened federal lands in Wisconsin Territory, circa 1830-1850. Today’s post continues our westward journey from Buffalo; see Note 1 (below) for links to other posts in the series.

On to the West!

After traveling the Erie Canal and leaving Buffalo harbor, our westward emigrants would sail the length of Lake Erie, on their way to Lakes St. Clair, Huron, and Michigan and—eventually—landfall in the Wisconsin Territory.

Regular steamboat service between Buffalo and Detroit was available at least as early as 1825.2 The 330-mile route included scheduled stops in Erie, Pennsylvania, the mouth of the Grand River (at Fairport, Ohio), and the Ohio ports of Cleveland and Sandusky, before finally arriving at the city of Detroit. By the mid-1830s the number of stops had increased to serve other developing port towns along Lake Erie’s southern shore and points further on, including Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Chicago.

The Cleveland light, circa 1834

Day or night, fair weather or foul, our westbound Mequon settlers would have noticed a variety of sights along the way, including a handful of navigation lights constructed by the federal government. One of the most notable was the harbor light at Cleveland, Ohio.

Bodmer, Karl. “Leuchtthurm bei Cleveland am Erie See. Phare de Clevelandsur le Lac Erie. Cleveland Lighthouse on the Lake Erie.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Published 1840 – 1843, original drawing c. 1834. Click to open larger image in new window.

This image was part of a notable illustrated atlas and memoir of the travels of a European nobleman in the American west, titled Voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique du Nord: exécuté pendant les années 1832, 1833 et 1834, par le prince Maximilien de Wied-Neuwied [Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834]. The talented artist was Karl Bodmer.

This atlas serves as a pictorial record of Bodmer’s travels along the Upper Missouri. Bodmer and Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied traveled together, and prepared the volume upon return to Europe. In addition to the celebrated depictions of American Indians, also included are the landscapes along the way, beginning with New York Harbor.

(NYPL Digital Collections)

The New York Public Library has digitized eighty-one of the prints Bodmer made to illustrate Prince Maximilian’s travels. They are beautifully drawn and well worth a look. You can view them all at the NYPL link, above.

Steamboat – under sail?

We’ve published quite a few illustrations of steamboats recently (for example, here and here). The usual view shows the ship in profile, steaming ahead at a brisk clip, pennants and flags streaming back against the wind. About what you’d expect for a professional “portrait” of a ship.

But did you ever notice how the builders of these early Great Lakes steamboats also incorporated a mast or two for sails? They almost always did, yet you rarely see the sails depicted in use in contemporary images. But the sails were used, at least occasionally, either to increase the speed and efficiency of the ship, conserve fuel needed by the boilers, or to keep the ship under way during rough seas or engine failures.

Today’s image is exceptional, as it shows an unnamed side-wheel steamboat under way in heavy weather, with sails in use. The boilers appear to be working; there is black smoke coming from the smokestacks. Even so, almost all of the ship’s sails are up. The mainmast, forward of the smokestacks, is square-rigged with a mainsail, topsail and a foresail. The mizzenmast, aft, sports one gaff-rigged (fore-and-aft) sail. (There is, possibly, also room for a topsail on the mizzenmast.)

Bodmer, Karl. “Leuchtthurm bei Cleveland am Erie See. Phare de Clevelandsur le Lac Erie. Cleveland Lighthouse on the Lake Erie.,” detail, showing steamboat under sail. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Published 1840 – 1843, original drawing c. 1834. Click to open larger image in new window.

Cleveland, Ohio, was first laid out by surveyors in 1797. It served a role in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, and was incorporated as the Village of Cleaveland (sic) in late 1814. It became the City of Cleveland in 1836, and by the 1830s and ’40s the city was increasing in size and importance as a port on Lake Erie. But for early Wisconsin migrants, the next big city on the Upper Lakes after Buffalo was Detroit.

Passing Detroit, 1837

Below is a colorful scene of the ships and small craft you’d see as you headed westbound on the Great Lakes route to Milwaukee in the 1830s-’40s. It depicts the busy Detroit River at Detroit, Michigan, in 1837. The two steamboats at the left center of the picture are headed north, upstream on the Detroit River that connects Lake Erie to Lake St. Clair and, via the St. Clair River, to Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior

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.

Given that the picture shows leafy green foliage and men in shirt-sleeves, it was probably drawn in the spring or summer of 1837 (or a perhaps a year or two earlier). In August, 1837, the Peter Turck family migrated from Wayne county, New York, to Milwaukee via this exact route and—perhaps—on one of the ships shown in this picture.3 Other Mequon immigrants, including the Bigelow, Bonniwell, Loomer, Strickland and Woodworth families (and many others), would have seen similar views as they travelled from the eastern seaboard to Wisconsin Territory in the ’30s and ’40s.

Steam, sails and oars…

This 1837 aquatint of Detroit River traffic is beautifully drawn and gives us a full, detailed look at the many kinds of ships active on the Great Lakes, and at their expanding port cities and towns—such as Detroit—in the late-1830s.

Next time we’ll take a look at some of these ships in more detail. In the meanwhile, click on the image to open a larger, higher-resolution copy in a new window, and then zoom in on the various steamboats, sailing ships and small harbor craft. There’s a lot to see.

I’ll be back soon with more “How’d they get here?” information and unique illustrations.

Be well.



  1. If you missed ’em, the previous parts of this series include:
    Monday: Map Day! – How’d they get here?
    How’d they get here? – Steamboats!
    How’d they get here? – early Erie Canal images
    How’d they get here? Buffalo – a tale of two harbors
    How’d they get here? Walking & riding
    • and a bonus ship images and info at, Steamboat’s coming!, Steaming against the wind… and Still steaming ahead…

    Also, there are other really useful Erie Canal-related posts on the blog, written before the current “How’d they get here?” series. You can find them all by typing “Erie Canal” in the blog’s Search box. You’ll get at least 10 results.

    If you only have time to read one of these, I recommend reading Monday: Map Day! – The Erie Canal, from February 15, 2021. That post is focused on how Jonathan M. Clark, Mary (Turck) Clark, and the Turck and Gay families migrated in stages from their homes in the northeast to their new homes in upstate New York and then on to Wisconsin in the 1820s and ’30s. This February post also includes a really informative, downloadable, high-resolution map of New York state and the canal system, circa 1834 (2 versions: original and with my annotations), plus links to many other relevant posts.

  2. I haven’t really looked into the detailed early history of regular Great Lakes steamboat routes. I believe our recent Monday: Map Day! – The United States of North America, 1825 and its steamboat information regarding the regular Buffalo-to-Detroit run is generally correct. If you know more about the evolution of Great Lakes steamboat routes, please feel free to make corrections or additions our information.

  3. Over the next week or so we’ll take a closer look at some of these 1837 ships, and I’ll have a first-hand account of the Turck family’s arrival in Milwaukee in 1837.

2 thoughts on “How’d they get here? – Westward on Lake Erie to Detroit

  1. Pingback: How’d they get here? – Great Lakes ships, circa 1837 | Clark House Historian

  2. Pingback: RBOH – “How’d they get here?” edition… | Clark House Historian

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