Transportation Nation: An Exploration of U.S. Routes & Records for Work and Travel in the Nineteenth to Early Twentieth-Centuries

Instructor: Pamela J. Vittorio
Dates offered: Mondays: Oct. 16th, 23rd, 30th, and Nov. 6th
Time: 12:30-3:30 pm PT, 3:30 pm to 6:30 pm ET
Cost: $300
Registration: 17-23 August 2023

Summary: This course is designed for intermediate to advanced researchers who would like to enrich the  stories of their ancestors’ lives by digging into transportation routes and records. Transportation records can be “double-sided:” A stage coach driver or a boat Captain is both worker and passenger—so from examining routes and existing records, we understand the “rules of the roads,” the laws of the waterways, expenses,  hardships, duration of the trip(s), and where passengers embarked and disembarked. 

From packet boat passenger lists, we learn how groups migrated, and may discover the passengers’  names, however, we also learn the names of boat captains and toll collectors. Though this is a large group of records, each type of document can represent a model for what an early traveler might have received as a receipt a or experienced while traveling via packet boat on the Erie Canal or another North American canal. By using contracts, diaries, gazetteers, journals, land records, ledgers, letters and correspondences, maps, memoirs, and original transportation-focused records, we can enhance the stories of our ancestors’ lives.  

As the Transportation Revolution spread across the U.S., the improvement of roads and then canals, was quickly followed by the development of railroads through the mid-nineteenth century. These new but often parallel pathways had an impact on the residents of the U.S. (eminent domain), and if we find an ancestor who lived close to a canal or railroad, a look at land records might shed light on their lives, or even reveal the name of  a female ancestor whom we might not have otherwise discovered. 

Students will gain a deeper understanding of travel and migration by examining original records that employ two research perspectives:  

1. Transportation workers, contractors, and officials

2. Businessmen, local travelers/passengers, and tourists.  

Each session will provide foundations within the following framework: 

Region New England and the Northeast (NY, NJ, PA); Mid-Atlantic, South,  Southeast; Expansion to the Midwest; Western and Northwestern U.S.
Era U.S. ‘Transportation Revolution,” Industrial Revolution to the early twentieth  century.
Pathways and Starting Points of Transportation Ports of entry and piers or landings; canals, lakes, rivers; macadam roads, plank roads, post roads, roadways, toll roads, or trails; railroads
Mode of  TransportationPacket ships or barques, steam ships, etc.;  canal boats; carriages, hackneys, stagecoaches, wagons;   various types of trains /locomotives


  • Intermediate to Advanced research skills

Required subscriptions/reading

  • Virtual Archive & Library  (VAL) Access: Dropbox (preferred) or Google Drive 
  • Ancestry 
  • FamilySearch 
  • Google Books  
  • Internet Archive, Scribd (e-library, subscription; very useful for access to authored works)

Recommended Text (not required): Dollarhide, William. American Migration Routes: Part II, Stagecoach, Steamboat, Canal & Early Railroad Routes. Orting, WA: Family Roots Publishing Co, LLC, 2022.

Session 1:

In session one, after a brief introduction to the course, we frame the concept of travel in the early U.S. by  asking critical activity-based research questions: How did our ancestors arrange travel?  What methods of transportation were available and which routes already existed?  What documentation of inland travel reflects our ancestor’s movements from place to place? Maps and surveys, authored works, diaries, gazetteers, letters, and stagecoach records help us determine points of embarkation and debarkation for travelers and those who migrated from New England to New York, and later, all points west. Students will gain an understanding of travel via turnpikes and toll roads by stagecoach, and eventually, how all modes of transportation became an intricate network that our ancestors had to learn to navigate.

Session 2:

The second session further investigates the “push-pull” in migration across the U.S. This session,  “Manifests and Destinations,” analyzes the construction and development of canals in the Northeast, and  the records of canal workers, including specific sets of canals of New England, NJ, PA, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Southeast. Steamboat and stage connections will be explored, as well as repositories where  archival materials are found (examples provided in VAL—the Virtual Archive and Library).

Session 3:

In the third session, we explore how “canal mania” created a “Gateway to the West,” influenced migration from the eastern states to the Midwest, and how workers transitioned from the canals to employment in railroad construction. From both perspectives, we examine how improvements in railroad infrastructure, and certain canal laws passed in various states, affected the transportation of people and cargo across the nation. Though passenger travel on canals faded by 1850, transactions for farmers and local businessmen can still be discovered in various record sets (bills of lading, chattel mortgages, ledgers, waybills, etc.).

Session 4:

In the final session “…And All Points West,” we examine both sides of transportation-related documents (passenger and worker)—with a focus on railways and public highways and various occupations, such as contractors and agents (like the Padroni) who hired specific ethnic groups for work on railroads, canals, and highways. We determine how laws, politics, and the economy impacted passenger travel and transportation through the nineteenth through early twentieth centuries. With NYC and Chicago as major hubs, we will look at the construction of railroads and their records from the Midwest to Texas and from California to the Northwest.