Portages and Water Routes

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PORTAGES AND WATER ROUTES. Foremost among the factors that governed the exploration and settlement of the United States and Canada were the mountain ranges and the river systems—the former an obstacle, the latter an aid to travel. For more than a century the Allegheny Mountains barred the British from the interior. By contrast, the French, who secured a foothold at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, found ready access to the interior along that waterway. By the Richelieu River–Lake Champlain route, they could pass southward to the Hudson River, while numerous tributaries of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers pointed the way to Hudson Bay.

Over the eastern half of primitive America stretched a forest that only winding rivers and narrow trails penetrated. Wherever rivers ran, boats could travel. Nevertheless, travel by water was subject to interruption, either by rapids, shallows, waterfalls, or portages. At heavily traveled portages, people frequently maintained horses or oxen and carts for hauling boats across the portage.

French explorer Samuel de Champlain opened the Ottawa River route to the upper Great Lakes. From Lake Erie, travelers could reach the Ohio River by numerous routes: the Lake Chautauqua Portage to the Allegheny, the Presque Isle–Allegheny Portage, or the Maumee–Miami and the Maumee–Wabash portages. From Lake Huron access was open to Lake Superior by the St. Marys River or to Lake Michigan by the Straits of Mackinac. From Lake Superior, travelers could pass by numerous river-and-portage routes to Hudson Bay, to the Mississippi River system, or to the great river systems that drained the vast interior plain of Canada into the Arctic Ocean. From Lake Michigan many routes led to the Mississippi system; from the St. Joseph access was open to the Wabash and Ohio Rivers.

With access to the Mississippi system, the heart of the continent lay open to the traveler. The encirclement of the English by the French precipitated the French and Indian War, which ended in the conquest of New France and the division of its territory between England and Spain. However, the waterways retained their importance as highways of trade and travel to the end of the wilderness period. At places where a break in transportation occurred—such as Chicago—forts and, later, cities were established. Places like Detroit and Mackinac Island owed their importance to their strategic location at central points of travel.

Compared with modern standards, wilderness travel was at best laborious and time-consuming. If some rivers were deep and placid, others were swift and beset with shoals and rapids. Portage conditions, too, varied widely from place to place, or even at the same place under different seasonal conditions. For instance, in 1749 Pierre de Céloron de Blainville spent five days of arduous toil traversing the ten-mile portage from Lake Erie to Lake Chautauqua and spent two weeks reaching the Allegheny at Warren, Pennsylvania. Travelers' adherence to the waterways under such difficult circumstances supplies striking evidence of the still greater obstacles encountered by land.


Dunnigan, Brian Leigh. Frontier Metropolis: Picturing Early Detroit, 1701–1838. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2001.

Eccles, W. J. The French in North America, 1500–1783. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998.

Skaggs, David Curtis, and Larry L. Nelson, eds. The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes, 1754–1814. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001.

Spinney, Robert G. City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000.

M. M.Quaife/a. e.

See alsoFox-Wisconsin Waterway ; Grand Portage ; Niagara, Carrying Place of .