St. Lawrence River

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Flowing 750 miles northeast from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Lawrence River shapes the fate of the peoples on both of its shores. The river, despite its difficult rapids, has long served as a vital transportation conduit for trade, migration, and exploration. Long before European colonization, the river provided fertile hunting and fishing grounds for members of the First Nations. In 1535 Jacques Cartier officially named the river and claimed the area for France. Seventy-three years later, Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City and settled Montreal in 1611. With these settlements, the river functioned as a barrier between New France and Great Britain.

On its waters, empires have risen and fallen, wars have been fought, and peace has been negotiated. Access to the river helped the British secure victory in the French and Indian War (1756–1763). It allowed the British to scale the cliffs outside Quebec City in 1759, destroy New France, and claim the area for Britain. In 1776 Americans sailed down the St. Lawrence in an attempt to capture British Canada. With the American Revolutionary victory, the river became the border between parts of the new Republic and British Canada. During the War of 1812, President James Madison attempted to annex British Canada by sending a fleet of ships, under the command of General James Wilkinson, down the St. Lawrence River. The Long Sault Rapids prevented Wilkinson from proceeding. On 13 November 1813 he anchored his ships; British and Mohawk warriors soundly defeated his men in the Battle of Crysler's Farm, giving the British control of the river. With the American defeat, the St. Lawrence continued to act as a buffer and a trade conduit between the Republic and British Canada.

The war highlighted the need for an effective navigation system. Attempts at canal and lock building began and failed as early as 1689. In 1819 the Erie Canal in New York State drew trade away from the St. Lawrence. In response, work began on the Lachine Canal, which was completed in 1821. Serious modifications continued until the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of canals, dams, locks, and channels connecting the Great Lakes, in 1959. In the 1820s the Underground Railroad moved human cargo from the United States across the river and into the freedom of British Canada. Vital trade and transportation continue along the St. Lawrence River.


Browne, George Waldo. The St. Lawrence River: Historical, Legendary, Picturesque. New York: Putnam, 1905.

Creighton, Donald Grant. The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence, 1760–1850. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1937.

Jenkins, Phil. River Song: Sailing the History of the St. Lawrence. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001.

Cheryl A. Wells

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St. Lawrence River

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St. Lawrence River