McNairs' Passage West


Steam Navigation

In Miles' death notice, I found it intriguing that Miles moved to Wisconsin from New York via a sailing vessel through the Great Lakes.

I did a bit more investigation as my shear naiveté had me thinking he would have come to Wisconsin by land.

Wisconsin State seal 1851
Steamer vessels transporting settlers 

A Western Boom

In reading "The History and Archaeology of the Great Lakes Steamboat Niagara," by John Odin Jensen, I found a wealth of fascinating facts about the settlement of Wisconsin, enlightening both the how's and why's of  Miles and Elizabeth (Lozen) McNair's journey west in 1851.

Wisconsin gained admission to the Union in 1848, and in the same year, "prominent western booster" James Hall wrote:

"The application of steam power to the purpose of navigation forms the brightest era in the history of this country. It is that which has contributed more than any other event or cause, to the rapid growth of our population, and the almost miraculous development of our resources."

Mr Jensen further expands the point by stating:

"Steamboats powered the development of the American mid-continent for half a century, beginning with Robert Fulton's New Orleans in 1811. They were essential in the shaping of the Midwest, and also played a vital role in the settlement of Wisconsin during its territorial and early statehood periods."

The National Museum of the Great Lakes website states: 

"The boats of the period 1830-50 fall in two distinct classes, the sailing vessels including the larger ones trading down the lakes, and the smaller ones serving the lake itself and the steamers. Prior to 1835 there was little travel on the lake for the very good reason that most of the territory had not been opened up to settlement until after the Indian treaties had been made."

"Immigration by Lake"

The fact the water travel was the superior way for settlers to move west is made obvious by the fact that traveling by wagon was a dangerous and treacherous mode of transportation.

I found this insightful quote from Flint in his "History of the Mississippi Valley" published in 1832:

"On account of the universality and cheapness of steamboat and canal passage and transport, more than half the whole number of immigrants now arrive in the West by water. This remark applies to nine-tenths of those that come from Europe and the Northern States. They thus escape much of the expense, slowness, inconvenience and danger of the ancient, cumbrous and tiresome journey in wagons. They no longer experience the former vexations of incessant altercations with landlords, mutual charges of dishonesty, discomforts from new modes of speech and reckoning money, from breaking down carriages and wearing out horses."

Fascinatingly, in regards to the settlement of Wisconsin, the History of the Great Lakes states:

"Wisconsin was peopled largely by a thrifty foreign population, during the decade between 1840 and 1850. The population in 1840 was only 30,945; in 1850 it had reached 305,391. It received its citizenship almost exclusively via the lakes, but was obliged to wait until Michigan had been at least partially settled, just as Michigan in time had to wait until the shores of Lake Erie had first been peopled by the emigrants."

Courage & a Pioneering Spirit

When I began researching the McNairs and history of Brodhead, I candidly neglected thinking about history in relation to the remarkable courage, hard work, and a pioneering spirit Wisconsin settlers possessed as they are the threads woven through our State's history.

Miles M. McNair had a fortitude and pioneering spirit that lead him west, and subsequently was a prominent settler in Green County, Wisconsin. It is no wonder about the inherited genetics and inclinations of his son, as Grant's spirit for entrepreneurship and wanderlust led him around the globe as a pioneer of international export and trading.


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