1830: W. H. Wyant to Thomas Wyant

1824 Lithograph of the Great Aqueduct at Rochester, NY where the Erie Canal crossed the Genesee River

This magnificent letter was written in 1830 by W. H. Wyant, the son of Thomas Wyant (Abt 1780-Bef1835) — a boot and shoe maker employed at a store near the corner of Broad and Pearl Street in New York City. In meticulous and unusual detail, young Wyant describes the journey from his uncle’s home in Lodi, New York, by steamboat up Lake Seneca to Geneva; by stage to Newark; and by the Erie Canal to Rochester, New York. Here young Wyant found a job as a shoemaker working for Abner Wakelee. Delightful descriptions of both Geneva and Rochester are contained in the letter.

I was unable to find a record on-line to confirm the identity of the author, W. H. Wyant. I’m going to conjecture that his name was William H. Wyant and that he was born in New York between 1805-1810. He mentions “Leonard” at the end of his letter which I believe is a reference to his brother, Leonard Lipender Wyant (1804-1855), who died of consumption in 1855. Leonard was married to Lavinia Ann Cornwall (1819-1889) and they resided in Brooklyn. On-line genealogical records indicate that Leonard’s father’s name was Thomas Wyant and that his grandfather was Nathaniel Wyant (1735-1790).

Stampless Letter


Addressed to Mr. Thomas Wiant, No. 25 Hester Street, New York [City]

Page 1

Rochester, Monroe County, New York
September 6th 1830

Dear Father,

I now take the opportunity to write to you to inform you that by the Blessing of the Lord, I enjoy a comfortable portion of health and am in hopes that I shall hear the same news from you and yours, which is ever pleasing to me. What can be better than health and a good conscience, which many of our fellow mortals are deprived of.

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I left Uncle’s ¹ about noon on Tuesday last. One of the neighbor’s boys took me to Goaf’s [Goff’s] Ferry — the distance of three miles. From thence the steamboat takes passengers to Geneva by putting a signal out on the point. The steamboat was almost on the opposite side way off against the ferry when we got there. We hoisted the signal as quick as possible, however. They espied it and — with some reluctance — they came across and send out their long boat and took me in. She was not so elegant as the North America or the boat on the Cayuga Lake. She is called the Seneca Chief. She runs from the head to the foot of the Lake three times a week. She does not run on Sunday. The lake runs north and south and so transparent that you can — when the lake is calm — see the bottom [in] twenty feet [of] water.

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We got to Geneva about 7 o’clock that evening. I saw some Indians and their squaws about 12 miles down from Goaf’s Ferry at Dresden on the banks of the lake. They looked very disconsolate, poor wanderers. My heart feels for them. They sat there looking down upon the lake where formerly they or their fore fathers had often fished or paddled their canoes along. They were looking as if they were taking their last view — never more to return. Perhaps so with me. No man his native country ere reigns but casts a lingering, longing look behind.

It is 21 miles from Geneva to Mount Suma or Lake Port on the canal and 63 from thence to Rochester. On arrival [in Geneva], I went to the Franklin House and enquired what time the stages went to Rochester. They said they had been gone about 1 hour and said there would be some going out in the morning about 8 or 9 o’clock. So I composed myself for that night in reading the news and walking about the town till bedtime. It was a light night. The streets are regular and paved; the walks are wide and laid with brick. They have a Bank and Museum &c. &c.

The Franklin House in Geneva, built 1824.

I staid to the Franklin House that night and got my breakfast there in the morning to be in readiness for the stage. I waited the appointed time but no stage made its appearance. I spoke to the landlord ² [as to] the reason why it had not come. There were 2 passengers going out in the stage. They made some ado about its [being late] and I fell in with them about the Landlord detaining us here on expense. The landlord said he would not charge us for our dinners so we ate our dinners (I did not care how long he detained me on his own expense, being not in a very great hurry myself). We staid in Geneva till about 3 o’clock in the afternoon when we took the stage for Newark — distance about 16 miles — where we got aboard the canal boat. From thence it is 40 miles to Rochester.

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We arrived in Rochester about 11 o’clock Thursday morning. We passed the great embankment at Irondequoit where the land is thrown up about 80 feet and the canal runs across the top of it. It is a very frightful looking place to look down from the boat on the valleys below. Just before we got to the city, the boat had to get out on the dock where she was weighed.

View of the Erie Canal aqueduct over the Genesee River at Rochester, NY

We crossed over the great Aqueduct where the canal crosses the Genesee River and came into the city. My feelings are better imagined than described when I was landed on the dock. I did not know where to go to get any work or to leave my valise where it would be safe till I could get any work, so I stood on the wharf like one forsaken or a stranger, which really I was, being of a bashful nature and not anyways enterprising. I looked one way and then another with my bundle under my arm like a greenhorn. I thought it best to hold on my bundle for if I had lost it, I would have the sorrows worse than ever.

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There were a family moving from New York stopped on the dock too with their furniture and they did not know where to go too, so I had company. The women watched the things while the man went to find a house to move in, so I got the women to watch my bundle while I took a little walk around. So I went just up around the corner and took a little view of the houses. At last I espied a sign with boots and shoes painted on it. So I went in and asked about work. He did not say much as his partner was not in, but told me to call in about 1/2 an hour and he would let me know more about it. At the appointed time, I made my appearance and succeeded in getting work and have made one pair of stuff boot heels. The man I work for is named Wakelee & Company ³ — 2 pretty nice men, both Presbyterian. The store is between Exchange and Fitzhugh Streets. The work shop is over the store in Buffalo Street and is the greatest business street in the city. It is something like Fulton Street in New York [City].

Broadside announcing Sam Patch’s Leap over the Falls at Rochester in November 1829.

The Market is in this street and about 100 rods from the Great Falls where the unfortunate Sam Pach [Patch] took his last leap. I went to look at the place. It is on the Genesee River. The place is awfully and sublime. The river is full of little falls and rapids some feet back from the falls. Finally, the whole bed of the river plunges over the great abyss 70 or 80 feet below. People are seen some ways below the falls fishing &c.

There are five men to work in the shop besides myself. One of them is from New Canaan, Connecticut. He is acquainted with a great many people that I have seen in Long Ridge and the adjoining places. His name is [William J.] Handford. The shop mates are all the followers of Fanny Wright. No rum is allowed in the shop. The wages are very good. I get 5 shillings for the same kind as I got in New York. They have a Shoe Maker’s Society in this place which makes the business better. I must join it tonight.

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The soldiers are all out today. We have fine showers of rain today. I want you to write me out a letter as soon as you receive this for I want to hear how you do and about Fowler and all the particulars. I board with the boss’s father-in-law’s family. Board [is] 14 shillings and washing & mending extra. I wish I had some of my old thick pantaloons out here as it begins to grow chilly. However, I must get along as well as I can. I have not room to write much more. You must direct your letter, Rochester, Monroe County, N.Y. Give my love to Leonard and all the people.

Yours, — W. H. Wyant


¹ Wyant’s uncle was probably Nathaniel Wyant (1790-1853) who lived in Lodi, Seneca County, New York with his wife, Alvira Miller, in 1830. The point on the eastern shore of Lake Seneca, not far from his Uncle’s residence where Wyant signaled for passage on the steamship, was Goff’s Point — subsequently called Lodi Landing. It was named after Tertulius Goff who settled at that location in 1800.

² The proprietor of the Franklin House in Geneva at the time that Wyant stayed there in 1830 was Solomon St. John (1787-1835).

³ Wakelee & Co. was owned by Abner Wakelee; his partner may have been John Alling. Their boot and shoe store was located at 6 Exchange Street in Rochester, New York. Abner Wakelee was the first shoemaker in Rochester, arriving in May 1815.

The 13 November 1822 issue of the Geneva Palladium carried the following description of the newly completed Ironduquoit Embankment:

“Ironduquoit Embankment. – This interesting section of the Erie Canal, which was first opened on the 15th inst. is distant from this place about eleven miles. The approach to it from the west is lateral to, and situated on an elevated roll or ridge of land, of about 80 rods in length, which rises from the bed of Ironduquot creek, and forms one of its banks, and is, in its turn, used to form one side of the embankment of the Canal, till you come to the main valley of the creek, where the course of the Canal crosses it. This natural bank rises, generally, to within about six feet of the level of the Canal, which is there built on it.

The valley of the Ironduquot, where the Canal must pass, is seventy-two feet lower than the banks, and forty rods wide. The base of the embankment constructed, is 304 feet, through which is built a culvert, of twenty-six feet chord, with a semi-circular arch of 244 feet in length. The ground, on which this structure was placed, was a soft, alluvial marsh: – in consequence, it became necessary to place in on piles, of which there are nearly one thousand.

The scenery is magnificent! While you are silently and peacefully navigating the tops of an artificial and natural mountains, the eye takes in, at a single glance, the whole fertile valley of Ironduquot, and the mind expands itself to the amazing importance of the internal improvement which this work connects, and has now thrown into operation. The expense of the above work is probably $40,000.”

The following is a description of the Seneca Chief Steamboat:

“With the opening of the Seneca Cayuga Canal only a few months off, work was started on the steamboat Seneca Chief with her keel being laid at Geneva, December 12, 1827. She was built on the plan of the ‘North River boats’ with a 40-hp engine. Her dimensions were 90 feet long by 19 feet wide, a draft of 4.5 feet, weighing 130 tons. After much hard work through the winter and early spring a date was finally set for her launch. With much fanfare the Seneca Chief was launched May 15, 1828. Over the next few weeks her machinery was installed and cabins completed. Her first trip was quite a show as she towed three canal boats around the lake July 1. Normal service commenced July 14, 1828….[The Seneca Chief was] a cross between a sailing vessel and a steamboat. From the bow to her amidships she was a sailing ship with a bowsprit and mast rigged as a sloop with a jib and mainsail. Her cabin starts just forward of the mast and runs aft to the amidships and end in front of the smokestack. Just aft of the stack on either side of the boat are the paddle wheels. A sunshade covers her stern with an American flag flying from the fantail.” Source: It Started with a Steamboat: An American Saga by Steven Harvey, page 12.


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