Sailing Vessels on the Great Lakes

What year saw the largest number of commercial sailing vessels on the Great Lakes?

I found myself asking this question a couple of years ago, when I was working on an article that ended up being published in The Northern Mariner/le marin du nord last year. [Note: There is a two year delay in releasing article from The Northern Mariner online so it at this time you’ll need to track down a print copy of it]. Before it was published I had an opportunity to do a presentation for the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History on doing research via the internet. This question was one of the examples I used.

I started my search with one of the best books on the history of sail on the Great Lakes: Theodore J. Karamanski’s Schooner Passage: Sailing Ships and the Lake Michigan Frontier. I personally have a copy of the book, but Google has a preview courtesy of Wayne State University Press, which as it happens includes page 36 where he says the

“The apogee of the age of sail on the Great Lakes was reached in 1868. In that year 1,855 sailing ships were registered on the inland seas. White the number of sailing ships steadily declined thereafter, the actual total tonnage of sailing ships increased on the lakes, rising from 294,000 tons in 1868 to 298,000 in 1873.

The preview even includes p. 226 where the footnote to this statement cites Mills, Our Inland Seas, 184-5.

If you ask Google about “Mills Our Inland Seas”, it current returns several electronic editions, plus references to a number of digital books and journals where Mills is cited. Despite the fact that all of the editions referenced are facsimiles of the original 1910 publication, and that edition is out of copyright, Google doesn’t link to a readable version. Its algorithms are being careful. No problem. There are smarter sources. Among the best of these is the HathiTrust Digital Library, which has honest to goodness library cataloguing which knows that the original Mills is out of copyright. A catalog search will turn up two editions, one of which has five digital volumes attached available in “Full View.” Had I been looking for a copy to download, the Internet Archive has multiple files available, in multiple formats (and an online book reader). In an case, on pp. 183-84 we have Karaminksi’s source.

Except the Mills is quoting the number from somewhere, and unlike Karaminski hasn’t supplied a citation.

Commercial vessels require government issued documents: registers, enrolments, licences. What about those statistics?

Turns out that by 1900 the Commissioner of Navigation, the men in charge of all that paperwork, presented an annual report to the Secretary of the Treasury, which included some statistical tables. On page 388 of the 1900 report are the numbers that Mills quoted in a table title “Number and Gross Tonnage of Sailing Vessels, Steam Vessels, Canal Boats, and Barges on the Northern Lakes, from 1868 to 1900.”

Number and Tonnage ... on the Northern Lakes, 1868-1900

Some things struck me about this table:

  1. The first values are from 1868. What happened before?
  2. What are “the Northern Lakes”?
  3. The Great Lakes are international. This list isn’t.
  4. There isn’t a category for yachts? How many were registered?

1) The reason that the table starts in 1868, is because the process for producing these statistics changed dramatically in that year. Prior to that the official number for American vessels were tucked into the back end of the Commerce and navigation of the United States in a table whose title varied but was something like “Statement of the tonnage of the several districts of the United States …” Here’s the 1865 version. Two things are critical about the pre-1868 numbers. You have to figure out which districts are on the Great Lakes. More importantly, all you get is tonnage for those districts and that, a total with a sub-total for the steam tonnage. So, up to 1867 no hull counts, and the tonnage for sail mixed with that of the canal boats and barges. The numbers get better thanks to the Bureau of Statistics (established by an act of Congress in July 1866)

2) The Northern Lakes first appears in the Foreign commerce and navigation of the United States in 1868. A closer look shows that the aggregate numbers for 1868 include 166 sailing vessels registered on the Vermont and New York sides of Lake Champlain.

3) If we take out the sailing vessels from Lake Champlain, we need to add back in those from the Canadian side. Canadian government reports in the nineteenth century are available in Early Canadiana Online. Unfortunately, the Canadian series isn’t as consistent as the American numbers, but a return of vessels as of 1 July 1867 shows an aggregate of 90 ships, 97 barques, 17 brigs, 101 brigantines, 369 schooners and 3 sloops registered in the Province of Ontario for an additional 677.

4) The yachts are definitely mixed into the American counts and possibly the Canadian. The various volumes of the Merchant vessels of the United States include yachts among the ship types. Unfortunately there is no aggregation that allows us to net them out.

So where are we left?

1868 is probably as good a date as any. But if you take out those from Lake Champlain and put back the Canadians, the count of sailing vessels would something over 2000 in 1867-68.

1 thought on “Sailing Vessels on the Great Lakes

  1. Tim Schutte says:

    Excellent work! Thanks so much for your efforts.

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