The first settlers in the English colonies came by way of the sea, and here they found a land blessed with a coast admirably adapted to navigation. Also, as they became acquainted with the interior, they found numerous navigable streams which took their rise in the Alleghenies and flowed gently to the sea. Some were so broad and inviting to oceangoing ships as to appear more like arms of the sea than rivers. The Connecticut, the Hudson, the Delaware, the Potomac, the James, the Savannah, and many others, each drained great stretches of fertile land or penetrated deep into the fur country. Very soon, as we might expect, numerous settlements were planted along their banks, and then they became important arteries of trade and travel.

As soon as the settlers had pushed across the mountains westward they found themselves again favored by nature; for before them lay one of the finest river systems in existence, also a chain of navigable lakes unsurpassed in the whole world. Further south a great number of short streams emptied into the Gulf. Soon the Ohio became the great natural highway to the West, while the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 opened the lakes to active navigation. Again, as in the colonial days, the settlers depended much on these waterways; and naturally so, for they were gifts of nature waiting to be utilized by the possessors of even the crudest and cheapest craft.

River navigation perhaps played a relatively less important part in the settlement of the territory west of the Mississippi, yet without rivers the development of those regions would have been materially retarded. The Red, the Arkansas, the Missouri, and the tributaries of the upper Mississippi each formed important links in the movement to the Far West. Up these streams pushed thousands of settlers who would have been unwilling or unable to undertake the journey by land.