Events at home and abroad contributed to large numbers of people moving across the country via the Erie Canal. For example, overcrowding and lack of available land in New England motivated New Englanders to relocate westward. Religious persecution in places like Norway greatly increased the number of immigrants coming to America and moving west by way of the Erie Canal. Following the Great Hunger in Ireland, the Canal ports were flooded with Catholic immigrants looking for new homes and opportunities. As cities grew, so did rates of poverty and indigence, prompting the rise of organized charities and new ideas of social welfare.

This influx of different groups, particularly immigrants, following the path of the Canal prompted nativist reaction. Nativists promoted the traditions and Protestant religious beliefs of native-born Americans over the alien customs, languages, and faiths of newcomers and saw immigrants and their cultures as a threat to the American way of life. In particular, they resisted what they perceived as an encroachment of Catholicism. The Nativist movement significantly impacted state politics in New York through social organizations and political groups like the Know-Nothing Party in the mid-nineteenth century.