Yankee ingenuity is an American English reference to the self-reliance of early colonial settlers of New England, United States. It describes an attitude of make-do with materials on hand. It is inventive improvisation, adaptation and overcoming of dire straits when faced with a dearth of materials.
Today it refers broadly to a typically American pragmatic approach to problem solving instead of traditional methods.
In the original plan for cutting the canal, owners of the land to be crossed were required to be involved in a complicated process involving cooperation with individuals who didn't know the lay of the land and who were often not present. In this wild, undeveloped place, legal responsibilities for construction were imposed upon involved property owners. Citified strangers enforced the contract. Fines were frequently levied. There was a timetable that seemed unbelievably inadequate. In the first year of construction came the realization: The contractors had a total mess on their hands. Very little had been accomplished. The land was far more rugged than had been realized. Work stopped for the winter.
As soon as work could begin in the spring the property owners took matters into their own hands. Funding had been appropriated. Instead of waiting for the engineers and work crews to arrive from Albany, the farmers put their animals and sons to work. If there was an unmovable object, they plowed around it. They went around, not through, hills and precipices, always returning to the general routing. Changing the course of the canal was a good idea to the pragmatists who knew the land. The work was done with zeal, for all citizens realized the canal would bring great prosperity to the area. Neighbors whose land was not crossed came to help. Hardscrabble land would become valuable. Opportunities to make money would be unlimited.
It was not unusual for a government work crew to arrive, tired from the journey, to find a completed section filling with water from the spring runoff. Of course, as work progressed many reports were filed by many people. In one report one individual described the work of the maverick farmers as "Yankee ingenuity". The coinage went into immediate, widespread use as it captured so well the reality of life in the rural areas. The farmers were admired; elevated as fine examples of how Americans would cooperate but brook no interference.