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History of New York

This article is about the history of the present day State of New York, for the city see: History of New York City.

The Dutch were the first European settlers in the colony known as New Netherland (Nova Belgica in Latin). Fort Nassau was founded near Albany, New York in 1614 and abandoned in 1618. About thirty Walloon families settled on the shores of the Hudson River near what is present day New York City and on the Delaware River around 1624. The Dutch also established Fort Oranje near Albany in 1624. New Amsterdam was established on the island of Manhattan a year later by Peter Minuit. After the English took over in the 1660s, the colony was renamed New York, after the Duke of York.

On November 1, 1683, the government was reorganized into a pattern still followed, and the state was divided into twelve counties, each of which was subdivided into towns. Ten of those counties still exist (see below), but two (Cornwall and Dukes) were in territory purchased by the Duke of York from the Earl of Sterling, and are no longer within the territory of the State of New York, having been transferred by treaty to Massachusetts, Dukes in 1686 and Cornwall in 1692. (Cornwall County became a large portion of the State of Maine when that state was detached from Massachusetts in 1819; Dukes County is still a county in Massachusetts.) While the number of counties has been increased to 62, the pattern still remains that a town in New York State is a subdivision of a county, rather than an incorporated municipality as in most (but not all) other States.

New York was one of the thirteen colonies that revolted against British rule in the American Revolution.

Table of contents
1 Upstate New York

Upstate New York

Upstate New York (as well as parts of present Ontario, Quebec, Pennsylvania, and Ohio) was occupied by the Five Nations (after 1720 becoming Six Nations, when joined by Tuscarora) of the Iroquois Confederacy for at least a half millinium before the Europeans came. At the onset of the Revolutionary War, there lay a vast tract of land from the upper Mohawk River to Lake Erie, that was thinly occupied by the Iroquois and virtually unknown to the colonists. Since the colonial charters of both Massachusetts and New York granted unlimited westward expansion, the claim to this tract was disputed. There were also many tensions between the original Dutch settlers in the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys and the English who were rapidly arriving in Eastern New York, and the Germans who were also establishing settlements in the Mohawk area.

The Revolution began with the Six Nations officially neutral, but this quickly broke down as British and Tory agents courted them on the one hand, and the American rebels on the other. In fact the Revolution effectively broke the Iroquois confederacy forever, with the Oneida Nation and Tuscarora Nations supporting the American side, and the Mohawk Nation, Onondaga Nation, Cayuga Nation and Seneca Nations going with the British and Tories. It was a strategic error for the latter four nations, as they picked the eventual loser in the Revolution. (The nations today are more commonly referred to as tribes.)

The Iroquois were thus a serious problem to the Americans fighting for independence. In July of 1778 a force of several thousand Iroquios, British and Tory men, led by Tory Col. John Butler and Iroquois Chief Joseph Brant overwhelmed a few hundred Americans at Wyoming Valley in northern Pennsylvania, which came to be known as the Wyoming Massacre. A similar massacre occurred at Cherry Valley in November, where women and children were murdered and scalped by the Iroquois who accompanied a British and Tory raid.

As the Americans gained control of more and more of Eastern New York in 1799, Congress decided to end the Iroquois threat and General George Washington sent Major General John Sullivan in June northward from Wilkes Barre to neutralize the Iroquois threat. Sullivan's troups only had one serious engagement at Newtown near present day Elmira, with Brant and Butler's forces, where they so decisively defeated them that they could not muster enough strength to do battle again.

The Sullivan Expedition moved northward through the Finger Lakes and Genesee country with a "scorched earth" policy. All Iroquois communities were burned, their crops destroyed, and their orchards hewn down. They found an incredibly beautiful territory. The area between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes was maintained by annual burning as a grassland prarie, and it abounded in wild game including grazing bison herds. Orchards contained apples and peaches. There were fields of corn and gardens with potatoes, turnips, onions, pumpkins, squashes and vegetables of various kinds. The Iroquois did not live in simple hovels as expected, but had handsome multi-family houses, often called castles. The community of Seneca Castle is derived from one such Iroquois village. Fish were abundant, and the natives also had herds of milk cows and hogs for meat. They were amazingly prosperous.

As Sullivan's army devastated the Iroquois homeland, refugees were forced to flee to Fort Niagara, where they spent the following winter in hunger and misery, sustained by gifts of salted meat given to them by British at the fort community. Hundreds died of exposure, hunger and disease.

Sullivan's men returned from the campaign to Pennsylvania and New England to tell of the enormous wealth of this new territory. Some carried huge ears of corn in their knapsacks as proof of the fertility of the land. Many of them returned to land grants later in western New York, given by the government in gratitude for their service in the Revolution.

Opening western lands

In the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1784 the allied Oneidas and Tuscaroras retained title to their lands, while the enemy four nations were consigned to reservations. A group of Cayugas settled in a reservation provided by the British in Canada.

But the conflicting claims of New York and Massachusetts remained. In the Treaty of Hartford in 1786, Massachusetts was granted the pre-emtion right to sell, after securing any Indian title rights, the vast lands west of the Preemption Line, which was surveyed in 1782 from the border of Pennsylvania near present Big Flats, running northward to near Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario. However, the treaty also gave New York sovereignty over the territory.

In 1787 John Livingston, Col. John Butler, Samuel Street, Capt. Powell, and Lt. William Johnston attempted to circumvent the Treaty of Hartford by purchasing a 999-year lease of about 8 million acres from the Iroquois. This agreement was rejected by New York, but the men were involved in the negotiations for the Indian title, when Massachusetts later sold 6 million acres to Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham in 1788. This property, including the entire western Finger Lakes region was the largest land purchase in history up to that date, and the area is still sometimes referred to as the Phelps and Gorham Purchase. The tract runs from the Preemption Line to approximately the Genesee River Valley.

Next, in the year 1791, the State of Massachusetts sold the remaining lands west of the Genesee to Robert Morris, one of the financiers of the Revolutionary War. In 1793, Robert Morris sold three million six hundred thousand acres to a consortium of capitalists residing in Holland, reserving about a million acres which came to be called, "the Morris Reserve."

The tract so purchased by the Holland Land Company is known as "The Holland Purchase." In 1801 the company established a land office in Batavia, New York, where they sold off all the lands of the western part of the state, until 1846, when the company was dissolved. The phrase "doing a land office business," which denotes prosperity, dates from this era. The office still exists and is a museum today.

The Erie Canal

Since navigation was primarily by water, there were limitations on the settlement of the upstate. Once could navigate up the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers to Central New York, but then had to pass overland to reach the upstate. Likewise one could come up the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario but had to move overland from its southern shore, and the way westward to the remaining Great Lakes was also blocked by Niagara Falls. From 1807 there was discussion of a canal, or series of canals, all of which came to naught, until Governor DeWitt Clinton put all his weight into the proposal, and in 1817 the first portion of a canal was begun, to connect the Hudson River with Lake Erie (and thence to the rest of the Great Lakes). The easy part was built first, a series of bypasses of rapids on the Mohawk River.

Though there was opposition, and the canal was derisively called "Clinton's Ditch" or worse, "Clinton's Folly," the canal was finally completed in 1825. Officially the event was celebrated by cannon shots along the length, and by Governor Clinton ceremonially pouring Lake Erie water into the New York Harbor in the "Wedding of the Waters." The Erie Canal proved to be a stroke of genius, as settlers now poured from New England, Eastern New York and Europe into the central and western part of the state. Others went on to Ohio and Michigan. The Canal was the first serious route for settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, which had previously been a geographic barrier. Now upstate farms and industries could easily ship their products to the large and growing market of New York City. Had the Welland Canal, which bypassed Niagara falls to connect Lakes Ontario and Erie, been built first, instead of in 1833, the history of North America could have been far different, with Montreal becoming the main eastern port, instead of New York City.

The Erie Canal, though no longer so important a trade route (it is supplanted by railroads and highways) still defines the central commerce belt of New York State. The port city of Buffalo, Lockport, where the canal crossed a great limestone ridge, mill-town Rochester on the Genessee, and many smaller cities owe their growth, perhaps even their existence, to the Erie. Connecting canals were also built to Lake Ontario and the larger Finger Lakes.