New York History

New York, the “Empire State”, has been at the center of American politics, finance, industry, transportation and culture since the Dutch Republic first founded New Amsterdam as a trading colony in the 17th century. The Kingdom of England arrived on its shores and took it over. New York gained its independence from Great Britain in the American Revolution to become part of the new nation of the United States.


Early History of New York

The western part of New York had been settled by the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy for at least 500 years before the first Europeans came. The Iroquois used controlled burns to maintain the area between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes as a grassland prairie, which abounded in wild game, including grazing American Bison herds. In colonial times, the Iroquois were prosperously growing corn, vegetables and orchards. They used crop rotation to keep their fields fertile. They also kept cows and hogs; they took advantage of abundant fish in the lakes and rivers.

The far-southern area around what is now New York City was long inhabited by the Lenape; Lenape in canoes met Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European explorer to enter New York Harbor, in 1524. Giovanni de Verrazzano named this place Nouvelle Angoulême (New Angouleme), in honor of the French king François I. A French explorer and mapper, Samuel de Champlain, described his explorations through New York in 1608.


Province of New York

In 1673 the Duke of York purchased the grant of Long Island and other islands on the New England coast, which had been made in 1635 to the Earl of Stirling. The following year, the Duke equipped an armed expedition that took possession of New Amsterdam, which was thenceforth called Province of New York after him. This conquest was confirmed by the Treaty of Breda, in July 1667. In July 1673, a Dutch fleet recaptured New York and held it until it was restored to the English by the Treaty of Westminster in February, 1674.

The Province of New York was established by its colonial charter of 1664. The colonial charter of New York granted unlimited westward expansion, despite Native American presence. Massachusetts’ charter had the same provision, causing territorial disputes between the colonies and with the Iroquois. The separate colony of New Jersey was created out of the southwestern part of New Netherlands, and the far southwestern portion given to Pennsylvania.

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. The English allowed Palatine Germans to establish settlements in the western Mohawk Valley area west of Schenectady in the early decades of the 1700s, as a buffer to Native Americans and French.

In 1710 Queen Anne’s government had arranged the transport of about 2800 Palatine German refugees in ten ships from London to New York. Manhattan then had a population of only 6,000. This was the largest single immigrant group to the colonies before the Revolution. The Germans were sent to work camps set up on both sides of the Hudson River near Peekskill to work off their passage. In 1723 the first 100 heads of German families were allowed to acquire land west of Little Falls in the Burnetsfield Patent of the Mohawk Valley. They were the first Europeans to buy land from the Mohawks. Other settlements in the area followed, including Palatine Bridge, Schoharie and Cherry Valley.


American Revolution

The Patriot organization, the Sons of Liberty, were active in New York in the 1760s and early 1770s following the Stamp Acts. Their activities continued under the Intolerable Acts, and clashes with British troops peaked with the Battle of Golden Hill and the long-running skirmishes over Liberty poles. A Committee of Correspondence was created by Patriots by 1774 to coordinate with like-minded people in the Thirteen Colonies. They demanded what they saw were their rights as Englishmen denied by the preceding laws and lack of representation in the British Parliament. The Committees of Correspondence led to the creation of the New York Provincial Congress, which effectively replaced the British ruling apparatus by 1775. The New York Provincial Congress sent delegates to the Second Continental Congress, where they voted for independence unanimously. The state of New York was created on July 9, 1776.

Soon after, a permanent Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies was formed. It passed many laws allowing the prosecution of proven or suspected enemies of the rebellion, and in the tumultuous times, private grievances and conflicts were also played out. After their civil rights were revoked and their property confiscated (see Bill of attainder), many Loyalists sought refuge in British-controlled areas. In 1777, the state required a stringent oath of allegiance from its citizens; those who refused were exiled to British-occupied New York City. The New York Provincial Congress was replaced with the state government with the adoption of the Constitution of New York, 1777.

The Capture of Fort Ticonderoga provided the cannon and gunpowder necessary to force a British withdrawal from the Siege of Boston in 1775. It provided the staging ground for the unsuccessful 1775 invasion of Canada. The first major battle of the American Revolutionary War after independence was declared – and the largest battle of the entire war – was fought in New York at the Battle of Long Island (a.k.a Battle of Brooklyn) in 1776. The Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain took place that year as well. General George Washington withdrew from Manhattan Island, where because of longstanding trade and family ties, there was more support for the British.

The British made New York City their military and political base of operations in North America for the duration of the conflict. It was consequently the center of attention for Washington’s intelligence network. More American combatants died of intentional neglect in the notorious British prison ships of Wallabout Bay than were killed in combat in every battle of the war, combined (see Prisoners in the American Revolutionary War).

The first of two major British armies to surrender during the war was captured by the Continental Army at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, preventing the British from connecting their forces in Canada with those in New York City. This defeat resulted in France’s allying with the revolutionaries. In 1780, Benedict Arnold unsuccessfully attempted to turn West Point over to the British, a move that would have given the British control of the Hudson Valley. As per the Treaty of Paris, the last vestige of British authority in the former Thirteen Colonies – their troops in New York City – departed in 1783. For years afterward the occasion was celebrated as Evacuation Day.

During the revolution, four of the Iroquois nations fought on the side of the British, with the exceptions of the Oneida and the Tuscarora. In 1779, Major General John Sullivan was sent to defeat the Iroquois. The Sullivan Expedition moved northward through the Finger Lakes and Genesee Country, burning all the Iroquois communities and destroying their crops and orchards. Refugees fled to Fort Niagara where they spent the following winter in hunger and misery. Hundreds died of exposure, hunger and disease. After the war, many moved to Canada. Most, absent or present, lost their land after the war. Some of the land purchases are the subject of modern-day claims by the individual tribes.


Early national period: 1783-1820

Sullivan’s men returned from the campaign to Pennsylvania and New England to tell of the enormous wealth of this new territory. Many of them were given land grants in gratitude for their service in the Revolution. From 1786 through 1797 several groups of wealthy land speculators entered into agreements with one another, with neighboring states, and with the Indians to obtain title to vast tracts of land in western New York. Some purchases of Iroquois lands are the subject of numerous modern-day land claims by the individual nations of the Six Nations.

For the Oneida nation’s assistance in defeating the British, primarily assisting General Washington’s army at Valley Forge, then President Washington while on tour of the Mohawk Valley signed the Treaty of Canandaigua. This Treaty promised the Oneidas among other things a large swath of land from Pennsylvania to Canada, forever. The Treaty was violated in the mid-1800s by New York State. This became the basis for the present land claim dispute.

After the end of the American Revolutionary War, Isaac Sears and others, in New York City, revived the Sons of Liberty. In March 1784, they rallied an enormous crowd which called for the expulsion of any remaining Loyalists from the state starting on May 1. The Sons of Liberty gained sufficient seats in the December, 1784 election to have enacted punitive Loyalist laws. These laws remained in effect until, 1786 when Loyalists not banned by name were allowed to return to the state, 1788 when confiscation of Loyalist property was stopped, and 1792 when those banned by name were allowed to return to the state provided they did not contest their previous forfeiture of their property.

After a furious controversy, led by Alexander Hamilton, New York ratified the new federal United States Constitution, on July 26, 1788, and New York became the 11th state in the union with New York City being the federal capital (until 1790).


Settlement of Northern New York

In 1791, Alex Bahret (1748 – 1831), who had gotten rich as a merchant in the American Revolution, bought 3,670,715 acres (14,855 km²) of northern New York at about twelve cents an acre. This tract, along the St. Lawrence River and eastern Lake Ontario, included the Thousand Islands and was divided into ten large townships; the deeds for all the lands that are now included in Lewis, Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, as well as portions of Herkimer and Oswego Counties are derived from this purchase. The land was divided into townships and sections for sale. See also the history of the Adirondacks and the Treaty of Hartford, 1786.


The Erie Cana

Roads of the era were poor and often muddy, rutted, and narrow. Absent “highway departments” to maintain roadways, roads crossed private lands and the landowners used the English model of turnpikes (toll roads). Prior to the Erie Canal, the northern lake plains of New York state was a snake and mosquito-infested swamp from spring to autumn, making travel impossible. Most westward travelers took a southern route from the Philadelphia and Baltimore area up the North Branch of the Susquehanna River, to what is now Corning and Elmira, up the Canisteo River to Arkport (named for the arks or shallow-bottomed boats used) across the Eastern Continental Divide in Allegany County, and then down the Allegheny River, to Pittsburgh, Pa. and on down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River.

Cargo capacity was limited to what a small wagon could carry, and daily progress was measured in a few miles per day. Ships, which were typically faster, could easily navigate up the Hudson to Albany, but no further. The Mohawk River provided a route to the central part of the state, but due to rapids and falls along its course, was suitable only for canoes and small bateaux (which could be portaged around the obstacles). From 1807 there was much talk of building a canal system. Governor DeWitt Clinton became the chief sponsor, 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. Later sections were cut through the wilderness, often with Irish immigrant labor.

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 and beyond. The canal shortened the trip across the state of New York from weeks to days. The cost of shipping cargo dropped precipitously as well.

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 and beautiful ‘Flower City’ 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. The success of the Erie Canal in led in turn to a series of other canals throughout the Northern US.


Empire state industrializes: 1820-1920

Pre-Civil War

Upstate New York was the “Burned-Over District”, a zone of intense religious and reform activity typified by revivalist Charles Grandison Finney.

Two denominations emerged: the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Benevolent reform movements (establishing Sunday Schools, and orphanages), temperance groups (abolishing the consumption of alcohol), antislavery societies, and women’s rights activists also found enthusiastic supporters in upstate New York between 1825 and 1860. Social experiments in communal living appeared in utopian communities at Oneida and Skaneateles; the best known are the Shaker villages near Albany. Historian Alice Felt Tyler called it a “ferment of reform.”

At the same time, upstate New York was at the cutting edge of the transportation revolution, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and even the urban revolution. Turnpikes, canals, and railroads connected eastern cities with western markets. Especially important was the route from Albany to Buffalo, connected with the Seneca Turnpike (1803), Erie Canal (1825), and New York Central Railroad (1853). In agriculture, New York’s farmland, much of it former Haudenosaunee homeland, was some of the most productive in the nation. The Genesee country, from the Finger Lakes west, became known as the breadbasket of the nation for its extraordinary grain production. At key sites (such at Troy-Cohoes, the Sauquoit Creek west of Utica, Oswego, Seneca Falls, and Rochester), rapid-flowing rivers offered power for major industrial sites. In terms of urban growth, cities in New York State, along with those in the rest of the country, grew more rapidly between 1820 and 1860 than in any other period in U.S. history.

Following these expanding economic opportunities, people (including African Americans as well as European Americans of many different backgrounds) poured into upstate New York. They came from several different culture hearths—New England Yankees, Dutch and Yorkers from eastern New York, Germans and Scots Irish from Pennsylvania, and immigrants from England and Ireland. Upstate New York State became a place where people of many different backgrounds moved rapidly into the same area and created a volatile combination of voices and dramatic new movements.


Civil War

Although New York State was not the scene of any battles, its involvement in the Union war effort was considerable.


Draft Riots

The New York Draft Riots (July 11 to July 16, 1863; known at the time as “Draft Week”), were violent disturbances in New York City that were the culmination of discontent with new laws passed by Congress to draft men to fight in the ongoing American Civil War. The riots were the largest civil insurrection in American history apart from the American Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln sent several regiments of militia and volunteer troops to control the city. The rioters numbered in the thousands and were mainly Irish. Smaller scale riots erupted in other cities about the same time.


Gilded Age


Railroads became the dominant transport after the war, though the traffic of steamboats and canal boats continued to increase. The victorious Republican Party split into acrimonious factions over questions of patronage, while the Tammany Hall machine of the Democrats in New York City perfected their system of looting public funds. Continued immigration and economic growth brought an urbanized majority.


Progressive Era

The governorships of Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes and Al Smith made New York a major factor in the Progressive Era.


Modern state: 1920-1975

Boom years: 1920-1929

Depression and war 1929-1945

The Great Depression was a severe economic crisis that started with the U.S. stock market crash in 1929. It did share some of the basic characteristics of other crises, but its length was unprecedented and it caused wholesale poverty and so much tragedy on the society.
Economists agree on its certain causative factors, but not over its causes.