The Treaty of Paris of 1783 officially ended hostilities between the British and Americans; however, the treaty did not include the allied Indian Nations, leaving their legacy treaties with the Europeans unresolved and their future to be resolved through separate treaties with the new American government.
The 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, which was signed by Six Nations representatives but never ratified by the US Congress, ceded interests in land west in Ohio Country and north of the boundary negotiated with Britain during the previous treaty at Fort Stanwix to the United States. Many Cayuga and Seneca who backed Britain and lost everything during the Sullivan Campaign had already moved to Canada following the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign.
Immediately following the war, states in the newly created United States competed for control of lands formerly part of the Indian frontier. The 1786 Treaty of Hartford delineated the boundaries of New York and Massachusetts, states that had both laid claims to land extending west of Seneca Lake and running from the shore of Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border.
The newly minted states agreed to split rights to the contested territory, recognizing the land as part of New York State but granting Massachusetts preemptive rights to negotiate with the Six Nations for clear title to the land that includes the Finger Lakes. Speculators quickly purchased rights to titles containing large swaths of western New York from Massachusetts and negotiated with tribes for rights.
The Phelps and Gorham Purchase of 1788 covered six million acres of land west of Seneca Lake including the present-day counties of Ontario, Steuben, Yates, and portions of Monroe, Livingston, Wayne, and Schuyler. The parcel was quickly subdivided and sold to interested New Englanders looking to spread out and create new settlements and farms.
New York also promoted post-war settlement in the newly opened western portion of the state through its development of the nearly two million-acre Central New York Military Tract. The Continental Congress promised men who volunteered for service with the Continental Army 100 acres of land for their service; facing a shortage in volunteers, New York upped the offer to 600 acres per man.
In 1789, after formalizing which lands were included in the newly established Cayuga and Onondaga reservation, the state established 25 townships in the eastern Finger Lakes. Each township was comprised of 100 lots of 600 acres and was given a classical name borrowed from Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome.
Haudenosaunee homeland and traditional names were replaced with names considered appropriate for a young nation guided by Enlightenment principles: “Aurelius,” a Roman Emperor; “Cincinnatus,” the farmer and leader that inspired first president George Washington; “Homer,” the blind, Greek poet who authored The Iliad and The Odyssey; “Ovid,” the ancient poet regarded the master of Latin language; “Romulus,” one of the legendary founders of Rome; “Virgil,” the Roman poet who penned the Aeneid; and “Ithaca,” home of the Greek hero Ulysses; among others.
To curb unbridled speculation of Indian territory, the US Congress passed the Indian Intercourse Act of 1790 to stop states from sanctioning ruthless pursuit of Indian land. However, distribution of Haudenosaunee land as military allotments continued.
Land in the present-day counties of Cayuga, Cortland, Onondaga, Seneca, and portions of Oswego, Tompkins, Schuyler, and Wayne were offered for purchase starting in 1791. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy Nations appealed to the President and Congress to curb speculation, and to avoid further and prolonged conflict with the Native nations in New York, signed the 1795 Treaty of Canandaigua, which is still celebrated and recognized today.
This treaty, one of the first signed by the young United States as a nation, affirmed Haudenosaunee land rights greatly reduced the land within the military tract but restricted the Haudenosaunee Nations from making future land claims. With the treaty in place, the State of New York finalized arrangements for distribution of the Central Military Tract plots in 1799.
However, because of the delay between the end of the Revolutionary War and lot distribution, the majority of military tract lands were purchased by private New York and New England speculators, forcing Congress to reserve further rights for the federal government to regulate Native commerce and trade.
Soldiers who took part in the Sullivan Campaign remembered the favorable nature of the area and agricultural potential of the land that was previously occupied by the Haudenosaunee and eagerly entered the lottery for military tracts or moved west to stake claims from speculators. Heavy forests covered the majority of the Finger Lakes, providing ample timber and potash created from ashes of burned logs — two profitable products at the turn of the 18th century.
With the Indigenous population either violently pushed out of the region or sequestered onto reserved lands, many early American settlers created small farms that took advantage of the region’s nutrient-rich soil and relatively moderate climate, side effects of the glacial movement that created the Finger Lakes and their surprising depths.
The invention of a cast iron plow with standard, interchangeable parts, patented in 1819 by Jethro Wood, an early white resident of Ledyard (present-day Cayuga County), revolutionized agriculture and improved farmers’ efficiency across the young country.
Some of the earliest Western New York settlements including Auburn (present-day Cayuga County), Ithaca (present-day Tompkins County), Geneva (present-day Ontario County), and Canandaigua (present-day Ontario County) were founded in the early years of the 19th century at locations that highlight the region’s blend of natural resources, ample waterpower, and agricultural potential.
Expansion of the western frontier also attracted religious groups eager to build communities outside 18th-century societal norms. The evangelist group The Public Universal Friend and their followers were some of the first settlers in the Genesee Valley, coming into the area during the late 1780s. Born Jemima Wilkinson and raised in a Quaker household, The Friend adopted androgynous dress, shunned gendered pronouns, and preached a doctrine of free will and universal salvation that valued individuals regardless of gender or race.
The Society of Universal Friends first created the settlement of Gore and then moved to the town of Jerusalem (Yates County). By 1790, the community was the largest non-Native settlement in Western New York and included approximately 260 people—almost 1/5 of Western New York’s white inhabitants.
The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, looking to create communities of religious acceptance and equality, also found a place in central New York. Two Massachusetts Quaker families purchased land from Phelps and Gorham in the 1780s. In 1789, with a group purchasing an entire 25,000-acre township in what is now Ontario County. More Pennsylvania Quakers arrived in the Finger Lakes area shortly after the Treaty of Canandaigua was ratified in 1795 to support the Haudenosaunee and enforce the nations’ treaty rights in the face of Native displacement.
As more settlers moved into Western New York, the region’s many lakes gained importance as transportation corridors. Cayuga Lake emerged as an early transportation route. The lake’s marshy northern terminus was initially seen as a barrier to overland travel and settlement, but once a ferry was introduced in 1788, settlers could easily navigate from Ithaca into the heart of the Finger Lakes or continue their journey as far north as the Seneca River.
Turnpikes following established Haudenosaunee inland routes connected the seemingly far-flung settlements popping up in the Military Tract and Phelps and Gorham Purchase to the state capital region surrounding Albany. Chartered by the state in 1800, the Seneca Turnpike — also called the Great Genesee Road and the Iroquois Trail — ran 160 miles east-west through Canandaigua, Waterloo, Syracuse, Oneida, and Utica north of the Finger Lakes and included the longest bridge in the world.
The Cayuga Bridge spanning the northern end of the Cayuga Lake measured more than a mile long and aided overland travel when it was completed in 1800. One of the largest public improvements in the young State of New York, the bridge became a symbolic divide between the East and the newly opened West.
By 1810, Ithaca was connected to Bath (Steuben County), Geneva (Ontario County), and the Seneca River by plank roads, many of which were privately funded by Charles Williamson, the majority investor in the one million-acre Pulteney Purchase that stretched from the falls of the Genesee River (the present-day site of Rochester in Monroe County) to the junction of Genesee River and Canaseraga Creek south of present-day Geneseo (Livingston County).
Steamboats rose to prominence during the 1820s, especially on the larger Finger Lakes such as Cayuga, Seneca, and Keuka, as they provided additional transportation and connections to small settlements spread around the lakes’ shores. Steamboats also supported the earliest recreational development of the Finger Lakes, with the first excursion boat appearing on Skaneateles Lake in 1816.
Early educational and religious institutions tried to tame the “frontier” and provide religious guidance in the remote, but now accessible, inlands of New York that were first served by iterant Methodist circuit riders trained in New England. Canandaigua Academy, a single-sex educational institution offering a classical education, was charted in 1795, only a few years after the town of Canandaigua (Ontario County) was selected as the land office of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.
Geneva (Ontario County) became the headquarters of the New York Genesee Land Company in 1793 and the Geneva Academy was founded three years later. Located along the only overland road between Albany and Buffalo, the Auburn Theological Seminary Presbyterian was founded in 1818 by the Presbyterian Synod of Ontario and Seneca Counties to provide students with a nondenominational Protestant education that would support ministry in the far reaches of the expanded United States.
In 1817, the Auburn Penitentiary opened as the second prison in the state of New York. The “Auburn System,” also called the “silent system” or “communal system,” forced convicts to walk lock-step, wear striped uniforms, and silently work side-by-side in prison shops before returning to solitary cells at night. Guards, who also stood silently overseeing the work, doled out harsh corporal punishment for minor infractions.
The revolutionary penal system made prisons profitable by contracting out convict labor for nearby industries and reduced the threat of prisoner uprising or riots by taking away prisoners’ voices; during the 1820s and 1830s, the prison’s success attracted thousands of visitors a year who paid to view the penitentiary’s silent yards and shops.
Illustrations, from above: Map of the State of New York (1802) by Simeon DeWitt, (Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division); Map showing location of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase of 1788, the Triangle Tract, the Morris Reserve, the Mill Yard Tract, and the Preemption Line; and map of early transportation routes in Western New York and the Finger Lakes.
This essay is drawn from the National Park Service’s Finger Lakes National Heritage Area Feasibility Study. You can read about the study and the Finger Lakes National Heritage Area here.