The 19th Century - The Golden Age
After independence was won in 1783, New York became one of
the leaders of the newly-formed United States of America, but she
did not truly earn her nickname, The Empire State,
1800's. Once again, physical geography determined human development.
Several treaties with native peoples and land purchases by
speculators opened the door to settlement. Thousands of New England
migrated through the Mohawk Valley into the fertile lands of
Central and Western New York. They built homes in the Federal style
like this home in Canandaigua (pictured on the left
). This was the
frontier of the early19th century, and these new settlers were isolated
from the established towns and cities of the Atlantic Seaboard. The shores
of Lake Erie, the Niagara River, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River
were also facing an uneasy neighbor - British controlled Upper Canada,
which was being populated by Loyalists
who left the United States often under duress. When the War of 1812
broke out, this international boundary became the scene of many battles,
some large, some small. Some resulted in humiliating American defeats, like
the battle of Queenston Heights
(near Niagara Falls) or Cryslers
(St. Lawrence Valley). Some were morale-boosting victories, such
as Sacketts Harbor
(see the Seaway
and Lake Champlain
. The British still understood the importance
of controlling strategic places when dealing with New York State, but,
once again, they could not exploit that knowledge.
When the peace treaty was signed in 1814, status quo of a sort
returned. Neither side won any new territories. There was one important
positive development, however. Both sides agreed that further conflict
was in no one's interest, and this led to the undefended border
between the US and Canada, which has been the key to the success of both
nations to the present day.
Clinton's Great Ditch
Perhaps the greatest engineering feat in early American history
was the building of the Erie Canal by the people of New York State,
both native-born and recent immigrants. This accomplishment is often
a minor footnote in textbooks, but it was crucial not only to the development
of New York, but to the nation as a whole. It was first proposed by
Jesse Hawley, a bankrupt businessman sitting in a Canandaigua debtors
jail in 1807. But her true champion was Governor DeWitt Clinton, who pushed
the project through the legislature despite some very tough opposition.
Construction began near Rome (Why there, you ask?
Central New York
for the details).
The "ditch" itself was only four feet deep and thirty feet
across, and it stretched 363 miles. Eight-three locks were constructed
to overcome the difference in elevation between the Hudson River (at sea
level, since it is an estuary at Albany) and Lake Erie (570 ft.).
You might ask the question, "Why did the canal terminate at
Lake Erie, when Lake Ontario is much closer?" First you need to answer
a second question. "Once the boats reach Lake Ontario, what next?" Transport
could continue to Canada, but that would have benefitted the British Empire,
not the Empire State
. If you wanted to continue west, you would
have to find a way around the Falls of Niagara, a very daunting task
in the 1820's. So, to be successful, the canal had to obey the laws of
geography, so Lake Erie was the goal. And only in New York could this goal
be realistically achieved, because of our unique glacially-modified landscapes.
- First, there is the Hudson River, which
is navigable by sailing ships and steamers (beginning with Robert Fulton's
Clermont in 1807) from New York Harbor to
Troy. This gets you through the Appalachian barrier.
- Next, there is the Mohawk River, which
clearly shows up as an east-west green ribbon on any relief map. It has
many rapids and falls, but a canal can be built beside it. And that takes
you west of any other mountain barriers.
- The glacial soil of Central and Western New
York made for relatively easing digging, with the technology available
to the self-taught engineers of the day. Many east-west trending valleys
carved by the meltwaters of the receding glaciers were also used around
Syracuse and Fairport.
- You still have to get around Niagara Falls, but
the cliff (or escarpment) was more manageable at Lockport. The
famous five-step locks built there were the marvel of their day. (They
are still impressive, although boat traffic today goes through two modern
locks instead - see photo on right).
When the canal was completed in 1825, it was a scene of celebration
across the state. There was good reason to be happy. New York City
became the premier financial center of the nation, since almost all
the trade to and from the west passed through her harbor. Thousands of
people immigrated to the towns and cities along the canal and beyond,
and farmers near the canal had a cheap and reliable source of transportation
for their goods.
But the gains were not just monetary. A progressive culture
developed in New York that is still being felt today.
The Erie Canal
was the highway west. It connected the free-spirited
pioneers of the Midwest to their more sophisticated cousins of the
East Coast. The canal not only brought people and trade goods, it also
Religious revivals spread up and down the canal. New York was
known as the Burned Over District
, since few places were left
untouched by the fire-and-brimstone preachers. They put Jimmy Swaggert
to shame with their zeal!
It was not just a message of the wrath of an angry God. There
was also a message of social responsibility, that we were on this earth
to make it better. So this led to many reform movements: temperance, prison
reform, abolition of slavery, women's rights.
New Yorkers, famous (like Frederick Douglass
, who lived
much of his adult life in Rochester) and commoners alike, were active
in the Underground Railroad. Because of the long border we share with
Canada, many fugitive slaves were ushered through New York on their way
to freedom. Many others stayed here and helped other African-Americans
on their dangerous trip north. The most celebrated was Harriet Tubman
who escaped from Maryland's Eastern Shore and made Auburn her home. She
returned south many times to aid others in escaping bondage. (See the Finger Lakes
for more details about her
Of course, reform movements were found all over the country.
But one great cause was particularly centered in New York - the fight
for equal rights for women. The leaders lived here: Susan B. Anthony,
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Matilda Josyln Gage - just to
name a few. The first meeting about women's rights occurred in Seneca
in 1848 (The structure of their meeting place is pictured above).
Why there of all places? Not only was it a canal town, but it was settled
mostly by strongly religious people who came from New England. The women
who wanted to change their world were stifled by the limitations put on
them by men. They were also influenced by the women of the Haudenosaunee
who alone had the power to choose their leaders. (Visit the Finger Lakes
section to learn more).
New York's Freedom
Railroad was a network of safe houses that
helped many enslaved persons on their flight to freedom. Routes on this
"railroad" criss-crossed New York State. To learn more about this Trail
of Honor, visit the the Freedom Trail North Link. (Click
on the North Star logo below)
Photo on right: A monument
at the Lewiston Presbyterian Church (Niagara County) marks the church
as a station on the Underground Railroad.
The New Americans:
Although most of the early non-native settlers of New York were
of English or Dutch heritage, other people soon joined in the flood.
Irish came to escape poverty and oppression in their homeland. As mentioned
previously, much of the Erie Canal was dug by Irish laborers under very
difficult conditions. Later came immigrants from Germany, Scandanavia,
Italy, Poland, Jews from Eastern Europe, and so many others.
By far the largest number of immigrants began their American
journey in the Port of New York. Whole ethnic neighborhoods sprang up
in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the other boroughs. It was not a peaceful
transition, as you probably know if you've see the blockbuster movie,
Gangs of New York.
The New Americans
also settled in other parts of the state (such as this Polish
in the Black Rock
section of Buffalo).
They worked in the flour mills of Rochester, the mining towns of the Adirondacks,
fishing villages of Long Island. Their food and their customs added immeasurably
to American culture.
The Great Hall where thousands
of immigrants waited for
processing on Ellis Island, now a national historic park.
Nothing symbolizes the heritage of the
New Americans more than the two gems of New York Harbor - Ellis Island
and the Statue of Liberty
. This topic is discussed in more detail
in the New York City
section. Immigrants continue
to come to the Empire State, from all over the world now - Latin America,
Asia, Canada, and the Caribbean. Modern New York is a mixture of cultures.
Few states can match the diversity of people found in the Empire State.
Today, many New Yorkers are choosing to move to other parts of
the country, mostly to the South or the Southwest. Their reasons are
for the most economic, since the geographic reasons of New York's dominance
in the 19th century (i.e. the best transportation system from east
to west) no longer exists. Railroads and interstate highways criss-cross
the nation in every direction, and air travel is independent of physical
geography. This topic (and more) will be discussed more in the next