Immigrant Wall Human Geography of New York 2

Erie Canal Museum


Physical  Geography

Economic Geography

Regions of NYS

BONUS Sections!

Battle of Lake Champlain

The Battle of Lake Champlain:
Once again geography determined history in New York. The British invaded the state by sailing down Lake Champlain. American victory near Plattsburgh stopped that plan.

Erie Canal Museum

The Erie Canal Village (near Rome) interprets life along the canal in the mid-19th century. At this point, the construction of the Erie Canal began. It was just a four-feet-deep ditch, but it changed New York forever.

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony moved to Rochester with her family from western Massachusetts. Her tireless efforts for women's rights finally led to the 19th Amendment in 1920, fourteen years after her death.

Douglass Statue

Another Rochester "giant" was Frederick Douglass who chose to move to the Flour City because of its important location on the Underground Railroad. His home is no longer standing, but a statue of Douglass stands today in Highland Park.

Ellis Island Cots

Bunker-beds of cots on Ellis Island: Thousands of New Americans entered this country at New York Harbor. Most were processed in hours, but some unlucky immigrants had to spend the night on these cots.

Plymouth Church

Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn: This historic church was made famous by its pastor, Rev. Lyman Beecher, brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. See the Freedom Trail Section for more information.


Geography is NOT sn indoor sport! Get out and explore the Empire State!

Human Geography Part 2

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, until the 1800's. Once again, physical geography determined human development.

Canandaigua Home
Several treaties with native peoples and land purchases by speculators opened the door to settlement. Thousands of New England Yankees 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 ("Tories") 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 Farm (St. Lawrence Valley). Some were morale-boosting victories, such as Sacketts Harbor (see the Seaway page) 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? See 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 Reformers:

Wesleyan Chapel
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 spread ideas…powerful ideas.

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 amazing life.)

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 Falls 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 Trail

The Underground 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.Follow the Drinking Gourd
Lewiston Pres. Church

The New Americans: 

Polish Cadets Hall
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 neighborhood 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.

Ellis Island
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 section.

 New York Economic Geography continues the story.
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Wall Street

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