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The History of New York In 4,000 Words?

With my 100th post to The New York History Blog, I embark on a new venture. I have been asked to write a 4,000-word history of New York. That is a lot of history to cover in very few words. I am not sure if it is even possible…at least for me. I have decided to divide the subject into a series of topics and to post these shorter pieces to New York History.

Unfortunately the number of topics seems to mushroom so it is not quite as simple as writing seven 500-word posts. I expect when all is done is to have vastly exceeded my assigned allotment and to require substantial pruning if not outright dismemberment.

To begin with, New York by name began in 1664 meaning we are about to ignore the 350th anniversary of England first taking possession of this land. At that time it was a colony and not a state. England’s control of the land then did not match the present boundaries of the state either. For the purposes of this history, I will use the designation “New York” to refer to events within the current boundaries of the state but extending back in time to before English control.

All the World’s a Stage

Nature sets the stage, humans write the play. The history of New York like the history of any people unfolds within in a context provided in nature. Several events combined to create a unique context here defined by topography, flora, and fauna that have had historical impact on human settlement.

The most ancient of the natural influences which proved significant was the mountains especially where there weren’t any. Once upon a time the Appalachians were as majestic as the still formidable Rocky Mountains to the west. Then they eroded. Just to the north in the proverbial North County, the Adirondack Mountains rose, higher than today but still not spectacularly so. These two mountain ranges, the one of ridges part of a long north-south arc that gave rise to the Appalachian Trail, and the other a series of dome-shaped mountains linked to ranges north in Canada became important in human history for what they did not do. They did not meet. And in that gap known as the Mohawk Valley there came to be a story to tell.

Since there was only this one opening, it has proved quite significant in the story of New York State and the United States. Today in the Mohawk Valley, it is possible to see

– the old Iroquois path which became the King’s Highway in colonial times and Route 5 today
– the Erie Canal which proved instrumental in opening up the American West to the benefit of New
– the railroad which took its baby steps near Schenectady, the Gateway to the Mohawk Valley, before following the old footpaths and canal across the state
– the interstate highway which bridged obstacles to a straight path and permitted high speed travel and also parallels Route 20 to the south.

As one stands there in the Mohawk Valley one can see centuries of change just by observing the different means of transportation. Each mode is a story in its own right and collectively they tell the story of the state and the country…until the development of the airport.

A second event in nature which has proved quite important is the more recent ice age. Once upon a time huge sheets of ice covered what became New York. The ice pushed its way south to Long Island dumping the accumulation of debris it had gathered in a line that marked its farthest point south. Colonists knew that till line which has now been mostly obliterated by construction. Once what became New York extended far out into what is now the continental shelf, but the memory of that time has become obscured by all that has happened since.

Still the north-south movement of the glaciers left their mark in ways which still define movement in state just as the gap between the Appalachians and the Adirondacks do. The length of the glaciers sometimes obscures the recognition of their height as they enveloped the puny hills in their path. The huge lakes and catastrophic flood that would have done Noah proud are mute testimony to the the tumultuous  forces now best known to the geologist.  The Finger Lakes are one prominent example of the scratching out on the land by the glaciers. In eastern New York, with the estuary that flows two ways (the Hudson River), the north-south axis proved defining to the movements of people and the geographic orientation of the settlers.

In Westchester where I live can observe the multiple modes of transportation overlapping each other along natural pathways. We have:

– the Hutchinson River/Route 1 Boston Post Road/Hutchinson River Parkway/MetroNorth New Haven line/I-95
– the Bronx River/Route 22-Post Road/the Bronx River Parkway/MetroNorth Harlem Line
– the Saw Mill River/Route 9-Broadway-Albany Post Road/MetroNorth Hudson Line
and, of course, the Hudson River.

These north-south routes continue on both sides of the Hudson in some cases all the way to Canada. People more easily relate to the communities north and south of them rather than east and west because it is easier to travel in those directions than across Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, or Columbia.

As a result, the crossing of the Hudson River is as much a part of New York State history as the crossing the state through the Mohawk Valley. Even now as this post is being written a new Tappan Zee bridge is being built to replace the old one which opened up areas west of the Hudson River to a population explosion. Every bridge across the river and every tunnel under the river has a story to tell, sometimes quite literally as in The Little Red Lighthouse and sometimes more metaphorically or symbolically. From the scenic Bear Mountain Bridge by the site of various American Revolution battles to the Walkway-over-the Hudson where once trains roared by and now strollers roll and bikes wheel, the bridges over the waters that flow both ways are an important part of state and American history. And let’s not forget that besides crossing the Delaware as immortalized in an iconic painting there were the bookend crossings in New York: the one of defeat from the battle of Long Island and the one with Rochambeau on the way to triumph at Yorktown.

The creation of the stage on which New York’s history would be played has been a source of controversy. When the European colonists arrived here and saw the till and the erratics, those huge boulders standing in the middle of nowhere, they had only one explanation: Noah’s flood (soon to be released as a major motion picture with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly). The theory of the ice age had yet to be invented and no other mechanism existed to explain what they observed than the biblical one. The Erie Canal became a 400 mile geologic trench for scientific observation. Niagara Falls wasn’t simply a place of natural splendor or even sublime awe: it was a laboratory in which geologists could measure the rate of formation of the gorge and debate whether the proposed 4004 BCE date for the origin of the world was scientifically valid. So the birth of the diluvial age, the geologic study of the biblical flood in the 1820s marked the recognition of the New York (among other places) as a scientific laboratory investigating the works of God.

It is on this stage of mountains and river valleys that human settlement would emerge to write the history of what became New York State. But humans were not the only mammal life form to walk these lands and understanding the giant beasts that once roamed the land also became an important part of American history even though they were extinct before the United States was born.

20 thoughts on “The History of New York In 4,000 Words?

  1. While your task is difficult, I urge you to recognize the contributions of Native Americans and the Dutch in order to tell a more complete story about New York State.

  2. Peter,

    What a challenge; only you would be asked. Don’t forget what our Engllish teachers always said before starting a writing project. “Make sure you have a good outline!”

    I am anxious to read each segment. Actuallly I already set up a folder to put them in.

    Get going!


  3. The Dutch, the Dutch, the Dutch.

    Never given credit by the British who “moved them over” (too smart to kick them out !), it was the Dutch who not only created NY, but kick-started America on it’s way to becoming the greatest society in the world.

  4. Hi, Peter,
    I’ve been enjoying your postings and been circulating to some of the members of the Helderberg Hilltowns Association, of which I am President.
    While you’re doing your history, please include the “Anti-Rent Wars” that began in Berne in the 1830s and spread to several upstate counties, including Albany, Rensselaer and Delaware.
    This, possibly first, “civil rights movement” was a pretty much non-violent protest against the remnants of the Dutch Patroonship system that began with the settlement of Fort Orange and continued through the British occupation and well into the era of the United States.
    From it, ultimately, came the impetus for the establishment of the Free Soil Party, which was part of the combination that elected Lincoln to the Presidency in 1860.

    This is a link which encapsulates better than I can the information, as well as info about Bruce Kennedy, who is making a documentary film about that era.

    Best regards,
    Zenie Gladieux, President
    Helderberg Hilltowns Association

    1. Hi Zenie,

      Thanks for spreading the word. With the internet, you always wonder how many if any other people are receiving the post.

      As for your suggestion, you unfortunately have hit on the dilemma in trying to condense the state’s history into 4000 words or about 16 pages typed or even less printed. I know I need to something for the period between the Erie Canal and Manifest Destiny, both New-York developments but what exactly? It is one thing to write a post about that period, but then how do I shorten it to fit the 4000 word limit for all New York history. I haven’t worked that out yet.


  5. What’s in a name, Peter? How do you begin in 1664 and explain the multi-ethnic society established by the Dutch of New Netherland? How do you explain social mobility, freedom of conscience, commercial enterprise, among other cultural attributes transmitted from the United Provinces, without a reference to New Netherland? Just when I thought we were making some headway in demonstrating that there was life here before New York…

    1. Charles,

      I am not sure if I understand your comment. I mention 1664 because that is the date for the origin by name of what is now New York State. I specifically wrote that while I was going to use that name from 1664 in my writing, I was going to include earlier time periods. This initial post goes back to the Ice Age long before the arrival of the Dutch. The second post deals with the mastodons. The third post dated December 12 celebrates the Dutch heritage although perhaps not in the format you expect. The fourth post which I just submitted even includes you on the Two Row Wampum issue and the fifth will be about William Johnson. Obviously I have exceeded the 4000 word limit by far but I do not think it is fair to say I have overlooked the Dutch.

      How about creating a Dutch Path through History which can be offered as a Teacherhostel/Historyhotel to continue the good work which you are doing to preserve the Dutch heritage in New York?

  6. Peter,

    When you consider the impact of geology, do not forget the presence of the vein of rock salt across NYS which allowed for creation of the salt industry near Onondaga Lake which, in turn, became a major driver to build (and source of state revenue to pay for) the Erie Canal.

    Dennis J. Connors
    Curator of History
    Onondaga Historical Association
    Museum & Research Center
    321 Montgomery Street
    Syracuse, NY 13202
    315-428-1864 Ext 310

    1. Dennis,

      Would you consider writing a post for New York History about the history of the salt industry and why there is a museum to it?


  7. Exactly 400 years ago right now, Dutch captain Hendrick Christiansen was docked at Orange (now Albany)
    trading his knives, axes, shirts, pants, cloth, ribbon, etc. for animal pelts with the local Indians. As the weather grew cold and he had trade goods remaining, he built a trading house and small fort 58′ by 58′ on land and transferred a lot of trade goods to the trading house run by Jacob Elkins and about a dozen men.

    There have been full time residents and permanent buildings in Orange – Beverwyck – Albany ever since. Since the only older European settlement in the original 13 colonies was Jamestown, and Jamestown was abandoned in 1699, this year is the 400th anniversary of the founding of Albany , NY.

    Your history starts there, not in 1664.

    1. Peter,

      I mention 1664 because that is the date for the origin by name of what is now New York State. I specifically wrote that while I was going to use that name from 1664 in my writing, I was going to include earlier time periods. This initial post goes back to the Ice Age long before the arrival of the Dutch. The second post deals with the mastodons. The third post dated December 12 celebrates the Dutch heritage although perhaps not in the format you expect. The fourth post which I just submitted on the Two Row Wampum issue and the settlement of Fort Orange and the fifth will be about William Johnson. Obviously I have exceeded the 4000 word limit by far but I do not think it is fair to say I have overlooked the Dutch.

  8. Once upon a time, little swimming n crawling critters navigated the warm salt sea that covered today’s Champlain Valley. Long before the Adirondack massif began to rise their calcified remains began to become limestone. As the limestone was pushed up by the new circular mountain range, the limestone came into contact with layers of different minerals. The carbon in the calcium carbonate leached out to form flakes of the only stable form of carbon (graphite) between these layers.. Sooo, cutting to the chase, the world famous Ticonderoga pencils are the end result of the life n death of those 150 million years gone sea critters…

  9. I am writing the first book from the American point of view about 19th century rotunda panoramas.These were the biggest paintings in the world,50 x 400=20,000 square feet, housed in their own rotundas which were 16-sided polygons. Chicago in 1893 had 6 panorama companies and 6 panorama rotundas. Syracuse was host to a 6,000 square foot (250 x 24) BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG panorama that was shown at the original Alhambra Rink from February to Mid March 1887. This panorama appears to have been mounted on the wall of the narrow rink like a mural, but the newspaper reports say that a traditional faux terrain appeared in the foreground.I just received from the Library of Congress a Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from 1892 showing the Alhambra Rink.Harry Bishop Thearle(1858-1914) was manager; he was from Englewood, Illinois, which in the 1880s was a suburb of Chicago and in the 1890s a Chicago neighborhood. The panorama was made by Howard H.Gross (1853-1920) of the Reed & Gross panorama company, which in 1893 had offices in Melbourne, Chicago and London.Reed & Gross made units of GETTYSBURG and JERUSALEM ON THE DAY OF THE CRUCIFIXION for cities from coast to coast and around the world–Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe, South America.Thearle would later be head of the Pain Pyrotechnic Company, very well known from coast to coast . The mini panorama of GETTYSBURG left Syracuse and was to go to Portland, Oregon. WAS AN EXHIBITION CATALOG FOR THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG PANORAMA IN SYRACUSE PRINTED AND DISTRIBUTED? I am in contact with the Gross family and the Thearle family, and have further info to share.

    1. That is a fascinating subject. Long before there were movies there were panoramas. You should consider submitting a post to New York History particularly about its history in the state.

    2. Harry B. Thearle is the grandfather of my client, Gene Trepte, who is now researching his family on his mother’s side. She is Margaret Thearle, Harry’s only daughter, who came to San Diego with her mother, Jeanette Thearle, after Harry’s death in 1914.

      I am in contact with Phillip Thearle, another descendant here in San Diego and would love to learn more about the Chicago Thearles.

  10. I am a descendent of Harry and my sister may be in contact with Gene. We are in the Chicago area. My sister has traced our family on

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