The History of New York State
Book VII, Chapter VII

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam




The map of New York State shows Tompkins County to be located in the western part, nearly equidistant from Lake Ontario and Pennsylvania . It is practically square in shape, is bound on the north by Cayuga and Seneca counties; on the east by Cortland and Tioga; on the south by Tioga and Chemung; on the west by Schuyler. The land within its borders has an area of 292,724 acres; a population in 1920 of 35,285 and it is divided into nine towns.

When General Sullivan, in 1779, went on his expedition to punish the Iroquois for this aid given the British in the Revolution, and to so destroy their towns as to prevent their taking further part in the conflict, he found and burned one of the largest of the Indian towns in what is now Tompkins County. The Cayugas fled before the avenger and not many of them ever returned, although there were quite a number of the tribe in the county as late as 1823 who were living amicably with their one-time enemies. In the end, ravaged by disease, deserted by their British allies, the original owners of Tompkins gave or sold their territory to the whites. In 1789 a treaty was completed by which the Six nations ceded the and in the State east of Seneca Lake, thus opening the country to a new race and people.

Led here by the tales told of the region by Sullivan's soldiers, and in many cases induced by the proprietors of vast acreages bought from the State, settlers began to flock over the trail of the army to cast their fate in with the new region, so that the evacuated lands of the aborigine were soon occupied.

A group of nineteen from Kingston were the first of the permanent settlers, September, 1789. An idea of the difficulties standing in the way of any prospective settler, may be gained from the length of their journey to the new home. They were a month getting from Kingston to Owego, and nineteen days to travel from Owego to the present site of Ithaca, a distance of twenty-nine miles. It is, of course, to be realized that these families ere traveling along a narrow foot trail of the Indian, and had, by great labor, to widen it o permit the passage of their teams and cattle through the primeval forest.

Just what reason led this band to leave the river lands where most of the new comers into this part of the State settled, and locate on the decidedly isolated spot of their choice is not known. Probably the undoubted fertility of the "inlet lands" of Lake Cayuga was the deciding factor, and no doubt the water powers had their appeal. Whatever the thing which influenced their selection, as the result of that choice the city of Ithaca has come to be. The names of the original pioneers were Jacob Yaple, his wife and three children; and his brother John; peter Hinepaw, his wife and five children. They were evidently well pleased with their tracts for this enthusiastic praise of the wonderfully rich and beautiful lake country soon brought neighbors.

The first of the setters gather around the site of the future Ithaca, early known as the "Flats," or Maricle's Flats, the present title now having been given until 1808. Six years after the settlement at the "flats," had been started Captain David Rich settled in the area now known as Caroline town. A year later the Dumonds and Yaples, who had lost there Ithaca lands through an agent's carelessness or crime, located at Danby and built the first house in that town. In 1797 first settlement was made in Dryden by Amos Sweet; Enfield had its start in 1804 by John Giltner. Groton was settled in 1796 by Samuel Hogg; Lansing by the Ludlow brothers in 1791; Newfield in 1800 by James Thomas; and Ulysses in 1792 by the Tremaines.

The land to which these pioneers came was the "Dark Forest," or densely wooded region of the southern Finger Lake section. The area cleared and planted by the Indians was, for the greater part, farther north. The greater part of the country is high and rolling, with elevations approaching 800 feet, forming the water shed from which the streams started either on their way to the south by way of the Susquehanna, or to the north by way of the Seneca and Oswego Rivers. It is also no great distance from the head-waters of streams flowing into the Mississippi. The many streams have worn gorges and valleys, break over natural dams, spread out in swamps, until it has made of this area a region seldom equaled in the variety of its terrain or the beauty of the scenic effects.

The forest was the source of much of the early prosperity Much of the wood was burned, for even as early as 1804 the making of potash was an important industry, and as late as 1832 the ashes for that year were valued at $27,000. The water power was harnessed, two gristmills were grinding grain by 1794, and sawmills began to operate but a few years later. In 1832 the value of the timber cut was $00,000, a large sum for so small a county, and by 1853 a writer, H. C. Goodwin, related that three quarters of Tompkins was improved land. In 1886 the only sizable bit of virgin timber was a tract of forty acres. It would seen as though the denudation of the hills had gone too far, with ill effects on the soil and water condition which in this present century is being remedied by the reforestation of the barren summits and the intelligent encouragement of the second growth timber.

The forest was full of deer, sufficiently so as to make deer skins a valuable export even in 1832, and it is interesting to note that in 1823, not so long before the Erie Canal was opened for traffic, that a "wolf hunt," in which 800 men participated, over a space of 19 miles in circumference, took place in Newfield town.

Agriculture was, after all, the business of the people who settled in Tompkins, and they found much land fitted to their purpose. The surface in the greater part of the county is the in ground material left by the glaciers ,mixed and changed in locale by the waters. The sub-surface was in many placed impervious, giving poor drainage. But the pioneers not only chose the best of it, but found a crop that would grow to advantage, and the county was almost entirely given over to wheat fields. How different the present when not five per cent of the lands of Tompkins are planted to wheat. And the grasses that the first settlers never considered worth the planting, as hay, make up more than half of the modern agricultural production of the county.

The early industries were in the nature of mills to produce the coarse meal for their food and lumber to meet their first building requirements. Fall, Cascadilla and Six Mile creeks plunge through gorges from the heights of the level of the lake, the Fall and Cascadilla dropping 400 feet in a half mile. These supplied the power needs of the pioneers, but the amount of water that all three streams carry is not great, and it is doubtful whether all three were worth the $200,000 paid for par of the power rights on Fall Creek in the period when speculation was rife, 1835.

The early mills did not require great powers, and were scattered along the creeks. When the home demands had been met there was branching out into other lines. The War of 1812, by shutting off the Nova Scotia supply, made gypsum, land plaster, valuable, and mills began to handle this material. Lumber was dressed, made into sash, doors, blinds and furniture. Fulling mills, oil mills, paper and cotton mills, and at least one textile concern were established. The details of these will come out more fully in the story of Ithaca and the towns.

The making of bulky articles soon was halted; even now cement and salt are probably the only bulky articles made and exported from Tompkins County. This early change in the character of both agriculture and industry was die, not to any lack of natural fitness of the country to grow or make these things, but the location of it away from the mainlines of travel. The Erie Canal went through to the north, and the railroads followed the canal line. To the south, when a railroad was built through this part of the State, it went too far south. Transportation is the factor that decides the permanency of any industry,. It must take a form suitable to the means of moving its products to market in competition with other places.

Possibly the lack of adequate means of transportation is one of the reasons why the county has never attained any great heights in either agriculture of industry. The first road into the lake and county was cut along an Indian trail from the main highway at Owego, and the first railroad was laid along this same line, using two inclined planes to get into Ithaca. Horse power was used from 1834 until 1840, when an engine was secured from Schenectady, but proved to be too weak, its efforts having to be helped our often by the passenger. This locomotive Ws rebuilt but proved too heavy for the bridges, and, breaking through one of them, was not used again. Other railroads have since been built, but not as many as were projected at various times, and the county is well connected with the mainlines of the State.

Until the railroads had made their way into Tompkins, Lake Cayuga was the great highway. Before the county was organized, within twelve years after Fulton had shown that a steamboat could be made that could move, a steamboat was projected for the lake. The hull was started in 1820, and the next year, after prodigious labor, the vessel made her maiden trip, June 1. It carried 150 people and only took eight hours to make the trip from Ithaca to Cayuga. The airplane company which, in recent years, was in business in Ithaca, knew that something was the matter with its planes when they took that many minutes to cover the distance.

The boating industry made tremendous advances, and by the closing days of the Civil War, dozens of large steamers plowed the lake. Connections were made at either end with other modes of transportation. The success of the steamboat, and more particularly of the Erie Canal, started many schemes to have a ship canal from Cayuga to Lake Ontario, and prospectuses were gotten out showing the lake covered with all manner of sea-going vessels. One company, which was to build a canal from the Cayuga to Sodus bay, received a charter in 1829, and sold stock to the amount of $200,000, but since the promoters could not persuade the government to built the water-way, it never came to anything, nor did the other schemes at this time.

Probably no one event has had more to do with the more recent growth, and character of that growth, than the establishment of Cornell University. Ezra Cornell was not interested in what they called the institution, but was insistent that its location should be at Ithaca. Two colleges preceded the university and influenced its character, the People's College of Havanna, and the State Agricultural college at Ovid. These gave way to the forming of Cornell, which opened its doors to students October 6, 1868.

New York State has certain lands for sale, the proceeds from which could be applied to higher education. these were not great, at least not the proceeds, for part of the acreage sold at 83 cents a n acre. But Ezra Cornell decided that by adding some of his wealth to that of the fund he would found an "institution where any person can find instruction in any study." The Legislature approved of his ideas and voted their part of the funds needed to establish the college (April 27, 1865). Ezra Cornell's direct gifts to the school were $500,000, two hundred acres of land with usable buildings, and several smaller gifts for special purposes. His largest benefaction came in the form of profits made eventually by the university on land script that he purchased from the State. From the lands handed over to the university by Cornell, a net return was realized of $4,000,000.

The university is made up of the following colleges and departments: college of Arts and Sciences, established in 1896, comprising the schools of history, political science, philosophy, education, besides the usual departments. College of Law, founded 1887. College of Architecture, a department in 1871, raised to the status of a college in 1896. The Medical School, established in 1898 by colonel Oliver H. Payne and permanently endowed by him in 1913. The State Veterinary College, established in 1894 on a foundation of courses given since the university was started. The Graduate School, established in 1909. The New York State Agricultural College, founded in 1904, this having been another department of the university from the early day. And the State Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva.

The presidents of Cornell University has been: Andrew Dickson white, 1866-1885; Charles Kendall Adams, 1885-1892; Jacob Gould Schurman, 1892-1920; and Livingston Farrand, inaugurated 1921 and still in office (1926). The total number of students registered in 1923 was 7,190, and the figures of 1924 are about 8,000. The entire number of students the first year was 412.

Counties were first erected in New York State in 1683, of which Albany was one. From this was taken Tryon, later called Montgomery, in 1772; in 1791, Herkimer was made from a part of Montgomery; and in 1794 came the erection of Onondaga from which Cayuga was separated in 1799, Seneca from this in 1794, and Tompkins was made from parts of both of these April 17, 1817. The original area of Tompkins was enlarged March 22, 1822, by the addition of Caroline, Danby and Cayuta (Newfield) from Tioga County. In 1853 the west side of Newfield was annexed by Chemung count; and on April 17, 1854, hector was made apart of Schuyler.

Tompkins' civil division now consist of nine towns, viz.: Caroline, organized February 22, 1811, take from Tioga and annexed to Tompkins March 22, 1822. Danby, whose history is the same as Caroline. Dryden, taken from Ulysses February 22, 1803. Enfield, taken from Ulysses March 11, 1821. Groton (as Division) taken from Locke April 7, 1817. Ithaca, taken from Ulysses march 16, 1821. Lansing, taken from Genoa April 7, 1817. Newfield, organized from Spencer February 22, 1811. Ulysses, organized March 5, 1794, with Onondaga County.

The city of Ithaca is the one large place in the county and holds a position of even greater importance than mere population would give. The town of Ithaca is a separate organization covering an area of 36 square miles, four-fifths of which is in farms. Cayuga Lake reaches into the town for a distance of two miles, with the deep valley of the lake extending a like distance farther. This natural feature, with the streams entering the inlet of the lake, makes it one of the more picturesque sections of this part of New York. It is also one of the banner towns in agriculture and horticulture, for not only do the general crops do well, but apples and grapes and the small fruits succeed. The first settlement of this area has already been mentioned.

Out of this great the village Ithaca, which in 1804 was the proud possessor of a post office and ten houses, one of which was called the Ithaca Hotel or tavern. the village was known as "The Flats," or "The City" or even the "Sodom." By whatever name it was called, it was the joy and hope of Simeon De Witt, well known in the annals of the State, who may rightly be called the founder of the city that was to be.

By 1808 there had been a road competed to Owego; three years later one to Geneva. In 1805 the first church was Presbyterian, and the first library established was the next year. In 1810 De Witt found on a visit to the village, 38 dwelling houses, one of three stories, five of two stories, stores for merchants, shops for carpenters, and workers in various lines. Land plaster and salt began to be important articles of export, equaling lumber which had been the main product up to the War of 1812. The lake soon became the great highway from Ithaca to the outside regions, with its productions. In 1821 the village was incorporated.

By 1834 the village had become one of the great industrial places of Western New York with saw, plaster, paper and flour mills, chair factory, iron foundry, plow factory , woolen mill, and a company making steam engines. The population was nearly 4,000. The death of De Witt in this same year threw upon the market his large village holdings, which seemed to be the signal for the beginning of a speculative period which ended in the collapse of 1837. The growth from now on was rather slow, but, except for the floor of 1857, received no serious setbacks.

On the 3d of May, 1887, the village outgrew its clothes, which had been altered several times, and came out as a full fledged city. the charter granted was remarkable in that it placed in the hands of the mayor the appointive power, in which he is superior to the council. Meanwhile Cornell University had opened its doors in 1868 and the first of the thousands of students that were to enter were fin their share not only to make the name Ithaca known, but having marked effect on the character of the city. One peculiar and advantageous effect the presence of the university has upon the class of artisans who work in the city, is that they are of the more intelligent and trained orders, due no doubt to the desire of those who are successful to live in a college community and in many cases to be where they or their children may attend the university. It has come about, since Ithaca has recognized that her place in the life of the State is not be among its industrial leaders, that her manufactures have been of the sort that require the highest type of skilled workers.

The university on the plateau above, and the mercantile and residential district on the level near the lake--these two give the picture of Ithaca.


The town of Caroline is in the southeast corner of the county and has an area of 34,523 acres. It is on the uplands and most of the land is better fitted for cattle and dairying then for cultivated crops. In more recent years attention has been given to fruit growing. Captain Rich was the pioneer of the region, having a tavern here in 1795. He purchased quite an acreage, and his deed I s the first one recorded to a settler of Caroline. The hamlets of the section are: Slatersville, which had at one time several industries; Speedsville, Mott's Corners, and Caroline Post office and Caroline Center.

Danby town was settle by the Dumonts and Yaples who were among the first to come into the county. After making improvements on their original property, they found their titles worthless through the non-payment of taxes at Albany, and removed to the district now known as Danby in 1795. The pioneers of the s0-called "Beer's Settlement" came two years later. A sawmill was erected in 1797 and a gristmill in 1899. The area of the town is 33,268 acres, the soil of which has always been an attraction to farmers. The village, Danby, is on the site of the Beer's Settlement and has had a post office since 1801. West Danby, on Cayuga Inlet and the railroad, is the main shipping point. South Danby is the third hamlet in the section.

The town of Dryden lies on the southeast border of Tompkins and contains 54,567 acres, about three-quarters of which have at sometime been under cultivation. The soil on the uplands is a fertile gravelly loam while in the valley of Fall Creek, a rich alluvium, prevails. It is the largest town in the county and was first settled in 1797 by Amos Sweet on the site of the principal village, Dryden. One of the late natives of this town, John McGraw, bon in 1815, had not only much to do with the material advance of the region, but will be held in memory for the munificence of his gifts to the university.

Enfield, on the western border of the county, is one of higher district, mostly given over to dairying and hay growing. It contains 23,086 acres. Five Mile Creek is the main stream, noted for the beauty of its cascades. The settlement of the town was rather later than most, the first to locate here being John Giltner in 1804, but the first to stay was Judah Baker, who came later in the same year. The principal hamlets of this section are; Applegate's Corners, Enfield Center and Enfield Falls.

Groton formed as Division, was renamed after the Connecticut city from which many of the first settlers came. As it was a part of the older town of Locke, just who located within the town area is not known. It is in the northwest part of Tompkins, has an area of 30,725 acres, is one of the better agricultural regions. The main village, Groton, the center of the town is almost every sense whether geographically, or industrially, derives its prominence from its location and the energy of its people. It had its mill at an early day and has continued to hold the lead taken at that time. There are today a dozen factories and a nationally known typewriter is one of the products of the village. Road machinery and bridge parts are other specialties. Groton was incorporated June 11, 1860, with an area of 433 acres and a population of 596. Groton city was once known as Slab City because of its numerous sawmills. Lafayette and Grotto are hamlets.

Lansing, on the east side of the Cayuga Lake, in the northern part of the county, was formerly one of the banner wheat district, but not gives its attention to les specialized agriculture. Its area is 38,808 acres, is picturesquely situated, with nearly all of its land under farm fence. In 1791 Silas Ludlow, his brother and their families made the first settlement, and were the builders of the first mill. The village Lansing is the local center, Ludlowville, the largest in population, while Lake Ridge, South, North, and East Lancing, and Lansingville are hamlets. Salt wells were found in Lansing in 1891, around which an active industry has grown.

Newfield, formerly a part of Tioga County, came into Tompkins under the name of Cayuta, but changed to the present title in 1822. It contains 34,892 acres, somewhat hilly and broken; agriculture is the main occupation of its people. Newfield is the name of the principal village.

Ulysses, on the west bank of Lake Cayuga, is the northwest town of Tompkins. It has an area of 19,400 acres, the larger part of which is in dairy farms and fruit orchards. Taghanic Falls on the creek of the same name is the highest waterfall in the State, 215 feet. Samuel Weyburn built his cabin here in 1790, near the site of one of the Indian villages. Trumansburgh village, the main settlement of Ulysses, was started by Abner Tremain in 1792. Incorporation was completed in August of 1872. It is surrounded by a rich farm region and apple section, and some of the main industries of the village are the evaporating of apple, sorting beans, and the manufacture of vegetable products. A silk mill gives employment to a number. Jacksonville and Waterburg are hamlets.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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