Published in Trumansburg Free Press October 6, 2005


Land & People
Placenames of Western New York

by Bill Chaisson 

I was brought up in the Hudson Valley and went to college in the North Country.  In order to get from one place to the other I often hitch-hiked across much of New York state.  On one trip westward up the Mohawk Valley I was picked up by a librarian who had a surpassing interest in New York state history.  As we passed highway signs bearing the names of cities over the horizon I must have remarked upon the classical provenance of 'Utica', 'Rome' and 'Syracuse' and compared them to the English and Dutch origins of the place names in the Hudson Valley.

He had a very neat explanation for this phenomenon.  When settlers came into this land, he claimed, they brought with them a very small library consisting of a Bible, an atlas and a classical primer.  In the wake of the War of Independence no one wanted to follow the older tradition of giving their new homes names drawn from the English landscape of their royalist ancestors.  So they went to their libraries and drew place names from there.
I believed (and repeated) this story for years, liking its tied-at-both-ends nature.  But in 1998, with Danish journalist Flemming Andersen (FA), I sat down with then county historian Gretchen Sachse (GS) to try to verify the story with a professional.  It turned out to be not so much untrue as just a lot more complicated than my librarian friend had made it out to be.  Here is a extract of our interview with Ms. Sachse. 

GS: [Simeon DeWitt is] sort of our 'great father' around here.  He was the surveyor general of New York state, which means he was the guy who went out and drew the maps.  Went around with the surveyors with the links and chains, and mapped out New York state as it expanded west.  When he came to this area, probably in the 1790s, and mapped this area.  The story is that he camped up on East Hill over looking the lake and it was very craggy with lots of rocks and gorges.  And it reminded him of Homerís description [of Ithaca] in The Odyssey.

FA:  Really!

GS: This was an educated man from a good Dutch family from Albany and knew both Latin and Greek.  He had a good classical education from Rutgers.

FA:  So the place was named 'Ithaca' before the town came along.

GS:  Yes.  The place was named 'Ithaca' and at that point it was part of the military tract of 'Ulysses'.  It's nice that 'Ulysses' and 'Ithaca' are linked.  It's 

the Roman name for 'Odysses', but that's OK.  [laughs]  Ulysses was one of the 28 military tracts.

FA:  The military what?

GS:  Tracts.  After the Revolutionary War a large section of central New York was divided into military tracts to give land to the soldiers as payment, bounty payment, for serving.  You got a certain number of acres, depending on your rank, how advanced you were in the army.  And the land was mapped, and numbered, and named.  I think there were a hundred lots of 600 acres each in each of the tracts.  So a tract is pretty big.  And as much as they could make them square, they did.  Except for geographical barriers.  So if you look at the northern part of Tompkins County, which is the southernmost part of the military tract lands, all of the roads go at right angles.  It's almost impossible to get lost.  [FA laughs]  That's Enfield, Ulysses, Groton, Lansing, Dryden and Ithaca.  The whole northern part of the county was part of the military tract division.  As I said, they were mapped and named in 1790.  They weren't named by anybody around here.  They were named by a group of, I think, three commissioners in New York City.

FA:  They just traveled around and said ...

GS:  They didn't travel.  They just sat in New York City with a map ...

FA:  Really?

GS:  ... and put names on the map.

FA:  And how did they find those names?  What went on in their heads?

GS:  The story is that they had the example of Troy, which had [already] been named, in New York state.  The city of Troy.  And they liked the idea of using classical names.  Especially Roman names.  So they sort of went around and named things Roman names.

FA:  They did this in New York City.  Just sitting at some desk and saying ...

GS:  You can do things like that [laughs].  They just sat there at the map and they said ... Number 22 is Ulysses.  They went through a bunch of classical authors.  They went through philosophers, you had 'Locke'.  You had English poets:  Milton, Dryden.  It sort of showed the remnants of their education.  Then they did a whole bunch of military ones because these were being given to soldiers.

There is more to the place-names story, which I will get to in future columns.  Why, for example, was the classical theme so prominent at this point in US history, and, what did the settlers themselves actually name?

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Last revised:  May 9, 2005