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.