We Preempt Westward American Expansion for…

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A funny thing happened on the way to researching my book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. For years I had been trying to explain to people just what exactly I meant by “Greater Western New York.” From a regional mutual fund’s perspective, it was easy. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires all regional funds to specify the municipalities covered by the fund. In the case where a fund’s region encompasses only a portion of a state, the fund’s prospectus must list all the counties included in its unique definition of the region covered. Like I said, from the SEC’s standpoint, defining Greater Western New York was easy.

Beyond that, though, I had to justify why we chose those particular counties. This was especially important because we market the fund only to New York residents, specifically, Western New York residents. And the folks we consider “Western” New York residents don’t necessarily consider themselves “western.” Or, in the case of those in the Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan area, they don’t consider anyone other than themselves to be “western” New Yorkers.

Allow me to digress for a quick moment on that issue. Remember, I was born in Buffalo and moved to Rochester when I was in fifth grade. It turns out my experience was far from unique. Many Buffalonians had moved to Rochester, and a few Rochesterians had moved to Buffalo. I believe as more people migrated from Buffalo to Rochester, the Rochester area began viewing itself less as “Upstate” New York (indeed, that was the name of its daily newspaper’s Sunday supplement) and more “Western” New York. Today, it’s not unusual for a Rochesterian, upon hearing his region referred to as “Upstate,” to shudder and respond, “Westchester County is Upstate New York. Monroe County is ‘Western’ New York.” But let’s return to my dilemma.

If you go to any randomly picked town in Greater Western New York, there’s a good chance the locals will describe themselves as something else. Besides “Western New York,” you’ll hear phrases like “Southern Tier,” “Central New York,” “Finger Lakes,” and even a few scattered “Upstate New York” references. In describing the Bullfinch Fund Greater Western New York Series, I had to somehow convince this divergent citizenry they really belonged to the same community.

Here’s how I did it: I pulled up a map of New York State, pointed to the locations of the cities of Rochester and Syracuse, and, just east of 77º longitude, drew an imaginary line between them from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border.

As lame as that was, it seemed to work. At the very least, it got across the idea Syracuse was not part of Greater Western New York (something of which I think Syracusians would agree).

Still, it was arbitrary and, being a rational scientist by training (and, some would say, by disposition), I cowered every time I had to use this justification.

Until, that is, my research for 50 Hidden Gems of Western New York revealed one hidden gem that surprised even me. In the course of that revelation, I discovered what all good scientists know but never admit – intuition, while not always logical, can often be correct. In fact, far from being imaginary, my line was very real, very controversial and very definitive when it came to mapping the true boundaries of Western New York. Here’s the narrative behind this story.

It should be fairly clear to any student of history that several European powers had, at one time or another, claimed Western New York as their own. We all know Christopher Columbus pronounced the entire New World for Spain (who then apparently decided they only wanted the parts with warm weather). We’ve already seen the French were the first to traverse our territory. Of course, who can forget the Dutch, the first settlers of what is now New York State.

But, in the end, it was the British who captured the crown jewels of Western New York, having defeated both the French and the Dutch. You’d think that would’ve have made things easy, right?

You’d be wrong.

Thanks to the flippancy of English royalty (or perhaps their failure to attend geography classes), Western New York was given to not one, not two, not even three different colonies. In fact, it had been promised to no fewer than five different colonies. Here’s how it happened.

England, unlike its European competitors, relied on private enterprise to colonize the New World. Of course, that didn’t mean the King wasn’t pleased. In fact, these private companies ultimately were granted their land rights by the King. Sometimes, one King forgot what an earlier King did. Sometimes, the same King forgot what he himself had done earlier. Here’s a rough chronology of the bowl of land-title spaghetti created by the British monarchy (bear in mind, the Greater Western New York Region is roughly between the 42nd and just above the 43rd lines of latitude):

The first wave of English settled in the early 1600’s. In 1606, James I granted “North Virginia” all lands between the 38th and 45th parallels westward to the “South Seas” (presumably the Pacific Ocean).1 So, we’re part of Virginia.

But wait! In 1628, Charles I granted the Massachusetts Bay Colony all of North Virginia’s land above the 42nd parallel, again, extending to the “South Seas.”1,2 So now we’re part of Massachusetts, right?

Not so fast! In 1662, Charles II decided to create the Connecticut Colony from the old Warwick Grant (between the 41st and 42nd lines of longitude) and extend that westward by 3,000 miles.3 I’m losing track. Are we Connecticut or Massachusetts? And when does New York even enter the picture?

It enters when the same Charles II who, completely forgetting what he had done two years earlier, in 1664 grants a Royal Patent to his brother James, the Duke of York (get it?).4 This Royal Patent gives James part of lands previously deeded to Massachusetts and Connecticut.5 Can this get any more confusing?

Yes, it can. In 1681, the crown granted William Penn (the guy from whom we get the name “Pennsylvania”), land rights up through the 43rd parallel.6 This parallel runs just south of Syracuse, north of Waterloo and Geneva, clips the southern half of Monroe Country, slices through Batavia and bisects Buffalo and Niagara Falls, thus sparing Mr. Penn from dealing with the vagaries of lake effect snow from Lake Ontario.

So there you go, a total of five colonies, of which at any time four of them held competing claims on Western New York. Eventually, and prior to the Revolutionary War, Connecticut and Pennsylvania withdrew any pretensions for our beloved homeland. That left New York and Massachusetts both with legitimate, albeit awkward, rights to our region.

The conflict was finally settled with the Treaty of Hartford on December 16, 1786 (a.k.a., the birthday of Greater Western New York), when New York and Massachusetts agreed to divide New York along a boundary line running from the 82nd milestone of the New York-Pennsylvania border straight north to Lake Ontario.7 This boundary line would become known as “Pre-Emption Line” because, while New York would govern everything west of the line, Massachusetts held the pre-emptive right to buy the land from the Indians and resell it (which it did – twice, but that’s another story).

As recently as 1990 the 82nd milestone could still be seen. According to one source, “The marker for Milestone 82 which is 82 miles west from the west bank of the Delaware River along the 42nd parallel, is a stone still visible alongside Wedger Hill Road about four miles northwest of Millerton, Pennsylvania.”8

There’s an interesting coda to this story (other than the one alluded to previously about how Massachusetts actually got to sell the land twice, although the two stories are related). It turns out the initial survey of the line wasn’t quite as “due north” as they had hoped. In fact, despite starting at the correct point (the 82nd milestone), the original line drifts to the west. You can still see the remnants of the old line and the new line in roads named “Old Pre-Emption Road” (you guessed it, that’s for the original line) and “Pre-emption Street” or “Pre-Emption Road” (which might refer to either the old or the new line) in the various towns and counties the line passes through.

The divergence, at its greatest extent, is three miles – and this is where the controversy begins. That’s enough to move the town of Geneva from the east side to the west side of the line. In fact, if you drive to Geneva, like I have, you can drive on Pre-Emption Road on the west side of the city (in Ontario County) and on Pre-Emption Street east of the city (actually in both Ontario and Seneca County). There was speculation the surveyor of the original line – Colonel Hugh Maxwell – may have purposely directed the line in such a way as to place Geneva to the east and firmly into New York State territory, but his notes prove otherwise.9

One final nugget: Remember my imaginary line just east of 77º Longitude? The Pre-Emption line lies just east of 77º longitude. So now, when asked why I define the Greater Western New York region the way I do, I simply say it includes all counties west of the Pre-Emption Line including those counties that touch it in any way.

Incidentally, when you look at those 17 counties, you may just find one of the most important hidden gems of all – one that may help create a better future for all those living in Greater Western New York. What is this hidden gem? I’ll give you a hint: Look in the mirror, then turn the page.

If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to check out the book trailer on 50HiddenGems.com and sign up for the GreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out about the next exciting way to help promote your favorite region in America (and maybe even discuss making it our nation’s 51st state)!

1 Hilbert, Alfred G., “The Pre-Emption Line – Part I,” The Crooked Lake Review, 1990, http://www.crookedlakereview.com/articles/1_33/31oct1990/31hilbert.html
2 Buchanan, Jr., E. Everett, “A Brief History of ‘The Preemption Line’ and ‘The Preemption Road’,” Chemung County Historical Society, 1957, http://www.joycetice.com/articles/preempti.htm 
3 Hilbert, Part I
4 Buchanan
5 Hilbert, Part I
6 Ibid.
7 “Settlement Of Western New York,” Office of the County Historian, Wayne County, http://www.co.wayne.ny.us/departments/historian/mfsettlement.htm
8 Hilbert, Alfred G., “The Pre-Emption Line – Part III,” The Crooked Lake Review, 1990, http://www.crookedlakereview.com/articles/1_33/33dec1990/33hilbert.html
9 Emmons, E. Thayles, “Col. Maxwell Notes Silent on Pre-Emption ‘Mistake’,” The Geneva Times, January 22, 1965, p. 14


  1. Dan Cottone says:

    Great Article, Chris! I always wondered what Pre-Emption Road was all about. I suspected it had something to do with that era. And I knew about the Massachusetts / New York claims, but I never knew other colonies had had claims for the area, too.
    As good as the article is, I feel compelled to mention one small typo that you missed. Early in the article, you say, “Today, it’s not unusual for a Rochesterian, upon hearing his region referred to as “Upstate,” to shutter and respond…” Of course, you know the word is “shudder.”
    The level of your writing is so high and so professional that I feel bad about even mentioning this, but we all miss things from time to time.

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