What (And Why) Is Greater Western New York?

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1779 map of Sullivan Campaign 6.18.1779-9.15.1779

1779 map of Sullivan Campaign

Believe it or not, we’re fast approaching a seminal anniversary in the history of Greater Western New York. At some point in the final days of August 1779, the first scouts of the Sullivan Expedition represented the first citizens of the new nation to step foot into what would become Greater Western New York.

They weren’t the first people in Greater Western New York. They weren’t even the first of European descent to enter the region.

They were, however, the first Americans to do so. And that is why Greater Western New York is often referred to as “America’s First Frontier.”

For those who were absent from school when they taught this, the Sullivan Expedition, while containing no major battles, represents a significant turning point in the Revolutionary War.

Following the British surrender at Saratoga in 1777, the Tories shifted their emphasis from the north to the south. Washington followed suit and redirected American forces to the southern colonies.

In the meantime, King George’s commanders relied on their Indian allies to foment what amounted to what we would call today a terrorist campaign against the American Patriots. The hope was to entice Washington to split his troops into a two-front war.

The American leader did not fall for this ruse. His response was muted following the gruesome July 1778 Wyoming massacre, although he allowed soldiers from that region to return to defend their homes. There were a few tit-for-tat exchanges between local Patriots and the British/Iroquois opposition, each in turn burning each other’s outposts and villages.

But when Butler’s Rangers ruthlessly attacked and killed women and children in German Flatts and Cherry Hill outside of Albany, Washington had had enough. He eventually found Major General John Sullivan to lead a substantial number of troops to thwart this guerilla activity by “taking the war home to the enemy to break their morale.”

That Sullivan’s campaign was a military success is beyond doubt, despite revisionist historians who suggest otherwise. Contemporary reports, which must be the source of any historical account, attest to this.

Sullivan’s campaign burned and destroyed nearly all the villages and crops of the Seneca; the tribe primarily responsible for the greatest atrocities. Very few on either side of this effort were killed (although the horrific torture and mutilation of Lieutenant Thomas Boyd and Sergeant Michael Parker in Groveland just south of Conesus has been highly chronicled).

As a result of the Sullivan Expedition, the British were forced to house and feed Iroquois refugees at Fort Niagara. Not only did this place more pressure on the Crown’s resources, but the terror raids never again reached the same level as they had before.

There. Now you don’t have to feel guilty about being sick from 4th Grade (or 7th Grade) the day they taught this. You’re now up to speed.

What is the relevance of the Sullivan Expedition to Greater Western New York? First and foremost, it opened the eyes to Americans to this immense fertile region.

From the moment they first marched into New York from Pennsylvania in what is now Chemung County (where the first and only major battle occurred just east of Elmira), they were awestruck by the beauty of the land.

Major John Burrowes notes in his August 26, 1779 journal entry “As soon as our tents were pitched I amused myself with walking on the bank of the river which brought to my view a large bottom or beautiful plain, not a stump to be seen, a great burthen of wild grass, and with little industry (from the appearance of the soil) would make most excellent meadows, the upland very indifferent.”

Similar comments from soldiers describing the corridor between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes also contain the word “beautiful.” In fact, if you search all the journal entries for the word “beautiful,” you’ll finds scores of references. Understand, this is in the middle of a war where the enemy showed no desire for taking prisoners (a fate, as demonstrated by Boyd and Parker, worse than death). Yet, they nearly all invoke the word “beautiful.”

As they reached the pinnacle of their campaign, the vast vista of the Genesee Valley appeared before them. Lieut.-Col. Adam Hubley, in his September 14, 1779 journal entry, described the “Seneca country” as “containing not less than six thousand acres of the richest soil that can be conceived, not having a bush standing, but filled with grass considerably higher than a man… which afforded a prospect which was so beautiful that, to attempt a comparison, would be doing an injury.”

There was a clear promise to Revolutionary War soldiers that they would receive land grants once the War was over. The beauty of Greater Western New York was not lost on them. Many prominent early settlers in this region were veterans of Sullivan’s campaign.

There was an impediment to settlement, however. The various treaties following the Revolutionary War left the western border of New York State in flux along the Niagara River. In addition, a large portion of New York State, including nearly all of Greater Western New York, was also claimed by the State of Massachusetts. This dispute wasn’t resolved until December 16, 1786 – the official birthday of the Greater Western New York Region (see “Happy Birthday Greater Western New York,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls, Sentinel, December 15, 2016).

Still, despite the apparent peace, the battle for Greater Western New York continued. The British, both through loyalists who settled in Greater Western New York and their Iroquois (again, primarily Seneca) allies, continued to seek inroads to split Greater Western New York from New York State. The aim was to eventually absorb the region back into the British Empire. This effort wasn’t ended until the end of the War of 1812 (and, in fact, with a stronger America, the British found the tables turned a generation later).

Emigration into the region came from two main sources: Pennsylvania and New England (the latter which accelerated once the Erie Canal opened). Yet, despite the different origins, the shared region seemed to forge a single cultural identity.

This isn’t surprising given the nature of moving to a new frontier. It takes a pioneering spirit to venture into the unknown – and for nearly all these newly christened Western New Yorkers, America’s First Frontier was very unknown.

It took more than mere hope to survive and thrive on this burgeoning edge of civilization. It took perseverance. It took resilience. It took the kind of rugged individual required to tame a new land.

And that led to innovation, invention, and, more important, imagination. Once the War of 1812 resolved the uncertainty of the border and the enemy threat, the Greater Western New York region blossomed. It put the “Empire” in the Empire State.

For nearly two centuries, the two New Yorks worked in tandem to build America. Then something happened.

What do you think an independent Greater Western New York should look like?

Click GreaterWesternNewYork.org to join us for a free event on Thursday evening, July 15th at 7:30pm for a Midsummer Night’s (Virtual) Town Hall Meeting. You’ll listen, you’ll ask, and then you’ll decide. All in one fast-paced event that won’t last longer than 90 minutes. (Who knew you can solve all our problems in so short a time!)

Are you ready to listen, ask, and decide? Click GreaterWesternNewYork.org to start the free registration process.

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