New York City / State Timeline
from Eagles Byte by David Minor
Year-by-year tracing the growth of the early days of the Republic
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, of course. Back on March 22, 1817, the editor of the Kingston, Ontario, Gazette got a letter containing a real beaut. The writer wanted to pass word on to Mother England, warning of a plot by the American government to cut a canal connecting Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. He warned that the effect would be to, "wear down to the bottom of the channel above Fort Erie, and turn all the waters of the upper Lakes into the Atlantic Ocean, by the Susquehannah, Delaware or Hudson's rivers, and leave us all dry." For half the projected cost of that dastardly plot, the writer offered to connect Lake Huron and Lake Ontario by canal, bypassing Lake Erie, which would then drain and turn to fertile Canadian farmland. Construction apparently never did get under way on that one. However, less than four months later, on July 4th, New York State, not the federal government (which had refused to fund the project) began construction on the Erie Canal at Rome, New York.
This wasn't the only networking project in the state. It was also in 1817 that the Champlain Canal was completed, connecting the Hudson with Lake Champlain. Lake Ontario got its first wood-powered traffic as the steamboat Ontario began running out of Sackets Harbor and the Canadians followed later in the season with the Frontenac. Nautical entrepreneurs down in Manhattan had even more grandiose plans. They put together a fleet of four vessels, all from 400 to 500 tons, and began the first regularly scheduled voyages to Europe. The first day of every month one of the vessels would depart out of New York's harbor and head for Liverpool, England. Taking the firm's name from the design of their ships' signal flags, they were incorporated as the Black Ball Line.
Land routes were also being devised. A stage and postal route was established between Canandaigua and Lewiston via Rochester, the coaches traveling part way over Buffalo Road, recently completed out of Rochester as far as Batavia. Out on Long Island an old east-west coach road was improved to create the first Jericho Turnpike, with toll booths every five miles. If you took it westward and crossed the East River by ferry, you'd find lots new going on in Manhattan. Something called a soup kitchen on Franklin Street, the Deaf and Dumb Asylum uptown at 50th and Madison, perhaps even a performance by the first sword-swallower in the U. S. If it was June you might catch a glimpse of President Monroe as he visited the city. One visitor the month before, English-man John Palmer was quite impressed with the city, although he did comment on "the custom of smoking segars in the streets (even followed by some of the children)."
And finally, it you were interested in the inner workings of the law, back in these days before Court TV and Judge Judy, you might have wanted to sit in on the trial of freed slave James Williams. Williams was the plaintiff, not the defendant, this trial wasn't about his freedom. His former master, Ichabod Brush of Huntington, Long Island, had bequeathed him his liberty back in 1809; $200 as well. The executors claimed Williams was a drunk and unable to manage his own affairs. They refused to pay the $200. Williams eventually moved to the city, but he didn't forget his legacy. This year, now 26, he hired a lawyer and sued. Not only did he get the $200. The court also awarded him $103.16 in interest. But the majority of his fellow blacks would wait a long time for even basic justice. It was in this year the New York legislature passed a law ending slavery, but not for another ten years. Even then, a loophole in the law allowed transients to bring slaves into the state for a nine-month period, and part-time residents to also bring their slaves temporarily into the state. Meant to mollify current slaveholders, the loophole would not be closed until 1841.
One semi-transient ended his exile this year. The popular canal commission president De Witt Clinton had little trouble getting elected governor; among his many projects was rescinding the edict banishing science lecturer Amos Eaton from the state. Eaton had earned his MA degree from Williams College in September and had published his Manual of Botany for the Northern States, which would eventually go into eight editions. He also had begun lecturing through New England and now extended his range into his native Hudson Valley.
In the western part of the state two communities were beginning to experience the early stirring of growth. The open boat Troyer arrived in Buffalo from the west this year. Her cargo would change Buffalo's destiny. As the Northwest Territory lands (to the state's southwest, by the way) opened for agricultural development, its settlers began moving their wheat harvests toward ports on Lake Erie. The once nearly annihilated Buffalo was on its way to becoming one of the world's great ports --The Queen City of the Lakes. Next year Holland Land Company sub-agent and surveyor William Peacock would put plans into motion to develop the waterfront. This year he was busy correcting errors in previous surveys, subdividing inner lots, laying out cornerstones and preparing new maps of the city. On February 10th a certificate of incor-poration was granted in the village to St. Paul's Church. The cornerstone of the church's building was laid two years later on land donated by Peacock's employer and in another two years, 1821, Buffalo had its first permanent church building.
Meanwhile, the settlement at the Falls of the Genesee had Buffalo beat by four years; the newly incorporated village of Rochesterville erected its first house of worship, First Presbyterian Church, this year. It served a rapidly-growing village now containing a population of 70. One of these, Austin Steward, a free black like James Williams, started a profitable grocery business. Millraces were built near Rochesterville's center to power a number of new milling operations. Like Buffalo the village was also about to become a main flour processing site and transfer point for grain from the Genesee River Valley and surrounding counties. A shipping dock was built below the falls, three miles from the river's mouth at Lake Ontario. A settlement called Carthage grew up around the landing and soon had its first customer--the steamboat Ontario out of Sackets Harbor. This year Rochesterville would ship 5,000 bushels of flour across the lake and down the St. Lawrence River to Montréal, and earn the appellation The Flour City.
© 2002, David Minor
The Eagles Byte New York City / State Timeline is from David Minor's radio scripts for Simon Pontin's Salmagundy radio program on WXXI-FM (91.5). David can be heard every Saturday morning at 10:15 talking about various aspects of world history.