Oneida County - An Introduction

Oneida County has always been at the center of transportation developments that controlled the growth of New York State and in large measure, the North Eastern United States.  Nearly one hundred miles west of the state capital of Albany, Oneida County holds the upper reaches of the Mohawk River flowing eastward to the Hudson River.  The County is also the site of streams flowing west to the Great Lakes, North to the St. Lawrence River, and South to the Susquehanna River.  The height of land in this east-west watershed divide is the site of the City of Rome.  A few miles to the east is the site where the Mohawk River is the most fordable for north-south travel, the City of Utica.

In the centuries before settlement, Oneida County was completely wooded and waterways afforded the easiest travel.  As a result the Oneida Indian Nation, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, located on the western part of the County.  French, English and Dutch traders knew this land was the key to controlling the fur trade from the west and as access to developing colonial agricultural settlements in the east.  For these reasons fortifications were built in the Rome and Utica areas and significant battles and raids were carried out from the early 1700's to the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.

Following the Revolutionary War, New England farmers who had traveled and fought along the Mohawk River, came back to clear and settle more promising lands.  Hugh White who settled Whitestown in 1784 was one; Jedediah Sanger founder of New Hartford was another.  So was Moses Foote of Clinton and James Dean of Westmoreland.

The success of these early families soon brought more pioneers to purchase low-cost and potentially rich farm land.  They settled across Oneida County at crossroads and hamlets that have become today's twenty-six towns and three cities of the County.

Demands for local government and courts, west to Albany, brought the New York State Legislature to form, first, Herkimer County and then Oneida County on March 15, 1798.   Later what is now Lewis County, Jefferson and parts of Oswego County were formed from the original County boundaries.

The success of farmers, millers and other yankee entrepreneurs created a need for better transportation to eastern markets.  The cost of road development exacted a penalty that a canal system would overcome.  On July 4th, 1817, the groundbreaking of the Erie Canal took place in Rome, and was completed between Lake Erie and the Hudson River in 1825.  Not only did the Canal stimulate growing of cash crops like grain, hops, cheese, potash; it also brought a surge of immigrants to settle western New York and beyond.

Following the success of the Erie Canal, private companies completed canals to the north from Rome along the Black River and to the South, from Utica, along the Chenango River. By 1831 steam locomotive driven railroads began to service between Albany and Schenectady.  Five years later, the Utica and Schenectady line began operations with six locomotives and fifty cars each.  By the 1840's passenger travel had switched almost completely to the railroads.  From that time all modes of land and water transportation west from Albany have followed the Mohawk River low lands to Rome and thence along the survey route for the Erie Canal.  As transportation needs grew from agriculture to industrial growth and passenger travel, Utica and Rome and Oneida County grew in step with the expansion.  Utica became home to one of the largest railroad freight marshalling yards on the New York Central system.

Water power provided the early settlers with not only transportation, but also the ability to mill corn and other grains, to saw and shape wood from the forests, and to loom textiles from wool, cotton and flax.  By the early 1840's New England mills had developed steam powered looms that out produced Oneida textile companies.  In 1845, attorney Edward Graham, merchant Spencer Kellogg and industrialist Andrew Pond returned from a survey of New England mills with a plan.  Entrepreneurs like Alfred Munson and Theodore Faxton raised enough money to put the plan to work.  From low-cost coal fields in Pennsylvania, coal was brought to Utica on the Chenango Canal and powered steam driven looms in greatly expanded mills that made Oneida County a textile center of the county until after World War II.

During the one hundred years from the mid-1800's to mid-1900's the diversity of industrial products and the value of agricultural output grew in Oneida County.   Beginning in the 1890's farmers were learning how to produce more with less farmland.  Today about 260,000 acres of the County's 806,000 acres are being farmed by about 2800 farm owners.  The value of field crops, vegetable and milk and diary products increases each year, reaching $89 million dollars in 1997.

Industrial diversification began in the 1950's as the textile mills moved south.   Economic leaders of Oneida County began to recruit new businesses.  General Electric, Univac, Utica Drop Forge and Tool, Bendix, Special Metals established plants.   Established companies like Utica Mutual Insurance Company expanded.  Retail and wholesale services industries found the transportation hub of Oneida County to their liking.

Starting in the late 1980's corporations dependent on military products began to downsize.  The closure of the Griffiss Air Force base resulted in the loss of over 5,000 jobs.  These economic losses signaled once again that Oneida County had to attract new business.  The Oneida County Economic Development and Growth Enterprise, (EDGE) and the Griffiss Industrial Park, (GLDC) were formed.  The Air Force Information Directorate, (Rome Labs) remains at the Griffiss site and serves as an attraction to high technology corporations.  Major corporations such as Conmed, Special Metals, Oneida Ltd., Utica National Insurance Group, PAR Technology, Revere Copper and Brass, Metropolitan Insurance Company, Fleet Bank and others serve to provide the needed economic diversity that government leaders indicate is the key to prosperity in Oneida County.

Special thanks and appreciation to the Oneida County Historical Society for their assistance and guidance.

For additional history and facts about Oneida County contact:

The Oneida County Historical Society
1608 Genesee Street, Utica, NY  13501
(315) 735-3642
ochs@midyork.org