I have long been fascinated with the names given to towns of the Military Tract of Central New York State. The casual visitor to our area must wonder, what nature of people were they who named their frontier towns for the great political, military, and literary figures of ancient Troy, Greece, Rome, and Carthage, with some English poets thrown in for good measure? The names excited ridicule on the part of many "sophisticated" European travellers before the Civil War. This page gives a history of the naming process, along with a full list and their historical references.
A short history of the tract itself, with references to source documents, is provided by the Cayuga County NYGenWeb project. USGenNet has transcribed an interesting but not necessarily reliable history of Cayuga County to 1927. Key dates:
Most of the original townships have been broken into smaller towns and many are split across county boundaries. For example, the township of Milton [#17] was split into Genoa in Cayuga County and Lansing in Tompkins County.
These names were assigned in official meetings of the Commissioners of Lands of NY State (chairman Gov. George Clinton) at four meetings (see below). The same Commmissioners named 10 townships along the St. Lawrence [mostly from foreign cities: Hague, (Osewagatchie), Lisbon, Madrid, Louisville, Cambray, Dekalb, Canton, Potsdam, Stockholm] and some along the PA border. They were likely thought up by Robert Harpur, a clerk in the office of then-State Surveyor, General Simeon DeWitt of Ithaca. Contrary to myth from that day to this, DeWitt was not involved in giving these names (although he named the village of Ithaca); he was not present at the meetings; he explicitly denied; it and Wright's research (see bibliography) backs this up.
Where did Harpur get the names? The most likely source is John Dryden's (1631-1700) translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, a standard reference source of the time. This theory is strengthened by the fact that the great poet Dryden himself was honoured with a township name. Some suggest that Harpur used Lempriere's great classical dictionary, but this was published in London in 1788, just two years before the naming, and it is less likely that he would have had access to it.
Most names are classical, but Harpur also liked English poets (Dryden, Milton) and philosophers (Locke). As far as I know, there is no record of the reasoning behind the names, nor exactly to whom some of the names refer. The last three townships (26-28), at the northwest edge of the tract, were added after the original 25 were identified, as were their names (see dates above).
It's interesting to consider the intimate historical relation between some of the names: the Romans Cato, Sempronius, Pompey, and Scipio; also Homer, Ulysses, and Hector; Dryden who was a major translator of Virgil and the other Latin poets; and the enemies Hannibal (Carthage) and Scipio and Fabius (Rome). Several names are associated with the ideals of the new American republic: Locke, Junius, Solon, and Cincinnatus (for whom the City of Cincinnatti, Ohio is also named).
Upstate New York is full of other classical names, some inside the Military Tract (e.g. town and city of Ithaca, town of Tyre, hamlets of Marathon and Penelope) and some outside, including the cities of Syracuse, Utica, Rome, and Troy; the villages of Carthage, Attica, Macedon, Corinth; and the town of Pharsalia. Ithaca was named by Simeon DeWitt as a direct historical reference to the township of Ulysses, in which it was located. Seneca was of course the Roman stoic philosopher who was a tutor to Nero and was forced to commit suicide, but the name in upstate NY refers to the Indian tribe. Port Byron was named in officially in 1832, but probably informally in 1825 when the original Erie canal was opened, likely in honour of the famous romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), who had just died.
Two other townships in this area, Cayuga (including both shores at the north end of Cayuga Lake) and Onondaga (including Syracuse) are not part of the Military Tract. Instead, they were left to the First Nations (Iroquois) as "reward" for signing over the Tract. A few years later the Cayugas were displaced by treaties with New York State which are actively being disputed in court (since the State had no power to negotiate with a sovereign nation, only the United States could do so). The Onondagas kept only a small portion their land (the reservation at Nedrow) and sold most of it to the State in return for a small annuity (cash and salt); this includes the City of Syracuse. These treaties clearly violated the Trade and Intercourse act of 1790 as well as explicit promises by President Washington. Obviously, these townships were named for the tribes. A fascintating footnote to US-First Nation relations is that one of the additional townships (Junius [#26]) was alloted to Indian officers who held military commissions with the United States.
Much of the following information was abstracted from the PEARS Cyclopedia, and some from encyclopedia.com. Opinions, of course, are mine!
Here is a Survey Map 1802 by Simeon DeWitt, courtesy of SUNY Stoneybrook, showing the newly-formed military tract, and here is an 1875 map of Cayuga Country with the original townships in that county overlaid. A coloured copy of the 1792 DeWitt map (PNG, 1.8Mb), without the last townships of Sterling (1795), is available from Wikimedia.
Note that local pronunciation is often at odds with what a classicist would expect. But who rules the world now, Rome or New York State?
Breakdown of names by origin
The principal place name given in the table refers to the original township. For example, Ithaca is now not in the present Town of Ulysses (since that is now restricted to the Trumansburg area), but it was in the original Township of Ulysses [#22].
|Town||Principal present place||Reference|
|Aurelius [#8]||City of Auburn||Marcus Aelius Aurelius Antoninus (121-180), Roman emperor. Spent most of his time defending the empire against Parthians, Germans, and Britons. Portrayed in this role by Richard Harris in the 2000 film "Gladiator"|
|Brutus [#4]||Weedsport||A Roman surname. Most famous, and well-known from Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar", is Marcus Junius Brutus (85?-42 B.C.E.), one of the assassins of Caesar. "Et tu, Brute?"|
|Camillus [#5]||Camillus||Marcus Furius Camillus (? - 365? B.C.E), Roman hero. By tradition, a patrician who was elected dictator five times and won major victories, twice against the Gauls|
|Cato [#3]||Cato||Can refer to either of two famous Romans: (1) Cato the elder, Marcus Porcius Cato (a.k.a. Cato Censorius) (234-149 B.C.E); statesman and moralist; recommended the destruction of Carthage; a mortal enemy of the Scipio family; (2) Cato the younger of Utica, also named Marcus Porcius Cato (95-46 B.C.E); great-grandson of Cato the Elder; statesman; supporter of Pompey in the dispute with Julius Caeser; reputation for honesty is unsurpassed; after Caesar defeated (46 BC) Scipio at Thapsus, Cato killed himself|
|Cicero [#6]||Cicero||Roman family name; prominent members include Marcus Tullius Cicero (143-106 B.C.E.), Roman orator and philosopher, and his brother, the general and aide to Julius Caeser Quintus Tullius Cicero; both are known also Tully. Marcus wrote important works of stoic philosophy and instructions to orators. He was heavily involved in Roman politics, opposing Caesar and later defending the republic against Marc Antony's dictatorial tendencies. Finally executed by Octavian.|
|Cincinnatus [#25]||Cincinnatus||Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus, the farmer-ruler, 5th century B.C.E. According to legend, was called twice (458 and 439) by the people to be dictator in the face of attacks; both times returned to his farm after completing his task. George Washington is often referred to as the "Western Cincinnatus" because he resigned his military commission to return to private life ("farming" Virginia-style, actually plantation owning) in 1783; he was recalled by his country to become the first president under the new (1789) constitution. Harpur could have had Washington in mind when he selected this name in 1790.|
|Dryden [#23]||Dryden||John Dryden (1631-1700), English poet, translator of Virgil (n.b. adjacent town), translator of Plutarch's Lives, probably used as a source for many of the names|
|Fabius [#15]||Fabius||A family name; most prominent was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (? - 203 B.C.E.) who saved Rome from Hannibal's attack by evading battle; he is therefore known as the 'delayer' (Cunctator)|
|Galen [#27]||Savannah||Claudius Galen (131-201), Roman physician (of Greek origin) to the gladiatorial school in Pergamum (very much as portrayed in the 2000 film "Gladiator"), court physician to Marcus Aurleius, a keen observer who discovered that veins carried blood; unfortunately his texts were slavishly adopted by his lazy successors, who thereby prevented any advances in medicine in the Christian world for 1400 years. Here is a brief biography|
|Hannibal [#2]||City of Oswego||(247-182 or 183 B.C.E.) Carthaginian general, most famous for invading Rome via Spain and the Alps in the 2nd Punic War, crossing with elephants|
|Hector [#21]||Burdett||Tragic Trojan hero of the Trojan war, killed by Achilles, portrayed in Homer's Iliad|
|Homer [#19]||City of Cortland, Homer||Greek poet working around 700 B.C.E., by legend blind, probably from Smyrna (present-day Izmir in Asia Minor), composer of the Iliad and Odyssey, which are the origins of Western literature.|
|Junius [#26]||Waterloo||English political author, known only by his pen-name Junius, which he signed to various letters written to the London Public Advertiser from 1769 to 1772, attacking George III and his ministers. As such an inspiration to American patriots of the time. The name can also refer to Brutus; presumably this is where the English author took it from.|
|Locke [#18]||Groton||John Locke (1632-1704), English philosopher, founder of British empiricism, as the most complete exponent of the enlightenment, was the inspiration for the American political philosophy that led to the revolution. Author of "Two Treatises on Civil Government", which justifies the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (accession of William & Mary).|
|Lysander [#1]||Lysander||(?-395 B.C.E.), Spartan naval commander and statesman, admiral in the Peloponnesian War who defeated Athens and re-organized the political system by installing the "30 tyrants"|
|Manlius [#7]||DeWitt, Manlius||Roman family name; here probably refers to Marcus Manlius Capitolinus (? - 384 B.C.E.) who is best-known for repulsing the Gauls in 389 when awakened by the cackling of geese; unfortunately a bit later he was convicted on trumped-up charges of treason and thrown from the Tarpeian Rock by the tribunes.|
|Marcellus [#9]||Skaneateles, Marcellus||Family name of the principal plebian family of Rome. The reference here is likely to Marcus Claudius Marcellus (268-208 B.C.E.), who was consul five times, and is best-remembered for conquering Syracuse, despite Archimedes' defenses.|
|Milton [#17]||Lansing||John Milton, (1608-74), one of the greatest English poets, best known for his epic poems "Paradise Lost" (1667) and "Paradise Regained", considered the greatest in the language|
|Ovid [#16]||Ovid||Publius Ovidius Naso (43 B.C.E. - 18 C.E.), Latin poet, considered the most perfect writer of Latin; works include erotic and mythological poems|
|Pompey [#10]||LaFayette||Roman commander (106-48 B.C.E), cleared the Mediterranean of pirates, then became one of the triumvirate with Caius Julius Caeser and Crassus; defeated by Caesar after the latter had crossed the Rubicon, and pursued to Egypt where he was killed|
|Romulus [#11]||Romulus||By legend, one of the founders (with Remus) of Rome, by tradition dated to 753 B.C.E. Raised by a she-wolf.|
|Scipio [#12]||Aurora (home of Wells College -- make sure to kiss the feet of Minerva!)||Roman family name; most famous is Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236-183 B.C.E.), Roman general, who defeated Hannibal in the Punic Wars and was the conquerer of Spain. Enemy of Cato the Elder. Son-in-law was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus|
|Sempronius [#13]||Moravia||A common Roman name. Could refer to Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, who, after the end of the Fourth Macedonian and the Third Punic wars in 146, proposed to distribute land to the veterans. The name is also used for a minor character in Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens"|
|Sterling [#28]||Sterling (known for its summer Renaissance Festival)||On the 1802 map
of the military tract, this was
written "Stirling", which makes sense, as there is no historical
"Sterling" of note (but see "home-grown" explanation below).
If so, it could refer to James
Stirling (1692-1770), a great Scottish mathematicican, especially
known for his work on infinite series.
However, since Harpur had already picked several English poets, it
likely refers to William Alexander, earl of Stirling, (1567? - 1640),
who moved to England on the accession of James I of England (=VI of Scotland);
making this even more likely is that he wrote
Four Monarchicke Tragedies, which dealt with classical rulers.
However, the History of Cayuga County, NY by Elliot G. Storke, published by D. Mason & Co. of Syracuse in 1879 claims that it is named for Lord William Alexander Sterling, a Revolutionary War officer. Since this town was named after all the others (in 1795), perhaps Harpur was not involved and this one breaks the rules.
|Solon [#20]||Taylor||Athenian statesman and reformer (639-559 B.C.E.); his name is today a synonymn for 'senator' or more generally 'lawgiver'. His reforms, which led to a more just social order, included annulling mortgages and debts, limiting the size of land holdings, and outlawing borrowing by pledging one's liberty. This was not generally adopted in English law; hence the practice of indentured servitude, which is illegal in the USA.|
|Tully [#14]||Tully||Another name for Marcus Tullius Cicero.|
|Ulysses [#22]||City of Ithaca||Latin form of the Greek Odysseus, figures in Homer's "Iliad" as a major Greek leader in the Trojan war, best known as the wandering hero of Homer's "Odyssey", who leaves Troy and eventually ends up home in Ithaca ("Ithaki" in Greek), hence the name of the principal place|
|Virgil [#24]||Virgil||More properly spelled Vergil. Publius Vergilius Maro (70-19 B.C.E.), Roman poet famous especially for his portrayal of rural life, and then for the Aeneid, the national epic of Rome|
|No.||Township||Present Towns||Present County|
|South part of Granby||Oswego|
|2||Hannibal||Hannibal, west part of city of Oswego and north part of Granby||Oswego|
|3||Cato||Victory and Ira, and north parts of Conquest and Cato||Cayuga|
|4||Brutus||Brutus and Mentz, and parts of Conquest, Cato, Montezuma, Throop and Sennet||Cayuga|
|5||Camillus||Van Buren, Elbridge and part of Camillus||Onondaga|
|6||Cicero||Clay and Cicero||Onondaga|
|7||Manlius||DeWitt, Manlius and part of Salina||Onondaga|
|8||Aurelius||Auburn city, Fleming, Owasco, Throop, Sennet, part of Aurelius, one lot in Montezuma||Cayuga|
|9||Marcellus||Skaneateles and Marcellus, parts of Spafford and Otisco||Onondaga|
|10||Pompey||Pompey, most of LaFayette, three lots in Otisco||Onondaga|
|11||Romulus||Romulus, west part of Fayette and Varick, four lots in Seneca Falls||Seneca|
|12||Scipio||Scipio and Venice, south part of Ledyard, five lots in Niles and northwest corner of Moravia||Cayuga|
|13||Sempromius||Moravia, Sempronius, most of Niles||Cayuga|
|Part of Spafford||Onondaga|
|14||Tully||Tully, south part of Spafford and Otisco||Onondaga|
|North part of Truxton and Cuyler||Cortland|
|16||Ovid||Ovid, Lodi, Covert||Seneca|
|Locke, Summer Hill||Cayuga|
|19||Homer||Homer, most of Cortlandville||Cortland|
|20||Solon||Solon, Taylor, part of Truxton, Cuyler||Cortland|
|22||Ulysses||Ulysses, Enfield, Ithaca||Tompkins|
|23||Dryden||Dryden; one line of lots in Caroline||Tompkins|
|24||Virgil||Virgil, most of Harford and Lapeer, two and one-quarter lots of Cortlandville, one lot Freetown||Cortland|
|25||Cincinnatus||Cincinnatus, Freetown, Willet, most of Marathon||Cortland|
|26||Junius||Junius, Tyre, Waterloo, north part of Seneca Falls||Seneca|
|East part Wolcott, Butler||Wayne|
Author: D G Rossiter