Oswego County, New York

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Oswego County Courthouse is located at 46 East Bridge Street, Oswego NY 13126; phone: 315‑349‑3235.


Beginnings [1]

The Iroquois, French and British, several wars, the New York State Barge Canal, shipping days, creative builders, and local civic leaders have all left their marks on the history of Oswego County. The earliest inhabitants of the area were pre-Iroquoian native peoples, Algonquins, who hunted and fished. Later, the Onondagas and Oneidas hunted the land and fished in its waters, but with few exceptions, did not settle the area. Permanent village sites are known only in the southern part of the county. The first white explorers were French missionaries and Dutch fur traders. The English were introduced to the Great Lakes region and Oswego when they took over Dutch possessions. The British built two forts, Fort Oswego and Fort Ontario to protect their trading interests. Control of Oswego was transferred in 1796 to the American government well after the American Revolution.

People who followed these earlier inhabitants came in three waves. After the Revolutionary War, Yankees or New Englanders settled the region during the pre-industrial period from 1790 to 1825. These mostly Protestant people were farmers, artisans or housekeepers. In the late 1820s, immigrants were primarily from western Europe: England, Germany, and French-Canada. They worked in factories, commercial ventures, and service occupations. At the close of that century, the third wave of immigration brought people from southern and eastern Europe: Italy, Poland, and Russia.

As soon as the British left Fort Ontario in 1796, settlers made Oswego their home because of the possibility of business with Canada and trade on Lake Ontario and the Oswego River. Realizing that the area at the mouth of the river would be an important place, the State of New York made plans to lay out a community, Franklin Square, on the west side of the river. Following the War of 1812, the east side of Oswego was laid out in a grid street pattern and broad lots similar to the west side of the river. The completion of the Oswego Canal in 1828 gave Oswego its commercial start and spurred enormous growth, the population doubled between 1820 and 1830. The canal allowed cheaper and faster transportation for passengers and freight and established a larger market for all products. Using water power, factories along the Oswego River produced flour, starch, textiles, and manufactured goods. Beginning in the 1870s, Oswego declined as a bustling port. Salt shipments from Syracuse were no longer needed with the discovery of salt fields in the Midwest and the Erie Canal became a more cost-effective transportation route when it quit charging tolls. Before World War II, Oswego's economy began to focus on what was to become its major local industry, energy.

The City of Fulton, formerly Oswego Falls, flourished as a result of the construction of the canal with grain mills, textile factories, and metal working plants. As shipping business declined at the end of the nineteenth century, Fulton continued as an industrial center.

The land west of the Oswego River encompassing the Towns of Oswego, Hannibal, Granby, and Minetto was called the Military Tract because land parcels were given free to Revolutionary veterans. Through a series of treaties, the State of New York had purchased land from the Iroquois Indians. Although each soldier was given 600 acres, few soldiers settled in the area; they sold their parcels to others.

In 1792, George Scriba and several other investors assumed the contract of 525,000 acres of land between the Oswego and Salmon Rivers from John and Nicholas Roosevelt. The Towns of Constantia, West Monroe, Amboy, Parish, Hastings, Schroeppel, Palermo and Volney comprised Scriba's purchase. The southern area along the Oneida Lake shore was settled earlier than the northern portions because of the natural waterway from the Mohawk Valley to Lake Ontario. Land and water transportation routes prescribed the location of villages in the Scriba Patent. Cleveland, Bernhards Bay, Constantia, Phoenix and Hinmanville ring the region along the Oneida Lake and Oneida and Oswego Rivers, the traditional water route. In 1846, Oswegonians built the first plank road in the United States initially from Syracuse to Central Square and later completed it to Watertown (now U.S. Route 11). The Village of Central Square sits astride this early road which connected North Country farmers with salt sources near Syracuse.

Settlement patterns were further influenced by the distribution of natural resources. From 1830 through the 1850s, bog iron ore along Scriba's Creek in Constantia supplied iron foundries. This in turn spurred settlement on the north shore of Oneida Lake. In Cleveland and Bernhards Bay, sand from Oneida Lake led to early glass manufacturing. Palermo, northern Hastings, and areas of Schroeppel were sources of gravel and sand. The Scriba Patent North includes Scriba, New Haven and Mexico. In the nineteenth century, these towns were similar in many ways. Each lay along the stage route from Rome and Utica to Oswego, and each had creeks or rivers to power early mills. Villages formed at the intersection of main roads or where a major route crossed a creek at a mill site. The most activity and growth was in the Village of Mexico because of its location at the intersection of two creeks, Black Creek and the Little Salmon River. Their water powered grist and saw mills, machine shops, wagon and pump manufacturers, and copper shops, together making Mexico a thriving manufacturing community. Before the Civil War, Mexico was an area of antislavery activity. Several residents were a part of the Underground Railroad to help escaped slaves reach Canada.

The North Country includes the Towns of Richland, Albion, Boylston, Williamstown, Redfield, Orwell and Sandy Creek. Originally, Williamstown and the southern parts of Richland and Albion belonged to George Scriba's Patent. The four remaining towns belonged to a vast multi-million-acre tract occupying much of the northern portion of the State. The State sold this tract in 1791. It changed hands of several land speculators until individual settlers purchased farms of manageable size. Lumbering made the area ideal for dairy farming. Today, many of these marginal farms have returned to woodlands.

Besides farming activity, communities developed around industries powered by water, the railroad, and recreational activities. The railroad was to this area what the canal was to the City of Oswego. The railroad strengthened ties to Syracuse and contributed to the growth of inland villages. Richland Station is a reminder of the former importance of the railroad. Historically, the Village of Altmar, and hamlets of Williamstown, Redfield, and Orwell centered on early mills, tanneries, and wood product industries. Additionally, villages served small farms as shopping and social centers. The Village of Pulaski on the Salmon River and the Villages of Sandy Creek and Lacona on Little Sandy Creek developed around industries powered by nearby streams. Serving as the seat of government for eastern Oswego County added to Pulaski's growth. As early as 1900, summer tourist and residential areas developed along the lakeshore. Former lumbering camp sites developed into recreational camp areas, other sites were specifically developed as seasonal home areas.

Following World War II, traditional activities declined. Recent growth relates to the expansion of a few key industries and suburbanization. People choose to live in Oswego County because of employment opportunities and the quality of life in small towns, its natural and historic landscape, and its close commuting distance to Syracuse via Routes 81 and 481.

  1. Oswego County Public Information Office, Oswego County Comprehensive Plan, undated, www.co.oswego.ny.us, accessed September 2008.

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