If you’ve ever had the chance to drive the New York State Thruway, you might be forgiven for thinking you’d taken a wrong turn on your way out of the Big Apple. The road is lined with cities like Utica, Manlius, Ionia, Syracuse, Brutus, and Tyre. Add to that other cities in the region like Rome, Carthage, and Ithaca, and drivers must sometimes wonder how upstate New York ended up with its own version of the Classical Mediterranean.
Much of the credit for this peculiar nomenclature rests on the shoulders of Simeon De Witt, who served as Geographer and General Surveyor of the Continental Army during the latter part of the American Revolution, and later as Surveyor General of the State of New York. He held the latter post from the end of the Revolution until his death in 1834–a tenure of fifty years, during which he played a tremendously important role in mapping the expanding territory of the Empire State.
George Washington’s initial choice for army geographer was a well-regarded Scotsman named Robert Erskine. A veteran of the Royal Society, he provided Washington with invaluable surveys of roads, bridges, and other buildings necessary for the war effort. In 1780, however, Erskine died of pneumonia contracted while on a surveying expedition. He was replaced by his 24-year-old assistant De Witt, who continued Erskine’s efforts through the end of the war.
To encourage enlistment in the armed forces during the war, both the Federal Congress and the State of New York had promised land to their soldiers as compensation. When the war concluded, De Witt set about surveying and setting out the land that would be awarded to the veterans. This large stretch of land would be located in the then-remotely settled central part of the state, and became known as the Central New York Military Tract. In this task, De Witt was assisted by a clerk named Robert Harpur, who apparently also had an affinity for Classical history.
The Military Tract was divided into 28 townships, each with 100 lots of 600 acres each. These townships were given names like Lysander, Romulus, and Scipio. Others, like Dryden, Milton, and Locke, were named after prominent English authors. These Military Tract townships were are located in the present-day counties of Cortland, Onondaga, Seneca, and Cayuga, as well as parts of others. And yes, you can drive from Cicero to Cincinnatus, making a detour through Homer. The map at the top of the post shows the layout of the 28 townships, and the two Native American reservations mixed in–click to see the full map.
Holding the office of state surveyor for fifty years gave De Witt plenty of time to leave his mark on New York. Sadly, many of the townships he mapped out no longer exist, since the names he applied to the land were not always given to the towns founded on them. Gems of De Witt’s imagination included Breda, Delft, and Rotterdam; Hesiod, Orpheus, Aleppo, and Xenophon; Handel and Shakespeare–all in Oneida County. He also put his mark on Lisbon, Madrid, Stockholm, and Hague–land in St. Lawrence County on the Canadian border. Themes like this emerge on any close examination of maps of upstate New York, particluarly in older maps. De Witt also made time to help found Ithaca, New York.
For those interested in learning more about the Classical names of upstate New York, you should pick up William R. Farrell’s Classical Place Names in New York State: Origins, Histories and Meanings (currently unavailable on Amazon, so check your local library).