In the early 1960s I interviewed an elderly native of Baldwinsville,
New York, about his knowledge of some of the town’s early families. He
was about 90 years old and, as my mother had been born near there, I
thought he might know something about her relatives.
He was not too knowledgeable about my ancestors, but he still told me
something that continues to resonate for me. At the time I was living
near Cicero, New York, and when I mentioned that fact he became quite
“Yes.” (King’s Hotel was a local landmark, now gone.)
“Filled with ruffians and thieves; I would never go near Cicero.”
It turned out that, as a lad in the 1890s, he had had the task of
driving a herd of his father’s cows to market in Utica, New York.
Syracuse would have been much closer, but evidently the price was a
little better in Utica. On his return trip, he lodged at King’s Hotel in
Cicero, and was beset by “ruffians and thieves” who stole his father’s
money. Imagine the shame he must have endured when telling his father
the money was lost.
You can be sure that this old man had told the story all of his life
whenever he heard the dreaded word Cicero. Well, our traveling ancestors
– from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries – would have been
swayed by such informal tale-telling.
How did our colonial and post-Revolutionary War New England ancestors
decide to just hitch up their wagons and go into the vast unknown
spaces of the far west (as most of New York beyond Schenectady was
viewed in this period)? At times they would have been influenced by
word-of-mouth, as above, and some times by itinerant ministers and
travelers who had visited these far-off places. There are untold numbers
of reasons, but one was most likely decisive. It was the land; always
As New York State was opening up for settlers in the 1790s, New
England had already been peopled for 150 or more years: the lands had
been divided and sold – or handed down to younger generations through
the estate process – more than once. New York State had a large quantity
of excellent farm land, many fast-running streams and rivers, and raw
building materials so plentiful that all one needed were a few hand
tools and a poke of supplies to become established in a new home.
Other than word-of-mouth, what else might have been available to
early settlers to describe the new country? Gazetteers.
I like to use gazetteers of the time period I am studying to
understand the local environment as it appeared to our ancestors. These
little books are full of geological and natural history facts,
describing the topography, the waterways (superhighways of the day), and
the lakes and settlements as they were at that time. Believe it or not,
these books were not created for genealogists! The data would have been
gathered at some great expense and from myriad sources by the compiler
and then set into book format for the purpose of making money for the
And what was the audience for these gazetteers? It was composed of
surveyors, land agents, attorneys, land speculators, ministers,
government offices, and libraries, as well as individuals contemplating a
move to a new town. A few gazetteers were created for the state of New
York. Some later ones were specific to one or two counties, and most of
the nationwide gazetteers also hold clues to the lands of New York.
The following list is of some New York State gazetteers that you
should find useful:
Spafford, Horatio Gates, A Gazetteer of the State of New York;
Carefully Written from Original and Authentic Materials, Arranged on a
New Plan, in Three Parts: Comprising,
First – A Comprehensive Geographical and Statistical View of the
Whole State, Conveniently Disposed Under Separate Reads;
Second – An Ample General View of Each County, In Alphabetical Order,
with Typographical and Statistical Tables, Showing the Civil and
Political Divisions, Population, Post-Offices, &c.;
Third – a Very Full and Minute Topographical Description of Each Town
or Township, City, Borough, Village, &c. &c., in the Whole
State, Alphabetically Arranged; as also its Lakes, Rivers, Creeks, with
Every Other Subject of Topographical Detail; Forming a Complete
Gazetteer or Geographical Dictionary of the State of New York, with an
Accurate map of the State (Albany: H. C. Southwick, 1812).
Spafford, Horatio Gates, Gazetteer of the State of New York (Albany:
B. D. Packard, 1824).
Similar subtitle to the 1812 edition with updates to the text.
Gordon, Thomas F., Gazetteer of the State of New York : Comprehending
its Colonial History, General Geography, Geology, and Internal
Improvements, its Political State, a Minute Description of its Several
Counties, Towns, and Villages, Statistical Tables, Exhibiting the Area,
Improved Lands, Population, Stock, Taxes, Manufactures, Schools, and
Cost of Public Instruction, in Each Town: with a Map of the State, and a
Map of Each County, and Plans of the Cities and Principal Villages
(Philadelphia: T. K. and P. G. Collins, printers, 1836).
(1842 and 1843)
Disturnell, John, A Gazetteer of the State of New York: Comprising
Its Topography, Geology, Mineral Resources, Civil Divisions, Canals,
Railroads and Public... 1st edition (Albany: J. Disturnell, 1842); 2nd
edition (Albany: Printed by C. Van Benthuysen & Co., 1843).
French, John Homer, Gazetteer of the State of New York: embracing a
comprehensive view of the geography, geology, and general history of the
state, and a complete history and Description of Every County, City,
town, Village and Locality, with Full Tables of Statistics (Syracuse: R.
P. Smith, 1860).
French’s Gazetteer, as it is commonly called, has a comprehensive
list of all of the then known early newspapers published in each county,
with dates, titles, and publishers. The footnotes of each county, town,
city, village and hamlet, contain a goldmine of information: names of
the first settlers, the number and types of churches for each locality,
the manufacturers and industries. From these descriptions you will gain a
very good feel for the communities, where they traded, and what life
would have been like from the earliest settlement up to the middle of
the 19th century.
This book is probably the most used of all of the books in my arsenal
of data tools. When I teach classes on genealogy I usually start out by
telling the attendees to “Read French’s Gazetteer from cover to cover,
twice, and then start your family history research.” It’s a joke, of
course, but by the time the classes are over they will have heard me
extol the value of French’s Gazetteer many times. How in the world did
this man gather so much minutia in the 1850s, most of it is verifiable
today, when he had no computer, no Internet, no cell phone, and no
The book has a subject index in the front and a geographical index in
the back. A modern, all- personal-name index was created about a
hundred years later by Frank Place of Cortland, New York, and it is
still available for purchase at the Cortland County Historical Society.
Original copies of French’s Gazetteer are still found in used and
antiquarian book dealers’ inventories, and it has been reprinted several
times; some of those reprints include the all-name index within, and I
believe you can find it on CD-ROM as well as online through an easy
search engine query. I own originals, reprints, and keep a digital
version on a thumb drive that I carry around my neck when going out into
the field. I don’t leave home without it.
There are also county-level gazetteers, created during the 19th
century, that are invaluable as research tools – they will help you
discover some little detail that you might otherwise overlook utilizing a
21st century approach.
Other research tips:
One excellent online catalog to search is WorldCat.org, but be
creative. Use the Internet search feature and come up with some fabulous
online discoveries. Visit your local genealogical research library and
dig deep for any titles with the word gazetteer in them. Buy reprints or
CD-ROM versions or download digital versions to your own computer, but
by all means remember the word “Gazetteer!”
Richard HillenbrandUpstate New York Genealogyhttp://www.unyg.com/