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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Koch

Classical Place-Names and the American Frontier

A map of the Military Lands and 20 Townships in the Western Part of the State of New York, c. 1789. Lake Ontario is in the upper left; today’s city of Syracuse is on what was the Onondaga Reservation between Camillus and Manlius.

An upstate New York itinerary could take you on a drive from Troy to Ithaca via Utica and Syracuse, with stop-offs off in Camillus, Manlius, Cicero, and Pompey. One could be buried under four feet of snow in Rome. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, lived in a log cabin in Palmyra. You can read the works of Homer or study the military tactics of Marcellus in places that bear their names.

Upstate New York was the American Republic’s first frontier. Classical place names were given to frontier settlements there in the years immediately following the War of Independence. As the frontier moved west, so too did the practice. It was part of a wider cultural movement to align the new Republic with Classical ideals, but it was neither as organized nor as calculated as one might think.

What explains the preponderance of Classical place names in New York is its position on the frontier between white and Indian realms at the end of the Revolution. Before the war, Euro-American settlement in New York State was limited mainly to the Hudson valley, with a few frontier outposts along the Mohawk River. The settlement of German Flats (now Herkimer, New York) was its westernmost extreme. The powerful Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy dominated what is now central and western New York. Their lands were afforded special protection by the King in the Proclamation of 1763 and the follow-up Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768).

During the war, the Haudenosaunee were devastated. Some fought on the American side, but most of their warriors supported the British. At the war’s end, Governor George Clinton of New York and his commissioners convinced the Haudenosaunee to sell nearly all their land in a series of exploitative treaties. Millions of acres of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga lands were opened for settlement. Thousands of new pioneers, mainly from New England, poured in.

New York’s Classical place names were nearly all bestowed in a fourteen-year period between 1789 and 1803. The Revolutionary War had ended in 1783 and the nation’s new Constitution was ratified in 1788. Prior to this, towns and villages founded in the seaboard colonies tended to take their names from people or places in England (or the Netherlands, in the case of New York, which was originally settled by the Dutch). There were a few place names with Classical components – the suffix in Annapolis, Maryland (1702), for example, or William Penn’s Philadelphia (1682), but these were rare. There were fewer than five places with Classical names in the old New England colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island combined. By 1820, New York State had eighty-two.[1]

Troy, New York was founded in 1789. A few miles north of Albany – once a fully Dutch-speaking city – the tiny settlement was originally called Vanderheyden. New Englanders poured into the town after the revolution and quickly became the majority. They convened a meeting and decided to ditch the Dutch name and to rename the settlement Troy. There is no record of a rationale, apart from it being easier to pronounce.[2]

Utica was given its name in 1798; the frontier settlement, ninety miles further into what had recently been Indian territory than Troy, had hitherto been called Old Fort Schuyler. Thirteen townspeople met. Each put their preferred name into a hat, and one was drawn. This time, there was a Classicist behind the name. Utica was the choice of Erastus Clark, a learned pioneer who also served as one of the town’s first lawyers.[3] Ithaca and Syracuse were relative latecomers, named in 1811 and 1825 respectively. Ithaca’s name was proffered by Simeon De Witt, a state surveyor, but Syracuse’s name was chosen by John Wilkinson, its first postmaster.[4]

The largest set of Classical names in New York are in what was once the Military Tract, a vast area of former Onondaga and Cayuga Indian land. The cash-strapped state government had been eyeing the territory since the close of the Revolutionary War. They had promised soldiers land bounties in return for their service. All that stood in the way was the extinguishment of the Indian title. In 1788, the State of New York signed treaties with factions of the Onondaga and Cayuga Haudenosaunee that turned over several million acres, which were then surveyed and opened for settlement. The land was divided into twenty-eight townships, the majority of which were given Classical names. 600-acre lots were meted out to the veterans. Most of the Classical names relate to martial figures or statemen: Cicero, Camillus, Manlius, Cato, Lysander, Aurelius, Pompey, Cincinnatus, Marcellus, among others. The list of names was almost certainly provided by Robert Harpur, a former teacher at King’s College (now Columbia University).[5] They remain in use today.

The convention of naming new towns and villages after the people and places of Classical antiquity spread from New York into new frontier regions after 1800. By 1860 Ohio and New York were even with roughly 130 Classical place names each. Cincinnati was named relatively early, in 1790, but what is now the State of Ohio was the scene of a brutal Indian War during George Washington’s Presidency which stalled settlement. Most of Ohio’s place names (Classical or otherwise) came into being later than New York’s, mainly in the 1820s. As the frontier spread further west, dozens of new settlements in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas adopted Classical place names too. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were 97 Troys, 54 Romes and 49 Palmyras in the United States, all founded after the original New York towns. [6]

The Founding Fathers’ interest in the Classical world is well known. They were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment which made Neo-Classicism in art and literature popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The revolutionary generation looked to the ancient democracies and republics of Greece and Rome as models for their new nation’s form of government.[7] The British were still a major menace to the American Republic, not least because of their presence in Canada, where they backed Indians in their wars with the United States in the Ohio Country during the first decades of settlement there. War with Britain constantly loomed and finally erupted again between 1812 and 1815. In this atmosphere, naming new American towns for British places was undesirable.

What is interesting about the Classical place names of upstate New York – and what previous historians who have addressed the subject have overlooked – is that many of them were chosen by the pioneers themselves. Except for the town names of the Military Tract, there was no government initiative or evident persuasion that lay behind their selection. The pioneers in their rough-hewn settlements – far from the centres of education in the coastal cities – were choosing to align themselves with the Classical past. The distinctly American mixture of republican idealism as embodied in Classical place names and the rough realities of frontier life was given its first exposure in the log cabins of upstate New York.


⇧1Wilbur Zelinsky, “Classical Town Names in the United States: The Historical Geography of an American Idea,” Geographical Review 57 (1967) 463–95.

⇧2George Baker Anderson, Landmarks of Rensselaer County, New York (D. Mason & Co., Syracuse, NY, 1897) 227.

⇧3M.M. Bagg, Memorial History of Utica (D. Mason & Co., Syracuse, NY, 1892) 41 and 48-9.

⇧4Joshua V.A. Clark, Onondaga; or References to Earlier and Later Times, 2 vols (Stoddard & Babcock, Syracuse, NY, 1849) 2:99.

⇧5Charles Maar, “Origin of the Classical Place Names of Central New York,” The Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association 7 (1926), 164–5; William R. Ferrell, Classical Place Names in New York State (Pine Grove Press, Jamesville, NY, 2002); Joseph Lemak, “Roman Grandeur in Central New York: The Classical Tradition in a Nineteenth-Century Pioneer Town,” New York History 89 (2008) 245.

⇧6Zelinsky (as n.1), 471–2.⇧7Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 1995); Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore, MD, 2002); Eran Shalev, “Ancient Masks, American Fathers: Classical Pseudonyms during the American Revolution and Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 23 (2003) 151–72.

Published in Antigone, October, 2021.

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