Cortland County’s involvement in the War for Independence was brief, and largely forgettable. A spur of the Clinton-Sullivan campaign of 1779 may (or may not) have gone through Willet.
But Cortland County was born in the same revolution that gave birth to this nation.
Two months after the first Independence Day, the Continental Congress voted to pay its soldiers with tracts of land, and the New York Legislature would later designate much of Central New York for this purpose. This is the story of how Cortland County became what it is today.
Before the beginning
The Lenne Lenape came here, so did the Onondaga.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, what today is Cortland County was an inbetween place, neither Lenape, Cayuga nor Onondaga territory. Right in the middle of the Six Nations of Iroquois, it was not really a part of any of them. It was wilderness, and a hunter’s paradise.
At the time of the Revolutionary War, there were at least eight villages in the area that would become Cortland County: The biggest settlement consisted of 28 bark lodges in what is today the city of Cortland. Others were concentrated in Homer, Lapeer and Marathon.
“As far as the Indians were concerned, we must believe that the territory of Cortland County was a peaceful Arcadia where the red brother of the Onondagas and, perhaps, some of his brethren of other nations, came to enjoy the chase, to till their little openings, and to roam through the valleys or drift down the winding Tioughnioga; but not to fight. It was to him a sort of summer resort,” wrote H.P. Smith in his 1885 history of Cortland County. That “summer resort” did not survive the Revolutionary War.
Where we got it
Information for this article was drawn from H.C. Goodwin’s “Pioneer History; or, Cortland County and the Border Wars of New York, From the Earliest Period to the Present Time,” H.P. Smith’s “History of Cortland County, With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of its Prominent Men and Pioneers,” the “Combination Atlas Map of Cortland County,” Bertha Eveleth Blodgett’s “Stories of Cortland County,” Ellis McDowell-Loudan’s “An Archaeologist’s View of Indian Life in Cortland County, New York” and additional material from the Cortland County Historical Society.
During the war, the Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga and Onondaga joined the British. This led to vicious fighting, especially in New York.
Gen. George Washington, determined to put at end to Native American involvement in the war, sent Gen. John Sullivan in 1779 on a mission “to destroy Indian strongholds and burn their villages and food supplies,” according to local historian Bertha Eveleth Blodgett.
Sullivan did as commanded: He and his men followed the Susquehanna to what is today Elmira and destroyed everything in their path. They then headed east, where they destroyed more “villages of good size at the head of Cayuga Lake,” Blodgett wrote.
Then “a small detachment” cut through the southern part of what is today Cortland County, “hoping to find a path through the wilderness which would take them to Albany,” according to Blodgett. This trail, she wrote, may have taken them through what today is Willett.
This is as close as Cortland County came to involvement in Sullivan’s campaign with Native Americans. This area “was, perhaps, more fortunate than any other in the Empire State in escaping the terrors of border wars and devastating incursions by Indian and Tories,” wrote H.P. Smith.
When the war was over, the land was ready for the taking. While Native Americans would still pass through and inhabit this area, the period of violent conflict in this area between indigenous peoples and European newcomers was over.
‘Not the first choice’
The first European settlers didn’t arrive in this area until 1790. Amos Todd and Joseph Beebe of New Haven, Connecticut, would be the first. They’d explored the area in 1790, coming up from a base they’d established in Windsor the previous year. In 1791, they settled down in what is today Homer.
For Cortland County, that’s where it all began.
But why did it take so long for colonists to settle here? The short answer is geography.
“A look at Cortland County’s early history shows that this was not the first choice for settlers of European background,” wrote SUNY Cortland archaeology Professor Ellis McDowell-Loudan in a 1985 paper. “While it offered land for farming, ample timber and wild game, and waterways for travel, there were even broader alluvial floodplains to the east and south, more accessible waterways with a more dependable flow to the north, east, and south, and equally fine timber and wildlife possibilities in these areas as well. Further, thanks to the activity of French traders and missionaries, as well as others, much exploration of these other areas had been carried out. … From the point of view of prime lands, there were many alternatives which might have appeared far superior to Cortland County,” she wrote. “This evaluation should not be viewed as derogatory, however.”
Part of the reason this area was relatively untouched is because of how the indigenous tribes left it: “Cortland County,” wrote McDowell-Loudan, “may have served as both a buffer zone between neighboring Iroquian groups and as a somewhat neutral hunting area for them.”
It was also because of the Susquehanna River, which notably does not flow through Cortland County. The Susquehanna was the interstate highway of the late 18th century, while the Tioughnioga was more the equivalent of an unmaintained dirt road: Going up Tioughnioga took a lot more time and effort.
Further, the overland routes going through the area were all rough trails cut by the indigenous people. Reaching this area was no idle endeavor. It took some effort, with no guarantee of a payoff.
Uncle Sam owes you
The mercenaries got $20 in cash. Everyone else had to wait.
The wait, however, was worth it, because the regular soldiers got paid in land.
On Sept. 16, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to make the payouts. Note the year: They didn’t have the money to pay anyone besides the mercenaries, so they promised to pay the regular army with land they didn’t yet have, for a war that had barely begun.
In 1782, the New York Legislature set aside more than two million acres as bounty land for veterans. In 1789, the legislature authorized a survey for the purpose of chopping that tract into 25 one-square-mile townships, each containing 100 lots of 600 acres. Later legislation allotted the average soldier one 600-acre lot; higher ranking officers got
But many of these soldiers never set foot on that land. Some sold their parcels. Others got caught up in disputes and speculative schemes. The resulting confusion forced the state legislature to step in to clear up a convoluted mess of contested and fraudulent claims.
The result of that process is the county we now call Cortland.
The survey that chopped up the military tract designated 25 numbered townships. That’s all they were at first, just numbers. Then those numbers took on names, unusual names. How that happened — and who was responsible — are still up for debate, and have been for more than 200 years.
The names we know: Lysander, Hannibal, Cato, Brutus, Camillus, Cicero, Manlius, Aurelius, Marcellus, Pompey, Romulus, Scipio, Sempronius, Tully, Fabius, Ovid, Milton, Locke, Homer, Solon, Hector, Ulysses, Dryden, Virgil, Cincinnatus. Three more townships, Junius, Galen and Sterling, were added later.
It’s a strange list. Most of the names are Roman, but not all — Milton, Locke, and Dryden, for instance.
The idiosyncratic selections defy pattern. Romulus, but no Remus; Aurelius, but no Epictetus; Brutus, but no Cassius; Junius, but no Julius. Milton, but no Shakespeare; Locke, but no Hobbes; Dryden, but no Pope.
These initial classical name choices were criticized at the time, even mocked, though the trend would later be imitated in surrounding areas.
“What knew Homer, Virgil, Scott, or Solon, about the trials, sufferings, and toilsome pursuits of the progressive spirits of go-ahead pioneers?” wrote H.C. Goodwin in 1859. “It may be questionable as to their ever having seen a stump, raft, or side-hill plow!”
Goodwin instead thought “it highly proper to preserve the more elegant appellations of the Indians.”
Who came up with these names?
Suspicion initially fell on Gen. Simeon De Witt, the man in charge of the survey. An 1801 book by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, related conversations the author said he’d had with De Witt, in which De Witt allegedly took responsibility.
De Witt was again accused of naming the townships in an 1819 poem that mocked him as “the godfather of the christened West.”
De Witt initially ignored the remarks, but when it came up again a few years later, he denied he had anything to do with it; he, in turn, blamed the commissioners of the state land office — all the top officials in the state.
Later research would focus on Robert Harpur, a classically educated clerk in De Witt’s office who had previously taught classics at Columbia University. No conclusion has ever been reached on responsibility, but Harpur or De Witt, or both, are generally given credit.
The case of the missing T
The naming of Cortland County came later, when the county was partitioned from Onondaga County in 1808, a move that took more than a year because of opposition from Onondaga County.
Residents, 747 of them, petitioned for partition in February 1807, and eventually won out. Lawyers from this area were instrumental in making this happen; they were sick of having to travel north on horseback by rough trails to reach the courthouse on Onondaga Hill.
Now this is where things get confusing. According to H.P. Smith, the petitioners requested that the new county be called “Courtlandt.” However, the state act granting this request calls the new county “Cortlandt.”
The homage in both cases was to Gen. Pierre Van Cortlandt, New York’s lieutenant governor from 1777 to 1795 under Gov. George Clinton, but it is unclear why the petitioners would have added a U to Cortlandt’s name. Or perhaps they didn’t, and Smith either misspelled it, or creatively added a U. Creative spelling was common at that time; standardization wouldn’t gain acceptance until later in the 19th century.
In any case, this was initially Cortlandt County, with the name spelled the same as the Westchester County town of Cortlandt, and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx (which also kept the “Van.”)
What is less clear is when and how the final T was dropped from Cortlandt County.
According to Blodgett, the village of Cortlandt, which was called “Courtlandt” prior to 1830, lost its final T in 1845. But the county may have lost its final T earlier: A map from 1829 has the spelling as “Cortland.” It’s also possible that the spelling at that time differed according to who was doing the spelling.
Why was the final T dropped?
The answer to that mystery may never be known, but it was likely done to simplify the name and make it sound less foreign.
“Perhaps the old Dutch name was simply Americanized,” Blodgett suggested.