The area that now comprises Cayuga County was, prior to European settlement, homeland of The Cayuga and Seneca Nations, both members of the Iroquois Federation.
While early Jesuit missionaries comprised the first European presence in the area, it was the establishment of Military Tract bounty parcels--lands promised to Revolutionary soldiers for military service--that enabled non-indigenous expansion to grow and flourish.
The 1779 Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, a military initiative to counter-attack Iroquois for siding with the British in the American Revolution, rampaged throughout central New York. With their villages and food stores destroyed, treaties were signed, and the tribes were essentially pushed onto reservations. Thus lands for the Military Tracts were available, and were assigned and opened up for settlement and development.
Expansion & Development
Originally 24 tracts were laid out (eventually four more were added); eight of these tracts were located in what eventually became Cayuga County. Each individual parcel was 600 acres. But given the time required to survey and lay out the tracts, few of the original Revolutionary soldiers actually took possession of their bounty land. Because of the delay, tract deeds were sold, bequeathed, and traded, leading to the expansion and development of towns and villages.
Establishment of Cayuga County
In 1799 Cayuga County was officially established, on land carved away from Onondaga County. Over the next few decades, parcels were rearranged, boundaries changed, and various townships and counties remapped; by 1859, the final configuration of Cayuga County was firmly established, into 23 townships, 6 incorporated villages, and our County Seat, the City of Auburn.
In 1806, Auburn (originally Hardenbergh’s Corners) was named the County Seat; it became an important manufacturing hub, where innovative farm implements, among other durable goods, were built by a labor force comprised of new immigrants, transplants from the County’s rural towns and villages, and by prison labor from the new Auburn Prison, that began operation in 1817. Considerable fortunes were made by some, and a solid middle class was established as generations of workers made the County their home.
The 19th Century witnessed rapid growth and development throughout the newly formed County. The availability of hydraulic power provided power for mills and manufacturing; the land was especially rich for agriculture; and with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1835, the (for the time period) efficient and economical transportation of goods into and out of the area was a boon for industrialists and farmers alike.
Railroads & Automobiles
Railroads also expanded in the region, and over time they eclipsed the Erie Canal as the primary, economical means of transportation for goods and people. Subsequently, truck transportation helped to diminish the importance of railroads in moving goods and raw materials, while the automobile became the preferred method of personal travel.
Politicians & Activists
Alongside inventors and entrepreneurs were various politicians and activists, some drawn to the area because of employment opportunities, some because of religious affiliations, and some seeking refuge from slavery and oppression. Throughout the County staunch Abolitionists provided safe houses along the Underground Railroad. Simultaneously a committed array of Suffragists emerged, equally committed to the rights of women.
The Auburn Theological Seminary, established in 1818, graduated its first students in 1821, and until 1939 (when the Seminary moved to NYC), it was an instrumental force in religious education; in the Village of Aurora, Wells College was founded in 1868 as an institution of higher education for women; (Wells College continues today, though in 2004 it became co-ed.) In 1953, following the establishment of community colleges by the SUNY Board of Trustees, Auburn Community College opened; it would soon be renamed Cayuga County Community College, and today serves over 4000 students.
The 20th century witnessed a period of decline of manufacturing of durable goods (as production moved from the region), while throughout the county, small farms often evolved into large consolidated agricultural enterprises, more dependent on advanced machinery and requiring fewer workers. In the 21st century, tourism has become a driving force for economic development.