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New York Counties

Historical Information

Sources: A Brief Early History of the Counties of New York, New York County Formation (animated)

Albany County - formed on November 1, 1683, when the State of New York, then under English rule, was divided into ten counties. Albany was erected as one of them with an exceedingly large territory. From its area has since been taken the counties of Tyron and Charlotte, in 1772; Columbia, in 1786; Rensselaer and Saratoga, in 1791; a part of Schoharie, in 1795; a part of Greene, in 1800, and Schenectady, in 1809. The Manor of Rensselaerwyck was erected into a district on March 24, 1772.
The region which makes up the county is not notable for its scenery, minerals, or fertility of soil, although in variety and completeness, it is probably the equal of all but one or two of the New York counties. There are numerous streams, many of which gave their power to the early colonists. The surface of the county is rolling, hilly in parts, still there are no mountains. Many of the shallow valleys between the hills have a deep, rich, alluvial soil, but in several towns the soil is almost a pure sand. Agriculture has risen to heights in the area and has many phases, both of these being due rather to the rapid development of cities within the range of a few miles. Almost every variety of farming and gardening are found in the county, with nearly every crop possible in the climate grown on a commercial scale.
If there is one feature more than another that brought about the past and present prominence of the Albany section, it is its location on the great thoroughfares of today and the historic yesterday. It was the four corners of the Indian trails. And when these in turn became the highways of the French, and following them the British, they took on a strategic value in addition to, or because of, their intrinsic importance. Later came the canals and railroads and the growth of commerce and industry. The capital of the greatest of the States was located in the county. And in it centers the crossroads of traffic through the most densely populated, richest part of the republic.


Columbia County - set off from Albany on April 4, 1786. Lying on the eastern shore of the Hudson, between the counties of Rensselaer on the north and Dutchess on the south, it has an area of 688 square miles. The Taghkanic mountains form the east border, with the adjoining hills reaching in irregular waves toward the Hudson. There are a number of small streams running through the county and clusters of lakes add to its picturesqueness. To the early settler these streams meant not beauty but power, and some of the ancient dam locations are still being used. With a soil as varied as its terrain, Columbia is adapted to nearly every kind of agriculture. The coarser grains and hay make up the bulk of the agricultural crops, and the greater part of these are fed to stock or milch cows. Dairying has become of marked importance. It is for its horticulture that the county is best known, for not only are apples and the larger fruit trees planted, but great quantities of the smaller fruits and berries are grown and shipped to the large city markets.


Fulton County - The Legislature was petitioned (see Montgomery County) to set up a new county with the old county seat (Johnstown) as its shiretown. This petition was granted and the county known as Fulton, named after the famous inventor of the steamboat, was erected on April 18, 1838. Farming has been the backbone of the county's prosperity. Because of the nature of the land, dairying has been the main interest agriculturally. But the growing of vegetables for canneries, and the creation of fruit orchards are the more modern developments. The accessibility to markets not only aided agriculture, but encouraged the multiplication of factories and the growth of manufacturing.
Notice may be taken here to the peculiar type of manufacture which came to be associated with Fulton County and its towns. It is none other than the making of leather gloves. Fulton is said to be the center of this industry in the United States. As early as 1809 buckskin gloves were favorably known over quite a district as a Fulton product. The old Indian formula for tanning was used, skins were brought in by trappers and farmers, and the makers who had learned their trade, many of them abroad, shaped the gloves. The primacy thus attained in this trade has always been kept; as improvements came out they were introduced into the county shops.


Greene County - formed from Albany and Ulster on March 25, 1800, comprises the most of that famous mountain resort area, known as the Catskills. It is on the west bank of the Hudson, about thirty miles south of Albany, and has an area of 686 square miles. The mountains have clefts through which the streams make their ways, known as "cloves," many of them having cliffs a thousand feet high, with a swirling brook or creek racing its way down the mountainside in splendid cascades. These "cloves" were the original roads of the Indians through the Onteoras, the "Mountains of the Sky," as they called the Catskills. And it was through these same gaps that the pioneers of the region made their way. Today the various cloves are one of the most interesting features of the mountains, and the attraction to thousands who every summer flock to the hills.


Montgomery County - General Richard Montgomery, born in Ireland in 1736, became a citizen of New York, and, although a trained officer of the English Army, threw in his influence and service in the provincial affairs of America. On the opening of the Revolution he was made a general and ordered to march against Canada. He was successful at Chambly and Montreal, and in sole command of the attack against Quebec. But in his eagerness to be at the head of his men he was mortally wounded. Congress, in 1776, erected a monument to his memory, but the greatest memorial honor is that seventeen States have perpetuated his name by attaching it to as many counties, and almost as many cities.
After the Revolution the Mohawk section and others began to have an accession of settlers, and the desire arose for smaller divisions of the State, and particularly Montgomery County. From 1789 to 1854 no fewer than thirty-five counties were carved from the original Montgomery, leaving it reduced, from being the larger part of New York State, to one of the smaller counties with an area of only 436 square miles.
The growth of cities had been greater in those along the Mohawk than in the more northerly sections, and there were also more villages to the south. Complaint was made that it took too long and was too costly to make the long trip to Johnstown to attend to legal business. The result of this dissatisfaction was the removal of the county seat to Fonda. The residents of the north half of the county were incensed by this action and, in 1838, petitioned the Legislature to set their part off as a separate county, which was done under the title of Fulton. The departure of Fulton meant more than the loss of most of the other divisions, principally because with it went the last shreds of William Johnson's work in the founding of the original county.
The county as left by this final division is bounded on the north by Fulton; on the east by Schenectady and Saratoga; on the south by Schenectady, Schoharie and Otsego; on the west by Herkimer. It is on both sides of the Mohawk, distant from Albany about forty miles. The land away from the river is generally elevated with many tributaries of the Mohawk flowing through the vales between the hills. The effects of the glacial period are marked, resulting in a variety of soils. In general the county is well adapted to agriculture. The valleys are unusually rich, while the higher table land is freer from frost. Dairying is the main agricultural industry, as much because of the ready markets to be found in the multiplying cities as the special fitness of the land.

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Rensselaer County - formed on February 7, 1791, as a subdivision of the original Albany County, named after one of the famous families of the State. Located where the Adirondacks and the Berkshires meet, combining the beauty of both, without the ruggedness of either, at the great cross routes of the State, nature combined to make the region the seat of a great center of commerce and trade.
The greater part of the county was included in the patent of Killian Van Rensselaer, given November 19, 1629. The first purchase of the land from the Indians was completed on July 27, 1630. Van Rensselaer was a wealthy diamond and pearl dealer, and used his wealth in the endeavor to build for himself in the new country an almost feudal estate over which he would be the Lord Proprietor. The lands were settled only under lease, upon the same rules of tenure in force at Albany and other parts of the Hudson territory, and led to the same difficulties in the collection of rents. The settlement of the county did not roceed without the hardships and dangers which troubled all the outlying districts of the State. In the French and Indian wars the northern part of the county was repeatedly ravaged and the pioneers driven from their homes. The Battle of Bennington, or Walloomsac, as it should be named, was fought in Rensselaer, and led to the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga. In the Civil War the first troops from the North to tread the soil of Virginia were from this county, and it is said that no community, in proportion to its population, sent so many of its youth in the World War as did Troy, the principal city of Rensselaer.


Saratoga County - lies in the northwest angle formed by the junction of the Hudson and the Mohawk rivers. The eastern and southern sweep of the Hudson outlines the north and eastern boundaries, while part of the southern line runs through the center of the Mohawk.In 1684, Philip Schuyler and six other residents of Albany purchased from the Indians the region called by them Sa-ragh-to-ga, which meant "the place of the swift water." On October 6, 1784, the favorite hunting ground of the Mohawks, Kay-ad-sos-se-ra, was sold by them to the province of New York. The latter section makes up the western half of the present county. Here were the mineral springs, to which the wild animals from great distances came to drink, and here it is that the famous villages, Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa, are located.
The county is historic ground. When Plymouth Bay was still unknown, the Iroquois were struggling to hold this territory. The armies of the French and English marched and countermarched along the trails through the hills. The defeat of Burgoyne within the boundaries of Saratoga, in 1777, was one of the decisive battles of the New World; it was the beginning of the end of the Revolution. There is not space in this sketch for the story of the county's part in the settlement and tbe establishment of a nation.


Schenectady County - established by the New York State Legislature, by a division of Albany County on March 7, 1809. Schenectady is a corruption of the Indian name Schau-naugh-ta-da, meaning "across the pine plains," and is said to have been applied originally to Albany, but was given to the present locality because of the kind of land over which they journeyed to reach it. The Mohawk flows through most of the width of the irregular shaped county, with nearly all the land lying on the south side, Glenville town being the only civil division on the north.
Agriculture is naturally the main industry, beginning with the Indian, and only being partially displaced as the advantageous location of this region for manufacturing has brought about the great influx of factories. The staple crops and vegetables are those more often grown, with fruit growing and dairying taking the first place in the hilly sections. At one time the county was a famous broom corn section and the making of brooms a principal occupation, but this crop is now grown more inexpensively on the cheaper lands of the West.


Tryon County - three years before the breaking out of the Revolution a great section of Albany County was set aside and named after the English Governor of the province, William Tryon. With the victorious ending of the war, Tryon's name was anathema to the lips of the patriots, and in 1784 honor was done to the dead hero of Quebec by changing the hated title to that of Montgomery.
Sir William Johnson had been the instigator of the movement to set up Tryon County. Sir William had settled in the region near what is now Johnstown, built himself a baronial mansion, acquired great acreages of land, attained an influence with the Indians which was valuable in the affairs of the province, and was a benefactor of the tenants and their neighbors who gathered around him. He supplied the land and money that went into the erection of the county buildings at Johnstown, the county seat.


Ulster County - one of the original divisions of the State, erected November 1, 1683. Of its great territory it has given in the formation of Delaware in 1797, part of Greene in 1800, Sullivan in 1809, and a piece to Orange in the same year. It still has an area of 1,204 square miles, or 760,560 acres.
Second only to New York and Albany in antiquity, Ulster County, from the earliest period, was the theatre of important and romantic events. The value of its location was known to red man and white and fought for. Within its bounds was the first constitution of the Empire State framed, the first constitutional Governor inaugurated, and the first grand jury empaneled by the first Chief Justice. Or from the standpoint of today, this county is the entry-way to one of the popular summer districts of the East, lying as it does, between, and in, the region of the Catskills and the Shawangunks, and on the Hudson. Then there is the Ashokan Reservoir, put into use in 1917, one of the greatest efforts ever made to supply a city with water. In the heart of Ulster, a lake has been impounded, whose surface is more than the whole of Manhattan Island below 110th Street, and whose waters supply more than half that used by the Metropolis.

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