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Why are so many place names in New York Greek or Roman?

Why are there so many Greek and Roman place names in New York State? And what influenced early colonizers to name them so?

That is the question a lot of people ask when they explore New York State and can see the Roman influences from the place names to the architecture.

Why are there so many Greek and Roman place names in New York?

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The Military Tract

According to William Farrell’s “Classical Place Names in New York State,” New York was the home to the Algonquins and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Native Americans, who were referred to as “The Romans of the West” because by the 16th century they had formed a League or Confederacy.

However, not too long after, the Europeans had come to New York and claimed the land in the early 1600s and by the mid-1600s, the British seized the land.

It wasn’t until almost another century later, in 1775, that the American Revolutionary War set New York free from British rule, and in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was written. After the war, New York State and the federal government had promised land to soldiers who fought in the United States military because they didn’t believe in paper money.

“To fulfill this end, New York State has preserved about 1.8 million acres in upstate New York, the so-called “Military Tract.” This vast area extended from Lake Ontario southward to Seneca Lake, and from what is now Onondaga County westward to parts of Oswego, Tompkins, Schuyler, Wayne and Yates.”

However, Native Americans owned this land. Therefore, treaties were made in 1788 and 1780 with Onondaga and Cayuga nations, resulting in the purchase of almost two million acres (except the Onondaga Reservation).

According to John Marks, Curator of Collections & Exhibits at Historic Geneva, Robert Harpur, an American educator, and colonial legislator, was a man in charge of Place Names from 1780-1795, particularly in the Military Tract. Then into the early 1800s postmasters, or mailmen, of hamlets and villages were in charge of picking the names and followed in Harpur’s footsteps.

The Classical Revival

Anne Dealy is the Director of Education and Public Information at Historic Geneva and said that after the war, America was now the first republic since ancient Greece.

“They were looking back to those forms of government to help inspire the Constitution and the federal government system, so there was an interest in distinguishing ourselves from the European powers, all of which were monarchical.”

Not only did Americans look towards Greek and Roman forms of government but also the names and recognizable architecture of the culture, so they called it the Greek Revival or the Classical Revival.

“The idea of the Greeks, they started naming communities after Utica, Rome, Romulus, using terms from the history, from classical stories to name the communities. There was just almost an obsession that was sort of like a big fashionable trend, to name communities after Greek and Roman places,” said Dealy.

According to Farrell, these town names in the Finger Lakes Region include Greek and Roman personalities like Aurelius, Brutus, Cato, Junius, Milo, Ovid, Seneca, and Seneca Falls.

They also come from Greek Old World names like Arcadia, Ithaca, Macedon, Genoa, Italy, Lodi, and Venice, and from Mythology like Aurora, Bellona, Romulus, and Ulysses.

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