Driving through the Southern Tier in Upstate New York is like time travel in slow motion. You can see the change that time brings. The wooded hills aren’t as tall as they were when the Oneida and Mohawk tribes ruled this land, but the woods have re-established themselves in many areas. And with the trees the whispers of the mighty Iroquois Confederacy float through the valley. The Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Delaware tribes that populated Upstate New York will never return, but in some ways they’ve never left. Their names live on as counties, towns, rivers and other place names like monuments to the tragic past of disease and violent displacement that stole them from these lands. The remnants of the Seneca Nation reside mostly in three reservations in the area.
Place names may honor our own past or be borrowed from those who came before us. Towns and villages are often named for the settlers who first cleared and farmed the land, or to honor a notable person from the time, like Washington, Franklin, or Madison. Upstate New York was settled at a time when names pointed towards Greek or Roman culture or mythology. Ithaca, Greece, Rome, Ulysses, Syracuse all point to this practice from the 1800’s. Perhaps the best story of the randomness of naming a town comes from Utica, where the name was literally pulled out of a hat.
Today’s rural Upstate New York is dominated by corn and dairy farms, but the life of a farmer is difficult, and many of the old farms are returning to the land. Rotted and falling barns and silos dot the land. Farmhouses advertise the poverty level of the region with flaking paint, sagging porches and and blue tarp roofs. Villages along Route 206 like Whitney Point, Triangle, Greene, Coventry and Bainbridge proudly point to their roots between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 while looking towards an uncertain future. Technology or population growth may one day bring growth and prosperity to this region, but I hope the land returns to nature and the names fade like whispers on the wind.