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ENLIGHTENED | How the Enlightenment Influenced New York State and Urban Names

ENLIGHTENED | How the Enlightenment Influenced New York State and Urban Names

Empire State Building. Photo from the Empire State Building Instagram

Written by: Kathleen Willcox with New York Makers

What is it about this state that there are very few clear answers involving its identity?! For example, what is “Upstate”? (See our August 2018 article, “Upstate is Literally Undefinable in New York,” exploring that conundrum.) Or, how many regions are there in New York, and what are their actual names? (See our July 2014 article, “Blurred Lines: Flexible States of Mind,” addressing multiple possibilities.)

Here are a few more about which we have been curious: Why is New York nicknamed the “Empire State?” And what about all those classical city names peppering locales upstate and all around — where did they come from, and were they part of some grand plan?


The "Empire State" moniker was not widely used until the early 1800’s, and its origin is quite hazy. Bottomline, no one really knows, though historians and others have several interesting explanations worth exploring.

It would seem to be a rather ironic label, given that our country won our independence from the taxing British Empire and that we aspired to lead as a free, democratic nation. Even more so because the first reference that can be traced is to President George Washington.

He referred to New York as “at present the seat of the empire” in a December 1785 letter to the Common Council of New York City. But was this the origin of New York being called “the Empire State”? Probably not. Too easy and straightforward.

In a March 28, 1999 New York Times letter to the editor, “Tracing the Origins of ‘Empire State’”, Daniel Hulsebosch suggests that “seat of the empire” was a phrase used by various authors such as Montesquieu and Adam Smith referencing the possibility of “the seat of empire”, i.e., Britain, shifting to America and that Washington (perhaps inspired by Hamilton as “Washington’s longtime aide and a New Yorker with a penchant for empire”) could likely have meant New York City, the capital of the Confederation, rather than the state and that, in any case, the “more familiar, and more parochial, ‘empire state’ did not gain currency until the canal era 40 years later.”

"View on the Erie Canal" (1830-32) by John William Hill. Photo: www.cbsnews.com

In Alexander Flick’s History of New York State (published in 1933 by the New York State Historical Association), the author claims the nickname was used frequently by 1819, when New York surpassed Virginia in terms of population. He also said that by 1825, and the completion of the Erie Canal (See our October 2018, “Fearless DeWitt Clinton and His ‘Ditch’ Crowned the Empire State”), the Empire State was widely considered synonymous with New York.

At least one website asserts New York is called ‘The Empire State’ because of its wealth and variety of resources.”

Historian Milton M. Klein posits in The Empire State: A History of New York, (published in 2005, by Cornell University Press), that the name was given as an honor following the success of the shipping route the Black Ball Line in 1818, which gave merchants access to cities up and down the Eastern coast.

Click image to purchase "The Empire State: A History of New York" edited by Milton M. Klein

In the end, we will probably never know who is right on this one.  

What we do know is that many have have proudly adopted the nickname, from New York State government to private enterprise, using it to easily communicate their own ambition and patriotism to their client base. A few of our favorites: the Empire State Express, established in 1891 by the New York Central Railroad; the Empire State Building, erected in 1931 and the tallest building in New York at the time; New York State license plates between 1951 through the mid-1960s, and again starting in 2001; SUNY Empire State College, founded in 1971; and, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ 5x-platinum single “Empire State of Mind” from 2009 (Feel a song worm coming on?).  


Fanning across the state are notable names of ancient cities, empires, and seats of power from Athens to Sparta to Ithaca. As observed in an insightful article, “How did Syracuse Get Its Name” by the Onondaga Historical Association, “[t]oday, names of communities like Lysander, Pompey, Cicero, or Marcellus are second nature to local residents. No one usually ponders their origin. But, on occasion, an area student studying ancient history or literature, will be surprised that the name of his or her town was being used by some Roman or Greek citizen centuries ago.”

As it turns out, the namers of those cities were just staying on trend.

Most of New York’s cities with classical names were founded between the late 1700’s and the mid-1800’s, in the midst of the Enlightenment-inspired Neoclassical  Period and its reverence for art and culture associated with Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Buildings were modeled after Greek architecture -- think: white buildings, triangular roof lines, columns; Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the White House being two widely recognized examples. (This was long before current theories about classical sculptures and buildings having been originally painted in vivid colors.)

New York Public Library. Photo from the New York Public Library's Instagram

European Enlightenment (also called the “Age of Reason”) ideas, politics, and philosophy questioning traditional authority and believing that systems and people could be improved, resulted in revolutions that reshaped France and gave birth to the United States. The ancient civilizations of Greece, as the original seat of democracy,  and Rome were cultures to be studied and emulated. As the Onondaga Historical Association article illuciates, “[m]en like John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, were superb classicists — they could read both Latin and Greek fairly well and knew Greek and Roman literature, history and philosophy rather thoroughly. Just as importantly, from the time they went to school, they saw ancient Greek and Roman statesmen as models to be emulated in their own careers as lawmakers, civic-minded leaders, public figures of responsibility. This influence spread down to local civic leaders”.

Here are just a few examples of the classic names that together form a Neoclassical constellation across New York State:

Utica: The tenth-most populous city in the state, Utica is situated on the Mohawk River in Oneida County, near the Adirondack Mountains. Formerly a settlement of the Mohawk tribe and Iroquois Confederacy, it attracted settlers during and after the Revolutionary War. In 1798, the name Utica was (according to legend) was selected at Bagg’s Tavern from a hat of 13 possibilities. Utica in ancient reference was to the first Phoenician colony on the North African coast, which became capital of the Roman Empire’s province of Africa.   

Troy: Located on the western lip of Rensselaer County (and the official home of Uncle Sam) and along the eastern edge of the Hudson River, Troy has a town motto is extremely humble (not): Ilium fuit. Troja est, or “Ilium was, Troy is”. This former corner of Rensselaerswyck later known as Ashley’s Ferry adopted its current name from the Asia Minor city of Troy, made famous by Homer’s Iliad in 1789.

Syracuse, NY. Photo: www.visitsyracuse.com

Syracuse: It took Syracuse a while to get its name. Today a large city in Central New York, Syracuse was once just a swampy crossroads located on the edge of another town on the former land of the Onondaga. Europeans first ventured into the area in the 1600s when some Jesuit priests and soldiers set up a short-lived mission in Onondaga Nation. Later, many settlers flooded the area after the Revolutionary War.

Incorporated in 1825, Cossitts’ Corners, as it had come to be called, sought to have a post office and chose to apply for a more classical name. But it was not so easy. First, it tried to be named “Milan” after an Italian city designated as capital of the Western Roman Empire in 286 AD, but that post office name had already been taken by another settlement. Then it applied for “Corinth”, after the wealthy ancient Greek city-state situated between Athens and Sparta on the Isthmus of Corinth, but, again, there was already a post office for the town and village of Corinth in New York. The third time being the charm, Syracuse found its name as we know it, based on Siracusa in Sicily, founded in 734 BC by Greek settlers and home of Greek mathematician Archimedes, conquered by the Romans in 212 BC, and sharing geographic similarities with its New York namesake — including facing water, being surrounded by hills, and nearby flats of evaporating flats of salt (for our Syracuse, from salt springs located at the southern end of Onondaga Lake).  

Rome: Nestled in Oneida County, Rome, New York — named of course after the city at the center of the Roman Empire — became strategically important in the 18th and 19th centuries, when traders used this location near both the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers to transport goods. The original settlement was built in the 1750s, and in 1796, the town was incorporated.

Two things are clear: our New York forefathers knew something about history and they aimed to create great cities here in New York! Talk about Enlightened.

Editor's Note: After publication of this article, John Warren, Editor, New York History Blog, shared with New York Makers a 2017 account by Peter Hess, “Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt: The Man Behind Those Greek Names” that adds significant detail with respect to Simeon DeWitt ‘s role in naming many of the townships in Central New York with Greek or Roman appellations, including “Aurelius, Brutus, Camillus, Cato, Cicero, Cincinnatus, Dryden, Fabius, Galen, Hannibal, Hector, Homer, Junius, Locke, Lysander, Manlius, Marcellus, Milton, Ovid, Pompey, Romulus, Scipio, Sempronius, Solon, Stirling, Tully, Ulysses and Virgil”, as well as “probably” Rome, Ithaca, and the town of Greece. We are always grateful to deepen our knowledge of New York history and share it with our readers. Thank you, John!

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