FInger Lakes- History & Culture

The Finger Lakes landscape has been transformed over thousands of years. Shifting climatic conditions have caused some long-term changes to the region, which has brought about the beauty of the area, from its lakes to the many waterfalls and gorges. 

Prior to the European invasion of eastern North America, Native Americans lived in this part of New York for more than 10,000 years.  The Iroquois are the last in a series of Indian cultures to have lived here, and two of the six Iroquois Nations’ homelands border the Forest.  The lakes around which much Indian life took place now bear their names:  Cayuga and Seneca.
The lack of reliable water sources and lime-rich soils (good for corn agriculture) precluded development of large year-round Iroquois villages within the Forest’s present-day boundaries, but the original forest cover of pines and hardwoods (such as hickory, elm, beech, chestnut, oak, and maple) would have made this a good hunting and nut-gathering territory for the native people.

Because of the Iroquois alliance with the British during the American Revolution, George Washington assigned Generals Sullivan and Clinton to mount a campaign against them.  The Sullivan Campaign of 1779 was a major military undertaking which destroyed more than 40 villages, and just as importantly, laid to waste hundreds of acres of cultivated fields and a large portion of the stored food and materials the Iroquois and British were dependent upon.

A secondary, non-military result of the neutralization of the Six Nations Iroquois in this region was that it created “new” lands to allot to Colonial soldiers after the war in partial payment or reward for their service.  The land was divided up into “military lots”, the one mile square units which are still the basis for the road (and much of the trail) system present on the Finger Lakes National Forest today.

Between 1790-1850, people from western Massachusetts, eastern New York, and Pennsylvania settled in this area.  They depended on farming and logging-related industries for their livelihoods.  The associated land-clearing replaced the original forest with cultivated fields, pastures, domestic shrubs and herbs, and a mix of apple trees, maples and some pines as shelter trees.

During the second half of the 19th century, there was a general economic stagnation in the area, and by 1900 a period of decline and abandonment, characteristic of most “hill” towns in the northeastern U.S.  This pattern has been attributed to a combination of deforestation, depleted soils, and the opening of attractive, undeveloped lands in more western states.

In the 1930’s, when more than half the farms in the area had been abandoned, and most of the remaining families were struggling to survive, State and Federal agencies began buying up farms, allowing owners to move to more productive situations.  The resulting block of land was managed by the Soil Conservation Service for several years as the Hector Land Use Area; the Forest Service has managed the area since 1954.

The Forest has continued the management mix of pasture, forest, recreation and wildlife concerns which the public has deemed appropriate for this area, and includes the preservation of historic and archaeological sites as part of its mission to pursue multiple resource management.