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Westchester County, NY

Westchester County covers an area of just over 457 square miles and has a diverse population of nearly a million citizens residing in some 45 municipalities.  Its geographical setting is a favorable one, with Long Island on the east and the Hudson River on the west. It has retained much of its rural character while adopting the urban and suburban lifestyles dictated by its proximity to New York City.

Members of the Algonquian tribes made up Westchester's native population when the Hudson Valley area was first explored by Verrazano in 1524 and Hudson in 1609. The county's first permanent white settlers were Dutch, soon followed by the English. Many of the county's English colonists came seeking religious and economic freedom.

By 1664 the Dutch lost control of the county to the English, and large tracts of Westchester land were established as manors or patents. Manors were held by a single proprietor, while patents were held by groups of associates. The lords of the manors and patents leased land to tenant farmers and provided many essential services to the tenants.

Westchester County was created by an act of the New York General Assembly in 1683 and included what is now the Bronx, which was transferred in stages during the 19th century to New York City. During the colonial period life in Westchester was quite primitive. Nearly everything settlers consumed was raised or made on their farms.  Wood, cattle and food were bartered for necessary items that they could not produce themselves.  Colonial churches not only served as religious centers but also played an important social and political role. By 1775 Westchester was the richest and most populous county in the colony of New York.

Once the Revolution began, Westchester saw more fighting and suffering than any other area in the country.  The Revolution was in some ways a civil war, as families were often divided between patriot and loyalist sympathies. After the battles of Pelham and White Plains in 1776, the main American headquarters was at Continental Village, north of Peekskill in Putnam County.  The British were headquartered in New York City. Westchester was the "Neutral Ground" between the two camps, and the countryside was pillaged by both sides.

Although the Revolution devastated the county, recovery after the war was rapid. The large landowners in Westchester were mostly Loyalists, and after the war their lands were confiscated by the state and sold.  Many local farmers were able to buy the lands they had previously farmed as tenants. Great improvements in transportation, both road and rail, allowed farmers to get their crops and cattle to market.  Better transportation also fostered the development of industry in the county--from iron foundries and marble quarries to carpet and elevator factories, as well as many others.

Nowhere is the importance of New York City to the development of Westchester more evident than in the watershed construction begun in the 1830s to supply the city with water.  The first Croton Dam and Aqueduct was completed in 1842, and between the 1880s and 1920s the Kensico, Croton and Catskill water systems were constructed.

The period following the Civil War brought vast fortunes to a new class of entrepreneurs in the New York area, and many built large estates in Westchester.  Several magnificent mansions of this era are preserved and open to the public.  Among them are Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, The Jay Heritage Center in Rye, Caramoor in Katonah, and Glenview in Yonkers.

With the coming of the railroad in the mid-19th century and the advent of the automobile in the early 20th century, working in New York City and living in the country became possible for the middle class, and the Westchester suburb as we know it today was born.  In 1925 America's first public-access parkway, the Bronx River Parkway, opened.

In the 1950s and 60s, the corridor along the Cross Westchester Expressway became home to the headquarters of many major corporations. Large-scale suburban and corporate development has made the family farm a distant memory in Westchester, but despite such development much of the original character of the county remains.

As early as the 1920s the county began to develop its outstanding parks system, preserving great tracts of open space. Playland Amusement Park in Rye, a National Landmark, opened to the public in 1928 and was the first totally planned amusement park in the country. Westchester can also be proud of its education system.  Several of its local school systems rank among the best in the nation, and the county is home to 12 colleges, among them Sarah Lawrence College and Manhattanville.

Westchester's citizens have taken active roles in preserving the county's rich and varied history.  Visitors to our county will find a myriad of interesting historic sites, from the Purdy House in White Plains, an early colonial farmhouse that served as George Washington's headquarters before the Battle of White Plains, to the home that founding father John Jay built in Katonah and retired to after serving as a prominent member of the Continental Congress, first chief justice of the Supreme Court and governor of New York, to Kykuit, the art-filled home of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and his descendents, in Pocantico Hills.

 

 

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