Westchester County is a county located in the U.S. state of New York. Westchester covers an area of and has a population of 949,113 according to the 2010 Census, residing in 45 municipalities. It was named after the city of Chester in England, and the county seat is White Plains.
The county's location puts New York City and Long Island Sound to its south, Putnam County on the north, Connecticut on the east, Rockland County on the west. Westchester became the first suburban area of its scale in the world to develop. Its significance as a suburb derived mostly from the upper-middle class development of entire communities in the late 19th century, and the rapid population growth that occurred as a result.
According to 2006 HUD data, the median income for a household of one person in the county was $75,427 and the median income for a family of four was $96,500. Westchester County ranks number two (number one being New York County) for wealthiest counties in New York State and the seventh wealthiest county nationally. Westchester County has long been associated with "old money" and some of the country's wealthiest families for generations.
At the time of European contact in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Native American inhabitants of what would become Westchester County were part of one of the Algonquian peoples whose name for themselves was Lenape ("the people"). The region inhabited by the Lenape—called by them Lenapehoking—consisted of the area around and between the Delaware and lower to middle Hudson Rivers. Throughout the region were spoken two related languages (part of the Algonquian language family and related to Mahican) collectively known as the Delaware languages: Unami and Munsee. Munsee was spoken by the inhabitants of what is today known as Westchester County as well as those from Manhattan island. Some ethnographers of the past, lacking valid contemporary sources, simply referred to the various tribes of the area as Munsee speakers, or, even more generally, as Lenni Lenape (the "true people").
Title deeds given to European settlers supply considerable information on the sub-tribes in the region and their locations. The "Manhattans" occupied the island known by that name today, as well as part of southern Westchester now covered by Yonkers. The Weckquaesgeek band of Wappinger lived along the Hudson River and central Westchester's modern settlements of Dobbs Ferry, Tarrytown and White Plains. The Siwanoy lived along the coast of Long Island Sound at Pelham, New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck and Rye. The northern portions of the county were occupied by smaller bands of Wappinger such as the Tankiteke, Kitchawank and Sintsink.
The first European explorers to visit Westchester were Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524 and Henry Hudson in 1609. European settlers were initially sponsored by the Dutch West India Company in the 1620s and 1630s. English settlers arrived from New England in the 1640s. By 1664, the Dutch lost control of the County to the English and large tracts of Westchester were established as manors (held by a single proprietor) or patents (jointly held by partners). The lords of the manors and patents leased land to tenant farmers and provided many essential services to the tenants.
Westchester County was an original county of the Province of New York, one of twelve created by an act of the New York General Assembly in 1683. At the time it also included present day Bronx County, which constituted the original Town of Westchester (the center of which was around the area today known as Westchester Square, in the Bronx) and portions of Yonkers, Eastchester, and Pelham.
During the colonial period, life in Westchester was quite primitive. Roads were few and in poor condition. Transportation was heavily dependent on water. Nearly everything settlers consumed was raised or made on their farms. Wood, cattle and food were bartered for everything else. Colonial churches not only served as religious centers but played important social and political roles.
Over time cottage industries such as shoe and furniture making sprung up. This led to heavier use of local roads, which encouraged improvements and spurred increased travel. Taverns catering to travelers were established and ferries were launched. By 1775, Westchester was the richest and most populous County in the colony of New York.
During the American Revolutionary War, Westchester County 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. 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. In 1788, five years after the end of the Revolutionary War, the County was officially divided into 20 towns. In 1798, the first federal census recorded a population of 24,000 centered in northern Westchester.
Early infrastructure improvements
In 1800, the first commercial toll road, the Westchester Turnpike, which ran through Pelham and New Rochelle, was chartered. Other toll roads including the Croton (Somerstown) Turnpike were later established. During this same period, steamboats began to appear on the Hudson River. Expansion of transportation options encouraged economic expansion. Larger industries were gradually established such as iron foundries in Peekskill and Port Chester, brickyards in Verplank and Croton, marble quarries in Ossining and Tuckahoe.
Two developments in the first half of the 19th century – the construction of the first Croton Dam and Aqueduct and the coming of the railroad – had enormous impact on the growth of both Westchester and New York City. Construction of the Croton Dam and Aqueduct began in 1837 and was completed in 1842. The aqueduct carried water from Croton to two reservoirs in Manhattan to be distributed to the city. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Croton Aqueduct is considered one of the great engineering achievements of the 19th century.
In the 1840s, the railroads came to Westchester. In 1844, the New York and Harlem Railroad reached White Plains. The Hudson River Railroad line was completed to Peekskill in 1849. That same year, the New York and New Haven Railroad opened its route through eastern Westchester. The railroads often determined whether a town grew or declined, and they contributed to a population shift from northern to southern Westchester. By 1860, the total County population was 99,000 and the largest city was Yonkers. Many small downtowns, centered around a railroad station, flourished.
The period following the American 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, Kykuit in Pocantico Hills, the Jay Heritage Center in Rye, Caramoor in Katonah and Glenview in Yonkers.
Expansion of the New York City water supply system also impacted local development, creating new dams, bridges and roads. The flooding of thousands of acres for reservoirs created considerable dislocations in many towns north of White Plains. The building of the New Croton Dam and its reservoir, for instance, resulted in the relocation of the hamlet of Katonah to higher ground. In North Salem the hamlet of Purdys was moved when five percent of the town was inundated, including hundreds of prime acres of dairy land.
During the last half of the 19th century, Westchester's transportation system and labor force attracted a manufacturing base, particularly along the Hudson River and Nepperhan Creek. Pills and patent medicines were manufactured in Ossining; greenhouses in Irvington; beer in Dobbs Ferry; sugar, paving material and conduit in Hastings; and in Yonkers, elevators and carpets.
In 1874, the western portion of the present Bronx County, consisting of the then towns of Kingsbridge, West Farms, and Morrisania, was transferred to New York County, and in 1895 the remainder of the present Bronx County, consisting of the Town of Westchester and portions of the towns of Eastchester and Pelham, was transferred to New York County. By that time, the portion of the town of Eastchester immediately north of the transferred portion had seceded from the town of Eastchester (1892) to become the City of Mount Vernon so that the Town of Eastchester had no border with New York City. In January 1914, those parts of the then New York County which had been annexed from Westchester County were constituted as Bronx County.
During the 20th century, the primarily rural character of Westchester would yield to the suburban county known today. Between the County's railroad network and the proliferation of the automobile in the early 20th century, working in New York City and living in the country became possible for the middle class. In 1907 the Bronx River Commission was established to acquire the necessary lands to eliminate nuisance conditions along the river's banks and improve its water quality through a joint undertaking between New York City and Westchester County. The Commission's efforts led to the creation of the Bronx River Parkway Reservation, completed in 1925, and the first modern, multi-lane limited-access roadway in North America. The success of the Bronx River Parkway Reservation encouraged the County government to develop its outstanding parks system, preserving great tracts of open space.
Playland in Rye, a National Historic Landmark, opened to the public in 1928, was the first totally planned amusement park in the country. It continues to be operated by Westchester County. The development of Westchester's parks and parkway systems supported existing residential communities and encouraged the establishment of new ones. New homes were constructed on former estates and farms. The parkways were a boon for commuters and transformed the development pattern of Westchester. New businesses appeared in response to expanded markets; White Plains, with branches of many New York City stores, became the County's central shopping center. With the need for new homes for new families following World War II, multistory apartment houses appeared in the urbanized areas of the County, while the market for single family houses continued to expand. By 1950, the total County population was 625,816.
Major interstate highways were constructed in Westchester during the 1950s and 1960s. The establishment of these roadways, along with the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge, encouraged many major corporations, such as PepsiCo, General Foods, Ciba-Geigy and IBM to establish headquarters in Westchester. They accomplished this by assembling large tracts of property to construct office facilities, which were often designed by world-famous architects and enhanced by extensive landscape.
Today it is one of the most affluent counties in the country, home to many of New York City's most desirable suburban communities. It is a haven for commuters, whether traveling by car or by the Metro-North Commuter Railroad.
National Historic Sites
St. Paul's Church in Mt. Vernon was designated a National Historic Site in 1942. The original church, a wooden structure known as Church of Eastchester, was built in 1695. The present-day stone church was completed in 1764, and its name was changed to St. Paul's in 1795.
The church property, which is operated by the National Park Service, includes a cemetery with burial stones dating to 1704 and the remnants of a village green that was the site of what came to be known as the "Great Election" of 1733. The publisher of the New York Journal, John Peter Zenger, wrote an account of the election and was arrested and tried for seditious libel. His acquittal established the legal precedent for "freedom of the press," which was later incorporated as a basic freedom in the U.S. Bill of Rights.
Horace Greeley's house stands in Chappaqua. Horace Greeley was most famous for his newspaper, The New York Tribune, which ran late into the 19th century. Greeley got a mere sixty votes in the electoral college when he ran for president against Ulysses S. Grant and died shortly thereafter from severe illnesses and broken spirits. His home and the grounds which have not been subdivided are run by the Town of New Castle Historical Society and is open for guided and self-guided tours.
One of the Founding Fathers native to New York State, John Jay, grew up in Rye, New York and returned there to rest among his many descendants. America's first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court served in every branch of US government and his boyhood home is now a National Historic Landmark, open to the public. It is managed by the Jay Heritage Center. The buildings on this historic site, including the 1838 Peter Augustus Jay House built by Jay's eldest son, are being restored for educational programs in American History, Architecture and Environmental Stewardship.
The Thomas Paine Cottage in New Rochelle, New York, was the home from 1802 to 1806 of Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and Revolutionary War hero. It was declared a National Historic Landmark on November 28, 1972.
Historic and Cultural Attractions
Note: Bronx County was formed from New York County in 1912, comprising territory that had been annexed by New York County from Westchester County in 1874 and 1895. (Since 1898 this area also has comprised Bronx Borough of New York city.) The population of Bronx's present-day area was 200,507 in 1900 and 430,980 in 1910. According to the 1900 census, its estimated population at earlier censuses was: 1790, 1,781; 1800, 1,755; 1810, 2,267; 1820, 2,782; 1830, 3,023; 1840, 5,346; 1850, 8,032; 1860, 23,593; 1870, 37,393; 1880, 51,980; 1890, 88,908. Estimates consistent with these for the present-day area of Westchester are: 1790, 22,222; 1800, 25,618; 1810, 28,005; 1820, 29,856; 1830, 33,433; 1840, 43,340; 1850, 50,231; 1860, 75,904; 1870, 93,955, 1880, 98,634; 1890, 131,949.