The following is a very brief history of Westchester County, with an emphasis on the U.S. Census.
Let’s start with the first residents — the Indians. It is not known how many Indians lived here in the pre-Colonial days but, large or small, the native population melted away pretty fast after the first Europeans sailed up the glorious Hudson River in 1609. The fun was spoiled by the death of one John Colman, a sailor in Henry Hudson’s crew, who was shot in the neck by a well-aimed arrow.
Too bad for Colman, who must have suffered horribly, but let’s be real — that was probably the last time the Indians had the upper hand in these parts.
The Indians lost their land through a process of swindle, eviction, massacre, and spread of infectious disease. Wow, the years just flew by. Before you could say “Laaphawachking,” the indigenous folks were a fading memory.
Ernest F. Griffin, a 19th-century historian noted that in 1880, the U.S. Census recorded 15 “civilized Indians” living in Westchester and four in 1890. “All that remains of them now,” he wrote, “is tradition, some exhibits in museums, an occasional arrowhead in a shell heap, and some of the names they gave the places they knew — Kisco, Manursing, Mosholu, Sachoes, Chappaqua, Ossining, Tuckahoe, and many others.” (Supposedly the region’s last known Indian, an aged fellow named Joe Two Trees, was still roaming the woods of Pelham Bay Park in 1924.)
Let’s move on to the Revolutionary War and a quick mention of the Battle of White Plains. This was probably the most exciting thing ever to happen in White Plains, rivaled only by Marilyn Monroe’s clandestine marriage to Arthur Miller and the grand opening of the Galleria Mall.
Anyway, Westchester was a treacherous no-man’s-land during the Revolution, so a lot of people moved out, and wealthy members of the King George III fan club never came back. However, it didn’t take long before Westchester recovered, reaching a population of 24,003, according to the first census, in 1790. Granted, the majority were pitchfork-wielding rubes with bad teeth.
But the demographics dramatically changed in the mid-19th century, with the coming of the Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven rail lines. Suddenly, middle-class families living in the crowded city had the means to escape.
Gazing into a crystal ball, these subdivision pioneers would have been dazzled by the comforts and conveniences the future would hold for the county: sweeping lawns, wide porches, good booze, Ford Escalades, tanning salons, and orthodontia — all of it serenaded by a symphony of laughing children, barking dogs, and crackling bug zappers. From 1840 to 1860, Westchester’s population more than doubled, to 99,497.
Voilà! The suburbs were born.
And then came the Civil War, which put a serious damper on things.
Abraham Lincoln, who did not carry Westchester in his two presidential elections, came through twice by train. The first time was in 1861, on the eve of war, when, newly elected and bound for Washington, DC, he stopped in Peekskill and gave a brief, unmemorable speech. The second time was in 1865, after he was assassinated, embalmed, and shipped back to Illinois in a crepe-covered funeral car.
After the war, Westchester’s population grew continuously until the 1870s, when mysteriously it dropped by more than 31,000 souls. This was either due to New York City’s gradual annexation of the Bronx or alien abduction.
By 1900, Westchester’s population was 283,055; 10 years later it was 344,436 and stood at 520,947 a decade after that. The automobile had something to do with this, as well as better roads (i.e., the county parkways). The parkways are an engineering marvel, but because they were built close to rivers and streams, they tend to flood during heavy rainstorms. The first road builders, the Indians (remember them?), knew better: They blazed their trails on high ground.
Time marches on. Flipping the pages of history, we come to the present. With somewhere around 970,000 people, Westchester is more populated than six U.S. states — though it’s currently in a tight race with Delaware. Will it reach 1,000,000 in the 2020 census? I wouldn’t bet on it, but not because of what former NYC mayor Ed Koch famously said in 1982.
The suburbs, Koch said, are “sterile,” and it’s “wasting your life to live there.”
What a grouch! Obviously, Koch never sipped a dry martini by the light of a bug zapper.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org