Review by Douglas Kohler
The Empire State: A History of New York

Edited by Milton Klein, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Paula Baker, University of Pittsburgh
Edward Countryman, Southern Methodist University
L. Ray Gunn, University of Utah
Ronald W. Howard, Mississippi College
Oliver Rink, California State University at Bakersfield
Joel Schwartz, Montclair State University

Cornell University Press
and the  
New York State Historical Association

6 tables, 1 map, 20 line drawings, 80 halftones, 16-page color insert 
ISBN: 0-8014-3866-7 $45.00


In his address, “New York: The State of History,” Joseph Meany, Jr. traces the beginning of New York’s historiography to Washington Irving’s 1809 publication of The History of New York: From Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. New York State history received a more formal treatment in 1839 when the legislature allocated money to hire an agent to, “…Procure and Transcribe Documents in Europe Relative to the Colonial History of the State.”  Many of the works published during the 1800’s were documentary collections.  The most far-ranging compilation was Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan’s fifteen-volume Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (1853-1871).  The last four volumes were completed by Berthold Fernow.  The course of New York State historiography did not change markedly with the appointment of the first State Historian in 1895 since the focus of most State Historians continued to be “documentary editing.” New York State Historians published the papers of Governor Daniel Tompkins and Governor George Clinton as well as volumes of Sir William Johnson’s papers. This tendency, to edit and publish documentary collections, finally changed when State Historian Alexander Flick oversaw the publication of the ten-volume The History of New York State in 1933.[1] By 1947, the New York State Historical Association was desirous of a “more compact format.”[2] The outcome was the 1957 publication of A Short History of New York.  This 700-page volume was revised by David Ellis and published as A History of New York State in 1967.

Although The Empire State may be the heir to this historiographic tradition, the President of the New York State Historical Association, Gilbert Vincent, notes that this recent one-volume history is completely new (p. xv).  Though not intended to be a reworking of Ellis’ History, there are some noticeable similarities.  A History of New York is broken up into two “books” subdivided into parts.  Each book was written by a different author or authors.[3] Klein’s volume is similar in format.  There are seven sections ranging from New York State before the English (1609-1664) through the year 2000.  Six different historians, each specializing in a particular time period, authored sections.[4]  The contributors are a wide-spread group who bring a wealth of knowledge to bear upon their particular topics.  Yet, while they may be specialists in their areas of expertise, there were moments when I felt that the writing was somehow remote or removed from some of the key points known to native New Yorkers. Perhaps this disassociation stems from their geographic distance from New York State proper since their educational institutions range from Utah to California; yet some like Edward Countryman are originally from New York.   Perhaps it is merely the nature of trying to write an overview of any given era that some things must naturally be omitted. For instance, as a native Western New Yorker, I find that historians and residents here feel intimately connected to the Holland Land Purchase.  In the section, “A New Empire,” Edward Countryman, University Distinguished Professor of History at Southern Methodist University, gives the Holland Land Purchase a scant paragraph’s mention.  Unlike Ellis’ History, there is no discussion of Joseph Ellicott and his lasting influence on the development of New York State west of the Genesee River, nor does Countryman flesh out how the Holland Land Company was driven out of business by the availability of cheaper lands to the west, in Canada and in other parts of New York.[5] The whole section on land speculation and post-Revolutionary War development runs a mere seven pages.   Undeniably, the era of land speculation was not a financial success to those who invested, but that does not make this thirty-year span insignificant.  Indeed, it is during this “Age of Homespun” so unique to upstate New York, that the roots of today’s infrastructure were sown.  Roads that are still in use were surveyed, towns and cities were incorporated and the Native Americans were divested of their lands until they were almost gone.  There are moments where the parts feel like articles written for a scholarly journal rather than cohesive pieces of a mosaic telling the story of New York. In the main, however, many of these oversights certainly do not detract from the work as a whole, but rather, it seems, these omissions are of significance only to readers with a particular parochial interest.

The Empire State opens with an examination of the Native American heritage of New York.  It seems odd that neither this volume nor its immediate predecessor makes much mention of the geologic heritage of the state.  Clearly, the settlement and development of New York was (and still is) greatly affected by the land itself and, to a large extent that land was shaped by the Wisconsin Glacier.  Native Americans and explorers traveled on the river systems. The Hudson-Champlain corridor was of strategic importance in virtually every war fought here, and, of course, the Mohawk Valley is the only naturally occurring break in the Appalachian Mountain range and therefore, the only choice for the Erie Canal.

Part I: “Before the English,” written by Oliver Rink is an examination of the Native American and Dutch cultures and their impact on New York’s development.  This section, and many subsequent parts, combines the traditional historiographic approach of examining the contributions of the “white, European males,” with a healthy dose of “new” social history.  The mixture of “top down” and “bottom up” history is extremely effective.[6]The contributions of Peter Minuit, Henry Hudson and Peter Stuyvesant are juxtaposed with the conditions of slaves in New Netherland or the state of the Dutch Reformed Church in New York following the English takeover.  The combination of historiographic approaches makes for both informative and entertaining reading.

The section on Native Americans provides an overview of the two dominant cultures that pre-dated European arrival: the Algonquian and Iroquoian.  Largely an ethnographic examination of Iroquoian culture, the chapter uses broad strokes to fill the canvas of these pre-Columbian Woodland nations.  Excellent as a survey, it is a bit light on some of the finer points.  It is vague on the exact geographic areas occupied by the Iroquois and Algonquian.  Additionally, the matrilineal nature of the family structure is mentioned briefly regarding children and their clan affiliation, however, there is no larger discussion of the role of women in society. Within the text, signal importance is given to the development of maize by the Iroquois, and yet, only brief mention is made of the role of women in maintaining the clearing and tending the corn.  In fact, both men and women had distinctly delineated domains: the men in the forest, and the women in the clearing.  This gave the women charge, not only of the farming, but also selecting chiefs and even the disposition of captives.[7]   It is fair to assume that delving too deeply into these issues would cause this book to surpass one volume.

The chapters on the Dutch provide a very complete picture of life in New Netherland.  The text draws liberally from first-person narrative.  Whether it is Robert Juet’s account of Hudson’s voyage or Adriaen Van der Donck’s account of the Native Americans, these primary accounts offer valuable insight into Dutch New York.[8] Van der Donck’s description is woven into the broader theme of the Columbian Exchange.  His observations about smallpox and the fact that, “ their population had been melted down by this disease…” (p. 38-39) seem to be eerily prescient.  The section is not narrowly limited to the confines of New York State, but opens up to the geo-political situation when the narrative demands.  Particularly, the establishment of New Sweden in the Delaware Valley and the conflicts with the English in New England were constant concerns for the leaders of New Netherland.

As the narrative transitions into the English control of New York, it maintains the same structure of mixing political and social histories.  At some junctures, the two overlap in an interesting fashion.  One such confluence is the discussion of Leisler’s Rebellion.  The narrative links the social history of religion in the colony to the affairs of Europe as William and Mary of Orange ascended the throne of England.  Then the historiography of the Rebellion is discussed briefly, but in thorough and interesting fashion.[9]By the same token, the practice of slavery is placed not only in the economic context of the English colony, but its social ramifications are also important. There is a lengthy discussion of the circumstances surrounding the Great Negro Plot of 1741. 

This is not a volume for military historians.  Naturally, the conflicts that shaped New York are covered.  However, they are not a primary focus of the narrative.  The French and Indian War is covered in a scant two pages. (pp.196-199.) However, the aftermath, including the conflict between New Yorkers and Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden and its relation to the coming of the Revolution is covered very thoroughly.[10]  The Revolutionary War itself is covered in more detail, but still the military details are scant.  Even the victory at Saratoga, commonly considered the “turning point” of the Revolution, is devoid of much of its significance as it pertained to inspiring French recognition and support of the fledgling Republic.[11] Finally, the War of 1812 is also addressed, but again, it will not be to the liking of military historians, either.  The war is placed largely in a context of New Yorkers’ desire to see a canal built.  In the author’s opinion, the most noteworthy outcome of the War of 1812 was the realization that transportation into the wilderness of northern and western New York would benefit from the construction of the Erie Canal.[12]

Without detailing every chapter, there is something for every reader.  The Erie Canal receives a chapter unto itself.  There is political history aplenty: Martin van Buren and the Albany Regency of the 1820’s, the machinations of Tammany Hall as well as personalities like Alfred Smith and Fiorello LaGuardia who have become inextricably intertwined with New York politics.  There is abundant social history: of slaves, of women and of minorities and immigrants. There is cultural history ranging from Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper to Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition to music and musical theatre in New York City after World War II.   Economics obviously played an important role in New York’s story and it is given its due, whether it is the Grange movement, the development of unions for women, WPA projects, the stock market boom of the late 1990’s or even the counterpoint development of rural and urban societies.

The book itself has an excellent array of supplemental materials.  The most obvious is the sixteen pages of color-plate inserts in the center.  From the full-page reprint of Charles Burchfield’s ”Childhood’s Garden,” to the Mohawk cradle board, they are a fascinating collection of artifacts.  Throughout The Empire State, there are numerous illustrations, pictures and charts.  It is interesting to note that in A History of New York, most of the illustrations are simple maps or charts.  In this volume, the illustrations are much more diverse and lean more toward the social history that permeates The Empire State.[13]  There is also an extensive list of selected readings for a reader seeking a greater depth on any of these topics.  I found the index to be far ranging and very thorough, though it lacks a geographic component if you are seeking a particular city in New York State.

As a one-volume history, The Empire State: A History of New York is bound to find a valued place in school and private collections alike.  As a seventh grade history teacher, I have often struggled to find a current, comprehensive and readable text.  This fills the need admirably.  Readers and scholars seeking an in-depth study of a particular facet will, undoubtedly, find other resources more satisfying.  However, the purpose of The Empire State is not to fill particular niches, but rather to provide an accessible telling of our story and this it does with the esprit due the Empire State.

Reviewed by Douglas Kohler

Mr. Kohler is the Chair of the History Department at Clarence Middle School in Clarence, Erie County, New York.


1. Joseph R. Meany, Jr. “New York: The State of History,”  Originally compiled September, 1994 (revised October, 2001),  [return to text]

2. Milton Klein, ed. The Empire State: A History of New York, (Ithaca & London, 2001), p.xii. [return to text]

3. David Ellis, et. al. A History of New York State, (Ithaca & London, 1967), Table of Contents. [return to text]

4. Lest one fears my mathematical abilities, Joel Schwartz, Professor of History at Montclair State University, edited both Part VI: “The Triumph of Liberalism” (1914-1945) and Part VII: “The Empire State in a Changing World” (1945-2000). [return to text]

5. William Chazanof, Joseph Ellicott and the Holland Land Company: The Opening of Western New York, (Syracuse, NY, 1970), p. 40ff. [return to text]

6. T.V. Reed, “Theory and Method in American/Cultural Studies: A Bibliographic Essay,” [return to text]

7. Hazel Hertzberg, The Great Tree and the Longhouse: The Culture of the Iroquois,  (New York, 1966), Chapter 6, “Roles of Men and Women.” [return to text]

8. Van der Donck’s ”Description of New Netherlands” also figures prominently in Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America.  Janet Maslin, “Books of the Times; How Much for a Legacy? For you, $24,” NY Review, March 18, 2004. [return to text]

9. William Kidd’s role in the Leisler Rebellion is discussed in greater detail in Richard Zacks, The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd, (New York, 2001), chapter six.  There is a brief discussion of Kidd and privateering in New York City, see The Empire State, p.132. [return to text]

10. For a more thorough discussion of the French and Indian War as well as a slightly different view of the dynamic between Colden and the New York assembly, see Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, (New York, 2000), p. 719ff. [return to text]

11. This is by no means intended to be a niggling criticism.  There is a review  that actually proposes a re-write of the section on the Native American and Loyalist raids of 1778-’79.  For further reading on the Battle of Saratoga and its importance, see Richard Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War, (New York, 1997). [return to text]

12. For further reading on the War of 1812, see any of Donald E. Graves’ volumes on the war.  For an excellent on-line resource, see [return to text]

13. Illustrations run the gamut from a Dutch tankard to a reproduction of an oil painting of James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo to a picture of Fiorello LaGuardia’s exit from NYC City Hall. [return to text]


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