Joseph Ellicott and the Western New York Frontier: Environmental Assessments, Geographical Strategies, and Authored Landscapes, 1797-1811

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




D. W. Meinig


Holland Purchase, Holland Land Company, Settlement, Biography of landscape

Subject Categories



The land developer has had an enduring impact on the making of much of the American landscape. Patterns of survey and settlement established during the frontier period have persisted on the modern scene. Large sections of upstate New York and northwestern Pennsylvania were greatly molded by private land promoters and agents, and their designs for development helped to give the entire area a particular regional character. In the settlement of the Holland Purchase in westernmost New York State, Joseph Ellicott, the Chief Surveyor and Resident Agent for the Holland Land Company, was the individual responsible for opening the area to settlement and for promoting the success of the venture by guiding surveys, by establishing new villages, taverns, and mills, and by constructing a road network in a wilderness region which theretofore had been sparsely inhabited by Indians.

In the few years between 1797 and 1811, Ellicott designed key segments of the early settlement system which influenced the course of development. The wilderness was surveyed into a regular grid of township and lot units. Several formal villages were platted and linked by new roads to local centers of settlement and to distant potential markets. As a regional planner and land agent, Ellicott required the imagination and flexibility to impress upon the land an orderly assemblage of features that would serve the needs of the settlers and contribute to the prosperity of the Holland Land Company.

As sales agent, Joseph Ellicott made a fundamental contribution to the making of the landscape of the Purchase and no clear appreciation of the area's modern geographical character is possible without understanding his central role in its creation. The pioneer landscape still endures in fragments today. The visible remnants of Ellicott's mark offer a regional scale example of Marwyn Samuels' "biography of landscape," an instance where the ideas and actions of an individual have left a recognizable imprint on the modern scene. The process of making the western New York landscape that began with Ellicott's early design continues today, and almost two centuries after his initial surveys, his signature is still legible on the face of innumerable western New York localities, still shaping the settlement structure and character of the region.


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