In the Beginning: The Military Tract

By Martin Sweeney

The Town of Homer as a municipal entity did not come into being until 1795, and the Village of Homer was not incorporated until 1835. So, what was happening here before 1791 when the first settlers of European descent arrived? The answer is: the Military Tract.

In May of 1789, a surveying party authorized by the State of New York headed out from the Hudson Valley for the newly acquired territory of the Onondaga and Cayuga indigenous people in central New York. The group was led by Moses DeWitt and Abraham Hardenbergh.

DeWitt had been one of the surveyors for General Washington’s Continental Army. Twenty wagon loads of supplies were transferred to six bateaus for travel up the Mohawk River. The surveying party made its way to Oneida Lake, crossed the lake, and proceeded down the Oneida and Oswego Rivers. Upon making landfall on the west bank, Moses DeWitt commenced the formal act of surveying by inscribing on a tree:

E. corner
Township No 1
Virtuous & Victorious

This marked the beginning of the creation of what would become known as the “New Military Tract”– over one and a half million acres of former Iroquois land that would be integral to the settlement of the New York frontier by those of European descent. The Tract would become famous as the rectilinear survey grid of the eastern Finger Lakes, which included what is now Cortland County. Adding to its fame would be the townships assigned names from Greek and Roman antiquity, such as Virgil, Cincinnatus, Pompey, Cicero, Romulus, and Homer. The tract provided a framework for settlement by the expanding population of a fledgling nation-state. It, also, represented a new American order.

The New Military Tract originated out of a need by New York to raise troops during the Revolutionary War. One of the tasks faced by the new state legislature after independence was declared in 1776 was to find a way to encourage enlistments for the Continental Army. Bounties of wheat or cash had been offered as incentives, but the State was in short supply of both during the war. A solution to the problem was found in the vast territory that would belong to the state if the thirteen rebelling colonies militarily won their independence from Britain. Land was a major source of wealth in early America. It was synonymous with money. It was understood that land equaled power.  General George Washington’s “Virtuous and Victorious Military” in 1781 opened up an expansive frontier for settlement and access to wealth and power.

Here is how it worked. New York offered land bounties in exchange for military service during the war. Between 1781 and 1783, the New York Legislature awarded land commensurate with military rank and a specified length of military service completed. In 1783, a minimum amount of 500 acres went to a private and ranged as high as 5,500 acres for a major general.

The rectilinear survey form of the New Military Tract was a shift away from the metes and bounds survey systems of colonial America. Laying out the New Military Tract in square or rectangular townships further sub-divided into individually numbered lots was the same method employed by the national land survey system established by the Ordinance of 1785. Thus, there emerged this grid of right-angled parallels and meridians marking the surface of the earth.

The New Military Tract was located in the middle of Iroquois territory, well beyond the frontier established by the property line of 1768. In 1786, the legislature earmarked a second tract of land in the northern part of the state to be able to meet its land-for-service promises. Confusion developed over the chronological sequence of the two military tracts. The popularly known “New Military Tract” is actually the original military bounty land of New York set aside in 1782. The so-called “Old Military Tract” was designated four years later in 1786. Confusion entered because the “Old Military Tract” in northern New York was actually opened for settlement in 1786 before the “New Military Tract” opened in 1791. Confused? No problem, just understand that what would become the town of Homer was part of the “New Military Tract” opened to settlers in 1791, the year Homer’s first settlers arrived.

From the state’s perspective, the final “obstacle” to surveying and opening the New Military Tract to white settlers was the presence of the Onondaga and Cayuga peoples of the Iroquois Confederacy. That obstacle was removed through treaties with the Iroquois in 1784, 1788, and 1789. The treaty of 1788 at Fort Stanwix resulted in the Onondagas ceding to the state all their New York lands except a reservation south of Onondaga Lake. Eventually, pressure from the state, prompted by the demands of white settlers, was too strong for the Onondagas to resist, and their reservation south of modern-day Syracuse was further diminished.

With Iroquois claims to the land “extinguished,” Simeon DeWitt, the Surveyor General, was charged by the state with laying out the tract. In May of 1789, the Surveyor General deputized his younger cousin Moses DeWitt and Abraham Hardenbergh to conduct the actual survey. Most of the survey took three “seasons” to complete — from 1789 to 1791. Work stopped during the winter months. The work consisted of outlining the twenty-five original townships, each to comprise one hundred lots of six hundred acres each. By July of 1790, a map of the New Military Tract was produced.

The map revealed twenty-five townships designated with classical names. Who did the naming? The answer is shrouded in mystery. According to Richard H. Schein of the University of Kentucky in an article published in 1993, credit was given to Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt by various sources through the years. However, DeWitt himself said the distinctive names were issued by the state’s land office. He said he “knew nothing of these obnoxious names” until they were officially presented to him. Any of the land commissioners in the land office could have been the source of the nomenclature. Research done by this writer has come to rely upon William R. Farrell’s Classical Place Names in New York State (2002). Farrell maintains Robert Harpur, an émigré from Ireland, worked as a Clerk in the office of the New York State Surveyor General and served as Secretary of the Land Board, and that enamored of the names he came across in his classical education (Latin and Greek), he assigned the names to the Military Tract. No matter the source, one can conclude that New Yorkers of the 1790s clearly felt a connection with the ancient democracies, and the residents of the tract accepted the names. Harpur, in 1795, moved west along the upper Susquehanna River. He settled near Belden Brook, which is near present-day Harpursville in eastern Broome County, New York. The community was named after him as was Harpur College, the arts and sciences component, and the oldest part, of present-day Binghamton University.

With the woods of central New York finally filled with surveyor’s marks notched into trees at the corners of lots and townships, the distribution of the lots was ready. This was done by balloting. A claimant’s name was matched with a slip drawn from a box bearing the lot’s number. Ironically, the New Military Tract was not settled by the Revolutionary soldiers who earned it. Keep in mind, the balloting occurred eight years after the war for independence concluded with a peace treaty. Sometimes, the heirs of a deceased soldier claimed a lot. More often, a soldier turned around and sold his lot to a speculator. In the case of Homer’s (and the county’s) first white pioneers, Amos Todd and Joseph and Rhoda Todd Beebe, they are believed to have purchased Lot 42 (at the top of West Hill) from a Revolutionary soldier who preferred cash over “a pig in a poke.”

Unquestionably, New England was the primary source of settlers in the New Military Tract. Between 1790 and 1820, it is believed that the three states in southern New England alone lost approximately 800,000 persons to westward migration. A torrent of settlers poured in from Connecticut, including the Beebes and Amos Todd. The Noah Carpenters journeyed to Homer from Connecticut with stories of the exploits of a relative named Ethan Allen. Similarly, a large number of settlers came from Massachusetts. John and Amelia Osborn moved first from Massachusetts to Connecticut before crossing into New York. In 1808, they came to Homer from Albany, New York. The third New England state, Rhode island, was a relatively minor contributor to the early population of central New York.

From the south came a smattering of settlers. For example, when Henry Godwin of Dutchess County drew Lot 11 in the town of Homer as payment for his military service, he felt he was too old to make the arduous trip to claim it.  Instead, he sold his lot to his son-in-law, John DeVoe, a Revolutionary soldier from Hackensack, New Jersey. John and Helena DeVoe arrived in Homer in 1808, took possession of their lot, and raised a family of fifteen children.

When one understands the origins of Homer within the New Military Tract, one can see why there is a New England character to the place today. The bulk of its earliest settlers were from Connecticut and Massachusetts, and they set aside a portion of Lot 45 for education and religion. Since 1799, it has continued to be the site of a school and churches on a New England style “Common,” which is now the “Green.” That land was deeded to the First Religious Society on April 20, 1805, by Samuel McKinney and Jacob Schuler, who were offspring of Revolutionary War soldiers. It might be said that Homer was part of “New England extended.”

It must not be ignored that the making of the New Military Tract contributed to the ethnocentric domination of the Native American population. The surveying was not done without opposition from the original inhabitants of central New York but superimposing a grid on the wilderness contributed to an orderly and unrelenting westward expansion of a new nation and the creation of the “Empire State.”

On July 4, 2026, the United States of America will begin the observance of its 250th anniversary. 107 Revolutionary War soldiers settled in what became Cortland County. Their names are on a plaque attached to a boulder in Cortland’s Courthouse Park. The Tioughnioga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution are planning to place an America 250! Patriots’ Marker next to the DAR boulder at the park, using grant money and local donations. If you would like to donate, please write a check out to the Tioughnioga Chapter, NSDAR and write on the memo line “America 250 Patriots’ Marker.” Your donation is tax-deductible. Please mail your donation to Tioughnioga Chapter, NSDAR, PO Box 63, Marathon, NY 13803-0063. If you have any questions, please contact DAR Regent Laurie Tebbe at 607-745-3621. Your support helps to celebrate the beginning of the nation, of Central New York, of Homer, and of Cortland County.


Sources for this article:

Darlington, James W. (October, 1993). “Peopling the Post-Revolutionary New York Frontier,” in New York History (Cooperstown, NY: The New York State Historical Association).

Farrell, William R. (2002). Classical Place Names in New York State (Jamesville, NY: Pine Grove Press).

Kimberly, Mary, Historian for McGraw (2023). Contributed photocopy and transcription of the 1805 Deed for what is now the Green in the village of Homer.

Schein, Richard H. (January 1993). “Framing the Frontier: The New Military Tract Survey in Central New York,” in New York History (Cooperstown, NY: The New York State Historical Association).

Sweeney, Martin A. (2011). Lincoln’s Gift from Homer, New York: A Painter, an Editor and a Detective (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company, Inc.), pp. 3-4, 9.

Tioughnioga Chapter, NSDAR. Emailed letter received April 20, 2023.

Note: The two booklets published by The New York State Historical Association were dropped off at the Historian’s office at the Town Hall in December 2022. A sticky note indicated they were donated by “Russ.” I contacted three Russes and a “Rusty” I know, but as of this writing I have not been able to determine the “Russ” I need to thank.


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