By Justin D. White
Oswego County Historian
Oswego County made its unique mark in the history of New York State and America due to its strategic location on Lake Ontario. The area has been a destination since the days of the Native American tribes who once used the land and waterways in everyday life. The first European explorers arrived in the 16th century and discovered the wealth of natural resources the area had to offer in the infancy of the new world. The area first began to develop in the early 18th century when it served as a military post on the American border. The importance of the area can be seen through the history of the three major forts built in Oswego during this time. The British built forts here seeking to maintain control of this important region. Fort Ontario still remains today as a monument of the important military history of this region.
The waterways found in Oswego County, including the Oswego River, Salmon River and Oneida Lake were the primary natural resources that influenced the first permanent settlers to live here. The economy of the area was built upon these waters and gradually a village known as Oswego began to form along the mouth of Lake Ontario and the Oswego River. As industries sprouted and the need for water and power grew, more settlers arrived to establish and develop communities along the lake and river valley. Communities began to emerge and grow and the village of Oswego eventually became a city in 1848. Other municipalities formed such as the villages of Pulaski, Fulton and Phoenix, all of which were built conveniently along the water. In the rural towns, agriculture and lumber became main sources of revenue.
Eventually the construction of the Oswego Canal in 1828 and its connection to the Erie Canal opened the gateway to trade with Canada and beyond. The area continued to prosper and more settlers of all backgrounds and ethnicities arrived in pursuit of greater opportunities. Throughout the 19th century, civic leaders and businessmen worked to create commercial and industrial ventures that would eventually flourish with the transportation opportunities connected with shipping and later with the advent of the railroads. In the 20th century manufacturing and energy power revolutionized the way of life and brought a new dimension to the local economy.
The waterways continue to play a crucial role in the economy of the area. The rivers and lakes still remain vital and the need for water is just as relevant today as it was in the early days. Today the waterways have another impact on the economy with fishing and recreational uses. Oswego County continues to be a destination for its water, history, educational opportunities, summer and winter attractions, energy industry and more.
The vital role the county has played in history is documented through the legacies of the first Native Americans, the first settlers, the first leaders and builders who left behind a trove of recollections to remind us of this important past. As evidenced over more than two centuries of history, it is clear that Oswego County is a place of continuous evolution and a destination for generations to come.