Friday marks the 330th anniversary of the founding of Westchester County, and at the Westchester County Historical Society in Elmsford, staffers Katie Hite and Patrick Raftery are dedicated to preserving the county’s rich historical significance.
The county was first formed on Nov. 1, 1683. With the British still in charge, the county government was established as a way of organizing the region. Most towns weren’t established until after the Revolutionary War. What is now the Bronx was originally part of Westchester before being annexed into New York City in the 1870s.
The major population centers of Westchester were Bedford and White Plains, where the two courthouses were located. There were some small towns, but most of the land was divided into manors, land bestowed upon wealthy individuals who let farmers work their land in an almost feudal society.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, Westchester played an important role, acting as a buffer zone between land owned by British and American forces.
“It was as much a civil war as the Civil War was,” Hite said. “People within families, within communities took different sides.”
Many historical sites still survive from the Revolution, such as the Bedford Courthouse and the Purdy House in White Plains, which served as Washington’s headquarters. The Odell House in Hartsdale was where Washington and Count de Rochambeau devised their strategy to attack the British in Yorktown, VA.
Many of the owners of the manors sided with the British, and were forced to give up their land after the war. The land was sold at affordable rates to the farmers who worked the land, and towns began to be established.
“Nowadays, people tend to think of the county as a suburb of New York City, and really the railroads made that possible,” Raftery said. “Someone could wake up, hop on a train and head into the city for work, where before they couldn’t do that.”
A lot of the population lived and worked in the county, operating stores, farming, working in manufacturing. Once the railroads came in, more people started moving out to Westchester.
“They began moving out for the fresh air,” Hite said. “They didn’t want to live in an overcrowding, teeming place. They wanted peace and quiet. And that trend accelerated when the care was invented and became something that everyone had.”
The Westchester Historical Society was first established in 1874 and is one of the oldest historical societies in the country. Located in the same building as the county’s records department, its library contains more than 100,000 private and public documents from the county.
The books, letters, photos, diaries and maps are carefully preserved in a temperature and humidity controlled vault. Visitors researching their family, home or other aspect of Westchester history can visit and receive help finding the records and information they need.