Westchester County contains some of the most interesting and historic sites in New York State — from Glen Island and Rye Playland along the Long Island Sound to the charming belt of villages nestled along the banks of the Hudson River.
Until the late 19th century, Westchester was most often defined by its rural charms, an outpost seemingly a world away from the bustle of New York City.
Yet it has often been harnessed to the city and its needs (often to the consternation of Westchester’s residents) from the Croton Aqueduct to the Hudson River Railroad.
In 1874 New York took from the county again when a southern portion west of the Bronx River was absorbed by the city, creating the Annexed District. By the end of the century, that expanded district would be removed from Westchester altogether and become The Bronx. (Listen to our podcast on the birth of the Bronx for more information.)
The extraordinary history of the lands which comprise modern Westchester trace back centuries (and even millennia, in fact). The county was created in 1682, named for the walled English city of Chester, one of the twelve original counties created by the British as the Province of New York. (The other eleven — Albany, Cornwall, Dukes, Dutchess, Kings, New York, Orange, Queens, Richmond, Suffolk and Ulster.)
Exploring the origin of the names of Westchester County reveals the rich and complex history of the region — from its Native American roots to the realities of 20th century life.
Croton-on-Hudson and the Croton River
The Kitchawancs tribe, a Munsee-speaking native population which lived in this region, was once led by an sachem named Kenoten (meaning the wild wind.) His name evolved into the word Croton which lends itself to the river and to the village Croton-on-Hudson.
Yonkers and Saw Mill River
Adrian Van Der Donck was one of the most prominent residents of New Amsterdam and often at odds with director-general Peter Stuyvesant. In 1645 the Dutch West India Company granted Van Der Donck an estate along the Hudson River where he operated a saw mill along a tributary river now named for that very saw mill.
As a notable Dutch patroon, Van Der Donck was known as jonkheer of the estate, “literally translated as young lord or esquire.” He was killed in 1655 during a conflict with the Lenape known as the Peach War, but his honorific lives on, centuries after his death, in New York’s fourth largest city.
The Dutch Van Cortlandt family, who first arrived in New Amsterdam, were Westchester’s most prominent Colonial landowners in the 17th century, their estate extending from the Hudson River to the Connecticut line on the east. Not only does their name adhere to the towns of Cortlandt and Cortlandt Manor, but you can find their story in various places in the region — most notably Van Cortlandt Manor and the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park
In the late 16th century, thousands of French Huguenots (Protestants) escaped religious persecution by sailing to English colonial territories that were more welcoming to their faith. In 1688 thirty-three Huguenot families formed a settlement in Westchester County, and in honor of their former home La Rochelle, they named it New Rochelle.
To quote from Sandra Harrison in her book White Plains, New York: A City of Contrasts: “Perhaps the best explanation for the city’s name is that there were once numerous wetlands on which a heavy white mist would often linger. Even though many of these wetlands are gone, mists often hover over the city where the tops of skyscrapers disappear.” Mysterious!
Yes, there was a Dobbs (a Jeremiah Dobbs) and, yes, he had a ferry service here during the Colonial Era. The village played a pretty critical role in the Revolutionary War.
And in 1781, George Washington encamped in Dobbs Ferry with the Continental Army, then headed to Yorktown, Virginia, where his troops would win a decisive victory. (Another Westchester town — Yorktown, New York — was named in celebration.)
Cyrus West Field, who devised the Transatlantic Cable in the 1850s, owned a small property in Westchester County called Ardsley Park, named for the English village of East Ardsley where his ancestors were from. Local lore suggests that Field used his influence to get the village a post office in exchange for it taking the name of his estate. (Most likely the residents were more than happy to be associated with the acclaimed, world-famous financier.)
The village formerly known as Sing Sing took its original name from the native people of the region — the Sintsink. In the 1820s the Sing Sing Prison opened along the waterfront, soon becoming one of America’s most notorious correctional facilities. In 1901 the town, frustrated by the association, successfully changed its name (adopting that of the nearby town of Ossining) to escape any further confusion.
The Tappan Zee Bridge
The expansive widening of the Hudson River between the towns of Nyack and Tarrytown has one of the most interesting names in New York state, a combination of the Tappan native Indian tribe and the Dutch word for sea — zee. Its name fusion expresses the truly unique history of the region, where traditions morph and expand with new generations.
Since the 1950s a bridge has spanned the river at this spot. In 2017 an attractive new bridge replaced the older one. And apparently we’re supposed to call it the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge now. (But it will always be the Tappan Zee to me.)
Do you have any other interesting stories about Westchester County? Leave them in the comments!