The earliest inhabitants of Cayuga County were Indians of the archaic period who lived along the shores of Cayuga Lake. Carbon dating established the time of occupance for these people around 3500 B.C. Archeological sites by Owasco Lake and along the Seneca River show the development of these early people so that by 1,000 A.D. in the Woodland Period, people of the Owasco Focus had begun farming and developed crops later copied by the Europeans.
The “Father of Anthropology” in America, Lewis Henry Morgan, born and educated in Aurora, was the first to describe the epitome of Indian culture—the Iroquois. Cayuga County was the homeland of the Cayugas, one of the six nations of the great Confederacy. The tribal center for the Cayugas was at Goiogouen, where the Great Gully Creek empties into Cayuga Lake. In 1656, the Jesuit missionary, Father Rene Menard, founded St. Joseph’s Mission there. The capital of the Cayuga Nation was destroyed in 1779 by a detachment of Sullivan’s army under the command of Colonel William Butler.
After the revolution, Cayuga County was wholly within the military tract of western land set aside as bounty payments for soldiers. Colonel John Hardenbergh purchased land by the rapids of the Owasco Outlet and built a mill there which eventually became the City of Auburn. Most other early settlements in Cayuga County were in the southeast area near Cayuga Lake. Roswell Franklin, the earliest settler, built a cabin just south of the Cayuga Reservation along the shore of Cayuga Lake in Aurora in 1789. As other settlers came north, Aurora grew and the first county records for Onondaga County were kept there. When Cayuga County was set off from Onondaga in 1799, Aurora became the county seat. The county seat was later moved to the more centrally located Auburn in 1805.
Auburn became the largest community in the state west of Utica in the early years, as it served as a junction of the mayor turnpikes serving the westward settlers. The building of the Erie Canal led to the changes in migration patterns from the south to the east and southeast. Montezuma, Port Byron and Weedsport owe their growth to the canal. David Thomas of Aurora was the designer of the canal west of Rochester.
The Auburn and Syracuse Railroad was part of the original New York Central line and was organized in 1834 and first used in 1838. Cayuga County was also served by the Lehigh Valley Railroad which ran between the lakes carrying coal north from Pennsylvania to Fair Haven and carrying milk on the return trip.
Millard Fillmore, 13th president of the United States, was born in a log cabin in the Town of Summerhill in 1800. He later read law with Judge Walter Wood in Montville before moving on to Buffalo in 1822.
William H. Seward became prominent as an Auburn attorney when he defended William Freeman, the accused murderer of the Van Ness family on the grounds of insanity. His success led other lawyers to use a similar plea. Seward was Governor of New York from 1838-1849. He crowned his career as Lincoln and Johnson’s Secretary of State, 186101869. He was largely responsible for keeping European nations from aiding the Confederacy, and for the purchase of Alaska.
Enos Throop served in Congress from 1814 to 1816 as a “War Hawk.” He became Lieutenant Governor in 1828 and later Governor when Van Buren was appointed to Andrew Jackson’s cabinet.
Harriet Tubman, the famous leader of the abolition movement and the underground railroad settled in Auburn and established a home for elderly black people there.
The agricultural historian, U.P. Hedrick has indicated that Cayuga County is the mother of farm invention with over 100 patents for various farm machines filed by 1880. Farm activity has seen cash crops like hops, tobacco, and sugar beets, but now is principally dairy farming with wheat, corn and apples as cash crops.
Invention in industry was also extensive. For example, William Burroughs developed the idea for an adding machine while working for an Auburn bank and Theodore Case of Auburn invented sound on motion picture film in 1927.
Auburn is the industrial center of Cayuga County with the production of shoes, carpets, rope, railroad locomotives, air conditioners, and electronic components. When Auburn was chartered its population was 8,500, its population has leveled off now at 35,000, the county itself approaches 75,000.
Cayuga County has three state parks at Fillmore Glen, Fair Haven and Long Point on Cayuga Lake. The County operates Emerson Park at the foot of Owasco Lake and the village of Union Springs has Frontenac Park on its shoreline.
Since Henry Wells founded Wells College in Aurora in 1868, higher education has seen the opening of Cayuga County Community College in 1954, Cayuga Museum of History and Art in 1936 and the Schweinfurth Art Center in 1981.