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History of the Finger Lakes

History of the Finger Lakes

A Place of Legends

To the Native Americans this was a place of mystery and beauty. So great was their love for their home, it was believed to have been handcrafted by the Creator himself. The legend goes “The Finger Lakes came into being when the Great Spirit looked upon this land with special favor and reached down to bless it, leaving the imprint of His hand.”

Some of Mother Nature’s Finest Work

Eleven pristine lakes make their mark in the middle of New York state. At the end of the last Ice Age, roughly two million years ago, glaciers stretched across much of North America. As they moved and retreated, the ground beneath was carved out, leaving behind the long narrow lakes, waterfalls, and deep gorges that we know today. The glaciers had such an impact on this region that many of the geologic anomalies found here aren’t found in many other places. The drumlins that line Lake Ontario and the unique Y shape of Keuka Lake are just two examples.

In alphabetical order, the lakes are Canadice, Canandaigua, Cayuga, Conesus, Hemlock, Honeoye, Keuka, Otisco, Owasco, Seneca and Skaneateles. Historically there has been a debate over what size constituted a major and a minor Finger Lake, but we love all of our lakes equally.

Although technically we should say we love all of our waterways equally. Across the northern Finger Lakes region lies Lake Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes in terms of surface area. The name Ontario comes from the Huron word ontarí’io or lake of shining waters. Cutting through the region is the Erie Canal. Nicknamed the “waterway that changed the country”, it was once the lifeblood of the people who lived here and depended on the canal for travel and trade. Nowadays much of the canal is open for recreational use, and residents and visitors alike love hiking, biking, boating, canoeing, kayaking and more in and around the canal.

Invention, Innovation, Resistance

The Finger Lakes has been home to many innovative, influential people. From abolitionists and suffragettes like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Susan B Anthony, and Matilda Joselyn Gage to inventors like George Eastman and writers like Mark Twain, and a host of others, history happened here. And it happened here again, and again and again.

From the invention of sound in movies to the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls and the birthplace of Mormonism; to explore the Finger Lakes is to walk through our Nation’s history. Below are a few notable names who called the Finger Lakes their home or home away from home, though this list is far from complete.


If you haven’t tried it, you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t heard of it, what are you waiting for? Wine growing and making is a substantial part of Finger Lakes history, with the first recorded vineyard in 1829. Today the region boasts over 130 wineries, most of which line the shores of the lakes they call home.  The region has been compared to that of the Rhine Valley in Germany.

Comparable to the Rhine Valley, the region is the largest and most acclaimed winemaking region in the Eastern US and growing. We owe much of our success to the lakes themselves. The steep slopes that surround the lakes provide natural drainage for rainwater and air during the spring and summer growing seasons, and the extreme depth of the lakes moderates the region’s cool autumns with gentle, warming fog, thereby extending the growing season. Local wineries produce many wines, with Riesling as the standout. Years of experimentation have produced other varieties of exceptional wine, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer. The southern shores of Lake Ontario also lend themselves to wine growing for the same reasons.

The Finger Lakes is also home to the oldest wine trail in the country, Cayuga Lake Wine Trail which was established in 1983.