The Finger Lakes stretch like narrow north–south slashes across western central New York. Their names evoke the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy that dominated this area for more than two centuries. From east to west, the lakes are Otisco, Skaneateles, Owasco, Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, Canandaigua, Honeoye, Canadice, Hemlock, and Conesus.
Iroquois legend has it that the Finger Lakes were formed when the Great Spirit placed his hand in blessing on this favored land, leaving behind an imprint. Geologists offer another explanation: retreating Ice Age glaciers created the lakes about a million years ago. The intense grinding pressure of the ice masses gouged deep holes in the earth, creating the long, narrow lakes that lie side by side, as well as deep gorges with their rushing falls (the Finger Lakes has more than 1,000 waterfalls, many around Ithaca), and the wide fertile valleys that extend south for miles.
Five of the six Iroquois nations inhabited the Finger Lakes Region. After the American Revolution, European-Americans received tracts of land here in lieu of pay for their war service. The region flourished as an agricultural heartland, bolstered by the construction of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries the Finger Lakes became a land of dreamers and doers. Joseph Smith had a vision leading to the founding in 1830 of the Mormon Church at his home in Palmyra, north of Canandaigua. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony worked for women’s suffrage here, and Seneca Falls, site of the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848, is considered the birthplace of the women’s movement. Frederick Douglass proselytized for the abolition of slavery near his home in Rochester and Harriet Tubman, who lived in Auburn, smuggled slaves to Canada along the region’s many Underground Railroad stops. George Eastman invented the Kodak camera in Rochester. Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at his summer home in Elmira. Glenn H. Curtiss put Hammondsport on the aviation map by flying his June Bug just under a mile in 1908.
This rich history spawned institutions of higher learning and of the arts that continue to thrive: Rochester’s world-famous Eastman School of Music, Ithaca’s Cornell University, Syracuse University, and the Corning Glass Works (and Steuben Glass) and the Corning Museum of Glass, to name a few.
Much of the Finger Lakes region still shows its rural roots. Dairy farms, small villages, and stunning 19th-century architecture dot the landscape. Today the region thrives on its viticulture. Those deep glacial lakes create a microclimate that moderates temperatures along their shores, protecting grapevines from cold winters and hot summers. The region has more than 100 wineries, and touring vineyards is one of the top tourist activities. Meanwhile, B&Bs are sprouting like weeds and restaurants are honing their menus to focus on the region’s fresh bounty in produce, dairy, meat, and wine.