Troy, New York (1789)

After the Revolutionary War, an influx of settlers claimed land near what is now Albany, New York. Dutch colonist Jackob Vanderheyden was persuaded by them to sell portions of his farm, which he did on the condition the settlement be called Vanderheyden. But the new settlers found the name “too polysyllabic, Dutch and strange,” and opted instead to name the place “Troy,” explaining in the Albany Gazette on January of 1789 that they expected “at no very distant period, to see TROY as famous for her Trade and Navigation as many of our first towns.” [1]

 

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Homer lavished praise on Troy (also called Ilium) in The Iliad. It was an exceptionally well-built, well-defended city, with steep, strong walls that enabled it to endure more than a decade of persistent attacks by the Greeks. Strategically situated on a narrow strait, the Trojans dominated access to the Black Sea.

Having just successfully withstood a better-armed and better-funded army (the British), former colonists used Troy and other classical place names to “portray them[selves] as equals to the world’s most famed warrior states,” and to vaunt their “fragile Revolution and bleak prospects beyond its seeming tenuousness.” [2]

Some ridiculed the new name, and said that whoever suggested it was “playing a trick with the good people of the place, and is now laughing in his sleeve at their ignorance of ancient history.” [3] But the name was retained, and became one most frequently replicated classical town names in America (there are upwards of 95 Troys in the U.S.).

Choosing the name Troy followed the tactic long used by colonists of adopting a famous ancient figure as a pseudonym. These classical alter egos (Cicero, Livy, Tacitus, Marcus Aurelius and others) were “textual masks” that enabled “ventriloquized performances” of civic duty. [4] Pseudonyms aided in imagining America as a re-invented Roman republic, with its orderly Senate, its ethical-statesman, and its idealization of agriculture as a noble, civic pursuit. Ancient personae — Cincinnatus, Cicero, Tully, and etc., etc., — helped former colonists depict themselves as honest pastoralist-statesmen over against the scheming and venal monarchists of Europe.

Naming Troy after a mighty walled city able to withstand sustained attack emboldened this rag-tag band of former colonists to signify their rural existence as militarily strategic, and to project themselves as “the future seat of liberty and civilization.” [5] Soon, places named Syracuse, Apulia, Palymra, Rome, Smyrna, Vesper, Carthage and even Babylon dotted western New York — a naming pattern that soon spread well beyond western New York.

 

NOTES

[1] See Rutherford Hayner, Troy and Rensselaer County, New York: A History (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1925), 134-136; Arthur James Weise, Troy’s One Hundred Years 1789-1889 (Troy, NY: William H. Young, 1891), 28-29; and Writers of the Works Progress Administration, New York: A Guide to the Empire State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1940), 344.

[2] Eran Shalev, Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Historical Imagination and the Creation of the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 19.

[3] The article is printed in Weise, Troy’s One Hundred, 29.

[4] Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), 95.

[5] Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole, “Introduction,” in Thomas Jefferson, The Classical World, and Early America, ed. Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 5.

*There are excellent treatments of the profound impact and diverse uses of classicism in early American history. Among these see Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), and Carl J. Richard, The Golden Age of Classical in American: Greece, Rome and the Antebellum US (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).