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Ethnic Development
The ethnic landscape of Oneida County has been transformed periodically since the seventeenth century by global population shifts. European colonialism, the migration of people of African descent, and immigration from Europe, the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East have all shaped and reshaped the ethnic, social, cultural, political, and even economic history of the county; likewise, various groups have been drawn to the county by economic change both here and abroad.
  • Pioneers
  • Welsh
  • Polish
  • Italian
  • Irish/German
  • African American

Pioneer Era

Egbert N. Clark painted this local historical scene

The ethnic landscape of Oneida County has been transformed periodically since the seventeenth century by global population shifts. European colonialism, the migration of people of African descent, and immigration from Europe, the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East have all shaped and reshaped the ethnic, social, cultural, political, and even economic history of the county; likewise, various groups have been drawn to the county by economic change both here and abroad. The history of Oneida County can therefore be seen as the story of the arrival and settlement of progressive waves of peoples, with some groups dramatically altering the ethnic composition and other aspects of the county at intervals that often coincided with the assimilation or declining presence of earlier inhabitants of the area.

As its name might suggest, Oneida County was once home to only one group of people, the Oneida Nation. At the time of their first contact with Europeans, the Nation consisted of perhaps as many as 4,000 people who settled in the southwest of the present county.

The Oneidas taught the first white settlers how to process this corn. Pomeroy Jones, the first county historian, wrote in 1851 that "the early settlers in many instances had to resort to the swamp mortar, the pattern of which they borrowed from the Oneidas, to reduce their corn to a proper consistency for making of hominy." In addition, the influence of the Oneidas can be seen in some place names. The present community of Oneida Castle, for instance, is so named because it was the site of a fortified Oneida village. The name Oriskany was derived from the Oneida village named Orisata-aak, which was another Oneida "castle" at the time of the American Revolution.

White settlers in Oneida County expanded slowly but steadily throughout the last decades of the eighteenth century, and the earlier part of the eighteenth century, settlers from the Palatine region of western Germany had settled throughout the Mohawk Valley. Even before the Revolution, a small handful of these German settlers are believed to have moved to what would become eastern Oneida County, as reportedly did a handful of Dutch settlers from the Lower Mohawk.

Whitestown's namesake Hugh White, who founded White's Town in 1784.

The American Revolution disrupted, if not temporarily reversed, this first, limited flow of settlers of European stock into Oneida County, but the cessation of hostilities in 1782 opened what was then the western frontier to further settlement. The vast bulk of settlers in the first half century after the Revolution were migrants from neither the Mohawk Valley nor Europe. New immigration from Europe was largely disrupted by two decades of warfare set off by the French Revolution and Napoleon, only a decade after the end of the American Revolution.  European immigration to America and to Oneida County would not resume significant levels until the second and third decades of the nineteenth century.

Instead, New Englanders were the chief beneficiaries of the opening of the western frontier to settlement. Many of these Yankees had gotten their first look at the land that would later become Oneida County during the Seven Years or French and Indian War (1756-63) and the American Revolution (1776-83); in both wars, troops from New England were garrisoned in the fortress at present-day Rome.

Almost 90 percent of the first wave of settlers in Whitestown (which then included all of the present county) came from either Massachusetts or Connecticut. As late as 1845, settlers from New England, and their children and grandchildren, accounted for almost half of the population of the county. Many of these early Yankee migrants came to Oneida County as a result of a phenomenon referred to as "chain migration" -that is, the process by which individuals entice their relatives and former neighbors to follow in their footsteps and settle in a new land. 

As would happen in succeeding generations, an immigrant was a pivotal agent of the cultural change in the county.


Capel Cerrig, Prospect Street, Remsen, 1831

Although European immigration to Oneida County did not reach peak levels until the opening of the nineteenth century, members of other groups, notably the Welsh, came here in significant numbers beginning in the 1780s. By 1812, there were over 700 Welsh settlers in Oneida County; by 1855, Welsh immigrants and their children and grandchildren accounted for ten percent of the population of the county. In time more people of Welsh heritage would reside per capita, in Oneida County than in any other county in the United States.

The Welsh were attracted to the county for the same reason as the New Englanders and the Mohawk Valley Germans and Dutch: the abundance of cheap land. Many came under the leadership of land agents, armed with at least a down payment for a homestead. "I have bought land here with a house on it and a place for all you to work your own land - if I have my health and life, within six years I will have paid for it all," wrote one local Welsh immigrant to his son in Wales.  (He added in a post-script to his son: "If you do not come this summer I shall say goodbye to you all for ever.")

Welsh immigrants carved out an agricultural enclave in eastern Oneida County, in Remsen and the town of Steuben, between the 1780s and the 1840s. The historian Pomeroy Jones wrote in 1851: "The descendants of the ancient Cambrians form a hardy, industrious, and frugal, and of course thriving population. Their butter dairies, for which they are far famed, are carried on to great perfection..." A Welsh immigrant in Trenton described life in his comer of the county in 1816 in slightly less poetic terms: "There are plenty of shops and plenty to be had for money or goods. There is a good school within half a mile of our house...There are good woolen and cotton mills nearby...Welsh butter is going to many merchants in New York who make thousands of dollars every year...Many of the Welsh who did not have a pound are now worth many thousands."

There were also many skilled workers among the Welsh, many of whom settled in Utica (indeed, by 1800, the Welsh outnumbered every group in the village other than the New Englanders). The county - particularly Utica - became the center of the Welsh book publishing industry in America. As many as twelve firms operated locally at one time or another in the nineteenth century; much of the output of these ethnic presses consisted of collections of sermons and other books that catered to the profound religious piety of the Welsh. 

Utica's award-winning Haydn Male Chorus - 1915

Although the Yankee settlers of the county for some time maintained a high level of religious discipline, the early Welsh sometimes considered the Americans around them to be barely religious (one might note that I am speaking of the period before the great religious revivals of the 1820s and 1830s). "Religion is weak compared with the Old Country and the preachers are few," wrote one Welshman from Utica in 1818. Another Welsh immigrant wrote from Utica in 1832: "When I came here first about twenty-eight years ago there was not one religious meeting house but soon after I arrived the Welsh built one for use in their language and that was me first!!! Now there are fifteen houses of worship of different denominations and three of them belong to the Welsh. There are more than forty Welsh preachers here." 

Welsh immigrants were Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian, but all protestant; "A Welsh Catholic would be an anomaly, and they are peculiar in their hatred of all that appertains to Popery," wrote Pomeroy Jones. Both the first and second churches of any kind in Utica were Welsh (one Baptist, the other Congregational). By 1850 there were ten Welsh chapels in Remsen alone, most of which were Methodist, although there were also Baptist and Presbyterian congregations. In fact, in 1828 Welsh immigrants organized the "Oneida County Presbytery (Welsh)" at Penycaerau church, two miles east of Remsen. As a sign of the vibrancy of the Welsh ethnic community in Oneida County this Welsh presbytery did not merge with the English-speaking Utica Presbytery until over a century later, in 1936.

Welsh children in stage production

The Welsh established a string of institutions that, like churches, were to become characteristic elements of nearly every other immigrant community in the subsequent ethnic history of the county. The Welsh community produced one of the first of a long and rich line of local ethnic newspapers. In 1854, a group of investors in Utica established Y GwyHedydd Americanaidd ("The American Watchman"), one of the earliest Welsh-language newspapers in the United States. In 1855, this publication was bought out by Y Drych, which had itself been established in New York City in 1851. In the early 1870s, Y Drych was purchased by Thomas J. Griffiths, a local Welsh printer, who moved it to Utica. Y Drych eventually became the only national-circulation Welsh-language newspaper in the United States. In 1814 the Welsh established the Ancient Britons' Society, probably the first ethnic organization of any kind in the county and certainly the first of many mutual aid societies established by various immigrant groups to provide insurance against sickness, death, and unemployment.

Choral societies were yet another distinctive contribution of the Welsh to the County's ethnic history. Pomeroy Jones wrote in 1851 that the Welsh are "a nation of singers, and in this part of public worship nearly the entire congregation join." Welsh singing societies held great annual singing competitions called Eisteffods. Such choral societies were not characteristic of all subsequent immigrant groups, although the German Gesangvereine were die equivalent of these Welsh choral societies in the history of the county.

Although Welsh immigrants continued to come to Oneida County and were to be a lively local presence into me twentieth century, by the 1840s the heyday of Welsh settlement in the county was over. In some regards, declining influx of Welsh farmers (not to mention farmers from New England, Germany, and other places) was a reflection of the success of Oneida County as a gateway to the West.  In fact, by 1825 Oneida County was second only to New York County (i.e., Manhattan) in population, largely as a result of the power of the Erie Canal to draw thousands of migrants westward through Utica, Rome, and other local communities. Reflecting on the extent to which rural Oneida County had been settled, one Welsh immigrant in New York City stated bluntly m 1844: "the land has become dearer than usual...I am against [the Welsh] settling in mountainous districts where the land is covered with snow for five months of the year when the fertile lands of the Mississippi are much cheaper and have a more pleasant climate."


Holy Trinity's Catholic League Basketball Champions

Just as the Italians were beginning to come to Oneida County in increasing numbers in the late nineteenth century, the Poles and Ukrainians were also arriving. The first wave of Polish immigrants came from the German-controlled West Prussia and Austrian-occupied Galicia. By 1900, there were 1,125 Poles in Oneida County, and this number rose dramatically to 7,073 by 1920. Of these, 4,091 resided in Utica, and much of the remainder of the Polish immigrant community was centered in the village of New York Mills. After 1905, Polish immigrants were also coming in large numbers from the Russian-controlled portion of Poland, including at least some who allegedly were avoiding conscription into the Russian Army during the Russo-Japanese War. A very large proportion of the Polish population worked in local textile mills and other factories; as with the Italians, some were also employed by various railroads.

The Poles were Catholics, and like the Italians, the local Polish community produced a minority who dissented from the majority religion. Rather than join a Protestant denomination, as did a handful of local Italians, some local Poles instead joined the Polish National Catholic Church, which had broken with the Vatican and placed considerable emphasis the need to preserve not just the faith, but also the language and national identity of the Polish people. Two parishes of the Polish National Church, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart of Jesus, were established in Utica and New York Mills, respectively; the two parishes merged in 1988 following the destruction of Holy Cross by fire.

Polish Falcons c. 1909

Another distinctive Polish contribution to the ethnic life of Oneida County was the establishment of local lodges, or "nests," of the Polish Falcons, a group very similar to the German Tumvereme. The Falcons, like the Turners, were dedicated to gymnastics and to the Ubera- tion of their homeland from foreign domination, by force of arms if necessary. Many Falcons joined the Polish Army in World War I in order to expel the Germans, Austrians, and Russians who had occupied Poland since the late eighteenth century.

Like other immigrant communities, local Poles produced their own newspapers, the most notable of which was Utica's Slowo Polski ("The Polish Word"), which was published from the first decade of the twentieth century until 1966. Like many other local ethnic newspapers, Slowo Polski was a nationalist newspaper which defended Poland's right to independence from the time before Poland's recreation in 1918-19, through the period of Nazi domination, and went into the era of Communist and Soviet domination.

In the same period that witnessed the influx of the Poles, significant, if relatively small numbers of settlers, came from the western Ukraine to settle in Oneida County.  There are reports that a small number of Ukrainians had migrated to the area by the end of the nineteenth century; what became of these immigrants is not known, and some might very well have melted into the local Polish population. By the time of the First World War, however, sufficiently large numbers had come to warrant the establishment of Ukrainian Catholic churches in Utica and in Rome. The Ukrainians fell religiously into one of two general groups, the Ukrainian Rite Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Which church one belonged to depended largely on which part of the Ukraine one came from, with the Catholics coming from the western part closest to Catholic Poland.


The Societa Progresso D'Aiuto on the old court house steps on John Street in 1892

As the numbers of Northern European immigrants began slowly to diminish, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were beginning to trickle into Oneida County. A handful of Italians from Northern Italy had already settled in the county before the 1870s. John Marchisi settled in Utica in 1817, where he became a successful pharmacist and a respected member of the local community. Another early settler, Alessandro Lucca, who arrived around 1853, made plaster images of famous people that he sold from his canal boat. However, only a few of Italian immigrants came to Oneida County before 1880, and the bulk of the thousands who came thereafter were unskilled peasants from Southern Italy.

As with other ethnic groups, southern Italian immigration into Oneida County was dominated in the early years by immigrants from identifiable villages. The earliest Italian immigrants in Utica, for instance, came from me village of Laurenzana, in the southern region of Basiucata. The original chain of migrants from Laurenzana began with the Pellettieri brothers. In addition to immigrants from Basilicata, the remainder of the county's Italians came from Lazio (the region around Rome), Aputia (the "heel" of the "boot"), and Campagna (Naples and the surrounding region).

Southern Italians came in response to the demand for industrial labor, particularly in the county's growing number of textile and copper mills. Many of the Italians who first came in the 1870s and 1880s were drawn to the county by a major transportation construction project, the building of the North Shore Railroad. Many also came to Oneida County to work on urban paving projects and in the building industry.

Many southern Italians displayed a marked talent for small business, particularly in fields related to food processing and retailing. By 1902 Italian immigrants operated nearly ten percent of grocery stores in Utica even though less than five percent of the population of the city was Italian; by 1940, 95 of Utica's 311 independent grocery stores were owned by Italians. Especially in Utica and Rome, Italian immigrants engaged in a wide range of business activities, including baking, pasta making, olive oil packing and food importation, printing, furniture dealing, and real estate sale and development. In 1880, there were only 529 Italians in the county. By 1920, this number had risen to over 11,000, or more than six percent of the population of the county; more than 7,000 of these Italians had settled in Utica alone, and much of the remainder lived in Rome. As late as 1970, Italian immigrants and their children constituted the largest group of foreign parentage in the county.

Relations between local Italians and other ethnic groups, particularly the Irish, varied according to socioeconomic status. While the Italians had troubles with some working-class Irish-Americans, more prosperous Irish-Americans were responsible for notable acts of charity toward the Italians. Well-to-do Irish-Americans were generous in their donations to the first Italian church in the county, Utica's Saint Mary of Mount Carmel. Part of the credit for this generosity, though, needs to be assigned to the Kernan family, particularly Celia Repetti Kernan, who came from a wealthy New York City Italian family to marry Michael Keman and became an effective and, by all accounts, charming advocate for her fellow Italians.

Frank Longo & Company fruit truck on Bleecker Street in Utica in 1925

The bulk of Italian immigrants put great emphasis on the festa or feast of their patron saint, which was celebrated annually with colorful street festivals, special religious services, and even special foods. The highpoint of every festa was a parade in which a statue of the saint, decked with ribbons on which the faithful often pinned money, was carried through the streets of the neighborhood for all to see; the especially devout would walk barefoot in such parades in gratitude for a special favor granted by the saint.

Oneida County produced more Italian-American newspapers per capita than communities in which Italians settled throughout the United States. This distinction probably stemmed from the fact that the city of Utica had more Italian immigrants per capita than almost any community in New York State and, indeed, the country. In 1900 Utica's L'Avvenire ("The Future") became the first Italian-language newspaper between New York City and Buffalo. Between 1900 and the cessation in 1948 of the last local Italian-American newspaper, The Messenger (successor to the Messaggerodell' Ordine or "Messenger of Order," founded in 1921), over a dozen Italian-language publications were printed at one time or another in Oneida County.

In time, the Italians, like the Irish before them, learned that much could be accomplished through political action coordinated by an Italian political leadership. The great local Italian political leaders of twentieth century Oneida County became powerful forces in local politics. By 1910, even prominent mainstream local politicians found it necessary to reckon with the "Italian vote." For instance, in gratitude for the help he received from local Italians, Congressman James S. Sherman (later Vice President of the United States) used his influence on Capitol Hill to have Utica named a Port of Entry, which was advantageous for local Italian food importers.


St. John's Orphanage

In the second decade of the nineteenth century, immigrants from Ireland became an increasingly prominent element of the local population. The vast significant influx of Irish immigrants took place in 1817-25, when many came to dig the Erie Canal. The construction of the canal brought thousands of Irish laborers to local communities. Once the canal was opened, many more Irish came to Oneida County in search of work, and they found the area going through a vigorous expansion.

Irish immigrants and others were also brought to Oneida County by the Industrial and Transportation Revolution which the canal had helped to nourish. The railroads and canals became sources of large numbers of permanent jobs, particularly in the county's urban areas. Finally, the middle decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of the powerful local textile industry, centered chiefly around Utica and the surrounding communities (like New York Mills and New Hartford). All of this created a powerful and continuing local demand for unskilled labor, the only work for which the sparsely educated mass of Irish and later European immigrants were qualified.

Irish immigration to Oneida County was therefore well under way for decades before the famous Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49. Although the Famine helped to push more Irish people to come to the United States, it was the abundance of suitable work that persuaded thousands of Irish immigrants to settle in Oneida County. By 1855 Irish immigrants accounted for over ten percent of the population of the county.

Previous to the first influx of Irish immigrants, Oneida County was solidly Protestant. However, by 1819 there were enough Irish immigrants in Oneida County to warrant the establishment of Utica's Saint John's Church, the first Roman Catholic parish in New York State west of Albany. Utica's Nicholas and John Devereux, the two early Irish immigrants who founded the Savings Bank of Utica, were among the earliest benefactors of Saint John's. In fact, the first Catholic mass in the western part of the state was celebrated in John Devereux's home on Broad Street in Utica.

The early- and mid-nineteenth century also witnessed an influx of German immigrants into the county. Between the 1760s and the 1830s, the people of German descent who settled in the county were primarily from the Mohawk Valley. However, beginning in the 1830s, growing numbers of immigrants from Germany and Austria, along with significant numbers from Alsace-Lorraine (which was part of France until 1871) and Switzerland, began to settle in Oneida County. Like the Irish, German-speaking immigrants tended to settle in the county's urban areas and its larger towns and villages.

However, unlike the Irish, the Germans had already lived in towns and even cities in Germany, and had brought a wide range of skills with them. Some were unskilled or semi-skilled, and these often found employment in local textile and woolen mills, particularly in West Utica. Many were skilled craftsmen, making everything from wallpaper to pipe organs, and some were farmers. By 1855 German-speaking immigrants constituted over six percent of the population of the county.

Children and teachers, Zion Lutheren Church School - 1894

The German community was divided into two principal religious groupings: Catholics and Lutherans. The German Lutheran community in Oneida County was nurtured by the preaching and organizational efforts of the Rev. Andrew Wetzel (1808-1880), who came to the area in 1832. At the time of his arrival, only five German Lutheran families are known to have resided in the area, but by 1842 there were 259 communicants in Utica alone, enough to warrant what later became known as Zion Lutheran Church.

The local German Catholic community developed pretty much in tandem with the Lutheran community. In 1835, German Catholics established a chapel in West Utica; in 1842, they formally established Saint Joseph's Church, which at the time was the only German Catholic parish between New York City and Buffalo.

The Germans made a number of distinctive contributions to the social and cultural life of the county. In 1853, the local German community produced the first local immigrant newspaper, the Central New York Demokrat, which changed its name soon thereafter to the Utica Deutsche Zeitung. The Zeitung was edited and published for most of its existence by one man, John Schreiber, who died at his desk in 1907 after 50 years of service.

Germans were also fond of choral music societies, called Gesangvereine, the earliest of which was the Utica Liederkranz, founded in 1852. The Utica Maennerchor, founded in 1865, was long one of the leading such organizations in Central New York. At the close of the twentieth century, the Maennerchor is the only Gesangverein, indeed, the last German ethnic organization left in the county.

German immigrants also established gymnastics clubs known as Tumvereine. The so-called Turner Movement was started in Germany in the early nineteenth century, in the belief that by keeping themselves in prime physical shape, they might someday help Germany become a united, progressive, and therefore powerful and respected land.

When the American Civil War broke out, many Turners in Oneida County believed that American unity should be defended. As a result, the Utica Turnverein, founded in 1854, ceased to exist during the American Civil War, its members having volunteered in such great numbers to fight for the American Union. The Utica Turnverein was not re-established thereafter until 1882, at the height of German immigration to the county and the United States.

African American

Celebrating Founders' Day at Hope Chapel 1915.

While settlers of British parentage or descent - the New Englanders and the Welsh - dominated the first half century, of settlement, a handful of people of African descent were also among the very earliest settlers. For instance, three African-Americans were brought to Utica in 1797 as slaves of Benjamin Walker, an Englishman who had served as Aide-de-Camp to Baron Fredrick von Steuben and George Washington during the American Revolution. Slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827, and even before then there was also a number of free Blacks in the county. Much of the county's still small African-American population would make its home in Utica, where slave sales probably ended in 1815, and where only one black person would remain enslaved by 1820. By 1840, there were 242 blacks in Utica, and 402 in the rest of the county.

By 1860 the number of African-Americans in the county had diminished, as had the black population in Utica. At this point, Blacks constituted only six-tenths of a percent of the overall population of the county and just under one percent of Utica's population. The local African-American population would not experience significant growth until nearly a century later. Although Oneida County would become a center of anti-slavery sentiment, many local residents undoubtedly shared the sentiment of Alexander Coventry, first President of the Oneida County Medical Society. He wrote that "free blacks are a great nuisance to the country: they are lazy, dishonest and profligate." Such attitudes undoubtedly did not make it easy for these black pioneers to establish themselves.

Nevertheless, this fledgling African-American community in Oneida County made progress during the nineteenth century, sometimes with the help of white residents.
In 1815, local residents started giving Bible classes for African-American children in Utica, a mission taken on formally by the First Presbyterian Church in Utica in 1825. This constituted not just the first signs of black religious life, but the origins of efforts to provide education to local Blacks. In 1840 a school for black children had been started in Utica, by a student from Whitesboro's Oneida Institute, because they were excluded from local schools.

By 1851, this special school was no longer required, as the Utica schools evidently became integrated.  African-Americans also established their own institutions for the improvement of their community. In 1826, local Blacks established one of the first ethnic mutual aid societies, which was succeeded in 1830 by the African Union Benevolent Society. An "African Church" was known to have existed as early as 1840, but the first formal religious congregation of which we know was Hope Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church, established in Utica around 1865 with the financial assistance of Theodore Faxton and other prominent local white residents.

Oneida County NAACP 1985. From left: David Brown, Fran Williams, John Bowers, Glenn Brown and Phillip Cooper.

The arrival of thousands of African-Americans constituted the. single most significant change in the county's ethnic make up in the decades following the Second World War. As late as 1940, there were only 951 African-Americans in me county, 514 of whom lived in Utica, which has been the center of black life in Oneida County since the early 1800s. By 1950, however, there were 1,500 Blacks in Utica alone. These black Southerners had much in common with earlier waves of migrants. Many African-American migrants came to Oneida County in this period initially in search of seasonal work, as pickers, particularly for local bean growers. In the years following the Second World War, as many as 6,000 of these migrant workers were in Oneida County during picking season, which stretched from May until October. In this can be seen a parallel to the history of other immigrant groups whose the pioneers originally came to Oneida County for seasonal work. Just as the early migratory history of some local ethnic groups was dominated by immigrants who came from one town or region, a large proportion of early black migrants came to Oneida County from one community: Belle Glade, Florida.

These temporary communities slowly transformed themselves into a permanent local presence in the 1950s and 1960s. Searching for entertainment and other community amenities, these early, periodic visitors to the county were drawn from the farm lands and into Utica, where they made friends and learned about possible job and housing opportunities. Long closed out of educational opportunities in the still segregated South, they also found that local schools were open to all, regardless of race. The racial barriers that had kept Blacks out of the local textile mills had begun to fall during the Second World War, when labor came at a premium. New employers of the post-World War II era began to hire black settlers in increasing numbers. For many African-American migratory workers, Oneida County seemed to offer as promising a future as it did to earlier immigrants. Even though they found an environment that was in some ways more congenial from the one they left behind in the South, African-Americans, like many of the immigrant groups that settled in Oneida County, often encountered prejudice and discrimination.

Just like earlier waves of European immigrants, black migrants had come to Oneida County with relatively few skills in hope of finding industrial work. However, the exodus of the textile mills (to the South, ironically) and the contracting importance of the Rome copper industry occurred at precisely the time when this new African American migration was under way. This issue of the timing of their arrival constitutes one of the chief, if not the key distinguishing characteristic between the black migrants of me late twentieth century and the European immigrants who came in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

© 2014 Oneida County Historical Society
1608 Genesee Street, Utica, New York 13502-5425
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