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Why Is New York Called the Empire State?

By Rebecca Mecomber
Updated May 17, 2024
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The "Empire State" is emblazoned on New York's vehicle license plates and is the namesake of the world's former tallest building, but the origin of the state nickname seems shrouded in mystery. Unlike many of the other state emblems and state symbols, no historian knows exactly where the "Empire State" nickname originated. Some have speculated that the name sprang from George Washington, who referred to New York as "at present the seat of the Empire" in a 1784 letter. Others believe the nickname denotes New York State's wealth, natural resources, and liberty-loving citizens.

George Washington rightly envisioned New York State as the "seat of the Empire." Geographically, the state was the springboard from which independence and westward expansion began. Politically, New York stood firm for the cause of independence and arose as an example of temerity under attack. New York's wealth of natural resources such as abundant water, fertile soil and rich timberland enriched the other U.S. states as they grew. Wise and talented statesmen built New York into the "Empire State" as well including Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt.

The name "Empire State" has infiltrated New York's vernacular, producing an abundance of namesakes. The Empire State Building was once the world's tallest building, and a uniquely New York Olympian sports event is known as the Empire State Games. The capitol buildings in New York's capital city are surrounded by the Empire State Plaza. While George Washington could not see New York's future, he rightly regarded the state's central location and abundant resources as a unifying blessing to the United States.

New York State was one of the original 13 colonies of the new world. Centrally located in the center of the colonies along the eastern seaboard, the invading British targeted New York State in a "divide and conquer" strategy during the American War of Independence. The Americans fought bitterly to retain control of the state, for losing it would irretrievably slice New England from the southern states. The tenacious New Yorkers successively held the land and were lauded as fiercely independent, liberty-loving people. The 1777 battle in Saratoga, New York, is considered the "turning point" of the American Revolution that proved American resolve and garnered international support for the cause of independence.

As one of the original colonies, New York became the 11th state to ratify the United States Constitution after the War of Independence. New York's central location in the states epitomized its empirical importance. At a time when the only transportation methods were by horse, by oxen or over water, central New York was considered the "gateway to the west." The Mohawk Valley, a steep valley nestled between the Adirondack Mountains to the north and the Appalachian Mountains to the south, was the lowest geographic point and the only passable land route from Canada to the Carolinas. The completion of New York's Erie Canal in 1825 made travel even faster, and business and industry boomed.

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