- For some reason, the spirits started appearing in the middle of the 19th century and mostly around Seneca Lake in western New York. For thousands of years after Ice Age glaciers melted into finger-shaped lakes, this small part of the world was mostly filled with animals and people living out in the greenery. In the 18th century genocide arrived in the Finger Lakes, in the guise of an American General named Sullivan whose job it was to destroy all the villages of the Native Americans living there. American settlers showed up soon after to build humble cabins and live modestly upon the graves of the Iroquois. They lived there invisibly for 20-odd years, just hours from New York City, until one day in 1825, they looked into their fields and realized an enormous canal had been carved into the hills. Not long after its completion, the builders of the canal decided that it wasn’t enormous enough. So, in the 1840s the Erie Canal was carved deeper and wider and busier and louder. Steamships and industry roared over farms, turning villages into towns and cabins into mansions.
The Erie Canal became an information superhighway that carried the ideas of progress all around New York State. As industrialists sipped whiskey on their brand-new verandas, runaway slaves traversed an underground city below them. Frederick Douglass sat in the back of the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls at the First Women’s Rights Convention, listening to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott and diligently taking notes. A few miles down in Auburn, the home of Harriet Tubman became a haven for fugitive family and friends escaping slavery. Hicksite Quakers in Rochester called for a boycott of slave-made products and preached radical nonresistance. A bit further east, the Oneidists created a Communalist Utopia. They promoted free love and equality and believed they were living in heaven on earth. Utopianism and religious revivals and Pentecostals preaching the Second Great Awakening inflamed the whole region. William Miller predicted Jesus would surface in upstate New York around 1843, and when Jesus failed to show, his disappointed Millerite congregation became the Seventh Day Adventists instead. Up in Palmyra, a 14-year-old farm boy named Joseph Smith was utterly overwhelmed by all the Protestant sects blazing through his community — he couldn’t make up his mind which to choose. Then, he had a vision for an entirely new religion that was shown to him by an angel. Thus was Mormonism born. In 1876, Charles Grandison Finney called this region of Western New York “Burnt-over” because by then there was no one left to convert. The region drew reformers from Boston and Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia — it was the place to be. As fast as you can imagine, upstate New York was not just part of the story of American progress. It was the story of American progress.