New York: Seneca Falls Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Seneca Falls is the home of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, established in 1980 as a tribute to the women’s rights movement. The park includes the home of activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; the Wesleyan Chapel, where the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 was held; Declaration Park, honoring women’s rights and the convention with a 140-foot waterfall cascading over the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments of Women etched in stone; and the McClintock house in the neighboring town of Waterloo. Also in Seneca Falls is the Urban Cultural Park, which examines the town’s contribution to the Industrial Revolution.

Site Office

Women’s Rights National Historical Park

136 Fall Street

Seneca Falls, NY 13148

ph.: (315) 568-2991, (315) 568-0024

Web site: www.nps.gov/wori/

Many of the nineteenth century reform movements have roots in Seneca Falls, New York. These movements, such as abolitionism, temperance, the Free-Soil Party, and women’s rights, have shaped the social fabric of the United States. Today, the town of approximately 7,370 is the site of several restored buildings relating to the women’s movement and the Industrial Revolution. Included in the historic region are the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s home, the Wesleyan Chapel, and the Urban Cultural Park.

Early History

Seneca Falls is a prime example of the transformation from rural agrarianism to twentieth century technology, from a paternalistic society to a more equally representative society. The town is located on the Seneca River along a series of waterfalls, which made it ideal for industrial development and as a commercial and transportation center. In 1782 New York State appropriated 1.6 million acres in the western part of the state for veterans of the Revolutionary War. The first white settler, Job Smith, portaged (transported around the falls on land) goods and settlers moving westward.

By 1794 the state had laid out the Great Western Road, which facilitated westward migration and established Seneca Falls as a terminus for moving individuals and goods around the falls. Western land speculation enticed individuals such as Stephen N. Bayard to purchase large tracts of land. The Bayard Company purchased much of the potentially commercial land in Seneca Falls in 1791. From 1794 to 1816, the company not only controlled the commercial navigation and production along the river but also constricted the town’s growth. By refusing to lease land or water rights, the company restricted competition and the variety of goods produced. The company operated mills to process raw materials and distribute them locally.

When the Seneca-Cayuga Canal opened in 1817, other industries began moving in, and in 1826 the Bayard Company divided its property among three stockholders who promptly sold the land to the townspeople. The town boomed. Within seven years the population increased from two hundred to two thousand, and diversified its industry to include flour milling, textiles, paper, and other small manufacturing enterprises. The Industrial Revolution had taken the village by storm, displacing the frontier and agricultural economy and making the town a regional trade and manufacturing center.

The Importance of Water

Water dictated the growth of Seneca Falls. While the falls presented some navigational problems, they were controlled by the Seneca Lock Company, founded in 1813. In 1827, the state took charge of the decrepit lock system and followed that move by purchasing the Seneca-Cayuga Canal and connecting it to the Erie Canal in 1828. The Erie Canal connection opened western markets, which greatly needed the manufactured goods the town produced. By the 1840’s most of the grain producers had migrated westward to the better soils of Ohio and Michigan, leaving Seneca Falls as a major producer of pumps, fire engines, and stoves.

The Seneca Falls that Elizabeth Cady Stanton moved to in 1847 was not only in the process of economic changes but also in the midst of a social transformation. The workforce was absorbing increasing numbers of foreign-born people, primarily refugees from the Irish potato famine. These Irish immigrants initially had been hired to build New York State’s extensive canal system.

The community also was physically different from most manufacturing towns. An overwhelming number of residents either owned their own dwellings or rented a single-family house; the town had a ratio of one house for every five persons. The unique development of the town is partly due to one of the town’s major developers, Gary V. Sackett. Sackett provided many of the Irish immigrants with low-interest loans allowing them to build modest houses in a developed, working-class neighborhood. Despite the manufacturing economy in Seneca Falls, the traditional company-owned housing never developed, nor did the habit of paying workers in company scrip.

A Mix Ripe for Reform Movements

This new social mix and rapid economic growth created an atmosphere ripe for numerous reform movements such as abolitionism, temperance, revivalism, women’s rights, and spiritualism. There were many social influences at work in Seneca Falls. Single women worked in the mills, and married women did piecework at home. Married women were often isolated from their husbands, who worked long hours and then frequented bars. The town’s religious mix included Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers. The reformist atmosphere led revivalist Charles Grandison Finney to call this area the “burned-over district.”

To examine the development of the women’s movement in Seneca Falls without considering these other reform influences ignores the origins of the movement. Many of the women who became leaders in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s crusade for women’s rights were first activists in either the temperance or antislavery movement. Women approached the antislavery effort with enthusiasm and vigor equal to that of men, but were denied equal voice. In 1843 Presbyterian church member Rhoda Bement challenged her pastor, the Reverend Horace P. Bogue, when he refused to advertise an upcoming lecture by female abolitionist Abby Kelley. Bement vehemently and publicly protested Bogue’s decision, claiming he was in favor of slavery and was not acting on his professed antislavery convictions. Bement, like many other ardent reformers, believed that the immediate correction of society’s ills was the purpose of the revivalism prevalent in the churches. Bogue advocated a more moderate approach and objected to women speaking in public. Bement was excommunicated. In 1840 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott had experienced similar rejection when they were excluded from participating in the floor discussion at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in England.

The temperance movement also prepared women for activism in the women’s rights movement, especially in Seneca Falls. Much of women’s interest in the temperance movement stemmed from their lack of legal rights and fears of beatings from drunken husbands. Temperance meetings often resembled religious revivals, with persons in attendance pledging abstinence from strong drink. In the Seneca Falls region the most notable activism came from the nearby town of Waterloo and its large population of Hicksite Quakers. Mott, one of the original organizers of the women’s rights convention, was a Quaker and active in the temperance movement. Waterloo resident and temperance crusader Amelia Bloomer published a journal called The Lilly, which preached the temperance doctrine. When her participation in temperance activities was restricted because she was female, her journal became a major forum for Stanton and women’s issues.

The Women’s Movement

Women’s involvement, or rather the denial of their full, public involvement in various reform movements, logically led to their participation in the women’s rights movement. Prior to the mid-1830’s, women had very few legal and social rights. Legally, they could not hold, inherit, or control property. Women could not vote, could hold few professional positions, could not attend college or university. They were not permitted to speak or express their opinions in public. Working women usually gave their wages to a father or husband. Inherited property always went to the male head of the household, or in some cases a male guardian, no matter what the age of the woman, even if the property had belonged to the woman’s family. Arguments against women holding property centered around the belief that if a woman had control of property, she could and would destroy her marriage.

In 1836, the New York legislature began consideration of the Married Woman’s Property Act, which would allow married women to retain rights to and control of property brought to or inherited after the marriage. Debate became an annual affair, with the proposal succeeding in 1848 only after wealthy landowners realized this law protected their property from greedy sons-in-law. Further, husbands could protect their families in the event their businesses were sued; their possessions could not be seized to cover business losses if they were registered in the wives’ names. Passing of the act planted the idea that women could control their personal property and have individual rights. As property entitled holders to rights in the United States, the next logical step was women’s rights.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The year 1848 was fortuitous for Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had moved to Seneca Falls with her husband Henry, a lawyer and reformer, the previous year. Elizabeth had led an intellectually stimulating and rather domestically free life in Chelsea, Massachusetts, near Boston. In her childhood, she witnessed many women who had no legal rights seeking help from her father, a lawyer. She also recalled being teased over her lack of legal rights. As a young woman, she studied at Troy Female Seminary, an experience that encouraged her to believe in the right and necessity of women’s education. At twenty-five, she met and married Henry Stanton, a law student who was active in the abolitionist movement and would become supportive of his wife’s quest for rights. Their marriage further provided contacts with other reformers of the day. In Boston, where Henry set up a law practice, she met such individuals as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Frederick Douglass. She even spent time at Brook Farm, an experimental utopian community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Because the Boston winters proved hazardous to Henry’s health, the Stantons and their three children moved to Seneca Falls in 1847. The change was drastic for Elizabeth. She became consumed with management of the household and land her father had provided. The house was located on the corner of Washington and Seneca Streets, near Locust Hill, an area newly developing. Despite ready access to the Irish working-class neighborhood. Stanton was isolated on the outskirts of town. The house was fairly large with many wings, two of which remain today. Henry was fond of growing fruit trees and Elizabeth flowers.

Servants were hard to keep because of the town’s need for industrial labor. With few servants, a large house, and small children, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had very little time for the intellectual affairs of her former Boston existence. She did become involved in the community, performing the roles of homeopathic doctor, mother confessor, and midwife to many of the Irish immigrants. These encounters with women poorer than herself sharpened her sense of the need of rights for women. These women were powerless to change their poverty and their alcoholic husbands.

An afternoon tea and impromptu discussion session held at the home of Jane Hunt in Waterloo early in July, 1848, evolved into the Women’s Rights Convention, held later that month. Hunt, Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mott’s sister Martha C. Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock discussed injustices inflicted upon women in many of the reform movements with which they were involved and in the poorer Seneca Falls communities. All but Stanton were members of the Hicksite Quakers, a very liberal and egalitarian division of the Quaker church. The women were advocates of a very active and immediate role in the abolitionist and temperance movements. What arose from their discussions was the first draft of the Declaration of the Rights and Sentiments of Women and a call for a women’s convention, which began July 19.

Declaration of the Rights and Sentiments of Women

The Declaration of the Rights and Sentiments of Women was patterned after the Declaration of Independence and included a list of grievances and injuries. The women wanted to prevent male relatives from taking women’s wages. They believed women should have equal pay for equal work and equal access to some positions. They objected to the application of different moral standards to women and desired egalitarian divorce laws. They asked for full property rights, right to education, and the right to vote. The document proclaimed that man had endeavored “to destroy (woman’s) confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.” Because of Stanton’s previous life experiences, because of the women’s location in the “burned-over district” and their involvement in reforms, because of the state of New York’s debate over women’s property rights, and because of the Quaker influence, the time for a women’s rights convention was right.

Stanton and her associates never dreamed that the convention would draw three hundred women and men. They gathered in Seneca Falls for two days of rousing speeches and discussion of the Declaration in Wesleyan Chapel. Before the convention could begin, Stanton’s nephew had to be hoisted over the crowd and sent through a window to open the chapel’s door. Originally, the organizers had intended the first of the two days to be exclusively a forum for women; however, the number of men who attended convinced the female participants to allow everyone to participate fully. Heated discussion evolved around the franchise issue, with many women voicing concern that such a radical idea would detract from their cause. Henry Stanton, who supported many of his wife’s views, refused to attend the convention because of it.

Many doubters, including women, questioned whether women had the intelligence to vote. Supported by Stanton and Frederick Douglass, the franchise issue passed by a narrow margin. At the close of the second day, anyone who wished signed the Declaration. It is unknown how many individuals originally signed that document: No original copy remains, and many of its signers withdrew their names because of the adverse publicity afterward. Finally, sixty-eight women and thirty-two men left their signatures on the document.

The success of the convention was due in part to the composition and relationships of those who attended. Most of the signers were from New York State and of European descent, and 69 percent of the signers lived either in Seneca Falls or in Waterloo. Only three individuals came from more than forty miles away, and all of them were visiting relatives. Most people attended with a relative–a sibling, parents, or husband. Economically, a plurality of the attendees came from manufacturing backgrounds, with farmers and tradespeople also well represented.

Outside reaction to the Declaration and convention was a mixture of ridicule, curiosity, and, occasionally, support. Horace Greeley in his New York Tribune objectively discussed the issues raised at the convention. While he believed in natural rights, he also thought women preferred domestic duties. He did provide Elizabeth Cady Stanton a forum to discuss and spread her ideas. However, most newspapers viewed this reform movement with much disdain.

After the convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton remained involved in the women’s rights movement, continuing to write, occasionally lecture, and care for her burgeoning family. Because of her children, who eventually numbered seven, Stanton was often unable to travel, but did attract intellectuals to her Seneca Falls home. Henry was occasionally driven to a local hotel when the house became crowded with guests. Elizabeth was very progressive in other areas of her life. She believed that children had rights and were able to formulate their own opinions, much to the neighbors’ chagrin. Believing in the benefits of physical activity, she had a billiard table and gymnasium set up for her children. Contrary to the stereotype of reform-minded women, she enjoyed traditional domestic duties, including cooking and playing games with the children.

Susan B. Anthony

Among the visitors to Stanton’s home in this period was Susan B. Anthony. Anthony met Stanton on a trip to Seneca Falls in 1851 and often returned to care for the children while Stanton wrote speeches that Anthony then delivered around the nation. Their bond carried the women’s movement toward the twentieth century. The Stantons left Seneca Falls in 1862 for Brooklyn, New York. Elizabeth Cady Stanton continued to be a women’s rights activist until her death in 1902.

Slowly Seneca Falls’s leading role in reform movements declined. Many of the landmarks from the women’s rights convention were transformed for other uses, the Wesleyan Chapel becoming at various times a laundromat, an opera house, a theater, a hall, and a garage. Numerous commemorations and anniversaries were celebrated in Seneca Falls throughout the twentieth century. However, not until the late 1970’s and early 1980’s did the reform and feminist spirit return.

In the summer of 1983, the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice was held on purchased lands surrounding the Seneca Army Depot. The gathering was inspired by a similar peace camp at Greenham Common, England, in 1981. The purpose of the Seneca Falls camp was twofold–to protest the first-strike nuclear weapons supposedly housed at the depot and to engage in an all-female communal gathering. Members of the encampment were to share duties equally. Governance was supposed to be through consensus building, not through hierarchical leadership. The communal effort failed because chores were not equally shared. However, on August 1, 1983, at noon, approximately three thousand women peacefully marched in protest, amid counterdemonstrations, to the army depot. For a while after 1983, a small encampment remained, but it engaged in no further mass protests.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Today Seneca Falls has rediscovered its past. In 1977 the town, with money from the state of New York, created the Urban Cultural Park to celebrate the town’s role in the industrial development of the region and in U.S. commerce. Numerous nineteenth century buildings have been preserved and restored. The Women’s Rights National Historical Park was officially founded December 28, 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill to establish it. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Home has been restored and the McClintock Home in Waterloo is undergoing restoration.

The Hunt House is privately owned. As the Wesleyan Chapel’s original design could not be found, its restoration consisted of gutting the current structure, leaving the original walls to encourage visitors to focus on the events and not the building. Between the chapel and visitors’ center is Declaration Park, a grassy area that includes a 140-foot waterfall with the stone behind inscribed with the Declaration of the Rights and Sentiments of Women. The visitors’ center displays seventeen bronze statues of individuals active in the women’s rights movement. Most exhibits are interactive and focus on the convention.

For Further Information
  • Gurko, Miriam. The Ladies of Seneca Falls: The Birth of the Woman’s Rights Movement. New York: Macmillan, 1974. An excellent overview of the movement and the principal players. It discusses activists beyond Seneca Falls as well.
  • Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898. Reprint. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993. Stanton’s autobiography. Dates and some remembrances are not always exact but very interesting.
  • Swain, Gwenyth. The Road to Seneca Falls: A Story About Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Minneapolis: Carolrhode Books, 1996. A biography of Stanton for juvenile readers. Illustrated by Mary O’Keefe Young.
  • Weber, Sandra S. Women’s Rights National Historical Park: Seneca Falls, New York. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1985. A study prepared by for the National Park Service. Provides a wealth of information regarding Seneca Falls’s history and prominent activists in the women’s movement.
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