Western gateway to New York State, Chautauqua County occupies the extreme southwest corner of the state. It borders Pennsylvania to the south and Lake Erie to the west. With six lakes and approximately fifty miles of Lake Erie shoreline, there is no place in the county more than twenty-five miles from open water.
The county takes its name from the largest inland lake, which was called "Jad-dah'gwah" by its native inhabitants and most commonly translated "bag tied in the middle" after the shape of the lake. At one end is located Mayville, the county seat, and at the other end is the city of Jamestown.
In 1679, French explorers landed on the Chautauqua County shores of Lake Erie seeking to find a southward passage to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The ten-mile route connecting Barcelona Harbor on Lake Erie with Chautauqua Lake, later known as the Portage Trail, offered the answer. Eventually, controversy between England and France over possession of this Trail and its link to the Ohio Valley helped to ignite the French and Indian War.
Settlers began migrating to the area following the survey of the Holland Purchase in 1798. By an act of 1808, the limits of the county were defined and the name "Chautauque" given to it (the spelling was changed to the current usage in 1869). Results of the 1810 federal census indicated a population of more than 500, and the county government was formed in 1811.
Early industries were typical of the period, with the manufacture of pot and pearl ash and that of black salts as primary sources of capitol. The water power of Chautauqua Lake was used to cut lumber, which was sawed into planks for flat boats on which the salts were shipped from Mayville to Pittsburgh, PA via the Chadakoin and Allegheny Rivers, and then on to New Orleans.
Today, the manufacturing sector provides the base for the county's economy with important and growing contributions from the retail, service, and tourism sectors. Farming continues to contribute to the county's economy, as well as the associated food processing industry. With 1557 commercial farms (1997), 20,055 acres of grapes, and thirteen wineries, Chautauqua County has more farms and produces more grapes than any other county in New York State.
It is of interest to historians that the first naval skirmish of the War of 1812 occurred at the mouth of the Canadaway Creek in this county; also that several organizations of world renown were initiated here. Fredonia Grange No. 1 bears the proud distinction of being the first Grange in the world. The first Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed in Fredonia, and here also was the first natural gas well in the United States. The first lighthouse ever to be lighted by natural gas (1829) still stands at Barcelona Harbor on Lake Erie. It is said to be the oldest lighthouse on the Great Lakes.
The famous Chautauqua Institution, founded in 1874 and located on Chautauqua Lake, hosts educational and cultural programs each summer. During its nine week season, over 142,000 visitors enter its gates. Other educational opportunities exist at Lily Dale Assembly, a world center of the Universal Religion of Modern Spiritualism, and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, a national center for nature education and teacher enhancement.
Among the prominent late residents of the county whose names are associated with national and international affairs are William H. Seward, Reuben Fenton, Albion W. Tourgee, Donald Mackenzie, William B. Cushing, Horace Greeley, Roger Tory Peterson, B. F. Goodrich, George Pullman, Robert H. Jackson, Lucille Ball, and Walter Washington.
Excerpted from text originally written in 1979 by Elizabeth Crocker, late County Historian found at www.co.chautauqua.ny.us .