Why A Trail?

West-central New York State plays a special role in America’s history of radical reform. In the nineteenth century, this region gave rise to bold new intellectual and social movements, several new religions, numerous utopian communities, and countless industrial and technical innovations. West-central New York was to nineteenth-century America what southern California became in the twentieth: a bellwether, a cauldron of novelty and exploration. Why?

Credit the Erie Canal. Opened in 1825, the Canal connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, cutting transport costs by some 95 percent. New York City, the Canal’s eastern terminus, quickly became the nation’s largest port. Towns and cities along the canal route experienced explosive growth. By 1850, 80 percent of Neew York's population lived within twenty-five miles of a canal. The area between Rochester and Syracuse was flooded with newcomers, some seeking prosperity, others pursuing some religious or social ideal. Men and women of every imaginable social, ethnic, and religious background mixed in unpredictable ways. Many were cut off from their families or their communities of origin, and felt free to explore radical new ways of arranging their lives.

So fertile was the region for new religious ideas that it became known as the Burned-over District: so many evangelists, revivalists, and new prophets had crisscrossed its landscape that it seemed the people could welcome no more. But west-central New York also hosted another kind of radicalism that is sometimes forgotten by history: freethought, a social and intellectual movement that questions traditional orthodoxies and denies religious dogmas. Freethought took many forms:…the eloquent agnosticism of Robert Green Ingersoll … the feminism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, for whom the church was an agent of woman’s oppression … the sometimes-bitter social commentary of Mark Twain … the educational innovations of Andrew Dickson White … the abolitionist fervor of Frederick Douglass … the anarchist activism of Emma Goldman … and more.

Sites and attractions relating to this rich, forgotten history beckon the curious visitor. All of them lie within an 80-mile radius of Dresden, New York, birthplace of the nineteenth-century agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. Some host fully-developed historical attractions. Some bear informative markers. And some are unmarked sites whose importance to the history of radical dissent may only be appreciated by explorers of the Freethought Trail.

Whether you’re exploring this website out of pure curiosity or planning a trip through west-central New York, please enjoy all the Freethought Trail has to offer!

Tom Flynn
Executive Director, the Council for Secular Humanism
Director, the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum
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