The English-based settlement of the region dates to the very late 18th to early 19th century. Rochester was settled around 1797. The 1788 Treaty of Fort Stanwix fostered commercial development of the Syracuse area. Colonial French and Native Americans generally dominated the area before this. The Phelps and Gorham Purchase of 1790 took over the remaining Finger Lakes Region from the Native Americans (politically from the Massachusetts Commonwealth), west of the Pre-Emption Line.

The Arnold Potter House (Potter Mansion) in the Town of Potter/Penn Yan may date as far back as 1790 while the Durfee House in Geneva is estimated to be built in 1787, making it possibly the oldest wooden house (frame house) in the area as well as Western New York. Westward expansion was very rapid in the last decade of the 18th century, so there are many historic structures dating more towards 1800, but few pre-1790 non-fortified landmarks (such as Fort Niagara) outside of New England and coastal colonial regions.

Much of the area was cleared for farmland near the turn of the 19th century (1800), and there is copious evidence of general prosperity in during the 1800s, including very large Victorian and Queen Anne houses, generally concentrated in towns and villages, and elaborate rural homesteads with high ceilings and steep roofs, often with slate shingles, as well as large barnyards. A large majority of the cobblestone architecture (usually Italianate and Greek Revival, with some Federal) seen in houses dates to around 1830. These cobblestones were collected from local lakes.

Geologically, the Finger Lakes were likely created by ice sheets roughly two million years ago.

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