Oswego boasts a heritage that stretches back beyond written history. Indians, of course, lived in the area for several thousand years, possibly as long ago as 7,000 B.C., following the retreat of the last glacier. The Iroquois represented the final period of Indian culture, migrating here from the Mississippi River region in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is from this proud and legendary Native American civilization that we received our name: Os-we-go, which means a pouring out place.
October of 1615 marked the beginning of recorded history with the arrival of the first European, Samuel de Champlain. The British and Dutch established a settlement at Oswego in 1722 to facilitate fur trade with the Indians. During the French and Indian War era, five local forts were built to protect the British supply route from Albany to Oswego. Three of these (Forts George, Oswego, and Ontario) were located within the present city limits.
During the colonial era, Oswego was the jewel of the empire, vied over by the British and French due to its strategic location and natural transportation advantages played a strategic role in the French and Indian War of the 18th century. The first British fortress - Fort Ontario - was built in 1727 on the west side of Oswego later to be followed by the addition of Fort Ontario in 1755.
In 1796, a full 12 years after the conclusion of the American Revolution, the British withdrew from Fort Ontario and, finally, settlers from New England and eastern New York immigrated into Oswego. Fort Ontario fell to the British in 1814 but, with the coming of peace and with the political support of the newly created Oswego County (1816), Oswegonians moved to build roads and bridges and to improve the navigation of the river. The Oswego branch of the Erie Canal opened in 1829 and, from the 1830’s to the 1870’s, Oswego boomed.
In 1848, Thomas Kingsford founded the Kingsford Starch Factory along the west bank of the Oswego River on the old Varick Canal. Kingsford Starch producing worldwide name brand recognition as a result of its reputation for quality.
By shipping flour, grain, lumber, iron, salt, and cornstarch both by canal and rail, businessmen flourished. Evidence of the wealth of Oswego’s past can still be seen today in the many stately historic homes that grace our city.
Today, throughout the county, 19th and 20th-century buildings, cemeteries, bridges, canal locks, railroad and numerous other man-made structures give us a glimpse into our rich history. Oswego is also blessed to have several fine museums that allow us to relive many aspects of the city’s past. The County Historical Society’s Richardson-Bates House Museum is the meticulously preserved residence of one of the city’s powerful businessmen, the John D. Murray Firefighters Museum tracks the City’s over 200 years of firefighting history, the H. Lee White Maritime Museum highlights the history of Oswego’s inseparable link to the sea, and at The New York State Historic Site Fort Ontario, costumed interpreters recreate the lives of the officers, men, and civilians at the Fort from 1868-69, while the Safe Haven Museum keeps alive the stories of 982 Holocaust refugees who were allowed into the United States by President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, saving them from the holocaust and the concentration camps. This "Safe Haven" in Oswego became the only shelter in the United States for these refugees, and they were housed on Fort grounds from August 1944 to February 1946.