When counties were established in New York State in 1683, the present Yates County was part of a much larger Albany County, an area that included the northern part of New York State as well as all of the present territory of the State of Vermont. The territory extended, in theory, all the way west to the Pacific Ocean. Albany County was downsized in 1766 and 1770 and then split into three new counties in 1772. One of those counties, Tyron, contained the western portion of the old Albany County, with an eastern boundary just outside of present day Schenectady, and encompassed what are now 37 counties. After rapid settlement and growth, the area of Tyron was reapportioned throughout the early 19th century. In 1823, Yates County was officially formed from 310 square miles of Ontario County, including the areas of Vine Valley, Middlesex, Penn Yan, and Dresden. In 1826, an additional 60 square miles of Steuben County were awarded to Yates County, an area that includes the present day Starkey, Dundee, and Lakemont.
Yates County is one of many created from the huge area purchased by Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham from the Seneca Nation in 1788. At nearly the same time the treaty of purchase was being negotiated, settlers were beginning to filter in from New England and the Susquehanna Valley, part of what was the first great western migration following the American Revolution.
The first permanent non-native settlement within the boundaries of what is now Yates County was initiated in the summer of 1788 by a group of people who were seeking to separate themselves for religious reasons from worldly temptations and persecution. They were followers of Jemima Wilkinson, the first American-born woman to found a religious movement. Called the Public Universal Friend, Wilkinson brought with her around 60 families, settling just west of Seneca Lake in what became known as New Jerusalem, and became the largest settlement in western New York by 1790.
The area was so desirable that within a very few years most of the farms were taken up and political development of towns had begun. During the first federal census in 1790, the entire area of western New York accounted for just 1,200 inhabitants. By the time Yates County split off from Ontario in 1823, the population of western New York had risen to nearly 20,000. In 1826, two additional towns were annexed from Steuben County, and the compact modern boundaries were established.
Yates Count has nine towns and four incorporated villages: Penn Yan, Dundee, Dresden and Rushville. The Crooked Lake Canal, which was active between 1833 and 1877, linked the basin of Keuka Lake with the outside world via Seneca Lake and the Erie Canal system. Agriculture is still the primary industry in Yates County, as the farmland that attracted the area’s earliest settlers more than two centuries ago continues to attract people to the area today.