In the 1790s, the first white settlers founded Seneca Falls alongside the falls of the Seneca River, a mile-long series of rapids with a combined drop of 49 feet. Participants in the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign (1779) had recognized the potential of the area and returned. The Continental Army’s Campaign is considered by some an astounding military feat, by others a tragic devastation of the homelands of the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations.
By 1794 the state of New York had charted a route for the Great Western Road, a section of which crossed the Seneca River using the main street (Fall Street) through the settlement of Seneca Falls. By 1800 the Seneca Road Company was established to maintain and improve the condition of the roadway. Locally the thoroughfare became known as the Seneca Turnpike.
The Bayard Company held a monopoly on the area's abundant waterpower and controlled access to the falls of Seneca Falls. Their inflated prices prevented development of new industry until 1825. That year the company went bankrupt, and its interests were sold. The now-accessible waterpower allowed for rapid growth of mills and factories along the river banks and on islands in the riverbed. Within six years, there were five sawmills, two textile factories, five flour mills, and three tin and sheet-iron plants.
In 1821, when the Seneca Lock Navigation Company opened a canal to bypass the falls, more islands were created between the two waterways. New factories were built on these islands and the village grew and prospered. By 1828, the Cayuga-Seneca Canal was linked to the Erie Canal, making transport of raw materials and finished goods easier and opening up a much larger market for items manufactured locally. Seneca Falls had become the place the Bayard Company had once advertised: a place for “men of enterprise and capitol” that “offered profitable employment of both.” The area originally known as Mynderse Mills officially became the Village of Seneca Falls in 1831. Ansel Bascom was selected as the first President (Mayor) of the Village.
Beginning in 1841 the Rochester-Auburn railroad system opened the door to world markets for goods manufactured in Seneca Falls. Trains provided a tangible link to the outside world that was faster and more efficient than shipping goods and transporting people by barge or overland. The railroad brought a swift influx of ideas, people, and mail, and connected local markets to national ones. The local industry began to specialize in manufactured products rather than offer a variety of goods intended for the local market. By the 1840s and 50s, pumps, fire engines, and other metal goods became important products of Seneca Falls industry shipped to a world market via the railroad.
The advent of manufacturing opened new possibilities for women as well; for the first time, women could work outside the home. As women started to earn money, they began to realize the extent of discrimination they faced. Married women had to give up their wages to their husbands and were unable to execute contracts or buy property. Women were paid less than their male coworkers. As they could not vote, they were taxed without representation. These economic realities led people to think about the issues that would be raised at the Seneca Falls Convention.
Social and religious upheavals during this period were considerable. Reform movements, such as temperance and abolition, had broad support in the region by 1848, but there was also considerable opposition. The area later became known as “The Burned-Over District,” because of the popularity of religious revivals and new religious sects that “spread like wildfire.” Many utopian communities shared a faith in perfectibility of people and society and were open to and experimented with new forms of social and religious organization.
Seneca Falls was a thriving and prosperous community, rich in waterpower resources and surrounded by fertile farmland. Its inhabitants could be optimists about the future and were undoubtedly affected by demands for social reform and religious and utopian ideas about people and society. Many local citizens formed and participated in antislavery societies and temperance leagues, ran stations on the Underground Railroad; they were willing to listen to and participate in a discussion about changing the public roles of women in society. These factors led nearly 300 people to respond to the call for a women’s rights convention.
Religious and political reformers, especially the Free Soil Party members, were important participants in the Seneca Falls Convention. In 1848, a presidential election year, both major party candidates favored extending slavery from the South into the western territories. The Free Soil Party was formed in response to this. The Free Soilers would only support a candidate who opposed the extension of slavery. Local abolitionists created a Free Soil chapter in a meeting in the Wesleyan Chapel on June 13, 1848. Many of these abolitionists returned to the Chapel for the Women’s Rights Convention in July. These reformers recognized the similarities between the status of black men and that of women in society.
Quakers were another important group at the Convention. In June 1848, the local Genesee Yearly Meeting of Friends had split over issues of church governance. Those who broke away – the Progressive or Congregational Friends – believed that all persons were equal and should not be subject to the control of a hierarchy of ministers and elders. They based their religious organization on a commitment to social reform work. They came to the Convention to demonstrate their commitment to radical equality.
The 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention occurred in an atmosphere of idealistic reform. This was the first meeting to be held for the purpose of discussing the “social, civil, and religious conditions and the rights of woman.” It was the beginning of the women’s rights movement in the United States.