At the time of European contact in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Native American inhabitants of present Westchester County were part of the Algonquian peoples, whose name for themselves was Lenape, meaning the people. They called the region Lenapehoking, which consisted of the area around and between the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. Several different tribes occupied the area, including The Manhattans, and the Weckquaesgeek and Siwanoy bands of the Wappinger in the south, and Tankiteke, Sintsink and Kitchawank Wappinger in the north.
The first European explorers to visit the Westchester area were Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524 and Henry Hudson in 1609. Dutch settlers began arriving in the 1620s, followed by settlers from England in the 1640s. Westchester County was one of the original twelve counties of the Province of New York, created by an act of the New York General Assembly in 1683. At the time it included present day Bronx County, and abutted then-Dutchess County to the north. By 1775, Westchester was the richest and most populous county in the colony of New York. Although the Revolutionary War devastated the county, recovery after the war was rapid. In 1788, five years after the end of the war, the county was divided into 20 towns. In 1798, the first federal census recorded a population of 24,000 for the county.
Two developments in the first half of the 19th century – the construction of the first Croton Dam and Aqueduct, and the coming of the railroad – had enormous impacts on the growth of Westchester. The Croton Dam and Aqueduct was begun in 1837 and completed in 1842; now a National Historic Landmark, the Croton Aqueduct is considered one of the great engineering achievements of the 19th century. In the 1840s, the first railroads were built in Westchester, and included the New York and Harlem Railroad, the Hudson River Railroad, and the New York and New Haven Railroad. The railroads often determined the growth of a town, and the population shifted from Northern to Southern Westchester. By 1860, the total county population was 99,000, with the largest city being Yonkers.
The period following the American Civil War enabled entrepreneurs in the New York area to create fortunes, and many built large estates, such as Lyndhurst, in Westchester. During the latter half of the 19th century, Westchester's transportation system and labor force attracted a manufacturing base, particularly along the Hudson River and Nepperhan Creek. In 1874, the western portion of the present Bronx County was transferred to New York County, and in 1895 the remainder of the present Bronx County was also transferred to New York County. These would later split from Manhattan to form their own county.
During the 20th century, the rural character of Westchester would transform into the suburban county known today. The Bronx River Parkway, completed in 1925, was the first modern, multi-lane limited-access roadway in North America. The development of Westchester's parks and parkway systems supported existing communities and encouraged the establishment of new ones, transforming the development pattern for Westchester. With the need for homes expanding after World War II, multistory apartment houses appeared in the urbanized areas of the county, while the market for single-family houses continued to expand. By 1950, the total County population was 625,816. Major interstate highways were constructed in Westchester during the 1950s and 1960s. The establishment of these roadways, along with the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge, led to further growth in the county.
Westchester County is located in southern New York, also known as Downstate. It shares its southern boundary with New York City and its northern border with Putnam County. It is bordered on the west side by the Hudson River and on the east side by the Long Island Sound and Fairfield County, Connecticut. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 500 square miles (1,300 km2), of which 430 square miles (1,100 km2) is land and 69 square miles (180 km2) (14%) is water.
Where Pelham Manor meets Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, the southern border of Westchester is just under 11 miles (18 km) from Columbus Circle in Manhattan. At over 2,700 acres (11 km2), Pelham Bay Park is the largest of New York City's parks, forming a substantial buffer between suburban Westchester and the urban Bronx, while Van Cortlandt Park to the west acts as a similar buffer.
Westchester's Long Island Sound shore is generally rocky, interspersed with tidal mud flats, marshes and wetlands, as well as several natural and artificially-maintained sand beaches. Municipal and County owned parks provide access to beaches, nature preserves and passive and active waterfront recreational facilities. Several large harbors lie along the shore including Milton Harbor in Rye, Mamaroneck Harbor, Larchmont Harbor, and Echo Bay, and the upper and lower harbors in southern New Rochelle.
A number of islands can be found off the Long Island Sound shore, most of which are located in New Rochelle. Davids' Island, the former location of the U.S. Army's Fort Slocum, is currently unoccupied but is slated for use as passive parkland; Glen Island, currently a Westchester Parks Department run beach and park, was one of the first amusement parks in the country serving as a summer resort at the turn of the twentieth century; Huckleberry Island is largely undeveloped, and has one of the largest rookeries in western Long Island Sound; Echo Island is owned and used by a private yacht club; Execution Rocks is the site of a 19th-century lighthouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places; Columbia, Pea, and Goose Islands are undeveloped; Clifford, Harrison and Tank Islands are part of the "Five Islands Park" and nature preserve; while Oak and Pine Islands are used as private residences.
The widest section of the Hudson River, at 3.6 miles (6 km), is found between the Westchester and Rockland County shorelines immediately north of Croton Point. In Colonial times, this area was called the Tappan Zee or Sea. The Hudson River is tidal and brackish through Westchester and contains a small number of estuarine marshes. Two bridges span the Hudson in Westchester: the Bear Mountain Bridge crosses at Cortlandt and the Tappan Zee Bridge at Tarrytown. Municipal, county and state-owned parks provide access to waterfront landmarks and sites, including Croton Point in Croton, Kingsland Point in Sleepy Hollow and JFK Memorial Marina in Yonkers.
The Hudson River waterfront in Westchester is in a transitional period, converting from primarily industrial uses to mixed residential, commercial, retail, and recreational uses. This transformation is most notable in Yonkers, Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, Ossining, and Peekskill, where redevelopment projects are in various stages of design and completion. In 2004, the county began a project to create Westchester RiverWalk, a walkway along the Hudson River of 51.5 miles (80 km) which will provide pedestrian access between New York City and Putnam County. 32.9 miles of the route are complete and accessible.
At 980 feet (300 m), the highest elevation in the county is a U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey benchmark known as "Bailey" in Mountain Lakes Park near the Connecticut state line. The lowest elevation is sea level, along both the Hudson and Long Island Sound.
Westchester County is divided into six primary drainage basins or watersheds which are: the Upper and Lower Long Island Sound; and the Bronx, Upper Hudson, Lower Hudson, and Croton River basins. Within these primary drainage basins are approximately 60 smaller basins, or subwatersheds. The principal streams draining the southern part of the county include Beaver Swamp Brook, Blind Brook, Bronx River, Hutchinson River, Mamaroneck River, Saw Mill River, Sheldrake River, Stephenson Brook and Tibbetts Brook. The primary streams draining the central part of the county include Byram River, Kisco River, Mianus River, Mill River, Pocantico River and Silvermine River. The principal streams draining the northern part of the county include Dickey Brook, Furnace Brook, Hallocks Mill Brook, Hunter Brook, Muscoot River, Peekskill Hollow Brook, and Titicus River. The county contains several major reservoirs; The Croton system and the Kensico Reservoir are important components of the New York City water supply system. The system is a series of interconnected reservoirs and lakes in northern Westchester and Putnam Counties that provide 10% of New York City's water under normal conditions and up to 30% in times of drought. The components of the system include the New Croton Reservoir, the Cross River Reservoir, the Titicus Reservoir, the Amawalk Reservoir, and the Muscoot Reservoir. Other major reservoirs are the Kensico and Byram Lake Reservoir, while there are a number of smaller reservoirs throughout the county.
The Westchester County Department of Planning divides the county into North, Central and South sub-regions.
The rock that underlies Manhattan and Westchester is chiefly gneiss and mica-schist, with layers of dolomitic marble and serpentine.
The climate of Westchester County is primarily regarded as humid continental (Koppen Dfa), and is somewhat cooler than the humid subtropical climate (Koppen Cfa) of New York City, sometimes by as much as 15 °F. Winters are cold throughout the county and summers are hot inland but cooler towards the coast. Precipitation is plentiful and in some areas reaches over 45 inches. Snowfall is more common in Westchester than in New York City, with the exception of the southwest of the county where snowfall is often between 40 and 60 inches . In January, less dense areas have a low of 16-18 °F and a high of 30–34 °F while dense areas like Yonkers and White Plains have a low of 20–25 °F and a high of 35-40 °F. In the summer, this effect is much milder. Coastal areas (Mamaroneck, New Rochelle, Rye, Port Chester) have highs of 80–83 °F and lows of 62–66 °F, while inland highs will be 84–86 °F and lows will be 60-66 °F. Winds can be heavy, especially by the coast.
The headquarters of MasterCard and PepsiCo are situated in Westchester County, in the hamlet of Purchase.
Tech Valley is a marketing name for the eastern part of New York State, including the Hudson Valley and the Capital District. The term originated in 1998 to promote the greater Albany area as a competitor to regions such as Silicon Valley and Boston, it has since grown to represent the counties in New York between IBM's Westchester County plants in the south and the Canada–US border to the north. Westchester County has also developed a burgeoning biotechnology sector in the 21st century, with over US$1 billion in planned private investment as of 2016, spurring Westchester Magazine to nickname the county Biochester.
The Timothy Knapp House, built around 1670, is the oldest standing building in Westchester. Philipse Manor Hall and the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow are also among the oldest, built around 1682 and 1685 respectively. Philipse Manor Hall is located in Getty Square, Yonkers, and is operated by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
The former Edwin H. Armstrong House is the only delisted National Historic Landmark in Westchester. Current National Historic Landmarks in the county are:
Westchester County is served by the Westchester Library Association and the Westchester Library System, established in 1958. The system comprises 38 public libraries and 25 college and special libraries in the county.
The Westchester County Government is headed by County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican. The acting district attorney is James A. McCarty, and the county clerk is Timothy C. Idoni.
The Westchester County Board of Legislators is the legislative branch of Westchester County. The County Board has seventeen members and is led by a majority coalition of two Democrats and seven Republicans. The current board chair is Michael Kaplowitz.
Historically, Westchester County was a classic "Yankee Republican" county. It supported Republican presidential candidates in all but one election from 1944 to 1988. However, it swung Democratic in the early 1990s – much like other New York City suburbs. In the most recent national elections, Westchester voters tended to be far more Democratic than the national average. In fact, Westchester, after New York City and Albany County, has produced the biggest margins for statewide Democrats in recent years. Democratic voters are mainly concentrated in the more populated southern and central parts of the county. More than 63 percent of Westchester County voters voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race, the seventh-highest percentage of any New York county.
Currently, all three US congressional representatives from Westchester County are Democrats. Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel represent most of the county; Engel's district is based in the Bronx, while Lowey's district reaches into Rockland County. Westchester's third representative is Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, a former advisor to Bill Clinton, who was elected in 2012, defeating Republican incumbent Nan Hayworth.
However, Westchester is less Democratic in state and local elections. For instance, it voted for Republican George Pataki, by a margin of 23.07% against Democratic candidate, Carl McCall in the gubernatorial race of 2002, and by 26.22% in 1998. Pataki hails from Westchester, where he previously served as mayor of Peekskill prior to being elected governor. Republicans still remain competitive at
In 1992, County Executive Andrew Spano became just the second Democrat to hold the post in at least a half-century. In 2006, county legislator Andrea Stewart-Cousins defeated 20-year incumbent Nicholas Spano for a seat in the New York State Senate in a rematch of the 2004 race, which she had lost by only 18 votes. His brother, Assembly Member Mike Spano, switched parties in July 2007 to become a Democrat. Current district attorney Janet DiFiore also switched parties from Republican to Democrat in August 2007. In 2009, Republican Rob Astorino ousted three-term county executive Andy Spano, who had the endorsement of the New York Conservative Party, winning in a landslide. Astorino became the first Republican county executive since Andrew O'Rourke left the post in 1997. In 2011, the GOP broke the Democratic two-thirds majority in the county legislature by picking up two seats. The current composition is ten Democrats, six Republicans, and one Conservative who caucuses with the Republicans. However, two of the Democrats formed a coalition with the Republicans to control the board, with a Republican becoming vice-chair.
Westchester County was the home of US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who occupied the Kykuit mansion near the hamlet of Pocantico Hills.
The county is also home to US President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who live in Chappaqua. Former First Lady Barbara Bush grew up in Rye.
Westchester County contains 48 public school districts, 118 private college-preparatory and parochial schools, and 14 colleges and universities. Many public and private high schools are continuously ranked among the best in New York State and the United States. Public schools in the county are largely funded by local property taxes, and the median annual property-tax bill for Westchester County residents was $13,842 in 2013, the highest in the United States.
There are currently 42 local police agencies located in Westchester County. These agencies frequently work with one another and with other agencies, including county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies responsible for protecting Westchester County.
Westchester County has a wide array of emergency services and is the home to 58 fire departments, 42 ambulance services, two Haz-Mat teams, a volunteer technical rescue team, a fire academy and a fire investigations unit. Each department has career, volunteer or a combination of personnel. Westchester County Department of Emergency Services operates the main dispatching system for EMS and fire departments, located in Valhalla. The department also provides numerous support services for the various agencies throughout the county.
The Career Chief's Association, a cooperative of career fire departments, also operates the Special Operations Task Force. The force consists of six squad companies that can be rapidly assembled for a major hazardous materials incident, CBRNE event, collapse or confined space rescue, or other incident requiring a large number of HazMat or rescue technicians. Over 700 firefighters, police officers and EMS providers were trained to be part of this effort and serve over half the population of Westchester County including Yonkers, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, White Plains, Scarsdale, Eastchester, and the Fairview, Hartsdale, and Greenville Fire Departments in the Town of Greenburgh.
As of 2010, there were 949,113 housing units at an average density of 807 per square mile (312/km²). The racial makeup of the county was 57.4% non-Hispanic White, 15.6% African American, 0.4% Native American, 5.4% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander, 7.6% from other races, and 3.2% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 21.8% of the population. 71.7% spoke only English at home, while 14.4% spoke Spanish, 3.5% Italian, 1.1% Portuguese and 1.1% French at home.
There were 337,142 households of which 34% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 53.9% were married couples living together, 12.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 30.2% were non-families. 25.7% of all households were made up of individuals and 10.3% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.67 and the average family size was 3.21.
Age distribution was 25% under the age of 18, 7.2% from 18 to 24, 30.4% from 25 to 44, 23.5% from 45 to 64, and 14% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 38 years. For every 100 females there were 91.70 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 87.30 males.
According to census data, the per capita income for the county in 1999 was $36,726. The American Community Survey lists Westchester in 2011 with the median household income of $77,006, the 47th highest in the country. The Census Bureau reports that 6.4% of families and 8.7% (2003) of the population were below the poverty line, including 26.53% of those under age 18 and 7.60% of those age 65 or over.
As of 2000, several different expatriate populations lived in Westchester County. Substantial French communities are located in Larchmont, Mamaroneck and New Rochelle, while Bronxville and Scarsdale are the preferred locations for Japanese expats.
Westchester County has 6 cities, 19 towns, and 23 villages. A town may have from zero to multiple villages. As well, a village can be located in more than one town, as two of Westchester's villages are. The largest city in the county by population is Yonkers with nearly 200,000 residents. The city with the highest population density is Mount Vernon with a density of 15,564 individuals per square mile.
Cities in Westchester have many well established sub-areas within the municipal boundaries. Many of these are similar to hamlets and date back to as early as the late 1600s such as Cooper's Corners in New Rochelle. These areas also include some of the first planned communities in the country such as New Rochelle's Residence Park, Rochelle Park and Heights and Sutton Manor.
Notable county-wide media outlets include:
The combination of the county's numerous roadways and bridges, proximity to New York City, and the county's large population all lead to substantial traffic enforcement and busy local courts.
Transportation routes have been responsible for the county's development patterns, with city and town growth being most pronounced along these corridors. There are five mostly north/south corridors and three which traverse the county in the east/west direction. The north/south routes are (going from west to east): S. Route 9/Albany Post Rd/Broadway Corridor, the Saw Mill River Parkway Corridor, the Sprain Brook Parkway, the Hutchinson River Parkway, and the I-95/New England Thruway. The east/west corridors are, from south to north: the Cross County Parkway, the Cross Westchester Expressway/I-287, and the U.S. 202 corridor.
The Tappan Zee Bridge connects Tarrytown in Westchester to South Nyack in Rockland County, across the Hudson River; a $4 billion replacement bridge for the Tappan Zee began construction in 2013. The Bear Mountain Bridge crosses the Hudson from the town of Cortlandt to Orange County.
Westchester County Airport serves the county, and is adjacent to White Plains. Bus service is provided by the Bee-Line Bus System (owned by the Westchester County Department of Public Works and Transportation) within Westchester and to/from the Bronx, Manhattan, and Putnam County. Additionally, the MTA Bus Company runs to and from Getty Square in Yonkers to Midtown Manhattan. Additionally, NY Waterway operates a water ferry service between Ossining in Westchester and Haverstraw in Rockland County.
Amtrak serves Croton-Harmon, New Rochelle, and Yonkers. Commuter rail service in Westchester is provided by Metro-North Railroad (operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority). Metro-North operates three lines in the county; west to east, they are the Hudson, the Harlem, and the New Haven lines. These are former operations of the New York Central and the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroads, each of which stops in the Bronx between Westchester and Manhattan.
Westchester County has been the home of many novelists, including Washington Irving. His most famous work is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", which is set at the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow among other locations in Sleepy Hollow, New York. The story has inspired a variety of works, including 2013 television series Sleepy Hollow, set in the modern village. In the X-Men multimedia series, the X-Mansion is located on the Titicus Reservoir, on (fictional) Graymalkin Lane, outside of Salem Center.
One of the most successful films shot in the county was the 1988 film Big. While the majority of the film takes place in New York City, the amusement park scenes were filmed in Rye Playland in Westchester.
In print media, the area is a frequent setting of the Nero Wolfe detective stories by Rex Stout, which ran from 1934 to 1975. An early documented mention of Westchester County is in the Trixie Belden series (which ran from 1948 to 1986). The series was set in Sleepyside-on-Hudson, a fictional village in the Hudson Valley. The original author, Julie Campbell Tatham, modeled the fictional Crabapple Farm in Sleepyside after her own home at Wolf Hollow on Glendale Road in Ossining. She also mentioned it in her last work in the series: Cherry Ames, Country Doctor's Nurse. Westchester is the primary setting and residence of the main characters in The Clique young adult novel series by Lisi Harrison. In Edward Lewis Wallant's novel The Pawnbroker, the main character Sol Nazerman lives in Mount Vernon.
In television, an early broadcast media presentation of Westchester County was on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), whose main characters live in New Rochelle. Much was made of their suburban setting and Rob's separate world from New York City. The 1970s sitcom Maude was set in Tuckahoe. In the final season of the US sitcom Friends, the characters Monica and Chandler moved from New York City to live in Westchester. In the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Future Ted and his family live in Westchester. In the AMC show Mad Men, Ossining is home to main characters Don Draper and his family. From season 4, Don lives in Manhattan and Betty lives with Henry Francis and the children in Rye.