The history of York is rich and varied, and so layered that it is impossible to cover all aspects of it in one go. The site of the birth of England, York is the place that many ages of men have fought, governed, lived and died in pursuit of their people’s survival. Most of the stories, myths and legends you will know. They are barked at you tirelessly through the ever-present guidebooks and pamphlets and tour guides roaming the historic cobbles. There is a trend, however, of the history of York that tends to be missed, or overlooked, when historians write it up.
There is an inexplicable simpatico between York and The United States of America. Seemingly unrelated and completely different, the two places share a series of shared figures and events, highlighting an unexpected commonality.
You might not know that York, Pensylvania, USA, was originally the capital of the country, and took its name from our fair city. It is also where the term ‘The United States’ was coined. The American York was not the only place to take inspiration from the UK. New York, the shining beacon of the East Coast, was named after James, Duke of York, after the British invaded and changed the name from ‘New Amsterdam’. To add to the York connection, New York’s river, the mighty Hudson, was originally named the Ouse.
The Gee Monument in the Minster was vastly restored following a visit from a American descendant of the original Gee to the cathedral. Many Gee family members from around the world contributed to the project.
An American stone mason by the name of James Disney, (forefather of you-know-who), was responsible for the rebuilding and repairing of the city walls in the eighteenth century. Even after his efforts to restore them, the fate of the city walls, an important and vital part of the city’s heritage and identity, was in danger in the 1850s. The council claimed that there was no use for them any longer, disregarding the illustrious history they represent. There was a long series of arguments and discussions regarding the walls and their place in a modern society. What sealed their fate was the fact that Americans increasingly were ‘starting to visit the old country’, and that ‘the walls have an historic interest’. Thus, the city walls were saved, and continue to be visited by American tourists to this day, in search of a taste of their English heritage.
Up until 1754, the heads of traitors and rebels were displayed on Micklegate Bar, as deterrent to any that were considering the same crimes. One of them, a man named Penniman, in 1572, was subject to this humiliation for treason. Penniman’s son, sick with the shame his father’s crime had brought his family, fled to USA to escape public scrutiny. Today, the Pennimans are a wealthy, high profile family in the New England area.
Another important family to both York and USA is the house of Fairfax. The Merchant Adventurer’s Hall funded ventures to the New World, and the Fairfaxes were one of them. After emigrating from their home at Skeldergate, to Virginia, USA, the region they settled in was named Fairfax County. The Fairfax family’s legacy lives on at Fairfax House, on Castlegate.
There are a few famous figures that have a connection with both York and America. WH Auden, the York-born poet, emigrated to USA and became a fully-fledged American citizen. Also, Lindley Murray, an Quaker immigrant from Pennsylvania, moved to York and became a successful teacher at The Mount School for Girls. There are two streets in the Holgate area named after him; Lindley and Murray Street.
There you have it. The gulf between reserved, sleepy York and brash, unreserved America is shortened somewhat by the history they share. So, next time an American tourist barges you out of the way in search of the ‘real’ history of York, treat them as your friend and equal, and show them the way.