Ithaca is home to Cornell University, an Ivy League school of over 20,000 students, most of whom study at its local campus. Ithaca College is located just south of the city in the Town of Ithaca, adding to the area's "college town" atmosphere. Nearby is Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3). These three colleges bring tens of thousands of students, who increase Ithaca's seasonal population during the school year. Some students settle in the area after graduation. The city's voters are notably more liberal than those in the remainder of Tompkins County or in upstate New York, generally voting for Democratic Party candidates.
As of 2010, the city's population was 30,014.
Indigenous people occupied this area for thousands of years. At the time of European contact, this area was controlled by the Cayuga Indians, one of the powerful Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois League. Jesuit missionaries from New France (Quebec) are said to have had a mission to the Cayuga as early as 1657.
Saponi and Tutelo Indians, Algonquian-speaking tribes, later occupied lands at the south end of Cayuga Lake. Dependent tributaries of the Cayuga, they had been permitted to settle on the tribe's hunting lands at the south end of Cayuga Lake, as well as in Pony (originally Sapony) Hollow of what is known as present-day Newfield, New York. Remnants of these tribes had been forced from North Carolina by tribal conflicts and European colonial encroachment. Similarly, the Tuscarora people, an Iroquoian-speaking tribe from the Carolinas, migrated after defeat in the Yamasee War; they settled with the Oneida people and became the sixth nation of the Haudenosaunee, with chiefs stating the migration was complete in 1722.
During the Revolutionary War, four of the then six Iroquois nations were allied with the British, although bands made decisions on fighting in a highly decentralized way. Conflict with the rebel colonists was fierce throughout the Mohawk Valley and western New York. In retaliation for conflicts to the east, the 1779 Sullivan Expedition was conducted against the Iroquois peoples in the west of the state, destroying more than 40 villages and stored winter crops. It destroyed the Tutelo village of Coregonal, located near what is now the junction of state routes 13 and 13A just south of the Ithaca city limits. Most Iroquois were forced from the state after the Revolutionary War, but some remnants remained. The state sold off the former Iroquois lands to stimulate development and settlement by European Americans; lands were also granted as payment to veterans of the war.
Within the current boundaries of the City of Ithaca, Native Americans maintained only a temporary hunting camp at the base of Cascadilla Gorge. In 1788, eleven men from Kingston, New York came to the area with two Delaware people (Lenape) guides, to explore what they considered wilderness. The following year Jacob Yaple, Isaac Dumond, and Peter Hinepaw returned with their families and constructed log cabins. That same year Abraham Bloodgood of Albany obtained a patent from the state for 1,400 acres, which included all of the present downtown west of Tioga Street. In 1790, the federal government and state began an official program to grant land in the area, known as the Central New York Military Tract, as payment for service to the American soldiers of the Revolutionary War, as the government was cash poor. Most local land titles trace back to these Revolutionary war grants.