Winter 1998

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Pioneer Times

in the Genesee Country

Introduction by

Richard Palmer

While doing research in the Geneva Palladium, I came upon the following article in the issue of December 21, 1825. Because of its antiquity, and being much closer to the time period than we are, it is a rare historical document, worthy of being printed in its entirety.

Geneva Palladium, December 21, 1825

[From the Albany Argus and City Gazette.]

Historical Sketches.

Mr. Croswell,

You have seen the Genesee country, and therefore know what it is, (in 1825. ) The annexed sketch may convey some notion of what it was in 1792—only 33 years since. How altered!

A retrospective glance at the progress of a country (and a great country too) from infancy to maturity, possesses some interest. I love to contemplate subjects of this nature, because they disclose striking views of the creative power (if the expression be admissible) of human efforts for human comfort.

If you should deem these scraps of any value, they are entirely at your service to be used as you may think proper.

There are yet (and long may they continue) living in the Western District, many persons, whose early acquaintance with its settlement, aided by general intelligence and strong memories, would furnish interesting facts. Amongst these I mention Aug. Porter, Esq. of Niagara; Messrs. Wadsworths, of Geneseo; Major Moses Van Campen, of Allegany; G. Pitts, Esq. and Gen Amos Hall, of Ontario.

Historical Scraps and Miscellaneous Notices, of that part of New-York, called the Genesee country, bounded south by the Pennsylvania line; east by a meridian passing the 32nd mile stone (west from Delaware river) and north through the Seneca Lake; north by Lake Ontario; west by the Niagara river, Lake Erie and the Triangle in Pa. embracing an area of about six millions of acres.

1786. (Dec. 16. ) — The state of New-York ceded to Massachusetts the right of pre-emption from the native Indians; and Massachusetts ceded to New-York the government, sovereignty and jurisdiction of the same.

1788. — The Commonwealth of Massachusetts sold their right of pre-emption in the above tract to Nathaniel Gorham and Oliver Phelps, who, at a treaty held (in July, '88) with the five Indian nations, obtained a release of the 'natives' title to about two millions of acres, or the east one third of the whole tract. This portion is commonly known as "Phelps' and Gorham's Purchase," The westernmost two-thirds comprise Morris' purchase, or the "Holland Purchase," &c. Of the east one third of the tract, P. & G. in 1790 conveyed to R. Morris, (who in 1792, conveyed to C. Williamson,) about one million of acres.

1789. — Mr. Phelps began the settlement of the Genesee country. The survey of townships was prosecuted with much assiduity and some sales were made. All the country west of the pre-emption line (or of Onondaga and Tioga counties) was, at this time, included in the county of Ontario.

1790. — A census of Ontario county was taken, when the population was found to be less than 1000 including transient persons of whom there were a considerable many at this time, as adventurers, &c. Steuben county was erected this year, from the six southern most tiers of townships in "Phelps' and Gorham's Purchase. " Charles Williamson afterwards formed his residence at Bath, the seat of justice for the new county of Steuben. This was found the highest navigable point on the Conhocton branch of the Susquehannah river. Oliver Phelps established himself at Canandaigua; and devoted his exertions to the sale of land.

1791. — The settlement of the country advanced gradually but very slowly. The want of roads retarded its growth. The principal inlet for emigrants was the Susquehannah river and its branches, but the difficulty of procuring provisions and necessary accommodations presented formidable obstacles, such as emigrants of ordinary means and moderate courage could not think of encountering. —The country between the Seneca Lake and Mohawk river (100 miles) was a dense, trackless wilderness; and no communication existed between the navigable waters of the Susquehannah and those of the Genesee river.

1792. — A road was this year commenced between the waters last mentioned, and in 1793 a passable communication, for horses and wagons, was effected from Bath on the Conhocton, to Williamsburgh, at the confluence of Genesee river and Canaseraga creek. Mills, bridges, and other important improvements were now undertaken by Mr. Williamson, whose enterprise, with the ample means of Sir William Pulteney, very soon effected a happy change in the aspect of the country, and gave its settlement and improvement an impulse of incalculable advantage, which is felt to this day, (1825)

Some idea of the then state of the country, its natural appearance, the impression it conveyed &c. may be formed from the following description, taken from the journal of a gentlemen who travelled from New-York, via Albany, &c. to the Genesee river in 1792.

"On the 15th of February, [1792,] we left Albany, and proceeded west 100 miles, to Whitestown, a new settlement forming on the Mohawk river. Thus far we found a road that had, at times, been travelled by waggons; the rest of the route (from Whitestown to Geneva, in Ontario country) was an Indian path, but little improved by a few settlers that had moved on the year before, and who had thrown temporary bridges over the most impassable of the creeks. We were obliged to take with us, not only provision for ourselves, but also provender for our horses, and blankets for our beds. A few miserable huts, scattered along at the distance of 10 to 20 miles apart, afforded us only fire and a partial shelter from the snow.
"On the evening of the third day's journey [from Whitestown] we found ourselves on the bank of the Seneca Lake, which to our surprise (after having passed about 400 miles, by our route from New-York, over a frozen country) exhibited a beautiful expanse of water, free of ice, as in the month of June. We forded the outlet and reached Geneva, a small village, consisting of 8 or 10 huts at the foot of the Lake. The site of this village is highly picturesque, the ground rises with a gentle acclivity from the north-west corner of the Lake, forming an elegant ridge parallel with the shore and commanding an extensive prospect of the lake and adjoining country. The lake extends south about 40 miles, and the sight of small craft sailing on its bosom, at this moment, is an unexpected gratification to us, after our dreary journey. The future inhabitants of this place may, in winter, enjoy the double advantage {so rarely combined) of sailing and sleighing, which will facilitate the transportation of produce and agreeably diversify the mode of travelling in this delightful country.
"From Geneva to Canandaigua we found only two families settled on our road or path; and in the town of Canandaigua but two small framed houses and a few log huts. From this place to the Genesee river, a distance of twenty-six miles there were not above four families. These, however, at this time, compose the principal settlements in the country. But at the same time, the Indians are so numerous, compared with the white population, that the few scattered families who have ventured so far into the Indian country, constantly feel their insecurity and carefully avoid provoking the ferocious temper of the natives.
"The county of Ontario, even now, in the wild and savage state of nature, exhibits evident proofs of its destined prosperity and greatness. Wherever the soil has been turned with the plough, fertility inexhaustible appears. The husbandman is bountifully rewarded for his toils by manifold returns of his seeds. So moderate is the cold in winter, and so light does the snow fall, that cattle left to range the woods, provide for themselves, and they thrive upon browse and coarse herbage. Alternate views of lakes, plains and ridges, in all the luxuriance of nature, constitute here the most delightful scenery. This will become the garden of the state."
1997, Richard Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
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