Life of a Salesman
The Life of Charles Williamson
There are no horse races today down at the fairgrounds by the Genesee. And there is no dance this week on the second floor of the Starr Tavern. The taproom on the floor below is silent. Up the hillside along Jay Street, the millstones of Charles Scholl's gristmill and the condensers of Joseph Richardson's distillery will go untended. No land transactions are being concluded at lawyer Charles Holker Carroll's office. The front door of Alexander McDonald's store won't swing open at the hand of a customer. Silence rules the village. The cemetery 300 paces up the hillside is deserted, except for a small work crew repairing a gravestone. On the other side of Abel Road a herd of dairy cattle quietly graze.
The cows and the work crew are real. The rest exists solely in old archives and ledgers. The only recent evidence found on the site is a few cut nails, brass buttons, horseshoes, shards of glass. Even the square on Williams Street has vanished. Where it once stood, automobiles swoosh through on Route 63, headed toward and away from Geneseo, three miles to the north. Here stood Williamsburgh, New York. Once.
About thirty miles to the North in another, much larger cemetery, Rochester's Mount Hope, rests the mortal remains of one of the city's founders, Nathaniel Rochester himself. But back here in Williamsburgh, his two co-founders, Major Charles Carroll and Colonel William Fitzhugh rest in their quiet plots. One man brought Rochester, Carroll and Fitzhugh to the Genesee Valley. Williamsburgh owed its existence to one man. The New York State towns and cities of Sodus, Geneva, Bath, Caledonia and Lyons also owed their presence to one man. Charles Williamson. He rests beneath the waves of the Atlantic.
A Feather in His Cap
It was in 1781 that Captain Charles Williamson, dissatisfied veteran of Britain's Twenty-Fifth Regiment, first crossed the Atlantic, with letters of introduction to Lord Cornwallis (second in command over George III's forces in North America) in his luggage. He received a warm welcome, not from Cornwallis, but from the U. S. vessel Marquis of Salem; the former captain found himself a prisoner of war for the remaining months of the war. Being a gentleman and a non-combatant, having sold his army commission, he was sent not to an American military prison, but to the much more pleasant confines of the Ebenezer Newell home in Roxbury, Massachusetts. When he returned to Britain at war's end, he was not alone. Accompanying him was the new Mrs. Williamson, the former Abigail Newell. The new bridegroom had found a wife and a homeland. He would return.
On January 9th, 1792, when Charles Williamson stepped out of a Philadelphia courtroom into the brisk winter air, he was a new American citizen and about to become a landowner, proprietor of one of the largest pieces of property in the world, totaling close to 1,000,000 acres. (The two roles are not unrelated.)
Williamson had not been idle in the past nine years. His father Alexander served as a factor in Britain for the Earl of Hopetoun. Today we'd call the position a foreman or overseer. As a Robertson, his mother had many family connections including Sir William Pulteney and future Cabinet member Henry Dundas, Lord Melville. Back in Scotland Charles and Abigail were soon settled on a Hopetoun estate at Balgray. He entered into politics and agricultural experimentation. And he was bored; too much energy in too small a space. He set off for London, seeking government service, through his family connections. He was soon off on a journey, first to Marseilles, then to the Balkans, where he gathered information on Russia and Turkey. Returning to London he waited in vain for further government employment, finally returning to Balgray, where he continued with his agricultural pursuits and won the local Clackmannanshire election. And the energy began building up again.
It was a legal restriction back in the former American colonies that would provide the outlet. Aliens could not own property in the U. S. The Federalists, wishing to strengthen ties with the Mother Country, were striving for repeal of the laws, but Thomas Jefferson's republican adherents, distrusting the British, were adamantly opposed. So when Williamson's relative Sir William Pulteney, reputedly the wealthiest man in Britain, decided to invest in American real estate, he had to create a loophole. There was only one way. Someone in his employ must become a U. S. citizen, settle on the new lands, assume ownership and run rhe enterprise. When he entered negotiations for the purchase of a million acres in western New York State, he and his associates had been casting about for such an employee. Williamson came under consideration; he had much to recommend him. Family connections counted heavily, even in the New World. He was familiar with government circles, knew the world outside of Scotland and London, grew up in a family that was familiar with the problems of running property, had worked with the most advanced farming techniques and was bursting with ideas. And, he was willing to live in foreign lands. (Abigail of course would be happy to return to her own country).
Details were worked out and the contract was signed in London on April 26th, 1791. Plans moved swiftly ahead. Williamson, Sir William, and the other two principals, former governor of Bombay William Hornby and promoter Patrick Colquhoun, bustled about London, laying the groundwork. The Pulteney lands were isolated from the population centers of New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. It would be necessary to build roads before a critical number of settlers could be induced to purchase the new lands—roads for entry and roads for getting agricultural products back out of the frontier. Colquhoun engaged a German nobleman, the Baron De Damar to provide the muscle power by way of the residents of his duchy. De Damar turned the whole project over to his assistant, Wilhelm von Moll de Berczy. Unplanned consequences would arise from this arrangement.
Are We There, Yet?
Getting settlers to the new lands was a problem to be solved once the new Agent was in place. Getting him there was difficult enough. A ship, the bark Robinson, was hired to move the Captain, Abigail and recent additions, Christy, Alexander and baby Anny, to their new home. It arrived at Annan, on Scotland's Solway Firth, on the first of July. It took a week to get everything, including furniture, clothing, frontier supplies and 100 guns, stowed away and the family on board. Because of insurance considerations (even then) gunpowder was not part of the cargo. Then there was a wait of four days for favorable wind conditions; winds which arose and then quickly deteriorated. It was August 4th before the Robinson could make enough headway to make it out of Solway Firth, only for the crew to then discover a leak. The problem worsened and on the 7th the ship was forced to lay over for repairs on the Isle of Man. It was an extremely stormy Atlantic Ocean that finally greeted the Williamsons. The voyage dragged out. Supplies began running low. The children became sickly and listless, and tempers probably began mimicking the tumult around them. When the ship finally arrived at the Virginia Capes near Norfolk, Williamson decided they had all had enough. Rather than continuing on to his destination at Philadelphia, he had the ship anchor where it was and he moved his family ashore. The ocean span that the Concorde crosses in a few hours today had taken 17 weeks. Virginia must have looked like paradise.
The family moved up to Baltimore that winter. By Christmas Williamson had been to Philadelphia and begun networking with businessmen, speculators and family connections. And then, on the ninth day of the new year—citizen Williamson. The job awaited.
There are particular qualities necessary to become good in sales. Among them are high levels of energy, vast enthusiasm about the product, imagination, and the ability to track multiple simultaneous activities. The new citizen had these qualities in abundance and an almost blank canvas to paint on. At this time there were only 900 whites scattered across the state to the west of Seneca Lake. Tiny pockets of settlers, most from New England, barely maintained toe holds in the future Geneva, Pittsford, Canandaigua, Bloomfield, Hector and Honeoye Falls. Jemima Wilkinson, The Public Universal Friend had founded a religious community at New Jerusalem partway down Seneca Lake from Geneva. One lonely tavern at Lewiston was all that represented eivilization over on the Niagara frontier.
This nearly blank canvas represented fertile opportunities to the Pulteney agent and he lost no time in making the most of them. 1792 was to be very busy. Williamson seemed to be everywhere at once; a familiar, dashing (in both senses) sight all over York state; a tall, slender figure usually dressed in lace cuffs, knee breeches, buckled shoes, and a powdered wig, and displaying the manners of a courtier. He was an accomplished horseman and duelist, although I've found no evidence for the latter claim. It may have stemmed from his days in the military.
In January, even as he was becoming a citizen, two of his new aides, Charles Cameron and John Johnstone, fellow Scots, were headed out of Baltimore for the region around Carlisle, Pennsylvania, with a wagon train loaded with raw materials of frontier empire. Williamson met with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton before leaving Philadelphia. He also met with British Ambassador Hammond and Captain Charles Stevenson, a representative of Canadian Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, to discuss the international implications of his plans for the Pulteney properties. This was vital. It was important to maintain cordial relations with Britain and at the same time avoid throwing a scare into the skittish and prickly neighbors to the north of Lake Ontario. Then it was off to central New York for a brief inspection. Then back to Philadelphia to call on Robert Morris, and vice president John Adams' son-in-law William S. Smith. On April 11th Williamson officially took title to the Pulteney lands. In spite of a murky business outlook he began planning a series of innovations and improvements concerning markets, harbors, roads and the mails. In June he moved his family up to Northumberland, so as to have them closer to the New York projects.
Leaving Abigail and the children there he plunged up into New York again, exploring the area around Big Tree (today's Geneseo) and settling on a spot three miles to the south of the small settlement for his wilderness capital, which he decided to name Williamsburgh, not for himself but for his employer Sir William.
In August he lit out for the state capital in Albany. While passing to the south of Keuka Lake he was ambushed by an unrecognized and unsuspected enemy, the common mosquito. The pioneers of the area were well acquainted with the result—Genesee Fever. A malaria-like disease, it seemed to strike blindly, making the victim feel weak and depressed for weeks at a time. Then it would clear as mysteriously as it had arrived, only to return again the following spring and each spring after that. There was no remedy; you just had to suffer through it and try to forget that it would come again. It struck while he was near today's village of Savona and he was taken in by the John Dolson family of Mud Creek until he had recuperated enough to continue his journey.
While their chief attempted to be in three or four places simultaneously Cameron and Johnstone moved the supplies up to Williamsburgh and hired impoverished locals to begin building their headquarters. Johnstone built a barn at Williamsburgh and them moved a house being built nearby for Williamson next to the barn. The British upper classes liked their creature comforts and the Captain was no exception; the house was noted for having a luxurious feature—a brick chimney. It would be known as the Hermitage Farm. Nathaniel Fowler arrived and invested $275 in building the Starr Tavern. The carpenters began clamoring for pay and just as things were threatening to get out of control, their employer returned from Albany with the overdue wages. Like a young executive suddenly on an expense account, Williamson spent unstintingly on all of his schemes. It had not yet become axiomatic that you had to spend money to make money, but he instinctively understood the concept. An infrastructure for a village requires continuous financial nourishment and many Williamson account books reside in area archives and libraries today, detailing these expenditures. Horses and livestock continued arriving thoughout the summer and fall. As did the bills.
The winter of 1792-1793, like other winters, was a time to review accomplishments and plan for the coming year. Williamsburgh was growing. Fifty-two lots had been sold and Hermitage Farm now consisted of the house and barn, as well as a storehouse and a stable (with eight residents), the whole flanked by a peach orchard and supporting 60 cows, 100 each of oxen and swine. The most valuable commodity was the settler with skills and talents necessary to a frontier economy. Most of them would have few tangible assets and Williamson knew they would have to be subsidized for a number of years before he could expect a return on his investment. So fresh capital would also be required. And the Pulteney Association would not be the sole player in the game. Rivals proliferated. In the coming year Robert Morris would complete the sale of 3,600,000 acres of land west of the Genesee to Theophile Casenove, agent for the Holland Land Company, a new consortium of Amsterdam banking houses. New York capitalist Herman Le Roy and his associates William Bayard and John McEvers would purchase 85,000 acres of land from Morris to be known as the Triangle Tract. It was time for another of Williamson's talents to come to the fore; that of the promoter. And our man was equal to the task.
P. T. Barnum, Watch and Learn
Williamson knew that if he wanted to attract large amounts of capital he'd have to create the impression that buyers would receive good value for their investment. Wealth attracts wealth, prosperity attracts prosperity. Williamsburgh and Geneva would be key sites in the effort but Captain Williamson inherently felt that nothing succeeds like excess. If two population centers were good, double the number would be even better. Maybe more. He'd come across one place he found particularly attractive, the wide, flat valley floor of the Conhocton River. He decided to build a city here that would appeal to the upscale crowd, a wilderness estate fit for a country gentleman, providing every luxury persons of refinement and taste could desire, a frontier utopia. He would name it for Sir William's daughter Henrietta, the Countess of Bath. She would later lend her first name to a town south of Rochester.
Other locations appealed as well. Williamson had visions of a great trade route stretching to the north and across Lake Ontario, linking the forests of Canada to the incipient granaries and mills of an Anglo-New York. He chose a site to be named Sodus as the main south shore port. East of Bath he planned another outpost, one day to be named by others as Corning. Still another site at the juncture of Ganargwa Creek and Canandaigua Outlet reminded him of the confluence of Europe's Rhone and Saone rivers, and he decided to name a settlement there Lyons, after its French counterpart. The Agent was designing central New York. He dreamed, and the sheer number of his dreams insured that many would indeed come true. But others would not, and the next few years would see some settlements rise while others fell. Many obstacles awaited. Canada did not share his vision. Rivals such as the Holland Land Company and the Triangle Tract to the west and Judge William Cooper's to the southeast would compete for settlers. The tribes of the Iroquois were not regretting the loss of their lands to the white speculators. And civil strife approached from the south.
© 1998, David Minor
At this point I would like to thank the following people for their aid in the writing of this article: John Topham, for the extended loan of the Cowan book. Wayne Mahood, for arranging a visit to Williamsburgh. And especially, Groveland Historian Lawrence R. Turner for guiding our small party through the cemetery. He also heads up the work crew restoring the graveyard. Larry provided valuable insight into the Williamson-Berczy blow-up. More of that next time.
A Visit to Williamsburgh Cemetery by David Minor
Alderman, Clifford Lindsey - Colonists for Sale: The Story of Indentured Servant in America (New York, Macmillan, 1975)
Allodi, Mary Macauly; Moogk, Peter N.; Stock, Beate - Berczy (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, 1991)
Andre, John - William Berczy: Co-Founder of Toronto (Toronto, York Borough, 1967)
Beale, Irene A. - Genesee Valley People, 1743 - 1962 (Geneseo, NY, Chestnut Hill Press, 1983)
Brunberg, David G. - The Making of an Upstate Community (Geneva, NY)
Carmer, Carl - Genesee Fever (novel, New York, Farrar, 1941)
Clune, Henry - Rivers of America: The Genesee (New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963)
Cowan, Helen I. - Charles Williamson (Rochester NY, Rochester Historical Society, Publication Fund Series, Volume XIX, 1941)
Doty, Lockwood - History of the Genesee Country (Chicago, S. J. Clarke, 1925)
Hilbert, A G. - The Williamson Road (The Crooked Lake Review, Numbers 64 - 66)
Liebich, Georg Siegmund - Address of the German Colonists in the Genesee to Their Superintendent William Berczy (1793)
Markham Bicentennial, A Story of the Markham-Berczy Settlers: 200 Years in Markham, 1794-1994 (Markham, Ontario, 1994)
McKelvey, Blake - The Genesee Country Villages in Early Rochester's History (Rochester History, Volume XLVII, 1985)
Parker, Arthur C. - Charles Williamson: Builder of the Genesee Country (Rochester, NY, Rochester Historical Society, Publication Fund Series, Volume VI, 1927)
Peer, Sherman - The Genesee River Country, Historical Sketches (self-published typescript, Rochester Public Library, 1955)
Richardson, A. J. H.; Cowan, Margaret I., eds. - William Berczy's Williamsburgh Documents (Rochester NY, Rochester Historical Society, Publication Fund Series, Volume XX, 1942)
Copies of Letters to Charles Cameron from Charles Williamson Relating to the Settlement of the "Genesee Country" 1804 - 1807 (bound typescript, Rochester Public Library, 1929)
German Pioneers of Toronto and Markham Township: The Story of William Moll Berczy (Markham, Ontario, 1987)