Life of a Salesman
The Life of Charles Williamson
The Map of the Genesee Valley Canal
In 1798, five years after Williamsburgh had weathered the Berczy troubles,
a series of pamphlets began emerging from the presses of Albany printer
Loring Andrews & Company.
DESCRIPTION OF THE GENESEE COUNTRY,
ITS RAPIDLY PROGRESSIVE POPULATION
IN A SERIES OF LETTERS
From a GENTLEMAN to His FRIEND
The illustration facing the title page, perhaps meant as much for Canadian
eyes as those in the U. S., was a drawing of Fort Oswego. Not terribly
near the Genesee Country. But, not too far away either. A word to the
wise . . . .
The letters, addressed only "Dear Sir," were unsigned, but no-one knowing
the workings of land agent Charles Williamson's mind could doubt their
source. The purpose was succinctly spelled out in the first sentence.
I with pleasure comply with your request, and will endeavour
to furnish you with such information relative to the soil, climate, situation
and present state of the Genesee country, as may enable you to judge of
the propriety of making it the place of your future residence.
In the first two letters the correspondent recounted the history of the
original Phelps and Gorham purchase and the subsequent land dealing with
Robert Morris. He then proceeded to extol the glories of this northward
flowing river and the lands, shores and lakes (both great and finger-sized)
of the surrounding area.
Each year seemed to add to the promising appearance of the country
by the increased industry & exertion of the inhabitants, whose numbers
increased with astonishing rapidity, every situation which nature had
pointed out to possess superior advantages, was the scene of the action
under the direction of some enterprising characters.
None, of course, more enterprising than the author.
In Williamsburgh, back in 1792, builder John Johnstone had moved his
chief's house to make way for a barn, two outbuildings and, anticipating
the region's suitability for raising fruit, a peach orchard, the whole
complex to be known as Hermitage Farm. By winter his animal population
included 60 cows, 100 oxen, 8 horses and 100 pigs. Williamson's father
and brother sent seeds and fruit trees from Scotland. Nearby Nathaniel
Fowler had built the Starr Tavern, at a total cost of $275. When not touring
the area and exploring Bath, Keuka Lake and the future Dansville, Williamson
was laying out plans for a joint U. S. - Canada postal system for which,
the following year, he had a post office put up. A school was opened as
well. The village was taking shape, with 542 building lots sold. In the
spring New Jerusalem resident Alexander Macdonald returned from Albany
with four bateaux loaded with iron, steel, nails, hardware, chocolate,
leather, scythes, rum, and pork, much of which he sold to Williamson.
The Berczy disturbance mostly behind him now, his plans went forward,
both at Williamsburgh and elsewhere.
While streets and lots were being laid out in Geneva, a survey was run
on the Conhocton lands by Charles Cameron and Thomas Rees, Jr. for the
village of Bath, named for Pulteney's daughter, the Countess of Bath.
Williamson had a cabin built for himself there, as well as a land office
and nearly 20 other log buildings, including a sawmill. He himself traveled
off to Albany to begin registering deeds and mortgages, at the same time
getting himself named a judge of the Court of Common Pleas for Ontario
On July 15th he inserted an ad in the Albany Gazette, for an
agricultural fair to be held at the fifteen-month-old Williamsburgh, beginning
Monday, September 23rd. His capital on the Genesee was ready to play host
to the outside world especially Pennsylvania land investors. Featuring
a horse race on September 25, on the flats of the Genesee River below
the village (with a purse of £50), followed the next day by a grand sweepstakes
horse race, as well as a huge ox roast, the affair was meant to be a transplanted
version of the village fairs Williamson remembered from his life back
in Scotland. The whole event was enough of a success that the land agent
would repeat the experiment several years later in Bath. But Bath played
a different, sadder role now. The day following the grand sweepstakes
race his young daughter Christy died there of Genesee Fever.
If Charles Williamson felt his troubles were over in 1794, with the departure
of Berczy and the German immigrants to the far side of Lake Ontario, he
soon learned otherwise. There were more troubles in store and the most
immediate came from that same direction. Upper Canada Lieutenant Governor
John Simcoe, having lured the Germans to Toronto, was out to make further
mischief. He had received orders on June 11th from his superior, Govenor
General Guy Carleton, Baron Dorchester, to prohibit the U. S. from founding
any settlements on the south shore of Lake Ontario. The following month
he sent a protest off to George Hammond, British minsister to the U. S.
in Philadelphia. Canada was seriously threatened by one of Williamson's
settlements on the south shore of the lake, a menace to international
harmony by the name of Sodus!!
Earlier this spring Williamson, who had planned for several years on
a settlement at the large bay the Seneca called Assorodus (silvery water),
had a road cut north out of Palmyra to the lake. His surveyors had been
active that summer, laying out streets for a large city. But when Simcoe
got wind of the scheme Sodus was nothing more than a paper city. It would
be several years before the first mills would be erected there on area
Williamson cranked up the propaganda machine, as only he could, and within
a week U. S. newspapers were making their readers aware of the threat
from the north. Meanwhile, on August 10th a British party lead by Major
Roger Hale Sheaffe crossed Lake Ontario, delivered a formal protest to
the settlement at Sodus and requested an audience with Williamson in a
week's time. Williamson, always the gentleman, agreed to meet with Sheaffe.
If the officer had suspected he was wasting his time, that feeling was
probably reinforced when he arrived for the interview. Tom Morris, an
aide of Williamson, met the boat alone. He conducted Sheaffe up the path
to a log cabin, probably the sum total of the great "threat," and Sheaffe
entered. Williamson sat at a crude table. On it lay a few papers. And
a pair of loaded pistols.
Williamson asked if it was only Sodus that England objected to and was
informed that it was the entire south shore of Lake Ontario. Canada wanted
a buffer zone against the Iroquois. Williamson replied that England had
no say in what an American citizen did with his own property and asked
the intended consequences if the demand was ignored. Sheaffe was not able
to speak for Simcoe. The challenge countered, the meeting broke up and
the major sailed back across the lake. Williamson suspected Canadian inaction
but he was taking no chances. He sent a post off to Robert Morris in Philadelphia
with the latest news, and drafted a letter to family friend Henry Dundas,
secretary in the English Home Office, strenuously protesting Simcoe's
threats, thereby presenting the English government with a quandary. A
colonial official was interfering with the property rights of the richest,
and thereby extremely influential, man in England, William Pulteney.
Meanwhile Willliamson, never engaged in just one thorny situation at
a time, was facing another threat, this one from the west. Canada was
involved there also, stirring up the western tribes against U. S. speculators
and traders, hoping to maintain their own toehold in the Ohio Valley and
beyond. Bluntly, a landgrabbing contest. And neither side was above cynically
using the Indian nations to hasten the downfall of the Indians themselves.
A series of victories had emboldened the natives in the west, and now
the tribes of New York were taking notice, sending delegations west to
see conditions for themselves, growing increasingly dissatisfied with
the European encroachment in their own lands. The western New York land
speculators saw land sales fall off dramatically, as prospective settlers
began fearing that if the Canadians didn't force them out, the Indians
would. U. S. Indian agent Colonel Timothy Pickering worked tirelessly
to keep the situation from exploding, pleading with tribal leaders to
remain neutral, buying extra time. He bought just enough.
It was August 20, 1794, the day after Williamson sent off his message
to Henry Dundas. U. S. Army officer "Mad" Anthony Wayne, hero of Stony
Point in the recent revolution, met a western Indian force numbering close
to 2,000 warriors on the banks of Ohio's Maumee River, at a place where
trees littered the ground. When the guns grew silent and the battle of
Fallen Timbers had ended, the threat to Europeans vanished. As word spread
from the defeated to their once potential allies, word that the English
had stood by and hadn't discharged a single weapon during the battle,
British aspirations in the Ohio Valley were dealt a crippling blow. It
would be nearly another generation before they and their native allies
would try again.
In November the Seneca arrive at Canandaigua, joining the Cayugas, Oneidas,
and Onondagas, and by November 11th Pickering had engineered a treaty
that would bring peace to the Genesee Valley.
In Bath a blockhouse erected for protection against natives and Canadians,
no longer needed, was torn down. A one-story frame courthouse and a log
jail were built; 40 log homes, a theater and a racetack were added. The
month of the treaty signing, Charles and Abigail further augmented the
population when Alexander Williamson was born. Over in Geneva another
addition was made the following month when Williamson's $15,000 Geneva
Hotel opened for business. He hired former English hotelier Thomas Powell
as its manager, as well as an English chef, and celebrated the opening
with a grand ball. But Williamson wasn't content to just sit around Geneva,
dining on Old World delicacies. Dashing up to Sodus, he established another
inn there and picked James and Moses Sill to operate it.
Williamson wintered over with his family down in Bath. It was at this
time the agent began bringing black slaves into Bath, the first seen here,
in spite of the fact that New York began officially discouraging slavery
seven years earlier. In January he bought Hans from Rensselaer Schuyler
for $250, and soon bought other males, importing the first female slave
later the following fall. The village grew busier. Unlike in our own times,
winter was often the best time of the year for freighting supplies. Oxen
were particularly well-fitted for hauling large supply-laden wooden sleds
across the snowy landscape and this winter a number of them arrived in
the Pulteney settlements, dragged there from the Hudson freight boats
After the snows melted and the spring mud season slowly passed, visitors
began arriving in the area. Among the earliest were the drovers, bringing
cattle Williamson was importing from New England. The exiled French nobleman
the Duke de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt dropped by to visit Williamson
at Bath, where he was put up at the inn and escaped daily from its two
rooms with their six beds (often occupied by 25 men) to visit with the
Agent. Another notable, U. S. Senator Aaron Burr, traveling to Niagara
Falls with his daughter Theodosia and her husband Joseph Alston, left
his party at Canawagus and passed through Williamsburgh on his way to
see the Falls of the Genesee—the future Rochester—staying
overnight with settler Peter Shaeffer at Wheatland. Several Englishmen
passed through and put up a log cabin further to the west, at what would
become Caledonia. For Williamson's Pulteney fiefdom area was continuing
Over the course of the next two years Williamson would purchase other
small tracts of western New York land—four from Thomas Morris, four
from Oliver Phelps, and 14,000 acres from Birdsong and Nathaniel Norton.
He continued to make trips to Albany, recording 31 deeds and 157 mortgages
for his backers. His miscellaneous expenses alone would run to £790 for
the year. Not quite petty cash back then. Occasionally Pulteney would
balk at further expenditures. When Williamson tried to promote investment
in Connecticut's Lake Erie lands to the west, sending Colonel Benjamin
Walker to Hartford to talk with the Connecticut Legislature, Sir William
Pulteney turned down the proposal. Still the growth continued. Charles
Scholl completed grist and sawmills on Canaseraga Creek, at the site of
today's Leicester; Williamsburgh itself had twelve residences by the end
of 1795. An outbreak of Genesee Fever that summer didn't slow progress
noticeably. Williamson even found time somewhere to accept an appointment
to an Ontario County judgeship. As winter on Bath descended again new
plans were hatched to promote the region.
In the spring of 1796 a circular began appearing in large cities across
the eastern seaboard. An agricultural fair was to be held in September
in New York State at Bath, centered around several horse races. Readers
were informed that guides would be posted at such far-flung places as
Utica, Albany, New York City, Carlisle, Lancaster, Philadelphia, Baltimore,
Alexandria and Richmond; Montreal, Quebec, Niagara, and Presque-Isle,
to guide caravans into the York State wilderness.
Parties attending the September fair were already beginning to arrive
in July, and by the announced date 3,000 prospects had arrived. The games
began. Williamson's purebred Virginia Nell lost a £1,000 race
to Silk Stockings, a horse owned by New Jersey sportsman William
Dunn. Southerners, who bet heavily on Virgina Nell, lost money,
goods and slaves. (Bath's black population increased.) For those who tired
of the horse races there was a new theater (with daily performances) and
wrestling matches. Hundreds of newcomers settled in the area and land
Things may have become a bit too cosmopolitan for some. A marker on the
site of the theater today cites a description of Bath as a "cesspool of
iniquity," and in her book, Genesee Valley People, Irene A. Beale
of Geneseo quotes a letter from a father who wrote about his son,
. . . just returned both a speculator and a gentleman, having
spent his money, swapped away my horse, caught the fever and ague…Previous
to his late excursion, the lad worked well and was contented at home on
my farm; but now work is out of the question with him. There is no managing
my boy at home; these golden dreams still beckon him back to Bath, where,
as he says, no one need either work or starve; where though a man may
have the ague nine months in the year, he may console himself spending
the other three fashionably at the races.
Make a great song title, wouldn't it? "How You Gonna Keep 'em Down on
the Farm after they've seen Bath?" Maybe not.
By the time the fair drew to a close the Pulteney Associates had made
a £50,000 profit. The cash also flowed the other way. Clearing the Bath
land had cost a thousand dollars. Over the summer Williamson spent £1,252
in wages for a scheme to make the village of Hopetoun a wheat distribution
center. By the end of the year he had spent another £1,524. However declining
levels of the water in the Seneca Lake outlet doomed that project. Undeterred
by any reverses, the Agent launched further projects, incurred other expenses.
He encouraged attempts to establish a newspaper chain across the Pulteney
lands, setting up William Kersey and James Edie on the Conhocton where
they began publishing The Bath Gazette and Genesee Advertiser
and a year later, with Williamson's active encouragement, printer Lucious
Carey set himelf up in Geneva where he began publishing The Ontario
Gazette and Genesee Advertiser.
Costs for the Geneva hotel included $770 for masonry work, $1,400 for
lumber from James Barden, and $4,538.47 for carpentry work by David Abbey.
Another $112.60 went to John Woods for chimneys at nearby Mile Point.
The 40-ton Seneca Lake sloop Alexander, named for Williamson's
father, was launched there. He formed a company along with Samuel Colt,
Jacob Hallett, John Johnstone, Thomas Powell, Polydore Wisner, and others
to provide a piped water supply for Geneva. In December Williamson visited
Philadelphia and agreed to take over part of the Morris Reserve land sold
to promoter Andrew Craigie. Sir William Pulteney put his foot down and
once again refused to finance the transaction. Williamson went ahead with
his own money.
This same year his political career was advanced when he was elected
to the state assembly. Which didn't keep him too busy to build the Patterson
Inn at the junction of the Tioga and Chemung rivers to the southeast.
The town of Painted Post (and later the city of Corning) would grow up
around this primitive version of a Holiday Inn. Still, it was becoming
obvious to Williamson that his enterprises were in danger of withering
for lack of convenient water transport for future purchases. Williamsburgh
settlers couldn't get their produce to market by way of the Genesee because
of the falls up near the lake. A canal across the state was little more
than a gleam in a few eyes at this point. To facilitate overland traffic
from the Mohawk he joined with other businessmen to erect a bridge across
the northern end of Cayuga Lake. In the late summer of 1797 a stage line
began operating between Utica and Geneva along the Genesee Road, (later
renamed the Seneca Turnpike, today's Route 5). He would also obtain legislation
permitting up to $45,000 to be raised by lottery for roads and was appointed
the sole road commissioner for Ontario County.
In spite of what the info-mercials tell us, the real estate market is
not always predictable. This was as true in the 1790s as it is today.
Fortunes were to be made, but not overnight; the process required patience
and the ability to hold out over the long run. Until transportation could
be improved, settlers would trickle into the new lands. Only time could
make the difference. Williamson did not know that his time could be running
My thanks to John Topham for providing a copy of the Williamson
"Description of the Genesee Country" letters.
Related Articles in The Crooked Lake Review
"Canandaigua Treaty of 1794" by Robert G. Koch, The
Crooked Lake Review, Number 40, July, 1991.
"Canandaigua Treaty of 1794" by Robert G. Koch (different
text), CLR , Number 80, November, 1994.
Text and signers of "A Treaty Between the United States
of America and the Tribes of Indians Called the Six Nations," CLR,
Number 80, November, 1994.
"The Benjamin Patterson Inn Museum," CLR, Number
6, September, 1988.
An account of the launching of the Alexander
in "Commercial Sailing on the Finger Lakes" by Richard Palmer, CLR
, Number 62, May, 1993.
"Maps of the Pulteney Estate," CLR, Number 11,
"Bath by 1804," excerpts from Ansel McCall's "Historical
Address" at the Bath Centennial, 1893, CLR , Number 38, May,