The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2003

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About

 

The "Alien Proprietership"

The Pulteney Estate during
the Nineteenth Century

by

James D. Folts

For most of the nineteenth century much of the land in Steuben County was owned by subjects of the British crown. Sir William Pulteney, John Hornby, and Patrick Colquhoun, or their heirs employed local agents to manage and sell their property. The land office on the south side of Pulteney Square was a local landmark. This foreign ownership had a significant and sometimes negative impact on the economics and politics of the county. Yet the story of the "Pulteney Estate," as it was usually called, has not been fully told either in local or general histories. The activities of the first land agent, Charles Williamson, a Scottish immigrant, are well known, but he was employed by Pulteney and his associates for just a decade, from 1791 to 1801. For three-quarters of a century thereafter the Pulteney land office in Bath continued to be a center of economic power, an object of both public respect and resentment, and sometimes a target of political retaliation.

Pulteney and Hornby were wealthy men who looked to increase their wealth still further by investing in American lands. In 1791 Robert Morris, a prominent Philadelphia financier, was looking for a quick sale of the one million acres of Genesee lands he had purchased the previous year from Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham. Morris needed the money to try to pay off his extensive debts. He sent William Temple Franklin (a grandson of Benjamin Franklin) to England to look for buyers. Patrick Colquhoun was impressed with the promotional pamphlets and the engraved map which Morris had published. Colquhoun told John Hornby and Sir William Pulteney about the investment opportunity. On their behalf Colquhoun negotiated a purchase from Morris: one million acres of Genesee lands for roughly $275,000. The partners agreed that 9/12 of the property should belong to Pulteney, 2/12 to Hornby, and 1/12 to Colquhoun for his role in negotiating the transaction. The one legal obstacle to the deal was a New York statute barring aliens from owning real estate. This law was circumvented by instructing Charles Williamson, who was picked to be the agent in America, to become a United States citizen so that he could hold legal title to the Genesee lands.


CHARLES WILLIAMSON
1757 - 1808

David Robertson Williamson commissioned this copy of the original portrait of his grandfather in 1893 and presented it to the Village of Bath on the occasion of its centennial. This portrait is displayed in the Magee House in Bath and is reproduced here by courtesy of the Steuben County Historical Society.

When Williamson arrived in America and inspected the purchase in the spring of 1792, he discovered that it consisted of the less valuable agricultural lands in the Phelps and Gorham Purchase—the hilly country of the south and the sometimes marshy or sandy lands near Lake Ontario. The townships in the fertile plain between Canandaigua and Geneseo had already been sold off, likewise several townships containing valley flats in future Steuben County. But the Pulteney purchase did embrace the promising sites of Geneva, Sodus Bay, the falls of the Genesee where Rochester now stands, and the junction of the Genesee River and Canaseraga Creek, south of Geneseo. At each of these places Williamson or his associates laid out towns. Williamsburgh on the Genesee soon disappeared, but the other settlements have become modern cities or villages. The capital city of the purchase was to be Bath on the Conhocton, founded in 1793 and named for the English resort town which was Sir William's favorite residence.

Charles Williamson recognized that the isolation of the Genesee country discouraged settlement and hindered transport of produce to seaboard markets. He perceived that the Susquehanna River and Baltimore were the natural trade route and port for the Genesee country. One of Williamson's first acts was to order a road to be opened from the West Branch of the Susquehanna to the Genesee. It was built in 1792-93 with the labor of German immigrants recruited by one Wilhelm Berczy, who was hired by Patrick Colquhoun. Williamson also invested in the great road running westward from the Mohawk River to Canandaigua, and in a few local roads. He constructed a large stone hotel at Geneva and a frame tavern at Painted Post, held fairs and races at Williamsburgh and Bath, and sponsored newspapers at Bath and Geneva. He lobbied successfully for a post route over the new road to the Genesee. As a member of the state Assembly in Albany, he sponsored a bill erecting a new county, to be named Steuben, in 1796. And Williamson hired surveyors to subdivide his lands, sub-agents to make sales, and bookkeepers to account for the money received and expended.

All these projects cost a great deal of money, which Sir William Pulteney supplied, patiently at first, then with growing concern. Williamson's expenditures in his ten years as agent totalled $1,374,470, while his receipts from land sales amounted to only $147,975 plus a much larger amount due on mortgages. Most of the land sales were made to speculators who soon defaulted on their mortgage payments. Actual settlers were slow to come. In 1800 Sir William and his associates decided to replace Williamson as agent. His successor was Robert Troup, a stout, cautious Federalist lawyer of New York City. Troup had invested in Steuben townships in the mid-1790s and was familiar with Williamson's business practices. With the change in land agents, Williamson was required to convey his lands to the British investors. The conveyances were executed by deeds dated in December 1800 and March 1801.(A statute passed in 1798, at the urging of Williamson and others, permitted conveyances of real property to aliens for three years only, and the deadline was near.) In a complex settlement, the lands conveyed to Pulteney, Hornby, and Colquhoun were allotted among them proportional to their original investments (9/12, 2/12, 1/12). They agreed to pay Williamson the salary that was due him, to assume his enormous debts (not paid off until 1818), and to release him from any future legal claims.

The lands which Williamson deeded in 1800-1801 comprised about 1,335,000 acres. The principal lands were those which he had purchased from Robert Morris in 1792, excepting the few lots subsequently sold. Williamson had also acquired several other large tracts of land. One was the narrow eighty-mile triangular tract, or "gore," between the old and new preemption lines. The preemption line ran from the Pennsylvania line north to Lake Ontario, in the vicinity of Seneca Lake. (The old preemption line, run in 1788, deviated significantly from true north-south; the new line corrected the error. Lands west of the preemption line had been claimed by Massachusetts under its colonial charter. By a 1786 agreement, the lands became part of New York, but Massachusetts retained the right to sell them, and conveyed them in 1788 to Phelps and Gorham.) In 1795 Williamson obtained a patent for most or all of the present towns of Huron, Rose, Wolcott, and Butler in eastern Wayne County. The State of New York granted this patent in return for Williamson's recognizing the claim of Seth Reed and Peter Ryckman to a tract of land in the gore between the two preemption lines, north of Geneva. Williamson also bought lots in the township of Galen, which lay within the Military Tract designated for grants of land to Continental officers and soldiers. He acquired the "North Little Gore" along the shore of Seneca Lake, east of the old preemption line in present-day Yates County. In the eastern and northern parts of the state, Williamson purchased the Otego Patent in Otsego County; about 10,000 acres of township no. 8 in Franklin County; portions of the patents of Nobleborough, Jerseyfield, and Jessup's Purchase in Herkimer County; most of the towns of Eaton, Madison, and Lebanon in Madison County, which lay within the Chenango Twenty Townships; and a few lots in Albany and New York City.

To the west of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase, Williamson acquired several large tracts in the Morris Reserve, which lay between the Genesee River and the vast holdings of the Holland Land Company, the popular name for a consortium of Amsterdam businessmen. The Pulteney associates held a $100,000 mortgage given by Robert Morris on the Morris Reserve. When Morris failed to make payments on the mortgage, he conveyed 50,000 acres in the Cottringer Tract to Williamson to satisfy the obligation. This tract straddled the Genesee River in present-day Allegany, Livingston, and Wyoming Counties. Another Williamson acquisition in the Morris Reserve was an undivided half share in the 100,000 Acre Tract in present-day Orleans and Genesee Counties, conveyed to him in 1801. Williamson also bought a few thousand acres in Pennsylvania and present-day West Virginia.

The deeds of 1800-1801 gave rise to two legally distinct land agencies: one for the real estate of Sir William Pulteney and another for the real estates of William Hornby and Patrick Colquhoun, the lesser partners in the original association. John Grieg of Canandaigua, like Williamson an immigrant Scot, served as general agent of the Hornby-Colquhoun interests from 1806 until he retired from the post in 1852. At that time William Jeffrey, his assistant, took over the agency and finally bought the few remaining Hornby lots in 1875. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Hornby and Colquhoun properties had comprised some 300,000 acres, about a third concentrated in Steuben and eastern Allegany Counties, another third in the Chenango Triangle in Broome and Chenango Counties, and the rest in other locales. Dugald Cameron and after him William W. McCay served as sub-agents for the Hornby Estate in Steuben and Allegany Counties. Charles Cameron, brother of Dugald, served in the same capacity for the Hornby lands in the Chenango Triangle. John Grieg purchased the unsold Pulteney lands in the Cottringer Tract and elsewhere in Genesee County in 1817, and he bought out the Colquhoun interest in 1837. But the Pulteney family continued to own extensive lands, mostly in Steuben and Allegany Counties, for several decades to come.

At the opening of the nineteenth century, after the abrupt departure of Charles Williamson, Sir William Pulteney's new land agent Robert Troup found Williamson's business affairs in disarray. While the account books and filed papers at the Geneva land office were in quite good order, those at the Bath office were a disordered mess. Many townships remained partly or wholly unsurveyed, and no orderly land sales were possible without good surveys. Bath was a few dozen log and plank houses huddled around Pulteney Square, itself a jumble of stumps and grass where cattle grazed. The whole of Steuben County contained only 1,788 inhabitants in 1800. After his first inspection tour in 1803, the new land agent, Robert Troup, described them as "poor, uninformed, and of less respectability than the settlers of any of the new counties through which I have passed." Troup reduced expenditures and reorganized the land office staff. He listened attentively to the settlers' pleas that he sell lands with no down payment. But after Williamson's disastrous experience with land sales to speculators, Sir William Pulteney was now insisting that each settler make a down payment of one fourth of the purchase price in cash. In 1804 Troup gave up trying to obtain money the settlers did not possess. Without his employer's permission, he ordered the sub-agents at Bath and Geneva to sell land on credit. However, each purchaser was required to settle on the land and make improvements within a specified time period, usually six to twelve months. When a lot was sold, title to it was not yet conveyed. The Pulteney land office sold land by contract, which in legal terms gave the settler the possession but not the fee (ownership). The settler was responsible for paying the taxes but did not receive a deed until the purchase price and accumulated interest were completely paid off. The land office preferred using the land contract instead of the mortgage, because the contract could be declared null upon any failure to fulfill its terms. Mortgage foreclosure was a lengthy, costly legal proceeding in the Court of Chancery.

Robert Troup hoped that transportation improvements would help bring prosperity to Steuben County. He invested heavily in the turnpike companies that were promising to build better roads westward across the Southern Tier counties. The Lake Erie Turnpike Road, completed between Bath and Angelica by 1810, was funded almost entirely by the Pulteney land office and by Philip Church of Angelica. Other road improvements were intended to channel traffic in produce southward to the rivers feeding into the Susquehanna. For example, in 1807 George McClure, a merchant and miller of Bath, opened a store at Pittstown (now Honeoye), Ontario County, and cut a road from there "to the head of the Conhocton River." McClure informed Troup of this improvement, and Troup authorized Samuel S. Haight, the sub-agent at Bath, to subscribe $350 for improving the highway from the "head of the Conhocton" to Bath. As much of the cost as possible was to be paid by the labor of settlers indebted to the Pulteney Estate. Robert Troup hoped that these investments would be "further proof of my sincere desire to benefit the county; notwithstanding what particular individuals in the county may say to the contrary." In 1808 another road was completed from Bath southwest to the Canisteo River, then south through the new town of Troupsburgh to the 109th milestone on the Pennsylvania line.

Robert Troup
1757 - 1832

Born in Hanover, Morris County, New Jersey. Graduated Columbia, 1774; studied law under John Jay; friend of Alexander Hamilton; was in Revolutionary War; member of NYS Assembly; Clerk of U.S. District Court; Judge of U.S. District Court, 1796-98; private practice; Pulteney agent, 1801-1832. Portrait by permission of Columbia University Archives — Columbiana Library.

Settlers hoped to raise wheat, the most lucrative cash crop. Wheat brought a high price in the early years of the nineteenth century because of high demand in Europe during the Napoleonic wars. Wheat prices at Bath were considerably higher than at Canandaigua or Geneva because of the successful ark navigation to Baltimore via the Susquehanna River and its tributaries. The high wheat prices, better terms for land sales, and improved access to markets began to attract settlers to the Pulteney lands. However, the few good years were followed by many bad ones. Hard times began in 1808, when President Jefferson imposed a temporary embargo on all foreign exports because of British harassment of American shipping on the high seas. In Steuben County the economic distress continued with little relief through the war with Britain, the post-war depression, and the prosperity that came to other parts of New York State with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825.

The Pulteney land agents were obliged to pay off Williamson's huge debts and to send remittances to the Pulteney family in England. In order to force the settlers to pay something, the land office began about 1813 to charge compound interest on most land contracts. That meant that unpaid interest was added to the principal, and interest then was charged on the whole. In countless cases the settler accumulated a debt so large that he lost his farm and all the improvements he had made—house, barns, cleared fields and pastures. In the expressive language of the settlers on the Pulteney Estate, he "starved out." Some lots were said to have been sold as many as eight or ten times, and each time the land agent and sub-agent collected a commission on the sale. Settlers complained bitterly that this system encouraged the land office to evict settlers from their lands and sell again to others. This happened sometimes, but the agents were usually lenient with settlers who managed to pay something. Troup and his employees pointed out that they had spent many thousands of dollars on turnpikes, roads, and charitable purposes. But the settlers could not forget that their hard-earned money went to further enrich already wealthy Englishmen.

For several years after Sir William Pulteney's death in 1805, Robert Troup's biggest headache was his relations with the Pulteney heirs, who were either uninterested in agency affairs or else tried to interfere. The heirs also died in rapid succession, resulting in repeated uncertainties about the legal title to the Pulteney estate and Troup's power to administer it. Lady Bath, Sir William's daughter, died in 1808. she left her real estate to her cousin, Sir John Lowther Johnstone, and her personal estate (including bonds, mortgages, and contracts for land sales) to her husband Sir James Pulteney and to trustees for other relatives. This division of Sir William Pulteney's estate was the origin of the legal distinction between the Johnstone Estate (lands unsold at the time of Sir William's death) and the Pulteney Estate (lands sold conditionally at that date) in the account books kept by the land office clerks. All the property, however, continued to be known popularly as the "Pulteney Estate." Sir John and Sir James both died in 1811. The Johnstone (real) estate was placed under the management of a succession of trustees who administered it for the Johnstone heirs. The Pulteney (personal) estate passed down to various genteel members of the Pulteney family. For many years both branches of the Pulteney-Johnstone clan were generally content with their remittances from America, and they took little interest in the details of agency management.

A Bath lawyer, William Howell, observed that "about the stiff rooms of the land office there was a seclusive chilliness that spoke of English aristocracy." The agents and employees included both Englishmen and Scotsmen. Williamson was a Scot; Dugald Cameron, another Scot, was sub-agent in Bath for many years. Joseph Fellows, born in England, was sub-agent at the Geneva land office; he became principal land agent after Robert Troup died in 1832. Several other land office employees were also immigrants from Great Britain. Their accents and manners gave the agency a character that inevitably clashed with the growing democratic ideals of the new United States. Some of the agents got along better with the settlers than others did. Neither the stout, cautious, American-born Troup nor the parsimonious bachelor Fellows was beloved by the settlers. Anyway, they lived far away. Troup resided in New York City, Albany, or Geneva, and visited Steuben County once a year. Fellows lived in Geneva until 1856, when he moved to Bath. Williamson was well remembered and regarded for his many generous acts. His financial blunders, the cost of which was passed on to the settlers, were seemingly overlooked. Dugald Cameron lived in Bath and was generally liked, with good reason. In the early 1820s the list of defaulting debtors grew to "frightful" length, in the opinion of Robert Troup. Yet Cameron was slow and reluctant to obey Troup's orders to evict the delinquent settlers. Cameron was elected to the state Assembly in 1828 and died while in Albany. Over two thousand people attended his funeral in Bath.

Though some land office employees were liked as individuals, the settlers' usual attitude toward the Pulteney Estate was one of hostility tempered by dependence. Settlers chose indirect, silent ways of expressing their dislike for the land office. Grain given as payment on land contracts often was smutty. Published notices insisted again and again that the wheat, corn, and rye brought to the land office "must be clean and merchantable." Theft of timber was continual. The standard land contract forbade the purchaser from "destroying any timber growing on said Land, over and above what may be necessary and proper for fuel and buildings, fences or other improvements." This provision was impossible to enforce. A report on Pulteney lands in the town of Italy, Yates County, in 1828, declared that fine timber stands had been the "object of reckless waste and wanton depredation. The best part of the pine is gone and the proprietors [the land office] have received little or nothing for it." It was no different in other towns. In 1846 the Pulteney Estate brought several lawsuits against settlers who had stolen substantial amounts of timber. For example, one Cohocton man was charged with taking $500 worth of pine, hemlock, maple, cherry, beech, and basswood trees. The jury found him guilty, but awarded the plaintiff only four dollars in damages. The jury's sympathies apparently lay with the defendant, not with the land office. A survey of Pulteney lands in Steuben and eastern Allegany Counties, made in 1861, found that many of the lots still under contract for sale were "pretty well stripped" of their valuable timber by previous contractors who had never gotten deeds.

The basic problem was a burden of debt too great for the settlers to bear. The price of wild lands in Steuben County was usually $2 or $3 per acre. This price might have been bearable if the price of wheat had stayed at $1 a bushel, as it was before the War of 1812. Instead the price fell to 75 cents by the mid-1820s, and 62 cents in 1830. Facing the same problem of falling produce prices, in the later 1820s the settlers on the Holland Purchase west of the Genesee River successfully petitioned for lower land prices. Settlers on the Pulteney Estate took note of this and decided to act. In January 1830 a convention of settlers of Steuben and Allegany Counties was held in the Presbyterian meeting house in Bath to consider common grievances against the Pulteney Estate. Each town sent delegates. Chairing the convention was Henry A. Townsend, a Bath resident who had immigrated from England and once served as county clerk and surrogate. The convention's memorial to land agent Robert Troup recounted the events that had left the local economy in a state of what it termed "stagnation": the sharp drop in agricultural prices after the War of 1812; the shift of commerce and immigration to the Erie Canal, completed in 1825; and the reduction of the price of lands on the Holland Purchase and of federal lands in the western states—the latter to a price of only $1.25 an acre. The settlers' principal demand was that the price of lands in Steuben and Allegany Counties be lowered to a level they could afford to pay.

Robert Troup's reply was issued in March 1830 by William W. McCay, the sub-agent at Bath. To the settler's surprise, Troup agreed that the debts owed by them were "generally too large for their means of payment." He proposed an independent appraisal of the settlers' lands and improvements to establish a fair price for renegotiated contracts. The appraiser should be an "independent, judicious, and upright farmer," acceptable to both sides. Settlers who entered into a new land contract would have to pay some money down. Troup would continue the practice of accepting wheat and cattle in payment of debts; wheat would be taken at 75 cents per bushel, higher than the current local price. And he had already directed the sub-agents to reduce the price charged for unsold lands.

[to be added shortly]
This isometric drawing shows the recollected shapes and locations of buildings in the Village of Bath in 1804. The Pulteney Land Agent’s Residence is number 14; the Land Office is number 15. Could (editor’s question) number 13, The Log House, be the “log building on the south side of Pulteney Square, of sufficient capacity for the accommodation of Captain Williamson’s family and the transaction of his official business”? (From bottom of page 112 of Ansel McCall’s “Historical Address” in The Centennial of Bath, New York 1793 - 1893. Also described at the top of page 116 as the “Temporary abode of Captain Williamson, which answered the purpose of parlor, dining-room and land office.”)

The settlers' delegates met again and rejected these seemingly generous proposals. They recommended that all settlers indebted to the Pulteney Estate withhold payments until satisfactory relief was granted. At further meetings in various towns, resolutions were passed demanding a reduction of all debts to the current value of wild lands. Troup vehemently rejected this demand. He argued that it would be unfair to those settlers who had made payments on their contracts, favor those who had paid nothing, and besides result in a loss for the Pulteney Estate. He stood by his plan for an appraisal, and he noted that many settlers had already come in to the land office in Bath and negotiated new contracts at lower prices. He threatened legal action against those who continued to withhold payment. Troup concluded his long "manifesto" by urging McCay to treat the settlers with "courtesy and kindness." But he made clear his conservative devotion to the "the rights of property—rights which constitute the main pillar that supports the fabric of our free and excellent government."

There was no organized response to Troup's manifesto over the summer of 1830, probably because settlers were busy with farm work. In October the corresponding committee summoned the convention delegates to meet again at Bath. This meeting saw the effective end of the settlers' protest movement, because the proceedings became embroiled in partisan politics. Grattan H. Wheeler, the farmer whom Troup had chosen to appraise the settlers' lands, had recently been nominated to run for Congress. His opponent was John Magee of Bath. Wheeler had the support of the Anti-Masons, the friends of Henry Clay, some Democrats, and his own relatives and neighbors. Magee was backed by the "old democratic party under the control of what is termed the Albany Regency, who are all Jacksonians" (meaning the party of ex-Governor Martin Van Buren and President Andrew Jackson). At the convention on October 19 Magee's supporters accused Wheeler and his supporters of calling the meeting to promote Wheeler's election to Congress, not to consider Troup's proposed reappraisal of the settlers' lands, the announced purpose. The delegates voted to refer the question of appraisal back to the individual towns, and the meeting finally broke up in an uproar. Seeing that nothing more would come of the convention, farmers in various towns asked Troup to put the appraisal system into effect, and he did so. Grattan Wheeler (who won the seat in Congress) started doing the appraisal in the spring of 1831.

Party politics frustrated the mass protest movement against the Pulteney Estate in 1830. However, political action did obtain two notable victories for the settlers. State law required that all jurors and major town officials be freeholders, that is, owners of real estate worth at least $150. This requirement excluded a majority of the settlers on Pulteney lands from holding office or serving on juries, since they had not yet gotten deeds to their farms. In 1829 the Legislature passed a law exempting Steuben County from the freeholder requirement, and substituted $150 worth of improvements on land under contract for sale. This permitted a fuller exercise of democracy on the local level. Another political struggle concerned taxation of debts owed to non-residents, such as the Pulteney Estate and the Holland Land Company. For over twenty years Assembly members from western New York worked for passage of such a tax, and the land agents fought it each time such a bill was introduced. A tax on debts owed to non-resident landholders finally became law in 1833. The Pulteney Estate had always paid taxes on its unsold lands. Because of the many errors made by local tax assessors and collectors, the land agents preferred to let the tax bill remain unpaid. In that case, the State Comptroller would levy the correct amount of tax after reviewing the property description and assessment data, and the Pulteney land office would pay the tax that was due.

The anti-land office excitement of 1829-30 occurred just as the Pulteney and Johnstone lands in Steuben County were beginning to sell fast. During the 1830s and '40s the annual collections in the "Steuben Department" (Steuben County and the easternmost tier of towns in Allegany County) were usually double or triple what they had been in the depression years of the 1820s. The Bath land office purchased new ledgers to record the increasing number of conveyances recorded by the agency clerks with their goose quill pens. The acreage sold (but not yet deeded) reached a peak in the speculation year of 1836, just prior to the financial panic of 1837. By 1840 about eighty per cent of the original Pulteney lands had been sold. Initial sales of lots during the 1840s were only a small fraction of what they had been in previous decades; almost every lot was now under contract or deeded off. However, many contractors were slow to pay the principal and interest they owed. The land agents simply allowed many poor settlers to remain on their lots. In the mid 1830s the land office had brought several court actions to evict squatters. There were few eviction cases after that, until a stricter policy was adopted.


Redrawn from Barker & Howe’s Historical Collections (1843) showing a view along
the east end of the row of buildings facing Pulteney Square across Morris Street from the south.
On the right is the Presbyterian Church built in 1822, the first building in the county with a steeple.
On the left is the Episcopal Church. (Editor’s note: Is the larger building close to the Episcopal Church,
the Pulteney Land Agent’s Residence shown as #14 in the 1804 drawing of the Village of Bath?)

In 1853 the Johnstone heirs of Sir William Pulteney appointed an Englishman named William Brown as the new principal trustee for their American properties. Brown concluded that the American real estate should be producing more income for the Johnstone family. He directed the land agents in Geneva and Bath, Joseph Fellows and William W. Young, to have every lot under contract for sale surveyed and appraised. Caleb A. Canfield, an insurance agent residing in Bath, was hired to visit each town to collect money owed by settlers, so that they would not have to travel to Bath. The land office sent out hundreds of printed circulars and many dunning letters to delinquent contractors. These measures did produce an increase in collections, particularly in the "Northern Department" of the Pulteney and Johnstone estates (scattered tracts of land in Ontario, Wayne, Livingston, and Monroe Counties). The increased collections still did not satisfy Brown. In the fall of 1860 he travelled from England to Bath to examine the accounts and affairs of the land office. He ordered the land agents to press the settlers harder for the money they owed and to prosecute defaulting debtors when they refused to pay anything, even if they were able to do so. As a result, nearly fifty ejectment suits were brought in Steuben County courts during 1861. Brown also forced Joseph Fellows and William W. Young to resign as agent and sub-agent, respectively, for the Johnstone Estate. They were replaced in the spring of 1862 by Young's son, Benjamin F. Young, cashier of the Rochester City Bank. Fellows continued as agent of the Pulteney Estate until 1871, when he was obliged to retire from that post, at age 89.

At mid-century the lands still owned by the Pulteney and Johnstone estates lay mostly in central and southern Steuben County. Many debtors to the land office and sympathetic friends and neighbors protested the new, stringent policies. Mass meetings (each attracting well over one hundred persons) were held in Fremont, Howard, Canisteo, Hornellsville, and Greenwood in the winter and spring of 1861 to discuss the situation. The meetings declared that the poor farmers up in the hills could not pay for their land because rust and midge had ravaged their wheat crops; because the price of wool was low; and because their lots had nothing but thin, stony soil that would never produce much anyway. They demanded reductions in the price of lands. The land office at first took no public notice of the meetings, but eventually Caleb A. Canfield attended some of them to learn firsthand what was going on. The land agent meanwhile proceeded with the ejectment suits. In one case the Steuben County sheriff and an armed posse burned the house of an evicted settler in the town of Howard. The settlers never forgot this cruel act.

The settlers opposing the Pulteney land office were generally called "anti-renters." In fact they did not rent their farms but rather contracted to purchase them. The term "anti-renter" was borrowed from the anti-rent movement of the Catskill Mountain region, which had erupted in the 1840s. There tenants of the Van Rensselaer family and other great landlords fought successfully to have their rents reduced and the system of life leaseholds abolished. By the fall of 1861 the leaders of the "anti-renters" in Steuben County were meeting secretly in barns to discuss strategy for the public meetings. They organized themselves into a "Home Diligence Safety Society," whose president was Daniel Brownell of Fremont. The members of the secret society swore not to reveal their conversations and activities to anyone. Rumors spread that the angry settlers would attack the land office on Pulteney Square in Bath, and the agents prudently mounted iron shutters on the windows and the front door.

Opposition to the land office continued through the rest of the 1860s. One form of resistance was refusal to pay contract debts; another was intimidation of those who did pay. The letters from the land agent to his principal in England indicate that refusal to pay did harm the Pulteney heirs, for receipts fell markedly during the 1860s, despite high farm prices during the Civil War. Intimidation had mixed results. During 1862 the anti-renters tried to recruit supporters in the town of Springwater, Livingston County, but some farmers there refused to go along. In August anti-renters from Howard and Fremont burned the barn and killed livestock belonging to one Springwater farmer (named Mead) who was continuing to pay for his land. They beat up another man (Alonzo Snyder) who was doing the same. The Livingston County sheriff arrested several persons and held them for trial on charges of arson and attempted murder. A Fremont man who had been arrested for taking part in the attack on Snyder was rescued by an "armed mob" while he was being taken to the Livingston County jail. (Four men were eventually convicted for their part in that affair.) A grand jury in Geneseo also handed down indictments against 27 other men. The Steuben County sheriff tried twice to arrest the men who had been indicted. Both times residents of Fremont and Howard who sympathized with the anti-renters assembled with weapons to prevent any arrests. The cautious sheriff refused to try again.

Another violent incident occurred in 1864. When one man bought a Pulteney lot in Fremont from which the previous contractor had been evicted, a dozen or more anti-renters in masks came to his house one August night. They broke down the door, smashed the furniture, beat up the farmer, and raped his daughter. They demanded the land contract for the farm. When he could not produce it, the ruffians bound and blindfolded him and threatened to kill him if he did not get off the farm. Such brutal acts won the anti-renters no friends. In 1867 a deputy sheriff tried to sell some of the personal property of Edmund Butcher of Fremont, an anti-rent leader, in order to satisfy a court judgment against him in favor of the Pulteney Estate. An armed crowd of about two hundred persons prevented the deputy from conducting the sale. The sheriff threatened to get help from the National Guard to allow him to levy the judgment. In the end he did nothing. The last reported incident of violence occurred in 1872, when the sheriff's horse was shot while he was driving to a farm in Howard to evict the occupant, an anti-renter. The $1,000 reward offered for capture of the culprit was apparently never collected. The sheriffs were reluctant to make arrests or levy judgments if it involved the risk of personal injury. This reluctance was obvious to both the land office and the anti-renters, and it helped the cause of the latter.

The land office held all the cards when the game concerned the legal title of the Pulteney and Johnstone families, heirs of Sir William Pulteney. Ever since the 1820s there had been repeated attempts to strike down the Pulteney title, and every one failed. For example, in 1840 the New York Attorney General had reported that "every link in this title [of the Pulteney Estate] is complete and perfect." During the 1860s the anti-renters tried again. In the fall of 1861 and again in 1862 Henry Sherwood of Corning was elected to the New York State Assembly on an "anti-rent" platform. He got a seat on the Assembly judiciary committee and worked for repeal of an 1821 law confirming the legal title of the Pulteney heirs. The repeal bill passed the Assembly two years in a row, and failed to pass the Senate only because the land agent sent Caleb A. Canfield to Albany to lobby against it. After this legislative effort failed, the anti-rent leaders persuaded the state attorney general to bring an ejectment suit against Alonzo Snyder of Springwater. The aim was to test the Pulteney title in the courts. (This was the same Snyder whom the anti-renters had harassed in the summer of 1862.) This court action commenced in 1864 and dragged on for years while the anti-rent party made pretense of obtaining "proof" that Charles Williamson, first agent of Sir William Pulteney, was never a naturalized American citizen. In fact the land office had in its safe Williamson's original signed certificate of naturalization, dated 1792. Many debtors to the land office held off paying any more on their contracts, waiting to see how the lawsuit turned out. The case was decided against the anti-renters twice in the Supreme Court. It finally went to the Court of Appeals, which again upheld the Pulteney title in 1868.

The anti-renters in the hill towns had considerable public sympathy at first, but support dwindled after the incidents of violence. The land agent believed that many of the people who attended the anti-rent meetings were merely "curious," and this may have been correct. However, in some towns the opposition to the land office was real and deep. There the anti-rent movement persisted for a decade, even though its legal position was weak. Unfortunately the politicians who courted the anti-rent vote were more concerned about their own careers than about the unjust policies of the land office. In the legislative session of 1863, two of the three Assembly members from Steuben County, Horace Bemis and Henry Sherwood, both Republicans and professed "anti-renters," told Canfield privately that they wanted their bill to pass the Assembly merely to satisfy their constituents. They admitted that they did not care if it failed again in the Senate, as it had the year before, because its passage in the Assembly would ensure their return to Albany in the next election. Sherwood even solicited a bribe from Canfield in return for a promise to block passage of the bill in the Senate. Canfield refused the offer. There was treachery in the land office as well. In December 1867 land agent Benjamin F. Young discovered in the office a petition from the settlers to the trustees of the Johnstone Estate, seeking reduction of their debts. The document was in Canfield's handwriting. In fact he had been secretly sympathetic to the settlers' cause for several years. Because of his disloyalty and duplicity, Canfield was immediately fired.

The Pulteney Land Office after 1867

This building was the Bath Hospital from 1910 to 1916 and was torn down in 1920. (Editor’s comment: The darker brick work on the right side suggests that this building might have been enlarged from a three-window-wide building to a building with five windows in front. Photograph supplied by the Steuben County Historical Society.

The Pulteney-Johnstone land office certainly did have a policy of patience with settlers who could not keep up with their payments. This patience verged on laxness during the long tenure of Joseph Fellows as principal agent of the Johnstone Estate (1832-1862). His obituary states that he was always scrupulously honest, but that "he was not a systematic businessman." However, prudent investment of his enormous annual salary of $5,500 a year plus commissions on land sales made him a wealthy man. William Brown, the English trustee, wrote that Fellows' administration of the estate had been characterized by "gross neglect" in the collection of debts. Yet even under the stricter administration of the early 1860s, the new land agent still admitted that "coercion" of the settlers did little good. Public opinion was against it, and anyway the debtors to the Pulteney Estate were too poor to pay much. Even when farm prices climbed during the later years of the Civil War, there remained a "large number" of settlers "who produce merely enough for their support and cannot make payments on their debts." Many of those settlers had paid nothing for so long that their lands were considered to have reverted to the Pulteney Estate. Therefore the land office did not have to pay the personal property tax on those land contracts. Legally such settlers were squatters, liable to eviction.

Canfield remarked in a letter to the land office in 1860 that "the sooner this class of settlers are disposed of, the better for the county as well as for the estate. Most of them can be got rid of without much trouble. A few will require legal measures." This statement was not so callous as it sounds. Much of the land in the anti-rent towns was hardly worth farming, and some of those who stayed on such farms simply lacked the ambition to get out. A well-off Fremont farmer thought that his anti-rent neighbors should have spent their time and energy improving and paying for their farms, rather than fighting the land office and worrying about being evicted. In any case, the Pulteney and Johnstone estates were rapidly shrinking as its remaining lands were deeded off during the years following the Civil War. Attorney Frederick Y. Wynkoop of Bath took over management of the land office in 1883. He bought the few remaining lots in 1903, ending a century of the Pulteney family's ownership of lands in Steuben County. The board of supervisors appropriated $300 in 1909 to purchase "papers, field notes, books, records, maps, etc., formerly belonging to the Pulteney Estate, and now in their vaults at Bath." (Not purchased were records and papers "of a purely financial nature.")

The final verdict on the administration of the Pulteney Estate need not be left to employees of the land office or to well-off farmers who may not have fully appreciated poor men's problems. Two prominent Bath attorneys writing in the 1850s found the Pulteney and Johnstone heirs and their agents guilty of a narrow, mean policy that ignored the plight of the settlers and hindered the development of Steuben County. William Howell noted that most of the settlers were "poor people" who were attracted to the Pulteney lands by the deceptively easy terms of payment—no money down, many years to pay. But few settlers were ever able to pay more than the interest on their land contracts. Howell asserted that the land agents grew rich while most of the settlers "left the country [county], cursing the policy and system of business which had been adopted by the owners."

Guy H. McMaster wrote in his History of the Settlement of Steuben County (1853) concerning the Pulteney heirs: "So long as they are content to confine their claims to consideration to their character as sellers of land, it must be admitted that they have conformed to the rules of common dealing amongst men. But if, beyond this, they should have the effrontery to lay claims to public gratitude for services rendered to the county in its days of toil and privation, or should demand credit for liberality in the administration of the affairs of the estate . . ., these pretensions would be simply preposterous. We do not know that any such claims are put forth. The only concern of the proprietors has been to get as much money as it was possible to get, and whether settlers lived or starved has not, so far as human vision can discern, had a straw's weight in their estimation." McMaster conceded that certain individuals employed in the land office may have performed acts of kindness to the settlers. But in general, he concluded that "the alien proprietorship deserves no thanks from the public, and probably will never think it advisable to ask for any. It has been a dead, disheartening weight on the county. The undeniable fact [is] that a multitude of hard-working men have miserably failed in their endeavors to gain themselves homes—have mired in a slough of interest and installment, leaving the results of their labors for others to profit by." The young historian (McMaster was only 24) concluded by expressing wonder that the settlers had never, up to that time, engaged in violent resistance to the British proprietors—"foreign lords of immense tracts of land in a country heartily hostile to everything savoring of aristocracy."


An 1861 Photograph of Buildings in Bath
along the South Side of Morris Street Facing Pulteney Square
The Presbyterian Church, built in 1822, appears centered on the walkway running across the square, and is probably aligned on Liberty Street. The residence with the many steep gables was owned by James Lyon. The buildings on the right side of the photograph are the residence of the Pulteney land agent, and the Land Office. A connection between them is visible. (Editor’s comment: The larger building with what appears to be a signboard in the pediment above the four-column portico looks to be a building for public business. This building may be on the location of the 1867 Land Office. Could it and the structure close behind on the right, to the building’s left, have been enlarged and remodeled to the later land office?) The picture was provided by the Steuben County Historical Society with a scanning made by Nedra McElroy from the original photograph.

Organized resistance to the Pulteney land office finally developed because the British owners held on to their American lands and did not sell out to local investors. (The Holland Land Company, the Dutch syndicate which owned most of far western New York, had sold out in the 1830s.) There was real substance to the frequent complaints that the Pulteney land office took money out of Steuben County, impeding its economic growth. From the mid-1820s through the late 1840s the Pulteney land office almost every year collected in its "Steuben Department" more than double the total Steuben County property tax levy. Though a portion of the land office receipts stayed in the county to pay taxes and cover salaries and office expenses, most of the money went to the Pulteney and Johnstone families in Great Britain. It is no wonder that even conservative lawyers who respected property rights could find little good to say about the policies of the absentee landowners. There were certainly geographic reasons for Steuben County's slow start. But major responsibility could be laid on individuals—the calculating land agents and grasping British aristocrats. They were not easy to love.

2003, James D. Folts

Bibliography

The following bibliography lists works used for this history of the Pulteney Estate during the nineteenth century, as well as other works relating to the Genesee lands and Charles Williamson's land agency during the 1790s.

Published Works

Barbara Chernow. "Robert Morris: Genesee Land Speculator." New York History, 58 (1977), 194-220.

Henry Christman. Tin Horns and Calico: An Episode in the Emergence of American Democracy. New York: 1945. (History of the "anti-rent" controversy in eastern New York.)

W. Woodford Clayton, ed. History of Steuben County, New York, With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers. Philadelphia: 1879; repr. Bath: 1976. (Contains transcripts of documents relating to the controversy between the settlers and the Pulteney Estate, 1829-1830, pp. 81-86.)

George S. Conover. The Genesee Tract. Cessions between New York and Massachusetts; The Phelps and Gorham Purchase; Robert Morris; Captain Charles Williamson and the Pulteney Estate. Geneva: 1889.

Helen I. Cowan. Charles Williamson: Genesee Promoter-Friend of Anglo-American Rapprochement. Rochester: 1941; repr. Clifton, N.J.: 1973.

__________. "Charles Williamson and the Southern Entrance to the Genesee Country." New York History, 23 (1942), 260-74.

__________. "Williamsburg, Lost Village on the Genesee." Rochester History, no. 4 (July 1942), 1-24.

Horst Dippel. "German Emigration to the Genesee Country in 1792: An Episode in German-American Migration." Germany and America: Essays on Problems of International Relations and Immigration, ed. Hans L. Trefousse. New York: 1980. (Essay is found on pp. 161-69.)

Lockwood R. Doty, ed. History of the Genesee Country, 4 vols. Chicago: 1925. (Chap. 12, Charles F. Milliken, "Phelps and Gorham Purchase," pp. 351-88; Chap. 49, Reuben Oldfield, "Indian Myths and Legends with an Historical Narrative of Steuben County," pp. 1241-1309, contains transcripts of some Pulteney land office correspondence, 1804-1811.)

Kline D'A. Engle. "The Williamson Road." Proceedings of the Northumberland County [Pa.] Historical Society, 12 (1942).

Paul D. Evans. The Holland Land Company. Buffalo: 1924.

__________. "The Pulteney Purchase." Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association, 3 (1922), 83-104.

Julius Goebel, Jr., and Joseph H. Smith, eds. The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton: Documents and Commentary, Vol. 3. New York: 1980. (Expert discussion of Williamson's legal dealings, for which Hamilton was his attorney, pp. 758-812.)

Alfred G. Hilbert. "The Williamson Road." Crooked Lake Review, no. 64 (July 1993), 1, 13-14, no. 65 (Aug. 1993), 13-14, 17, no. 66 (Sept. 1993), 11-14.

Guy H. McMaster. History of the Settlement of Steuben County, N.Y. Including Notices of the Old Pioneer Settlers and Their Adventures. Bath: 1853; repr. Geneva: 1893; Bath: 1975.

Neil A. McNall. "John Grieg: Land Agent and Speculator." Business History Review, 33 (1959), 524-34.

Howard L. Osgood. "History of the Title of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase." Publications of the Rochester Historical Society, 1 (1892), 19-51.

A. J. H. Richardson and Helen I. Cowan, eds. "William Berczy's Williamsburg Documents." Publications of the Rochester Historical Society, 20 (1942), 139-265.

Millard F. Roberts, comp. Historical Gazetteer of Steuben County, New York. Syracuse: 1891; repr. Bath: 1979.

George Roach, ed. "Documents: Johnstone-Troup Correspondence." New York History, 23 (1942), 57-68. (Prints letters from 1809-1811 concerning economic conditions in Steuben County.)

Sherman S. Rogers. Address . . . Delivered at Bath, N.Y., June 7, 1893, at the Centennial Celebration. Buffalo: n.d.

Robert W. Silsby. "Mortgage Credit in the Phelps-Gorham Purchase." New York History, 41 (1960), 3-34. (Summarizes findings of dissertation, cited below.)

Lorne R. Smith, comp. A Story of the Markham Berczy Settlers: 200 Years in Markham, 1794-1994; A Story of Bravery and Perseverance. Markham, Ont.: 1994. (Summarizes careers of Wilhelm Berczy and his German settlers after their arrival in Canada.)

William M. Stuart. Stories of the Kanestio Valley, 3d ed. Dansville: 1935; repr. Canisteo: 1978. (Discusses the anti-land-office movement, pp. 180-89.)

Orsamus Turner. History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, and Morris' Reserve. Rochester: 1851; repr. Geneseo: 1976.

Robert W. G. Vail. "The Lure of the Land Promoter: A Bibliographical Study of Certain New York Real Estate Rarities." University of Rochester Library Bulletin, 24 (1969), 33-97. (Discusses Robert Morris's promotional publications for the Genesee Country.)

__________. The Voice of the Old Frontier. Philadelphia: 1949. (Discusses Charles Williamson's anonymous promotional pamphlets, cited below; pp. 438-39, 449.)

__________. "A Western New York Land Prospectus." Bookmen's Holiday. New York: 1943. (Discusses Williamson's 1804 promotional pamphlet, cited below, in its various editions.)

John. G. Van Deusen. "Robert Troup: Agent of the Pulteney Estate." New York History, 23 (1942), 166-80.

Charles G. Webb. "The Williamson Road." Now and Then: Quarterly Magazine of History, Biography and Genealogy (Muncy, Pa.), 10 (1953), 190-205.

[Charles Williamson.] Description of the Settlement of the Genesee Country in the State of New-York. In a Series of Letters from a Gentleman to His Friend. New York: 1799. Repr. in Documentary History of the State of New-York, octavo ed., 2:1127-68. Albany: 1849.

[Charles Williamson, pseudonym "Robert Munro."] A Description of the Genesee Country, in the State of New-York. New York: 1804. Repr. in Documentary History of the State of New-York, octavo ed., 2:1169-89. Albany: 1849.

Clarence Willis. Pulteney Land Title; Genesee Tract; Together with the Illustrations of Characters Prominent in the Colonization and Settlement of Western New York, 5th ed. Bath: 1927. (First edition was published in 1910.)

Dissertations and Other Unpublished Works

James D. Folts. "Guide to Records of the Pulteney Estate, Steuben County Clerk's Office, Bath, N.Y.," typescript, 1981.

William Howell. "Steuben County: Its Settlement and Early History," undated typescript copy of lost manuscript, probably ca. 1850 (University of Rochester Library).

Ernestine E. King. "Some Observations on the Joseph Fellows Papers," typescript, 1965.

Robert W. Silsby. "Credit and Creditors in the Phelps-Gorham Purchase." Ph.D. Dissertation, Cornell University, 1958. (Study of land economics in Ontario and Steuben Counties, 1789-1820, focusing on policies of the Pulteney land office and other creditors.)

Wendell E. Tripp, Jr. "Robert Troup: A Quest for Security in a Turbulent New Nation, 1775-1832." Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1973.

Newspapers
NOTE: This listing of newspaper references to the Pulteney Estate and its land agents is selective.

Ontario Repository (Canandaigua), Dec. 5, 1809.

Steuben Patriot (Bath), Feb. 27, 1823.

Steuben Farmer's Advocate (Bath), May 19, 1825, Apr. 10, 1828, Jan. 28, Feb. 11, Apr. 22, May 13, July 29, Nov. 18, 1830 (and several other issues), June 25, 1862, Aug. 12, 1868, May 2, 1873 (obituary of Joseph Fellows).

Steuben Courier (Bath), May 14, 1856, Aug. 24, 1864, May 29, 1867, Nov. 30, 1870, Jan. 31, Sept. 18, Nov. 20, 1872, June 20, 1884 (obituary of Frances Cameron, widow of Dugald Cameron).

Plain Dealer (Bath), June 19, 1886, Dec. 22, 1888.

Pulteney Land Office Records

NOTE: Most of the Pulteney Land Office records held by the Steuben County Clerk's Office have been microfilmed. Copies of the microfilm are held by the Steuben County Clerk's Office in Bath, the Corning Area Public Library, and the New York State Archives in Albany. See Folts. "Guide to Records of the Pulteney Estate" (1981), cited above, for a guide to the records and the microfilm.

The following volumes were used for this history of the management of the Pulteney Estate during the nineteenth century:

Letter Book no. 1, 1801-1812, Cornell University Library.

Letter Book no. 3, 1804-1808, Steuben County Historical Society.

Letter Book no. 4, 1808-1815, Steuben County Clerk's Office.

Letter Book no. 7, 1819-1824, Steuben County Clerk's Office.

Letter Book, 1859-1862, Steuben County Clerk's Office.

Letter Book, 1862-1895, Steuben County Clerk's Office.

Abstract of Lands and Debts, Steuben Department, 1861-1862, Steuben County Clerk's Office.

Other Manuscripts

Joseph Fellows Papers, private collection.

Howard L. Osgood Papers, Rochester Public Library (includes an abstract of yearly land sales and collections in the "Steuben Department" of the Pulteney Estate for the years 1820-1848).

George J. Skivington Papers, Rochester Public Library.

Statutes

N.Y. Laws of 1821, Chap. 19.

N.Y. Laws of 1829, Chap. 18.

N.Y. Laws of 1833, Chap. 250.

Legislative Documents

N.Y. Attorney General. "Report of the Attorney General, Relative to the Title of the Trustees of the Pulteney Estate to Lands in Steuben and Allegany Counties." Assembly Document no. 342, 1840. (Detailed report and opinion upholding soundness of the Pulteney title.)

N.Y. Legislature. Assembly. "Report of the Select Committee on the Petitions of Sundry Citizens of Steuben County, in Relation to the Pulteney Estate." Assembly Document no. 121, 1847.

N.Y. Legislature. Assembly. Judiciary Committee. "Report of the Majority of the Committee of the Judiciary, on the Petitions of Citizens of the Counties of Steuben and Allegany, for Repeal of Chapter 19 of the Laws of 1821, Relative to the Title of the Pulteney Estate in This State." Assembly Document no. 141, 1862. (Committee majority, including two of Steuben's three Assembly members, argued that the act of 1821 confirming the Pulteney title was invalid.)

N.Y. Legislature. Assembly. Judiciary Committee. "Report of the Committee of the Judiciary Relative to the Pulteney Estate." Assembly Document no. 204, 1862. (Committee minority argued that overturning a sound title would cause needless trouble.)

Case Reports

Duke of Cumberland v. Graves, 3 Selden's Reports 305.

Duke of Cumberland v. Codrington, 3 Johnson's Chancery Reports 229.

Howard v. Moot, 64 N.Y. Reports 262.

People v. Alonzo Snyder, 41 N.Y. Reports 397.

 
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR