The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2005

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Saints, Sinners and Reformers

The Burned-Over District Re-Visited


John H. Martin

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers

Chapter 4

Charles Williamson

The Pulteney Estates in the Genesee Lands

At the end of the Revolutionary War the Iroquois had lost virtually all of their lands, and they were now restricted to Reservations which did not permit them to follow their normal way of life. What happened to the Seneca and their land is indicative how justice had not been done, and would not be done, to the Indians. New York State had purchased the lands of the Mohawks, the Oneida, the Onondaga, and the Cayuga for a pittance, and these lands in the Military Tract east of the Pre-emption Line were made available to Revolutionary War veterans in lieu of a cash payment for their wartime service. This was done since the State was practically insolvent after the war. Some of these veterans were to sell their land for cash for a greater sum than the native tribes had received.

The State of Massachusetts, which was granted the lands to the west of the Pre-emption Line in lieu of their claims to the "western lands" under their 1602 Charter from King James I, was also faced with a serious problem of solvency after the Revolution. Massachusetts sold some 6,000,000 acres to a group of New England speculators headed by Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, for one million dollars, but rather on credit for depreciated Massachusetts' currency.

Although Phelps and Gorham were able to sell 936,000 acres to land hungry New Englanders and others, they were unable to make the payments due in three parts to Massachusetts. The lack of any form of roads into this wilderness, other than narrow Indian trails, precluded the success of their endeavors. The un-sold remnant reverted to Massachusetts and the state then sold to Robert Morris of Philadelphia on November 18, 1790, 1,264,000 acres, the eastern part of the tract west of the Pre-emption Line. Morris had been the financier who had backed the American Revolution with much of his own funds, but he was rapidly over-extending himself financially. Before too long he would be in debtor's jail.

Morris' goal was to sell the land quickly as a block so as not only to recoup his expenditure but to make a profit. The best way to do that was to approach Europeans who had finances for such a purpose and who sensed the opportunity for a get-rich-quick scheme by selling the land at a profit to Americans and Europeans who were desirous for land. William Temple Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's grandson, was chosen by Morris to act as his agent, and young Franklin sailed for London in 1791. His father had been the Tory Governor of New Jersey under the English during the American Revolution, and thus his father had been alienated from Ben Franklin, his father. Young Franklin could now benefit from his father's English ties, as could Morris his employer, in the sales attempt to be made.

Arriving in London in early 1791, Franklin approached Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish merchant, statesman, philanthropist, and a friend of his father with the proposal of finding a buyer for the New York land. Not only could the land be sold for farming, but it was covered with virgin timber which could be shipped to timber-starved Britain for sale. One could therefore make a fortune in land speculation in the new United States. Colquhoun had worked as a young man in eastern Virginia before the American Revolution, and he could see the great potential in the untapped lands of the former English colonies. Colquhoun was a Scot, and the story of the lands in western New York was to become an initial tale of financial and political involvement by a group of Scots.

Colquhoun was a friend of Sir William Johnstone Pulteney, one of the wealthiest men in Britain. Sir William was therefore a likely candidate who could afford to invest in America. William Johnstone, before he added Pulteney to his name, was a lawyer from Scotland, a friend of David Hume and Adam Smith, who had come to London and was a member of Parliament from Scotland. In London he met Frances Pulteney, the cousin and the heiress of the Earl of Bath, and in London he courted and married her. When the Earl of Bath died in 1767, Johnstone's wife came into an enormous inheritance, and at her request he added the Earl's family name of Pulteney to his, thus becoming William Johnstone Pulteney. Through his marriage, and then his wife's untimely death in 1782, he became the owner of vast estates and a very great fortune. With the help of Robert Adams, the famous architect of the day, he re-made his wife's native town of Bath. Architecturally Bath became an attractive neo-classical town with its spa, its gracious town houses, its public halls, and its shop-lined Pulteney Bridge. (A portrait of William Johnstone Pulteney is in the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecicut.)

William Johnstone Pulteney was knighted, thus becoming Sir William, and he was active in affairs in both India and America, making investments in the latter land before the American Revolution and sympathizing with the American colonists in their unhappiness at being taxed without representation in Parliament. In March of 1778 he even served as the English emissary to his friend Benjamin Franklin in Paris to discuss a possible reconciliation between England and the American colonies. Early in 1791 Colquhoun met with Sir William Pulteney at his mansion, Bath House in Piccadilly in London, to interest him in purchasing the land which William Franklin, the grandson of his American friend Ben Franklin, was offering. Not only could the land be sold, but there was the industrial potential of the timber which could be cut and the hemp which could be grown, both necessary for planks and for cordage for the Royal Navy as well as for mercantile ships. Sir William was quick to act, and he called a meeting at his London mansion of Colquhoun and William Hornby, the latter a former Governor of Bombay, India, to consider Colquhoun's proposal. No time was wasted, and on February 15, 1791, they signed an agreement to purchase the land through William Franklin as Morris' agent..

The newly created "London Association," purchased the 1,264,000 acres for $270,000, almost twenty cents an acre. Pulteney would bear 9/12th of the cost of the land purchase, Hornby would bear 2/12th while Colquhoun would hold 1/12th without paying into the purchase price in recognition of his endeavors in bringing about the project. The Associates retained certain acreages in the American lands for themselves which they could sell for their private profit: 55,000 acres for Sir William, 10,000 acres for Hornby, and 5,000 acres for Colquhoun. Land sold to Americans would be priced at $1 to $7 an acre.

One major problem remained: under the laws of the new New York State, aliens could not hold title to property in the new State. Here again Colquhoun had a solution. He introduced his other two partners in the "London Association" to the son of an old family friend of his in Scotland, Charles Williamson, who had been to America as a young man. As a result, on April 26, 1791, the thirty-four years old Charles Williamson was appointed agent for the London Association on the understanding that he would obtain American citizenship on his arrival in the United States. He could then assume legal ownership of the land until such time as New York State law was changed and ownership could be conveyed to its proper owners in the Association. By June, Williamson had been granted legal power of attorney for the London Association, and he had returned to Scotland to emigrate to America with his family.

What was Williamson's background or credentials for such a venture? Had the Association taken too great a chance in this appointment? What kind of a man was Williamson? As they would discover, Charles Williamson was a man of grand ideas. Out in the wilderness of New York he would envision the creation of a new metropolis, a center to which settlers would flow in an unending stream.

To begin with, Williamson was a Scot who had held a commission as Captain in the 25th Regiment of Foot in the British Army before he was twenty-four, a commission which he had resigned in 1781, during the American Revolution, to sail for America carrying a letter of recommendation to Lord Cornwallis who headed the forces fighting the American rebels. Williamson's meeting with Cornwallis was never realized, for the ship on which he was sailing was captured, and Williamson was taken prisoner first to Newburyport and then to Boston in Massachusetts. Placed under a generous form of house arrest with the family of Ebenezer Newall in Roxbury (Boston), he soon developed confidence in the economic future of the new nation which would develop after the Revolution. For a time he even considered remaining in America.

A romance developed between Williamson and Abigail Newall, the daughter of the family to which he had been assigned, particularly after she cared for him during an illness. However, when an exchange of prisoners between the British and the Americans was agreed upon, Williamson decided to return to Scotland. He left Boston for New York accompanied by Abigail Newall, and on December 2, 1781, they were married in New London, Connecticut. Once in New York City, they sailed for Britain. Back in Scotland, Williamson and his wife settled on one of the Hopetoun Estates, an estate for which his father was the factor or estate agent. His work as an estate manager in the ensuing years did not seem to bring Williamson sufficient satisfaction.

As a result, in 1791, ten years after he had sailed for America, he journeyed to London to see if Patrick Colquhoun, a family friend, could help him to a more interesting position. His trip could not have occurred at a more fortunate moment, for it came when Colquhoun had just helped to form the London Association which had bought the 1,264,000 acres of land in the New World. The new purchasers needed an agent in America, and Williamson, with his American experience and an American wife, seemed to be just the man the Associates needed. Williamson was thus named the Associates' agent.

Meantime, Colquhoun was planning ahead, and he was in Paris obtaining a European baron as a sales representative to assist on the Continent in the sale of the Association's American lands. Together, he and the baron arranged to hire William Berczy, a German, who promised to obtain German farmers who could earn their land in America by building the first road into the newly acquired territory. In one sense this was a wise move since Phelps and Gorham had had difficulty selling land which was in a completely forested wilderness with no roads as a means of access into western New York. In another sense, the hiring of Berczy was a major mistake, for as the American statesman Gouverneur Morris had realized after a tour of Germany in 1790, German farmers were generally not interested in emigrating, and, according to him, "None but the scum of Germany" were willing to emigrate. This agreement with Berczy was to create problems with which Williamson would have to deal in time.

On July 8, 1791, Williamson at thirty-four, his wife, and their three children sailed at their own expense to the United States together with two stalwart aides from Scotland, John Johnstone and Charles Cameron. These two friends of Williamson were to make an invaluable contribution to Williamson's project in America while Johnstone was to serve as the agent for Hornby and Colquhoun in the selling of their lands. Stalled in the Solway Firth, the ship did not get underway until August 4th, remaining becalmed for almost a month. Finally under way, three days later the ship sprang a leak and had to lay up for repairs at the Isle of Man. It was the 9th of November, four months later, after too many storms and a short supply of food that the ship reached the United States. Charles Williamson removed his family from the vessel when it made port in Norfolk, Virginia, instead of their destination of Philadelphia.

Christy, the oldest of the three children, was very ill on arrival in America. She was eventually to die in Bath, New York, once they had moved to the Association's lands, the first burial in the town's new cemetery. Unhappily, even before the family got to Bath, Christy was preceded in death by her younger brother Alexander. The journey was not only a disastrous one, but it had cost Williamson $2,333, a princely sum for that time. Worse financial news was in store, for the expense of transporting the family and their belongings from Norfolk to Baltimore, their immediate destination, cost an additional $1,400.

Baltimore was a thriving city, and here Williamson found friends from England and Scotland. One was Richard Caton who had married into the notable Carroll family of Maryland, and another was Thomas Pulteney of the Pulteney family in Bath, England, as well as other merchants with their ties to Britain. In Maryland, which in many ways was a Southern state, Williamson was most impressed by the plantation owners and their slave economy. The importance of the road into the Associates' new lands from the south was in time to lead Williamson to hope that a plantation type of economy based on slave labor might be realized on huge blocks of land he was commissioned to sell.

After Christmas, Williamson was in Philadelphia where, on January 9, 1792, he took the oath of allegiance which granted him American citizenship, a status easily accomplished at the time. The sale of the lands in the Genesee country could now take place since they could be sold by Charles Williamson, an American citizen, who held the lands by virtue of his agreement with the London Association. Williamson thus was legally able to consummate the physical purchase of the land from Robert Morris and to take possession of some 1,264,000 acres in western New York. By April the land was legally in Williamson's name. Never one to waste time, he had made the acquaintance of an American of importance, Alexander Hamilton, from whom he received letters of introduction to other men of status in New York City and in Albany.

Thus in February, even before the legalities of ownership were completed, he determined, despite the winter weather, to make a journey to his new lands in order to familiarize himself with the territory he would be offering to settlers. Setting out for the Genesee lands, he reached New York City where he sailed up the Hudson River to Albany and then by carriage through the Mohawk Valley. After Whitesboro (just beyond present Utica, New York), the path became so bad that the carriage he and his guide were using had to be abandoned for a sledge. Following what had been Indian trails, the land en route was heavily forested, broken only occasionally by a settler's hut at a distance of ten to twenty miles from its nearest neighbor. It took three days to travel the seventy miles over the snow covered land before Lake Seneca could be reached, the easternmost border of the Pulteney Estates.

Williamson was delighted by the scene before him at the site of the former Indian village of Kanadesaga at the head of Lake Seneca. Geneva, as the town was to be re-named, since it reminded him of the location of the Swiss city of that name at the head of a lake, already consisted of twenty log cabins, including a log cabin inn and a frame tavern erected by the earliest settlers who had purchased land from the original land agents Phelps and Gorham. Some thirteen miles south on the west bank of the lake lay "New Jerusalem" (one mile below modern Dresden, New York), the community of the followers of the religious prophetess Jemima Wilkinson. Here 363 individuals, fired with religious conviction, had been creating a new civilization in the wilderness since 1788, and they were among the first settlers in the territory. It was their grain mill which was to make possible the ultimate success of Williamson's initial settlers in their first years in the wilderness until other such mills could be developed.

Oliver Phelps contracted for a survey of the Pre-emption Line to mark the eastern boundary of land granted Massachusetts by the convention held in Hartford, Connecticut, that settled the conflicting territorial claims of Massachusetts and New York. The treaty stipulated that the boundary line ran due north from the 82nd milestone on the New York-Pennsylvania border to Lake Ontario. During the survey, an error of measurement, willfully or by accident is not known, had occurred. Robert Morris had another survey run, Geneva and New Jerusalem lay between the lines and the land titles of those who had purchased land in the "Gore," as it was called, were in doubt.

Interestingly, today there are two roads named the "Pre-emption Road" in New York, one to the north and west of Watkins Glenn and the other running due north above Lake Seneca, one road located on the original angling and incorrect line and the other on the corrected line. Because of the question as to the location of the line, Phelps and Gorham had located their land office to the west of the disputed sector at the site of the Indian village of Kanandarque which General Sullivan's troops had destroyed during the American Revolution. Here at the village which bears its present name of Canandaigua, the surveyors for Phelps and Gorham began to lay out the territory in six-square mile townships.

The new town of Canandaigua held forty-three houses on Williamson's arrival there. In all, according to the first U.S. census, there were 900 whites living west of Lake Seneca in 1790. Although this village would serve as one of Williamson's first headquarters, he traveled the additional twenty-six wintry miles to the Genesee River so as to reach the western limits of the associates' purchase. The Indian name for the area had been transliterated as "Genesee" which meant "Beautiful Valley" or "Pleasant Clear Opening," an appropriate name for the lovely terrain. This land for a time in the nineteenth century was the breadbasket for the new nation until a blight ruined the crop of wheat. Thereafter the new lands in the Western Reserve of Ohio and even further west were to become the breadbasket for the United States and the world.

Williamson selected a site near the Canaseraga and the Genesee Rivers for a town to be called Williamsburg in honor of Sir William Pulteney. This community lasted but a few years before it disappeared. It was too close to the more successful town of the Wadsworths at the "Big Tree" where the Indians had given up their title to the lands to the west of the Genesee River, the future Holland Purchase. The town at the "Big Tree" was to take the name it still retains of Geneseo.

Back in Philadelphia on April 11, 1792, Williamson received the deed to the land from Robert Morris, thereby completing the transaction begun by William Franklin in London a year earlier. The journey to the Pulteney group's lands had been long and arduous through Albany and along the Mohawk Indian trail. The route, if improved, however, could provide an entry to the tract for New Englanders seeking new land. Williamson, however, had been impressed by the wealth which he had observed in the Baltimore region, and he was determined to open a route from the south into his lands so that Southern land purchasers could be enticed into the new territory. Such purchasers, he hoped, would include wealthy plantation owners and their slaves. The Southern plantation owners, Williamson felt, were not only experienced agriculturalists, but they could bring sufficient slaves with them to work large tracts of land, and thus huge segments of the purchase might be sold quickly. Unknown to Williamson, the plantation owners were seeking new land since they had exhausted the southern soil their slaves were cultivating. The idea of the rotation of crops or the use of fertilizers was unknown or ignored by them. As with so many settlers, one used the land, wore it out, and then moved on to newer, still fertile land—and so continued the cycle of depletion.

It was one thing for the London Association to buy the land, but it was quite another thing to sell it. The frontier of western New York was covered with virgin forests with but a few narrow Indian paths and a few large streams giving access to the land. If settlers were to be enticed into the new country, roads and other improvements would have to be made. These improvements would perforce have to be financed by Sir William as the chief participant in the Association. Williamson therefore determined to create the necessary roads and to establish a series of inns spaced at a day's travel distance. These inns would be erected along old Indian paths which were to become roads. Present day Routes 5 and 20 across western New York above the Finger Lakes follow the ancient trails, as Route 17/I-86 does the same to the south of the Finger Lakes, while present Route 15 south to Pennsylvania and Maryland had its origin in the Sheshequin Indian trail. Williamson built his first inn and his initial sales office in Geneva, New York, at the top of Lake Seneca where the passage of the Mohawk Valley provided access from the Hudson River in the east to the Genesee River in the west.

Williamson's desire to bring settlers from the South into his new land also required the opening of a road through the Appalachian Mountains from central Pennsylvania into the lands of the Painted Post. He therefore moved his family from Baltimore to the frontier town of Northumberland, Pennsylvania, on the Susquehanna River. From there he hoped to create a road north to the Pulteney land. Northumberland was still a crude frontier town, and Abigail Williamson was less than happy there. She had grown up just outside of Boston in New England, then lived just beyond Edinburgh in Scotland, and now with the loss of her young son and the illness of her daughter, it is little wonder that her unhappiness set in in this tiny frontier settlement. The village had none of the amenities or appropriate companionship for her. It was not until after their departure to New York State that the English scientist and discoverer of the element oxygen, Dr. Joseph Priestley, settled in Northumberland. Priestley had had to leave England because of his unpopular Unitarian beliefs, beliefs which were also not to be acceptable to the townspeople of this frontier community.

On June 3, 1792, Williamson hired Benjamin Patterson, a local guide, to lead a party of exploration north along the banks of the Susquehanna River to what would become Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and then into and across the range of the Appalachian Mountains between Pennsylvania and New York State. Following the old Indian Sheshequin Trail, ten days later the small group arrived at the Cowanesque Creek at the northern border of Pennsylvania. At that border, the lands of the London Association began. Another six days beyond this would lead them to Williamson's new, small hamlet of Williamsburg on the Ontario Plain. At the conclusion of the sixteen-day journey, Williamson decided that a road from the south and into the new lands would be feasible.

There were two things Williamson needed to accomplish this goal of a southern route. First, a natural leader of men, an individual who knew the wilderness and who could create a path through the thickly forested mountains into New York State with the help of sufficient laborers. Williamson found his man in Benjamin Patterson, a cousin of that other frontiersman of fame, Daniel Boone. As an adolescent, Patterson had served in the American Revolution, and he was known as a woodsman who could find his way through any wilderness. In fact, when the French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand journeyed to the American wilderness, it was Patterson who had served as his guide, as he served Williamson on that exploratory trip from Northumberland to Williamsburg.

The second need was for laborers who could create the road through the forests to the Pulteney properties and who would then settle on their own land, earned by their labor in creating the road through the mountains. Colquhoun and his European agent had selected William Berczy as their man to find German farmers to emigrate for just such a purpose. Unfortunately, Berczy was unable to convince any farmers of the opportunity awaiting them in the New World. Instead, in Hamburg, Germany, Berczy recruited seventy families, some of them former circus workers, and enticed them into sailing to the New World. On their arrival in the United States, they would build a new road from Pennsylvania to New York and so earn their farm land in New York.

Work began in the new road in the autumn of 1792, delayed by the late arrival of the Germans at a port other than planned. Unpracticed to the hard labor of cutting down massive trees and clearing a path through the thick forests, the Germans were reluctant workers and at times even rebellious. They were fearful they would be attacked by Indians, although Indians no longer lived in the area, and they thus proved to be malcontents. Work on clearing a way went on nonetheless, and when the last of the higher sector of the Appalachian had been passed, at the site of the future town of Blossburg, Patterson discovered a coal vein. (This vein would later play its part in the development of industry in a portion of New York State when the Brooklyn Flint Glass Works was enticed to Corning, New York, in part because of the nearby supply of coal for its furnaces.) Running short of food, weary, and growing ever more difficult, in the valley beyond the mountains the Germans refused to go further, Patterson had to move ahead to the Painted Post from which he could bring back food for the group by canoe. At a spot still called Canoe Point in northern Pennsylvania, he was able to get the Germans to move ahead to Williamsburg, their ultimate destination. A path, wide enough for a cart, had now been opened across the mountains and through the valleys, even though one critical user of the path said it looked as though who it had been created by beavers who had chewed their way across the hills.

In Williamsburg, disgruntled and cantankerous, the Germans proved even more unruly. Here they ran up debts and threatened to riot, causing Williamson untold problems. Eventually they moved on to Canada where Lt. Governor Simcoe, no friend of the new United States, gave the Germans land in what is now Toronto. (American accounts of Berczy and the Germans are less than favorable; on the other hand, their descendents in Toronto today offer another version of the story which favors the Germans.)

With roads, primitive as they were, leading from the east along the Mohawk Trail, and from the south along the Sheshequin Trail, Williamson now had to provide inns at which prospective buyers and travelers could rest. There were two locations which were obvious sites for two of the major inns: one would be in Geneva where the Mohawk Trail led into the northernmost area of the purchase while the other would in the area of the Painted Post at the head of the road the Germans had created from Pennsylvania.

The construction of inns was begun in Geneva, Painted Post, Bath, and Sodus Bay, some of them by workmen brought from New England, the one in Geneva being most noted for its richness in architecture and furnishing. Obviously meals had to be provided for visitors, and in the case of the inn in Geneva, Williamson spared no costs, even enticing the reputed former butler of the Duke of Wellington to serve as host. The inn he established at the Painted Post is typical of such frontier accommodations, and that inn still exists today, named in honor of its first inn-keeper Benjamin Patterson, as a museum of early times in the lands of the Painted Post.

Workmen cut down tall oak trees to use in the building of the Painted Post Tavern ("Tavern" and "Inn" are synonymous terms; the former was used in Pennsylvania while the latter was a New England term). The logs from the felled trees were cut to the appropriate lengths for frame parts of the building, hewn into square timbers and then fitted together by mortise and tenon joining. Each unit of the framework was assembled on the ground, and when all were ready these sections were pulled upright and connected to form the frame of the new building. The same method was used to create barns for livestock and for fodder and grain storage.

When the framing was completed, the inn building at Painted Post was covered with horizontal, tongued-and-grooved planks, and then these planks were covered on the outside with overlapping horizontal boards called clapboards. When the men were finished, the new Painted Post Tavern was two stories tall, and it rose majestically over the one-story log cabins which were being built in its vicinity. It was the most impressive building in the area, and it remained so for twenty-five years before another similar two-story structure was erected. An inn, of course, needed an innkeeper to run it, and here Williamson turned to Benjamin Patterson once more, offering him the position of keeper or manager of the inn. Patterson accepted the challenge, and he and his brother Robert began the slow and difficult task of poling a Durham boat containing their families and their possessions from central Pennsylvania up the Susquehanna River and then the Chemung River to Painted Post, a 160-mile journey.

A Durham boat was a long, narrow boat with a slight draft. In the shallow rivers a boat should not float deeply since it had to be pushed by poles upstream against the natural downstream flow of the water. One man stood on either side of the vessel to push the boat upstream with a pole which he set in the river bottom and thus propelled the boat forward. One of the older boys or one of the women on board would steer the boat with the rudder at the rear of the vessel. When the current of the stream became too strong, the rest of the family would have to help by getting off the vessel to assist the men poling the boat by pulling the vessel with a rope from the side of the river bank. When the Patterson family arrived at the site of the new inn not too far from the Painted Post, they were most impressed with the newly constructed two-story building.

Sir William Pulteney, however soon began to realize how grand were the plans of Charles Williamson as the bills came in for the "improvements" which Williamson was making to attract buyers of the land. The roads and the inns which his agent were creating were to cost to some $1,000,000 within a very few years. After four years of preparation, Charles Williamson had created roads leading into the lands of the Pulteney Estates while inns provided places for travelers to eat and sleep. In the meantime, a second land office was opened in the town of Bath.

Williamson was anxious to begin the construction of the great metropolis which he envisioned for the new territory. Therefore, in 1793 he started the development of a commercial center in the southern portion of the Pulteney lands which he named Bath. One of the things which delighted Charles Williamson in the early years of his residence in western New York was to stand on the rise of land just to the north of the village he was planning. For there on that eminence he could look north to the land sloping to Crooked Lake (later to be called Keuka Lake) whose waters ran to the north and east and thus to Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. To the south of the rise on which he stood, the streams ran into the Conhocton River which flowed to the Susquehanna River and thus to the Atlantic Ocean at Chesapeake Bay. Even someday there might be a connection to the Genesee River and beyond another to the Alleghany River, and the Ohio River so that boats and commerce might go to the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico. It was little wonder, given his expansive nature, that he saw his new village of Bath as a future hub of transportation and that he set up his main land office in the center of his new town.

One would have thought that Geneva or Williamsburg would have been the site of the great metropolis Williamson wished to create, but he had his reasons for making Bath the central point of the Pulteney holdings. For one thing, the land to the north along the Ontario plain which sloped to Lake Ontario contained the better farming land in the purchase. Much of it had already been sold by Phelps and Gorham and what remained could readily be sold by the land office in Geneva. In the hillier, less fertile land adjacent to Bath, a second land office might help to bring settlers to this area. Perhaps the greatest attraction for Bath in Williamson's eyes, aside from the natural beauty of the area, was the Conhocton River at the southern end of the proposed town. Since that river flowed to the east and then south to the Susquehanna River and to the ocean, it provided an outlet for the crops and for future industry which he expected to arise. The rivers in the northern portion of the Pulteney lands had Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River as their outlet, a river which flowed through English territory in Canada, and therefore these northern waterways held certain political disadvantages given the residue of distrust which existed in English Canada for the new United States after the Revolutionary War.

As American lands became settled, Europeans always remarked upon the differences in village and farm life in the United States as compared to that in Europe. In Europe, farmers tended to live in villages or towns, and they went out to farm their land each day. In the United States, the farmer settled on his land, his house often at a great distance from that of his nearest neighbor. In the new American nation, the town served the commercial and craft needs rather than providing homes for farmers and their families. This American pattern was being followed on Williamson's frontier land where farms were being carved out of western New York's wilderness. Bath thus would serve as a center for local farms just as Geneva and Canandaigua served their farmers to the north of the Finger Lakes.

When Williamson arrived at the site of Bath on April 17, 1793, the land on which his new city would arise presented quite a different picture from that, as a native of Scotland, he was accustomed. A dark and dense forest of hard woods, some of the trees over one hundred feet tall, covered the land. Williamson's assistants Cameron and Johnstone, who had accompanied him from Scotland, arrived by Durham boat from Northumberland, Pennsylvania, at the same time as Williamson, and they set surveyors to work to lay out the town which was to begin with fifteen families as the founders of the new community. At the center of the town they created a town square or park called Pulteney Square. The huge trees in the square were cleared with the exception of one tall pine which served as the "Liberty Tree," such squares or parks in the early years of nationhood boasting such a symbolic tree or flagstaff. (A Liberty Tree was replanted in Pulteney Square in 1993).

The square was created in the town-planning style favored by New England. As the United States expanded westward its was said that one could always tell whether a town had been settled by individuals from New England or from the South. If the town had a New England heritage, the town square in the center of the community formed a park with grass and trees. If it were a town of Southern derivation, the courthouse building occupied the square.

Streets extended from Pulteney Square, and they were given names which were symbolic, such as Liberty Street, Morris Street (named after Robert Morris from whom the London Association had purchased their land), and Steuben Street for the German general who had turned Washington's farmers into soldiers little more than a decade past. Naturally, there had to be a Washington Street as well. When in a few years this portion of western New York was subdivided into counties, the new county was named for General von Steuben. A log cabin on the south side of the square would serve as a land office and a temporary home for Williamson and his family when his wife and remaining two children arrived from Northumberland in July; young Alexander had died before the move to Bath.

By August 25, 1793, that same year, James Henson erected a saw mill at the river's edge, and a grist mill would join it before winter set in. These were important additions to the community, for they provided the first industries for the area, and, being on the river, they would be a focal point for the timber and grain which could be shipped to the south. Thus the location of Bath could serve as a center for the distribution of materials from the farms of the Ontario Plain. Grain, for example, could be brought by sledge down to Bath over the course of the winter and stored until the spring flood time when rafts, or arks, could transport the grain to the cities to the south. These rafts could be sent down the Conhocton River which ran through Bath, down to the Painted Post and the Chemung River, and so into the Susquehanna River at Tioga Point and thus south to Baltimore and the Atlantic Ocean. In like manner, the trees of the forest were desired in Britain since that country had virtually denuded its hills, and the English navy was always in need of timber for its fleet as were commercial merchant ships. Such timbers could be formed into rafts which could be sold for their timber when they arrived at the coast, and they could carry other products, such as grain. Grain could also be turned into whiskey, which was somewhat easier to ship in barrels than was loose grain, although given the nature of those who manned the rafts, one could not guarantee that all of the product would reach its destination intact.

The rocks in the comparatively shallow Susquehanna River proved an ever-threatening peril, and it is estimated that one in every ten rafts met with catastrophe en route to Baltimore. A crew of five to six men commanded these rafts as they rode the spring freshets when the water of the river was at its height. The trip took one week to the Chesapeake Bay, and upon selling the goods on the raft and the timbers of the raft itself, the men had to walk back to Bath. By the 1840s it was said that the rivers in the Southern Tier of New York State were covered with rafts and arks in the early spring. This trade was to decline in the 1850s once canals and railroads began to change the face of New York and Pennsylvania.

John Metcalf opened the first tavern on Morris Street in Bath in 1793, a log structure which provided the amenities of food, drink, and lodging needed if prospective buyers were to come to the Bath land office. This "Metropolis in the West" which Williamson envisioned was described in less than complimentary terms in 1794 by one commentator who described Bath a "a few shanties in the woods." Another visitor in the spring of 1794 wrote a less glowing description of Metcalf's tavern, "We put up at the only house of entertainment in the village—if it could be called a house. Of pitch pine logs in two apartments, one story high, the only house in town except for the temporary abode of Captain Williamson—a log house consisting of a parlor, a dining room, the land office." One other comment could have been added, that the food at the tavern was coarse, generally being pork and cornmeal which was washed down with the plentiful whiskey which was always at hand. Inns were often noisy, dirty, and crowded, and the bedding left much to be desired. One inn-keeper in the northern part of the Pulteney purchase is recorded as claiming to have clean sheets—"…since they were only slept in a few times since last they were washed."

"Genesee Fever" was a constant complaint of those who spent time in or traveled through these western lands, the local name for ague (malaria) which was spread by mosquitoes from low lying swamp lands. Others complained of the ever present rattle snakes, and as late as 1817 the county was still offering a bounty of $10 for panther scalps. Benjamin Patterson received a bounty for killing a wolf in the village limits of Painted Post; the towns of the area by this time were still at the edge of the wilderness.

Williamson's main land office might be in Bath, but he could be found in various sectors of his more than one million acres as he set about developing the tract. In 1794 he established a settlement at Sodus on Lake Ontario with mills, a storehouse, a wharf, and a tavern. The creation of this community immediately brought threats from Lord Simcoe, the Governor General of Upper Canada (Toronto area). Despite the peace settlement of 1783, the British had not given up their forts in New York at Fort Niagara or at Oswego on Lake Ontario, for there still existed some hope among English officials in America that some of the lost colonial land could be re-taken in order to create a neutral Indian territory between Canada and the United States.

On August 16, 1794, Simcoe sent Lt. Shaeffer and a small detachment of soldiers by small boat from the fort at Oswego to Sodus to protest the creation of a new town in an area which Simcoe still hoped to keep from the Americans. Shaeffer arrived on August 26th with his small troop in a display of English power. Williamson awaited Shaeffer in a log cabin, a brace of pistols on the table before him. Shaeffer presented Simcoe's claim to all the Indian lands in New York, a claim which Williamson refused to accept. Faced with Williamson's guns and the expectation that other armed men might ambush him and his group, Shaeffer retreated after making the appropriate threats. Williamson immediately informed the government at Washington by post rider of the affair, but, more effectively, he informed Sir William of the threat. When Williamson's message eventually reached London after a long sea passage, Sir William Pulteney spoke with his friend William Pitt, the Prime Minister, and Simcoe received instructions from Pitt not to pursue the matter any further. This threat led Williamson to form a local militia, and obviously he was the Colonel in charge of these defenders of the frontier.

In June of 1795 Williamson entertained a noble guest, the Duc de la Rochefoucault de Liancourt, one of the many European aristocratic figures who were to make the requisite journey of the informed upper classes of Europe to the New World and its frontier over the next seventy years. The Duke remained for four days as Williamson's guest, but the log house which also served as an office was certainly not a proper residence for the entertainment of guests, and Williamson determined to build an appropriate residence for a land agent of so vast a territory. Serving as his own architect, he designed a two-story mansion with wings, a building which today is only known through a sketch which another noble visitor, le Comte de Colbert Maulevrier, made on his visit to Bath. With its high ceiling, heavy moldings, fine furniture, and a library (Williamson brought a cabinet maker to Bath), the mansion with its gardens (cared for by a gardener he had brought from England) provided an aura of stability and luxury to an otherwise backwoods wilderness. A store of fine wines would be laid on for toasting distinguished guests, and a sampling of these graced the sideboard in the dining room. Springfield House, as the mansion was named at Lake Salubria on the eastern edge of Bath, stood out like a palace in the woods. All of this was an expense which was charged against the London Association and not to Williamson's account.

If Bath were to have the attractions Williamson desired, the town itself would have to reflect the standards of a metropolis. Thus a town square was laid out, Pulteney Square (still there today), and at one side was Williamson's first log cabin home and land sales office. More than a square and a tavern and a few houses were needed, if prospective land buyers were to be enticed to the Pulteney lands. Williamson therefore set 1796 as the date for a series of festivities which, he thought, would lure wealthy aristocrats from the South to the area where they could see and purchase large tracts of land for their estates. They, with their elegant manners and cultivated tastes, would then make the village of Bath a sophisticated center. To this end he advertised that in 1796 Bath would play host to events worthy of a much more established community than one would expect to find on the frontier.

Williamson sent messengers throughout New York, New England, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and English Canada to plaster walls with posters touting Pulteney lands and inviting everyone to Bath. There would be a theater at Steuben and Morris Streets presenting plays which were popular in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York. There would be a race track, there would be a fair, and his chain of inns would be ready to receive visitors along their way to Bath. Advertisements for the celebration were placed in New York City and Philadelphia newspapers, and by September 20, 1796, some 2,000 people arrived from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and even from Canada for the horse races with the attendant betting which was a major attraction.

Williamson did build his one-half mile long race track and his theater, albeit the theater was a log structure, and he began a County Fair, the oldest county fair in the United States and one which is still held every August in Bath. He created a newspaper, The Bath Gazette, which issued its first number on October 20, 1796. There were eight hundred people living within an eight-mile radius of Bath, and in addition to the theater and other attractions of which he was proud, the area could claim two schools, one grist mill, as well as five saw mills which were helping to turn the virgin forests into lumber and farm land. The town could boast two physicians, and Bath had those two other amenities needed by any self-respecting town, a courthouse and a jail which were jointly erected on the east side of Pulteney Square (the Victorian courthouse now replaces the original structure).

The town's first lawyer settled in Bath in 1795 to handle the ever growing litigious nature of frontier society. It is almost needless to say that Williamson served as judge in the courthouse, but then he had served in this capacity as a judge of the Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions for Ontario County since 1784. (Ontario County at first encompassed the Pulteney purchase before it was split into smaller county units.) By 1801 a post office was established, although Williamson had been running a private mail service between Canada and Philadelphia and Washington with his own post riders every two weeks.

The Fitzhughs and other plantation owners from the South did purchase land, and they brought their slaves with them. Despite New York State's abolishing the purchasing of slaves in the early 1790s, Williamson's record book shows that he was buying his own slave help beyond this date. Then in 1803 Captain William Helms came from Virginia bringing his fifty to one hundred slaves with him, and other settlers from Virginia and Maryland followed with their slaves. An 1810 census lists one hundred and sixteen blacks in Bath of whom eighty-eight were slaves. The New York State legislature passed an act on April 9, 1813, freeing slaves within the State, yet in 1815 a huge covered Conestoga wagon went through Bath supervised by a man with a whip. Shrieks and cries emanated from the wagon, for Captain Helms had seized some of his former slaves and their families and was transporting them to Kentucky for sale. By the time the wagon reached Olean, most of the former slaves had escaped. Helms was tried and imprisoned for a short time as a result of his defiance of New York State law. Judge Thomas McBurney was also tried for a similar offense.

Having had his earlier letters of introduction from Alexander Hamilton to men of note in New York, it was obvious that Williamson would soon be the representative of the people of the county to the legislative halls of the State government in Albany. Meantime, Williamson was off on horseback to Albany, to the towns of the region, and soon rumors began to reach Abigail that there were other women in other towns who were of interest to her husband. Her unhappiness grew. Christy had died soon after their arrival in Bath, and living in a frontier village was lonely for her—despite her husband's grandiose plans for the Great Metropolis in the West.

In the long run, the sale of the New York lands did not bring the anticipated remuneration which the London Association had imagined. Land did sell in the Ontario Plain region, but the less productive land in the southern portion of the purchase was not that desirable to settlers. Moreover, Williamson's hope that Southern plantation owners would flock en masse to the land did not develop. With the opening of the land of the Western Reserve, plenty of richer farmland became available at prices competitive to Pulteney land offerings and land sales grew beyond the western borders of New York State.

Williamson believed in "internal improvements" in order to attract newcomers to the Pulteney associates' land, and he had created roads, inns, schools, courthouses and sold land on the installment basis to settlers. But by 1800 he had spent $1,374,470.10 and had brought in only $147,974.33. Although Williamson was an excellent promoter, Sir William Pulteney was becoming more and more concerned over the financial situation. On April 2, 1798, the New York State legislature had passed an act which permitted aliens to own land in the State, and thus on March 31, 1800, Sir William had Williamson transfer the ownership of the land to himself. Williamson was dismissed as the land agent at this time.

It took five more years before a settlement between Williamson and Sir William was reached in 1805, and then the former land agent was granted Springfield and White Hart Farms, and 13,085.5 acres of land in Steuben County, in all worth a total of $93,298, but there was no cash for his fourteen years of work. Williamson was replaced by Robert Troup as agent in order to bring the financial books of the Estate into balance. Abigail left Williamson as he returned to London. No further internal improvements were put into service, and by the end of the War of 1812, which had disrupted communications with London, Robert Troup had made the Pulteney Estates solvent. The last of the Pulteney lands were not sold until the beginning of the twentieth century, bringing to an end this notable enterprise. Sir William died in 1805 at seventy-six and was buried in Westminster Abbey His daughter succeeded her mother as Countess of Bath, but she was an invalid and died within a few years. She is remembered by the town of Henrietta outside of Rochester, New York, which was named in her honor.

Back in Scotland Williamson was able to obtain various governmental assignments. By this time his marriage had come to an end. Williamson died of his recurring malaria (Genesee Fever) on shipboard in 1808 while returning to England from Havana, Cuba, from an English government assignment. Abigail Williamson had never been happy on the frontier, and she, along with so many others of her time, suffered from the Genesee Fever which disabled her. Of her six children, only two survived to adulthood. She died in Geneva, New York, on August 31, 1824. Two years later her daughter Ann died at thirty-four. Charles Alexander, the surviving son, had moved to Scotland, and he lived until 1849, leaving a son David Robertson Williamson to carry on the family name on the fifty-square-mile Robertson family estate in Crieff, Scotland.

While Williamson's grandiose plans for the Pulteney Estates never came to fruition, he did make possible the roads leading into these western lands of New York State as well as the inns which served new comers on their arrival. One hundred years after the establishment of the new metropolis of Bath (now the very small county seat of Steuben County, New York), Williamson's grandson in Scotland donated a copy of a portrait of his grandfather which now hangs in the Steuben County Historical Society quarters not far from Pulteney Square where Williamson held forth.

Williamson's grand inn in Geneva was later turned into an apartment house which still exists, but his land office in Geneva is remembered only with an historical marker today. His Painted Post Tavern created in 1796 to assist in bringing prospective settlers to the great set of festivities in Bath in that year still stands, restored in 1976 as the Benjamin Patterson Inn Museum, named after the guide who brought Williamson over the Appalachian mountains in 1791, who oversaw the Germans constructing the narrow roadway into the Pulteney lands from the south, and who was the first inn-keeper of the Painted Post Tavern.

The physical remains of Williamson's achievements on the frontier may not be many, but his efforts did make possible the settlement and growth of a major portion of western New York. He is thus remembered for the magnitude of his vision and the tremendous energy he expended in turning a wilderness into a cultivated land on which later generations could flourish. The waves of "enthusiasm" which were to sweep the Pulteney Estates, particularly in its northern reaches of the Ontario Plain in the decades after his death, would have amazed and perhaps even appalled Williamson. Perhaps he had an inkling of what was to come when Jemima Wilkinson established her semi-religious, semi-celibate community, first on the shores of Lake Seneca, and then to the west of Lake Keuka, but in no way could he have imagined the plethora of reform and social movements which would give the name "The Burned-Over District" to a wide band of land across central New York State.

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers
© 2005, John H. Martin

Further Readings

Cowan, Helen. Charles Williamson, Genesee Promotor, Friend of Anglo-American Rapprochment. Rochester Historical Society. Rochester, New York. 1941.

Cowan, Helen. "Charles Williamson and the Southern Entrance to the Genesee Country." New York History. Volume XXIII. July 1942.

Cowan, Helen. "Williamsburg, Lost Village on the Genesee." Rochester History. Volume IV, Number 3. July 1942 (In the Rochester Public Library)

Johnstone, Jeffrey M. Sir William Johnstone Pulteney and the Scottish Origins of Western New York. clan

Martin, John H. and Phyllis G. The Lands of the Painted Post. Bookmarks. Corning, New York. 1993.

McKelvey, Blake. "Historic Aspects of the Phelps and Gorham Treaty of July 4-8, 1788." Rochester History. Volume 1, Number 1. Rochester, New York. January 1939.

McMaster, Guy. History of the Settlement of Steuben County. Re-printed by the Steuben County Historical Society. Bath, New York. 1992.

Mulford, Uri. Pioneer Days and Later Times In Corning and Vicinity, 1789-1920. Uri Mulford. Corning, New York. 1922.

Parker, Arthur C. Charles Williamson, Builder of Genesee Country. Rochester Historical Society. Volume V. Rochester, New York. 1926.

Turner, Orsamus. History of the Pioneer Settlements of Phelps and Gorham Purchase and Morris Reserve. Walling Publisher. Rochester, New York. 1851.

In addition

Carl Carmer's novel Genesee Fever covers the early period of settlement in the Genesee country, and it includes vignettes of Charles Williamson in this fictional account based on history.

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