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NSG Visit 1999

Genesee County's Historic

Holland Land Office Museum


Donovan A. Shilling

Sixteen members of the New Society of the Genesee ventured over to Batavia to explore one of the area's oldest landmarks, the Holland Land Office, erected in 1815. We first gathered at Terry Hills Golf Course for lunch in the Hamilton House (named for Terry Hills owner Fred Hamilton). David Minor had made all the arrangments for our group and following the meal we drove across town on Route 5 to 131 West Main Street to visit the Holland Land Office Museum.

Millie Kujawaski, a gracious volunteer at the museum, welcomed our group and told us many stories about the building and its contents. For instance, in the Eli Parker Indian Room there was a succotash bowl from about 1700, wampum beads (23 inches of white beads or 12 of purple were exchanged for one beaver pelt), a model of a long-house, and a Windsor-like arm chair used by Parker with a thick slab-seat. A pair of lacrosse sticks took my attention. The Senecas shaped these unique ball nets into a curve by wedging a wet stick inside a hollow stump. On a wall is a large frame holding a charcoal drawing of Red Jacket (1758-1830). He is shown wearing the weighty silver medal presented to him by George Washington in 1792. A note next to the frame reminded visitors that Red Jacket's Seneca name was O-Te-Ti-Ani which translates into "always the ready. "

For many moons moccasined feet trod the trails through dense forest growth to their village along Tonawanda Creek near a bubbling spring. That location, following the purchase of about three and a third million acres between the Genesee River and Lake Erie by Dutch investors from Robert Morris, became the center of the land-selling business of the buyers' agents.

Much of the financial support for the Holland Land Purchase came from an Amsterdam bank owned by the father of Paolo Busti, a Milan native working in the Dutch capital. Acting as chief agent for the land company, Busti sailed to Philadelphia where he employed Joseph Ellicott, an experienced surveyor, to measure the property.

The Great Survey began in March, 1798, using a transit built by Benjamin Ellicott, Joseph's younger brother. With the help of Benjamin and 130 men, Ellicott established the boundaries of the Seneca Indian Reservations (200,000) acres) and laid out townships in the remaining area. Townships were divided into 16 divisions, a mile and a half square called "sections. " Sections, in turn, were marked into lots three quarters of a mile long by a quarter mile wide. That's about 120 acres per lot. Finishing his survey three years later in 1801, Joseph Ellicott presented a $70,921. 69 bill to the Holland Land Company for his services.

Exhibited in the Museum are surveying books, the transit, and measuring chains used by Ellicott during the Great Survey. There is also an 1804 map. Its long legend, here abbreviated, read: "MAP of Morris's Purchase of West Geneseo in the State of New York exhibiting the LAKES ERIE AND ONTARIO… by the HOLLAND LAND OFFICE… Also a Sketch of part of Upper Canada by Joseph & B. Ellicott 1800." New Society of the Genesee member, John Topham, donated the map, valued at five figures, to the Land Office Museum some years ago.

After completing the survey, Joseph Ellicott was appointed resident agent for the company and began selling land in January, 1801, at a price of about $2 an acre. The next year the County of Genesee was formed in the tract of the Holland Purchase. A courthouse was completed in 1803 in the settlement along Tonawanda Creek called Batavia to honor the Dutch owners. The Republic of Batavia was the name of The Netherlands before 1806.

The first land office was a wooden structure in Batavia. It was replaced with a fire-resistant stone building in 1815. The thick limestone walls were laid up with recesses on the inner side of the walls to provide fire-safe storage of land-transaction documents. Ten-foot-tall iron doors, each reinforced with iron straps, closed over eight of these pockets. Today one can see the eight wall vaults. One of them still has its metal doors. The others are filled with displays of historic items.

By 1837 the land sales of the Holland Land Company were completed and in the mid 1800s the office was sold. In the 1860s the building housed a music school, "Mrs. Bryan's Academy for Young Ladies," then a church. Modifications to the interior were made in these times.

The Holland Purchase Historical Society was formed to raise money to buy and restore the building and it was dedicated on October 13, 1894, to the memory of Robert Morris. The museum was staffed by the Daughters of the American Revolution until World War II. During the war the Genesee Chapter of the American Red Cross leased the building. An addition in back was added then. Ownership was assumed by Genesee County in 1948 and the museum became a joint venture with the historical society. The west wing which houses the Robert Morris Room was built in 1970, and the east wing which houses the office and collections of the Genesee County Historian was added in 1977.

In a museum addition, called the Robert Morris Room, other historical treasures documenting Batavia's early history are on exhibit. Enclosed in a room behind the museum, the sanguine will find the County's gallows. The hanging frame was complete with a noose wound with 13 knotted turns.

As one can see, the Holland Land Office Museum offers a wide spectrum of yesterday's history. A visit is a treat for all those whose curiosity spurs them on to discover more about Genesee County's rich past.

© 1999, Donovan A. Shilling
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