The History of New York State
Book X, Chapter V

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam




Chemung County, as well as the river of the same name, get their titles from the Seneca for "Big Horn." Although now one of the best known counties of the southern tier of New York, it was not until 1779 that anyone but the Indians knew much about it. The valley of the Chemung was exceedingly fertile; the kind of land the pioneer sought. It was not so far off the beaten track many had traveled farther to find an Arcadia but none had penetrated to this hidden spot. True it was owned by the aborigines, but the whites had not hesitated on that account in other places. The region was an Indian garden where the corn grew long, the beans in profusion, the pumpkins heavy and the melons luscious. It took a battle to make this garden spot known to the white man and send him in numbers to cultivate its rich "flats" and fertile foothills.

On August 29, 1779, a furious though brief battle was fought between Tories and Indians and the American forces. General John Sullivan had been sent on an expedition like unto Sherman's "March to the Sea." That the Indians might be punished for siding with the British, and might be driven so far back and so divided as to prevent their further participation in the struggle of the colonies for their freedom, an army was sent to march through the richest sections of the Six nations, destroying everything that they found. The Tories and Indians, under the leadership of Joseph Brant and Walter Butler, land an ambush for the approaching army a few miles distant from the site of the present city of Elmira. They chose a hillside admirably suited to their purpose, but Sullivan, guessing their intentions, swung around the hill and caught them on the flank and in the rear, quickly putting them to rout. There were equal numbers engaged on each side, 2,000, but the conflict was over in two or three hours and the power of the Indians was broken forever. It was one of the important battles of the Revolution, for some strange reason known as the battle of Newtown. Why not, as has been suggested, "the Battle of the Chemung"?

The battle did more than break the power of the Indians. When the war was ended many of the soldiers remembered the wonderful place, told others about it, and in the great surge to new regions which followed the Revolution numbers sought out this spot where fruits and grains and vegetables grew so bountifully. The new comes were from all parts of the east, but the grater number came from the Wyoming Valley,

Orange County, New York, and from Connecticut. They fought their way by boat and trail to the new land, and the way cut by Sullivan's army helped greatly, for the Indian trails, although well marked, were after all foot paths, and not passable with the cattle and horses brought by the pioneers. In less than ten years the Chemung valley was dotted everywhere with the cabins of those who were to live and leave descendants who would stay for more than a century and a quarter. A treaty between the States and the Iroquois was made at Elmira in 1791, settling forever the disputes between the Indians and the whites over the territory, and making legal possession of the land possible. Among the names of those who came first are: Abner Wells, for whom Wellsburg was named; Elijah Buck, who settled Buckville, although this was changed later to Chemung; Isaac Baldwin and his eight sons, whose labors left their mark in many parts of the county; Major William Wynkoop, who built the first frame house in the town of Chemung; John Breese and Asa Gildersleeve of Horseheads; John Sly of Southport; Andrew Gregg, the Irishman who left the effect of his presence in the town of Erin, and whose son became one of the distinguished lawyers of the State. The Gristles were builders of mills, Conkling, Martin Bentley and a hundreds of others, all stalwarts, who put their lives into the affairs of the new found Chemung Valley.

Colonel John Handy was an outstanding character in the county for half a century. He located in Elmira in 1788 and the cabin that he built lasted well into the present century. Henry Wisner acquired a large grant of land on the site of part of Elmira, and laid out two villages, one on the site of an Indian town, the other near Main street in Elmira. Colonel Matthias Hollenbeck, coning from Wilkes-Barre was the founder of the mercantile side of the development of the county and city.

In 1791 a part of Montgomery County was set aside as the county of Tioga, with Chemung town as the western end, with Newtown, later called Elmira, as a half shiretown. A year later the town was cut off from Tioga as the county of Chemung, with Elmira as the county seat. This new township was half way across the State, on the border touching Pennsylvania, reaching north almost to Seneca Lake.

As was usual, the canals and railroads were principal factors in the later development of the county, the Chemung Canal being the most important, whose opening was celebrated with impressive ceremonies upon its completion in 1832. In 1825 a legislative act was passed ordering a survey to be made through the southern tier of the New York counties, to see if I was feasible to make and maintain a railroad in this section. It was nearly a quarter of the century later before a rail system had actually been built and was in operation, 1849. This road giving, as it did, easy and quick communication with al parts of the country, was a great help in the creation of business and industry. Lumber, the then chief product of the county, soon was sent by millions of feet to market. Sheep had already been introduced, and woolen mills were to be found in all parts of Chemung. The first of these was at Southport, erected by Silas Billings, in 1820, but one of the largest in the State was that of the Pratts at Elmira. The first large bank, the Canal Bank, started, as the name implies, to finance the Chemung Canal, was incorporated in 1833. But many others were founded to care for the business created by the completion of the railroad and canal.

The twentieth century found the county with some half dozen rail systems, several of them trunk lines. Industries had multiplied and expanded. Elmira had become a city with twelve wards, it having received a charter on April 7, 1864, as a 5-ward city. the Elmira Seminary of 1855 was now an important institution under the name of the Elmira Female College. In a century and a quarter, the almost unborn region of pine forests and neglected "flats" had become the thrifty, busy county of Chemung , with a half hundred thousand progressive residents


Ashland, the last of the towns to be formed, 1867, was organized in that year from parts of Elmira, Southport and Chemung. The name is derived from the country home of Henry Clay. It is a town of rich lowlands which have been brought to a high state of cultivation, with the higher region given over to dairying. The latter is one of the main occupations in the town, but tobacco is the one great crop. The growing of leaf tobacco was introduced into Ashland in 1858 and has steadily expanded to extraordinary proportions. Ashland is of historical interest as the scene of the battle between the forces of Joseph Brant and those commanded by General John Sullivan on august 29, 1779. A monumental tower was erected a century later, on a high hill overlooking the whole valley, to commemorate the victory over Brant. In 1788, Green Bentley made his way into the district, to be followed two years later by the Wells, Green, Tracey, and Baldwin families. The principal village of Ashland is Wellsburg on the west bank of the Chemung. It was either on the site of this village or neat it that most of the pioneers located. Always a quiet rural place, it has few industries, the handling and shipping of tobacco being one of these. Lowmanville, a nearby hamlet, is also heavily interested in tobacco.

Baldwin, named after one of the best known pioneer families a town of nearly 16,000 acres erected on April 7, 1856, from Chemung. It is a strictly rural district rather more isolated then the other divisions of the county with the smallest population. The first to locate within the area were Charles and Warren Granger in 1800. Jason Hammond, together with five sons, settled in the neighborhood in 1815, and from them did the principal village derive its name, Hammond's Corners.

Big Flats, known to the Indians as the "Great Plains," a true descriptive term when used by those who had never seen the western prairies, is a region of broken alluvial flats on the western border of the county. The area of the town, 26,097 acres, is practically all arable, and the most of it suited to the highest type of agriculture. Before ever the lands had been platted, Christian Myneer, accompanied by his family, came to the region and put in the first crop of corn (1787). But a few years passed however before the value of this section became known, and it was relatively densely settled by 1800. There was a heavy stand of timber in the beginning and sawmills became plentiful. Dairying soon succeeded these, then tobacco was introduced which has continued to be the important production, although it is now very much of a vegetable region.

Chemung, from the Seneca for "Big Horn," originally embraced the territory now divided forming most of the towns of the county and many in adjoining counties. It now has an area of 29,300 acres, with a varied surface and uneven soil. Dairying was once the main occupation of the farmers, but the herds of cattle had been greatly reduced, general farming practiced, with fruit culture growing into prominence, if not already in the lead. Tobacco is one of the standard crops. As early as 1779 Sullivan's soldiery found immense crops of corn, pumpkins, beans, and melons growing in the valleys. It is probable that this town can claim priority of settlement. The authentic date of the coming of a pioneer is usually given as 1786, when several families located, but it seems likely that one of the Baldwin family arrived from the south at least two years before this time and possibly earlier. There were many from the Wyoming Valley, crowded out by the unfriendly Pennanites who were in Tioga anxious to get into this new Arcadia. The new comer found quite a bit of the land cleared by the Indians but his did not prevent lumbering from being one of the first main industries, and remained to until a few years before the Civil War. Tanning came in just before lumbering went out and continued for many years. In 1882 one company shipped 1,300 tons of hemlock bark. The village of Chemung ranks with the first settled in the county, becoming the mercantile and religious center of the rich level fertile region.

Catlin, in the northwestern, narrow valley section of the county, is a monument to the hardy pioneer who sought its wooded hills, and did not desert them after they had been denuded of their forests. The land is not the best for the plow, so the town has become noted for its cows rather than cultivated crops, with the exception of some of the grains. Horticulture has been given a great deal of attention in the s quarter century. The town was organized from Catherine in 1823, about seven years after the first permanent settler had built his home. There are a number of hamlets in Catlin, among which are Post Creek, the main shipping point, Tompkins Corners, Catlin Center, Fero and Kendall.

Elmira has a history so intermingled with the city of Elmira until the last half century that the earlier parts cannot be separated. The town surrounds the city on all sides except the south, and has no village of any size of its own. The city is the center of nearly all the community life of this agricultural section. Until 1890 Carr's Corners, lovely Elbridge Park, and the State Reformatory were under the jurisdiction of the town, but these were all given over to the city in that year. One interesting but almost forgotten enterprise of the town was the "Junction Canal," a waterway built to connect the Erie Canal by way of the Chemung, with the Erie Railroad which did not reach Elmira until 1849. Great quantities of salt, lumber and heavy freight were carried from the north by Seneca Lake and connecting waterways. A good market was ready for the canal joining in the coal regions of Pennsylvania. In January of 1854 the canal joining New York and Pennsylvania was competed, but not put to actual use until late in the summer. It served for twenty years, but in time the railroads lessened its usefulness, and few remember that boats carrying millions of dollars of freight once plied through what is now dry land.

Erin, one of the best grazing townships of Chemung, was settled shortly after the close of the War of 1812. Basil Sperry is credited with being the first to locate here, 1815, making the first clearing in the unbroken forest, and raising the first planted crop in the region. Many of those who had been engaged in the war just ended came and made this home among the hills of Erin. They were dominantly of Irish descent, hence the title applied to the town when it was erected from Chemung on March 29, 1822. The principal village, bearing the same name, is the outgrowth of the lumber industry which was of major importance almost up the beginning of the present century.

Horseheads is the name of one of the pleasantest,, wealthiest, busiest villages of Chemung. The visitor is never happy until his curiosity is satisfied by an explanation of how so beautiful a place received it title. And yet it dates back to a time when districts were named for what they were rather than for what they might become. When Sullivan returned with his army after the punitive expedition against the Indians in 1779, he had weary horses in plenty with a great scarcity of fodder. While at camp on the present site of Horseheads, he killed the weakest of his equines and passed on. for years the bleached bones of the horses marred and marked the region and the identifying name given it then stuck when later it became a town. The spring of 1787 saw the first of many settlers wend their way from Somerset, New Jersey to a spot near Elmira, and later take their permanent abode in Horseheads two years later. They were John and Hannah Breese, and their eight children who built a log home and had, the same year, their ninth child, believed to be the first white child born in the county. The village Horseheads was the outgrowth of the natural collecting of groups of pioneers in the best spot in the section. And when the Seneca and Susquehanna Lock Navigation company started to build a canal through the town there was such a influx of new comers that the population doubled in two years. In 1829 the canal was opened, and the two boats, "General" and "Lady Sullivan" were launched and made their trial trips.

In 1830 the first plat of a village was made, which was enlarged in 1841. The place was incorporated as Fairport, in 1837, but the name failed to take. In 1845 it was changed to Horseheads, in 1885 to North Elmira, and back to the historic title in 1886. The village has always been a residential district where many a retired farmer settled to spend the sunset days of his life. But there have always been active industries from the day of the first sawmill and distillery. Woolen mills multiplied at one period, brickyards have been and are a characteristic sight. In the present day glove making, children's shoes, hardware specialties and optical goods have engaged the attention of the manufacturing concerns located here. Breeseport is a busy hamlet of more recent birth. it started as a lumber town, and was the seat of railroad shops until they were burned in 1883.

Southport was a part of Elmira until April 6, 1822, when it was erected as a separate town. With an area of 28,335 acres, it is probably the foremost agricultural division of Chemung. It has taken the successive steps from the lumber period, to the grain and grazing time, then graduated into tobacco raising but has found its modern success in the diversifying of crops, in which fruit growing and the raising of vegetables are specialties. The region was probably settled before 1787 when it is known that David Griswold came. The several hamlets of the town are named Pine City, Webb's Mills, Southport, Seely Creek, Bulkhead, Wells and Hendy Creek.

Van Etten had for its first real pioneer General Jacob Swartwood, a evolutionary soldier, who settled in the locality known as Swartwood in 1797 and built the first home in the region. he later erected a hotel and became prominent in the affairs of the community,. The territory now enclosed in the town was erected as such April 17, 1854, being taken from the towns of Erin and Cayuta. Van Ettenville, in the east part of the town, is the main village and was formerly an active industrial center.

Veteran, on the north border of the county, is a high and broken country with an area of 22,775 acres, the most of which is under farm fence. Agriculture is the main occupation since the timber has been cut. There was little profit in pine at four dollars a thousand with a several mile team haul, so that this district did not come into its own until the construction of the Chemung Canal in 1833. It was settled as early as 1898 by Green Bentley of Rhode Island. In 1820 wool was raised and a factory started at Millport; in 1825 tanning was introduced; but lumber was for many years the main product of the town. it was formed from Catherine April 16, 1823. Millport is the commercial center of the area. It was once expected to rival Elmira in importance industrially, but it has lagged behind and remained the original rural place, with a change of name from Millvale to the present title. Sullivanville is a dairy center. Veteran is the original post office, and Terry's Corners is a quite hamlet.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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