The History of New York State
Book VII, Chapter II

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam




There is one name so closely allied to the early history of Yates County that no record of the affairs of the county would be in any way complete without it. This is Jemima Wilkinson, the "Universal Friend," who is responsible for the first colonizing of the area now within Yates. A native of Rhode island, born in 1758, when she was sixteen she had a dream which inspired her to devote her life to Christianity. She felt she had passed to the spirit world and while there received "authority to preach the Divine Word." After some years' preaching and founding societies, she wanted to plant a colony of her more devoted followers in some remote place. In pursuance of this idea, she sent Ezekiel Sherman, in 1786, to the lake country of New York, in search of the proper place. He visited the present Yates County region, but returned with an unfavorable report. Unsatisfied, she chose and sent a committee for further investigation, with the result that, 1n 1788, Isaac Nichols, Abel Botsford, Peleg and John Briggs, George Sisson, James Parker and others came to the west shore of Seneca Lake and carved out of the wilderness the first settlement in Yates. In 1790 came the "Friend," who seemed much pleased with the location, although four years later she moved to the present town of Jerusalem, and built her home in the Keuka Inlet valley five miles from Branchport. She died in 1819, and with her departure began the downfall of the society she had formed.

Several of the "firth things" of the county are connected with this Friend settlement. The first house of worship was the Friend Log Meeting House erected in 1790 in the town of Torrey. The first teacher was Sarah Richards, and the first regular school was taught by Benjamin Andrews, in 1793. The first justice of the peace was James Harper, and this same gentleman, with others, built the first grist mill in the part of New York west of Seneca Lake (1790). This also was in Torrey, A Doctor Benton put up a saw mill, and the first regular road in the county was between these two mills. The first of the land grants was the Phelps and Gorham purchase, secured from Massachusetts under the preemption act of 1786. Their tract included practically the whole of West New York, and in connection with the sale of their lands the first land office in the State was opened in 1789 at Canandaigua. The Friends grant of 14,00 acres is dated October 1,. 1792.

Ontario County was erected about this time (17890, which included the present area called Yates. Townships have been laid out and given numbers, which are changed to names as soon as there were people enough on them to warrant names. The Yates district was so thinly populated that a number of these townships were grouped together and called Jerusalem. In 1803, this district was divided and one part became Vernon, later called Benton. Milo separated from Benton in 1818; Middletown, erected 1789, lost Italy, 1815; Middlesex, lying next to Italy, was named Augusta, but changed to t e present title in 1808. Potter was organized 1832; Starkey, 1796; Barrington, 1822; Torrey, from Benton and Milo, 1851. Barrington and Starkey were part of Steuben County until a year after the formation of Yates.

From the foregoing it will be seen that much of the early history of Yates took place before it was set aside as a separate section, and most of the towns organized before becoming a part of a county. The region was becoming well settled, roads had been built and had brought the various parts of the district in touch with each other. Not only were there primitive saw and grist mills, but woolen mills and tanneries had been opened up. The isolated, location of the region retarded the growth of a cash business for its products. For that matter, in spire of the lake route and the Erie Canal, Yates did not reach any great importance agriculturally until after a railroad opened up the possibility of quick transportation for perishable crops and fruits.

The growing community became dissatisfied, eventually, with going to Canandaigua to transact all its legal business, so in answer to petition a legislative act was passed forming the new county, which tool the name of the governor of the State, Yates, February 5, 1823. Several villages staged the usual fight for the honor of being the Shiretown, but Penn Yan won and a courthouse was built. In 1834 his was destroyed by fire, requiring the erection of another the next year.

Yates County lies between the Mohawk Valley and the Genesee Country, and partakes of the beauties and fertility of both. It is fairly elevated, five ridges running north and south, giving it drainage and variety. Seneca lake is the eastern boundary, Keuka lies on the south and Lake Canandaigua touches the west. The higher lands are those of Italy, Middlesex, Potter, and Jerusalem, while the more level lands are to be found in Benton, Milo, Torrey, Starkey and Barrington. There is little waste land in Yates, for there the terrain is too steep for the cultivated crops, grapes are planted, and are, no doubt, the characteristic and most profitable crop of the county. It was the completion of the Northern Central Railroad , or rather a branch of it, that brought the grape and fruit industry forward, and since then the tendency in agriculture has been away from grain crops for shipment, to fruits, particularly grapes, perishable, and fairy products.

The lakes that surround the county, especially Keuka, have always been a source of pleasure and profit to the county. The admiration in which it was held by the Indian has been reflected in the pleasure it has given the thousands who have their summer homes or spend the weeks in some of the many hotels which are on its shores. It is interesting to note, that as early as 1837, there was a steamboat on the lake, and one of the things that a visitor must do, was to take a ride on it or one of the steamers which quickly followed this venture.


The town of Milo is the premier division of the county in population and industries. It is the seat of the shiretown, and is the only town having frontage on both Keuka and Seneca lakes. Its location has had much to do with its prominence agriculturally, for not only is the double frontage of value to the rap production, but the lands lying between are level and very fertile. In addition the water power derived from the outlet stream of the Keuka, which drops 269 feet on its way to Seneca Lake, as been the reason for the location of factories in this section form the pioneer days. As mentioned, Milo was apart of the district known as Jerusalem, later divided to make Benton, 1803. From Benton, Milo was taken in 1818, and set up as a separate town.

The first settlers were members of the Universal Friends, squatting on lands of unknown ownership (1788), but later legally acquired. They located in what is now Torrey, but there were many others living in the town by the early 1800's. the designation of Penn Yan, one of the villages of Milo, as the county seat, was of great help to the town and greatly increased the population. While Penn Yan has jurisdiction over the town it is a separate entity with a government entirely apart from Milo. The other Milo villages are: Himrods, named after the founder of the first store, and the site of the first distillery in the region, 1794; Milo Center and Milo Second, both pleasant hamlets, located in the best of the agricultural lands of the town. The Keuka Outlet was the means of attracting the Friends to this region and here were the first grist and saw mills erected. At a dozen places along its banks mills of some sort have been built. The opening of a canal from Keuka to Seneca, in 1833, reduced the usable water, but was a benefit to the county at large in a time when transportation was a genuine problem. The canal was abandoned forty years later, about the time that the railroad ran its rails thorough this region. Many of the mills displacing those of the pioneers were fitted fro making paper. The population of Milo, 1920, was 5,817.

Penn Yan village, to which several references have been made, is the result of one of those happy accidents out of which sometimes important places develop. David Wagener bought the site but, dying in 1799, the property passed to his sons. The heritage consisted of 276 acres lying both north and south of the outlet of Lake Keuka. It has been bought for a farm, and the credit for turning it into a village belongs to Abraham Wagener. He it was who promoted a road from Canandaigua to Newtown (Elmira) and secured the establishment of a postoffice, of which he shortly after became postmaster. On the first day of a new century he "moved into town," occupying the first house in the future hamlet.

Morris F. Shepherd was another of the worthies who had much to do with the early growth of the village. He was a Pennsylvania man, one of the pioneers of the region. he started a tannery and a fulling mill. Then came Asa Cole, who erected a tavern, and the tine had come for the choosing of an appropriate name for the village that was now assured. Unfortunately the naming was the cause of trouble. Some wanted to call it Unionville; outsiders hearing of the squabble suggested Pandemonium. The Pennsylvanians , who were in the majority, wanted a name suggestive of that State; the New England element desired honor for their State. The compromise resulting shows in the name, Penn to please the first, and with the kee eliminated, Yan for the Yankees. Some thirty years after its birth the village was incorporated, April 29, 1833, and with the permission of the voters of Milo, the site was separated from the town. The village now occupies a much larger space than that originally set off. The population, in 1920, was 4,575. It is the manufacturing center, the only one worthy of the name, in the county, with forty factories. As the main borough in a grape section, quite naturally many of the articles made are those needed in this industry, such as baskets, wrapping paper, grape juice (wine formerly), canned and evaporated fruits, vegetables, and chemicals.

Benton town, originally a part of the district known as Jerusalem, did not have a separate existence until 1803. It was established as Vernon, but there being a town in Oneida County of the same name, the nomenclature was changed five years later to Snell, but was again altered to the present title, after the first settler in the limits of the town, Levi Benton. Later Milo and Torrey were taken from the area of Benton. Many of the first settlers of this town were of the Friends.

The villages, Benton Center, is not only the geographical center of the town, but is a center of its industrial life. The surrounding lands are planted in productive orchards and vineyards, and one of the occupations of the village is the evaporating of fruits. Ferguson's Corners, a hamlet, is also engaged in this line. Bellona is the largest of the three places, Population, town, 1,797.

Starkey, in the southeast corner of Yates, was not included in the county until 1824. Just when the first of its pioneers came, is not known but it is thought that a group of the Friends located here in 1798. It is wonderfully well located on Seneca lake, which forms the whole east boundary. There are a number of small stream, which, before the destruction of the forests, gave water power to the first colonists. The principal one of these, Big Stream, gave sufficient energy to drive twenty-six mills in the early days. It is as a fruit country that the town is now known, it growing nearly all the fruits, berries and grapes, in quantity, that can be grown in the State. On the shores of the Lake are the homes of a number of summer residents. There are several villages scattered through the district, among which are: Dundee, Starkey, Eddytown, Glenora and Rock Stream. Population, 2,382.

Jerusalem, the mother town of Yates, was organized in 1789, in Ontario County. Although most of its territory has been given for the making of other towns it is still the largest town in the county. It is exceedingly hilly, but this has fitted it better for the growing of grapes, which is its principal industry. Lake Keuka, "Crooked or Elbow Lake," makes its bend around the "Bluff," by which name the peninsula extending south into the lake is called. Red Jacket, the famous Seneca warrior and orator, claimed to have been born near the present town of Branchport, to whom the town erected a monument in 1891. The town was peculiarly the possession of the "Friend," who saw to it that none but those of her society should settle there, and who left her first location on Lake Seneca to build here the home in which she lived and died. The land was selected in 1791, clearings made the next year, and her house erected in 1794.

Branchport is the important village of Jerusalem, having been incorporated in 1876, one of the few incorporated boroughs of Yates. It became a trading post after 1831, when Judge Ellsworth set up a store at the intersection of two roads. A hotel was erected the next year and a school-house in 1868. In its factory section there is now a half dozen plants, the most of which are engaged in evaporating fruit. Other villages and hamlets are: Kinney's Corners, Bluff, Sherman Hollow and Yatesville, Population, 2,025.

Torrey, the youngest of the family of towns, was not born until the 14th of November, 1851. From the standpoint of settlement it ranks perhaps first, since the emissaries of the Friend came here in 1776, and in 1788 members of her society made their first settlement within the bounds of the present town, followed by the Friend herself two years later. One of the most historic places, and saddest, is the old cemetery of the Friends. It was meant to be simply the burial place for those who were residents of the new city they intended to found, Hopeton, but all that remains of the projected place is the graveyard. Dresden village is the mercantile and rural center of the town. Located on a broad plateau, overlooking Lake Seneca, and surrounded by some the most productive farm lands of the county, it might well have been the banner borough of Yates, had not its best sites been held at so high a price, that when there was a desire to erect the shire buildings in this locality, the cost of the land was too great of consider the wish. The village was incorporated July 16, 1867. Its present industries are mostly those connected with the evaporation of the fruit which grows in the town in great profusion.

Barrington town came into the county a year after Yates was erected, 1826. Previously, it had been a part of the town of Reading and Wayne. It is bounded on the west by Lake Keuka. Once the premier town in the county for general farming, when the railroad made it possible to ship perishables safely, its fitness to grapes was recognized and horticulture has displaced agriculture as the vocation of the people. The pioneer of the section was Jacob teepees, who located here in 1800. He was practically alone in the region for six years, when a number of New England families came to keep him company. One of the curiosities of the town is the medicinal spring discovered, in 1865, while boring for oil. A popular resort grew up around the spring, which even destructive fires did not discourage. The three post offices of Barrington are: Warsaw (Warrington), Crystal Springs and Crosby, Population, 822.

Potter, taken from Middlesex, was erected April 26, 1832. The first settlers came before 1800, but the isolated situation of the region made the development of the towns slow. Agriculture is the main industry. Rushville is the principal hamlet, lying partly in this town, with the greater part in Ontario County. Population, 1,200.

Middlesex was known as Augusta from 1797 until 1808. It is located in the west on Lake Canandaigua and vine Valley, is one of the finest grape sections in this grape county. The whole shore line was t one time a continuous vinery. Arnold Potter bought the land that now comprises the town, in 1789, and induced colonists to come and locate here the next year. Middlesex Center is the chief village of consequence. Population, 951.

Italy, in the extreme west corner of Yates, is the highest in altitude. The ruggedness of its surface has limited the agricultural development of it to the valleys. Italy Hollow is the only hamlet. Probably the most interesting historical fact about the town is that it had within its boundaries the "Big Elm," famous not only for its size, which was thirty feet in circumference, but because of the reputed council place of the Indians. Population, 731.


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

HTML by Debbie Axtman

You are the Visitor to this USGenNet Safe-Site™ Since September 5, 2004.


[Index][Book Index][NY][AHGP]