The Pioneer History of
 Orleans County, NY
Pioneer Association 

By Arad Thomas

Online Edition by Holice & Deb

 

 ORLEANS COUNTY PIONEER ASSOCIATION.

This association was organized June, 1859. Its members are persons who at any time previous to January, 1826, were residents of Western New York, who sign its Constitution. The objects of the Association, as contained in its constitution, are to promote social intercourse by meeting together statedly, in order to preserve and perpetuate the remembrance of interesting facts connected with the early history of the settlement of Orleans County and its vicinity. The annual meetings are held at the Court House, in Albion, on the third Saturday in June.

It has been an object of the Association to collect and preserve as much of the history of the early settlement of Orleans county as possible,. The local history of many of the early pioneers has been obtained and written our in books kept for that purpose, and several photograph albums have been filled with the pictures of men and women who came here at an early day.

At these yearly gatherings, and at occasional special meetings held from time to time in various places in the county, the old people are accustomed to meet together and recount their adventures while subduing the wilderness, and have a good time generally.

It is intended to obtain as much of such history of "'ye olden time" as possible, and when the actors in these old scenes are no more, and the last of the log houses shall exist only in the memory and records of the times gone by, then these old manuscripts and relics, laid up in some public depository, shall remain for the information of posterity of the things that were here, memories of the hardships, labors and privations of the pioneers of Orleans County.

ADDRESS.

DELIVERED BEFORE THE ORLEANS COUNTY PIONEER ASSOCIATION,
SEPT. 10TH, 1859.

BY ARAD THOMAS.

Mr. President, and Members of the Orleans County Pioneer Association:--

In discharging the pleasant duty of addressing you on the present occasion, I am desirous to devote my thoughts to the consideration of topics kindred to the sentiments which led to the formation of this association.

This seems no fit time to indulge in abstruse speculations, or idle rhetoric. I address a practical company,--men who have been trained to meet the stern realities of life, and accomplish their destiny with unflinching labor; and having achieved a good work, well may they enjoy the triumph its affords. Let us then contemplate the past, and learn wisdom for the future.

A stranger, who now for the first time should come into our country, judging from appearances, would be apt to think this an old settlement, where generation after generation of men had lived and died, and where their accumulated labor had been expended upon those works of enlightened civilization which cover the land. But we now scarce fifty years since the first acre of this territory was cleared of its native forests, and the men are now living who recollect when here was nothing but a dark, unbroken wilderness.

Many of the first settlers of this county have passed away from among the living. Others following in the tide of emigration are now inhabitants of some Western States. A few survivors and representatives of a generation rapidly passing away, remain quiet possessors of the soil their hands first subjected to cultivation, and today they have assembled to talk over the trials and privations, the hardships and the sufferings, the varied events of fortune, prosperous and adverse, which have fallen to their lot since first they came into this country.

The occasion is replete with interest to us all. To the aged veterans, it brings up memories of events, which in passing thrilled their hearts with intensest emotion.

To the more youthful spectator it affords encouragement to labor, in view of these examples of success over every opposition, obtained by resolute and continued exertion. And to us all, it shows convincing proofs that honest and laudable industry will reap its rewards in due time.

Our theme embraces the consideration of subjects connected with the early settlement of Orleans county. In tracing the history of mankind in their migrations since their memorable dispersion on the plains of Shinar, we find a variety of causes which have impelled men to remove from the places of their nativity. The venerable founder of the Jewish nation went down to Egypt to save his family from death by famine, and his descendants came out of Egypt to save themselves from a terrible bondage.

The builders of ancient Rome were the scattered fragments of various nations who assembled there as to a common asylum for outcasts from everywhere, and raised their walls for mutual protection and support; and by encouraging immigration from board, and the gradual accretion of power by treaty, and conquest of foreign nations, in time the became the mightiest empire on earth, in their turn to be overrun by swarms from the northern hive, who, deserting their inhospitable homes, came down with all their movable possession, by fire and sword, to drive out the inhabitant of the fair provinces of Italy, and give themselves a better land.

The Spaniards who first settled in America, were attracted there by their cupidity for gold. And the ranks of the settlers inmost new countries have been swelled by adventurers who had been obliged to leave their native land to escape the consequences of their crimes.

A nobler impulse prompted our ancestors in their migrations from Europe.

The discovery of America, the invention of printing, and the Protestant Reformation had roused the minds of the most intelligent nations of the world to a more exalted sense of the value of liberty, and a keen perception of those natural and inalienable rights of conscience which form the richest possession of a free people. Persecuted for conscience sake in their native country, England, they had borne for years the cruel oppression which religious intolerance and political tyranny forced upon them there, with christian endurance, till overcome by suffering too grievous to be borne, and hopeless of relief, they solemnly withdrew their birth, to Holland, where, some years after they formed and carried our the resolution to emigrate to America, there, under the protection of the King of England, they thought to worship God in peace, as they believed to be right.

Piety and love of liberty furnished them sufficient motives for removal, and armed them with fortitude required to meet the perils and hardships of their new home.

With all proper admiration which we ought to feel for the early New England Puritans, the ancestors of so many of those who hear me, we may admit they had their failings. In the austerity of their faith they often forgot the mild spirit of charity which pervades the gospel they revered, and in the ardor of their zeal they made and sought to enforce laws of great severity against those professing religious beliefs at variance with the dogmas of their stern creed, and punished and persecuted with a strange infatuation, those charged with the crime of witchcraft.

Bit in reviewing this portion of the history of our forefathers, we should remember not to judge them by the lights of the present age, Toleration to faith and worship, contrary to the forms declared by the civil government for a thousand years, had then not been known in Europe, and the opinion of good men had before them always been, that such religious freedom would destroy the best institutions of society. A belief in witchcraft was as old as history itself, and was a common superstition of the times. The excellent and pious Baxter held the existence of witches as certain as the punishment of the wicked, and the great and good Sir Matthew Hale, that able judge, and profound luminary of the law, believed in witchcraft as sincerely as did Cotton Mather.

The superstitions of the dark ages were then entertained by the most enlightened and liberal minded men everywhere, and it would be requiring too much, to expect our forefathers to have freed themselves from opinions we may deem absurd, but which up to that time, and by all other men then, were held worthy of acceptation.

I know we are sometimes charged with using extravagant eulogium in speaking of the New England Puritans of the olden time. But making due allowance for this eccentricities of character and conduct, resulting from circumstances with which they stood connected, we may look in vain to find in the early history of any other people, such noble patriotism, fervent piety, sound wisdom, and incorruptible honesty as in the case before us.

They had all been trained in the same school of adversity, and possessed in a wonderful degree identity of sentiment, sympathy and character in all their conduct and opinions which impressed itself upon all their laws, their individual and social arrangements, and upon every institution and action which found place among them.

Inflexible and steadfast in their cherished principles, they trained their children in the faith and practices of their fathers, and the combined influence of such faith and works, we may bee in their effects upon the energy and enterprise, the love of liberty, the respect for low and order, good morals, religion, learning and true patriotism, which, inspired by such examples, has ever distinguished their descendants down through the period of more than two hundred years.

We need not sounding eulogy or words of windy panegyric to prove the value of New England intelligence, integrity and power, in moulding and guiding the riding destinies of our country. The wisdom of her statesmen, the heroism of her soldiers, and the spirit and conduct of her people, secured our national independence, and established our national federation of independent States upon the broad basis of constitutional liberty. And even up top now this element has always been prominent, I had almost said controlling, in the legislation of most of the States, and at Washington.

A few years since some curious individual ascertained on enquiry, that thirty-six of the members of the two Houses of Congress, then in session, were born in the single State of Connecticut.

In the language of Mr. Malthus, a man coming up to take upon himself his place, and the responsibility of life, finds no cover laid for him on nature's table, and he goes out to spread a table for himself where he deems the prospect most inviting. The rich treasures of experience and wisdom, and the abundant stores of material good things the past has garnered up, afford him capital with which to workout the fulfillment of his own and his country's hopes.

These magnificent results of the skill and enterprise of the present day, are only other phases and demonstrations of the same spirit which led to the first settlement in America, and which has attended every step of our progress since, as well exemplified in the resolution of the solitary emigrants who sets his stake in the wilderness and determines there to dig up for himself a farm, as in that mightier work of a statesman, or a nation, which makes a canal or a railroad across a continent, lays a telegraph wire across an ocean, or solves the deepest problem of state policy for the world.

Soon after the revolutionary war had ended, the settlements in New England were extended over the principal part of those States suitable for tillage, and multitudes of their active and adventurous young men went out to seek their fortunes among the borderers who were pushing the bounds of civilization and improvement back into the new territories, skirting the old Atlantic States upon the West.

A large majority of the first settlers of Orleans County were either emigrants from New England, or descended from the Puritan stock, who traced their origin back to those who, in December, 1620, landed from the Mayflower upon Plymouth Rock. It is admitted that as a class they were poor but honest, possessing strong moral convictions, of effective force of intellect and will, they determined top plant and grow up the institutions of religion, order and civilization in this wilderness, such as prevailed in their New England homes. Such views, habits, and purposes, characterized the emigrants who first settled Western New York. Here was not the hiding place of a population of whom it might justly be said they had left the homes of their youth as a measure of prudent care for their personal safety, or from a kind regard for the good the place they had left. Neither did they come here to buy choice lots and leave them till the toil of others on adjoining farms should add value to their purchases. Here were few non-resident land holders at an early day.

The Holland Land Company had purchased the Western part of the State of new York, bounded on the east by a line extending north from Pennsylvania to Lake Ontario, known as the Transit Line

Before the last war with Great Britain, a portion of this tract which has been distinguished as the Holland Purchase, had been surveyed by the Company and offered for sale to settlers. The wonderful fertility of the Genesee Country had been reported abroad, and before the war a few emigrants had begun to make their homes among the heavy forests which covered this country, some of whom had located themselves in what is now Orleans County.

The possibility of such a work as the Erie Canal had not then entered the great mind of Dewitt Clinton, or been dreamed of even by the great men of that day.

The most favorable means in prospect, then far in the future, for communicating with the old settlements at the east, was by wagons on the highways, or boats down the Mohawk or St. Lawrence. But the pioneer settlers of the Holland Purchase belonged to a bold and fearless race, who did not stop to enquire whether the trail of civilization had extended to the new country, by which they could retreat with ease and safety to the homes of their fathers, if life in the woods should happen to prove incongenial to their tastes. They expected to overcome the formidable obstacles before them by their own strong arms and stout hearts. They knew that wealth was in their farms, not perhaps in the shape of golden nuggets, suit as fire the imagination of emigrant to Pile's Peak, or the other El Dorados of the West, but in the golden produce of well tilled fields, which honest hard work was sure to raise in abundance in time to come, and they meant to have it.

It is really not as great an undertaking for the emigrant, who at this day goes forth from the Atlantic States, to settle in Kansas or California, as it was fifty years ago to make a settlement in Western New York. Railroads and telegraphs have made communication easy and rapid between places most distant, and modern improvements in the economy and arts of domestic life are such, that most of the necessaries and comforts enjoyed by residents of older town can readily be procured everywhere.

The farmer who located on a prairie at the West, begins his work by plowing the primitive sod, and the next year he reaps his crop and find his field as clean and mellow as plow land along the Connecticut river, and he can sell his products fro almost New York prices. But beginning a farm on the Holland Purchase, fifty years ago, was quite a different business.

Indeed, we who have not learned by experience, can hardly imagine the obstacles and difficulties to be surmounted by the first settlers of Orleans County. Roads from Albany, westward, were bad; merchants and mechanics had not yet arrived. A dense and heavy forest of hard, huge trees covered the land, to be felled and cleared away before the plow of the farmer could turn up the genial soil. Pestilential fevers racked the nerves and prostrated the vigor of the stoutest, as well as the weakest among them. The ague, that pest indigenous to all new counties, came up from every clearing, usually in the best days of summer, to seize upon the settler, his wife and children, some or all of them, and shake out all their strength and energy.

Though the noblest timber trees for this building existed in troublesome abundance, sawmills had not then been erected.

Though their land produced the finest of wheat whenever it could be sown, it cost more than its market price to take it to the distant grist mills to be ground. Sales of farm produce were limited to home consumption.

Before the War of 1812, but few settlers had located in Orleans county.

From Canandaigua to Lewiston, along the Ridge Road, and from the mouth of Oak orchard Creek, along an Indian Trial to Batavia, the trees had principally been cut wide enough for a highway. A few log cabins had been erected, and the sturdy emigrants had begun by felling the trees to open little patches of cleared and around their dwellings to form the nucleus of their farms.

War was declared. The regular pursuits of peaceful industry were broken up. The settler eas summoned to become a soldier, and at the call of his country, at times almost every able-bodied men in the settlement was away in the ranks of the army, leaving their scattered, unprotected families to risk the chances of hostile forays of the enemy, often threatened from the west along the lake. The courage and psirit of the women of those days was equal to the best examples to be found in American border warfare. Neither the frightful rumors of the massacre of their husbands and brothers in the fight, or the terrible announcements that the Indians, with murder and pillage, were sweeping down the Ridge Road or coming up the Creek, could drive them to abandon the homes they had chosen in the woods, or make them turn a point from the performance of what their duty required.

Perhaps the gloomiest time in the experience of the pioneers was during and after the war, before the commencement of work on the Erie Canal. Considerable wheat was annually grown, but beyond what the farmed wanted for his own consumption it was of little value, bearing a nominal price of about twenty-five cents a bushel.

A kind of crude potash, made by leaching wood ashes, and known as "black salts," was almost the only product which brought money, and became, in fact, almost a lawful tender for value in trade, and this had to be taken to market for miles upon ox sleds or hand sleds, or on the backs of the makers, through woods and swamps, following a line of marked trees. After the war, came the memorable cold seasons of 1816-17. About these years, a contemporary says "from half to two-thirds of all the people were down sick in the summer time."

Without a supply of physician or nurses, or medicines, or even bread, how were such sick men to secure their crops or clear their land, endure storm, and want, and trouble and distress, which beset them at every turn? Surely nothing but an iron will which no impediment could break or bend, an abiding faith and hope which no disasters or discouragement could overcome or crush out, sustained them through these dark days. Like heroes of another time, "through the thick gloom of the present, they beheld the brightness of the future." And they struggled on.

It has been playfully said that you may place a Yankee in the woods with an ax, an augur, and a knife. his only tools, and with the trees his only material for use, and he will build a palace, if need be, wanting perhaps in the finish which other tools, and the aid of iron trimmings, nails and glass would afford, but possessing the substantial requisites of conveniences, and fitness and strength.

The first houses built in this county, proved almost literally the truth of this remark. They were the swelling places of the best families in the land, made by their owners, where the latch string was always out at the call of the stranger, and the best of their plain and scanty store was always generously shared with the weary and destitute, whoever he might be.

The builders and occupants of those rude tenements were then probably poor, as an well be imagined, sick and suffering, with none of the luxuries, and few even of the necessaries of their former experience, but withal contented and happy.

How often do we hear these persons, now occupying their noble mansions, fitted and furnished and adorned with all the elegance and profusion which the abundant means of their owners, and the taste and fashion of the times command, refer to the little, old log cabin first built upon their farm, and count their residence there the happiest in their lives. These buildings belong to the time gone by, and the last of the log houses will soon have gone down with their builders to that destruction which awaits all things earthly

For some years none new have been erected in this county, and but rarely now can the traveler see one left standing in dilapidated humility behind the great new house, maintaining to the last its character for usefulness, as a shelter for the grind stone, the sale barrel, the swill tub, the work bench, and al the hand tools there carefully treasured up for use on the extensive domain of their wealthy owner.

Among these primitive settlers, the advent of a new family to locate among them, was an occasion of joy through the town. the acquaintances of the strangers was promptly sought, a cordial welcome extended, and the more material aid of all the force in the neighborhood, kindly volunteered to help the new comer roll the logs to begin his clearing, or pile them into the walls of his cabin home. Such friendly feeling prevailed in all their social affairs. Relations of acquaintance and friendship were sustained between all the families for miles around, and no distinctions of wealth or party, sect or condition were known.

It is true no such visionary scheme of community of goods, as was attempted by the old Plymouth colony, or by the Fourierites of a later day. With all its attendant idleness and discontent obtained among them, but a most generous spirit to lend to their character. They were not speculators who entered upon the land to secure a title, trusting by a fortunate sale, or by the rise in the market price to derive large profits on their investment. The fever for land speculation had not then set in.

The policy of the Holland company was to get their lands taken up and occupied as fast as possible. With this in view they gave contract for deeds of conveyance on payment of a small portion of the purchase money, giving the purchaser some years of credit in which to pay the residue. This policy bro't in settlers, and the liberality of the company in extending contracts where prompt payment could not be made, kept them on their lots.

A portion, whoever, of the first inhabitants of this county, like a portion of the first inhabitants in every new settlement, became charmed with their life of vicissitude and hardship, and the varied advantages of pioneer settlement, and soon as the farms were mostly taken up and occupied, and the progress of cultivation had driven away the game and introduced in some degree the order of civilized society, they became uneasy and discontented, and longer for the freedom and excitements of wilder life on the border. Like Cooper's hero, "Leather Stocking," they would "get lost among the clearings," and moved to the West to begin again in the forests of Michigan or Ohio.

To those who remained and labored on through every affliction and discouragement, using such means as their own sagacity and industry afforded them to assist their efforts, we are indebted for such successful results as we now see.

And I may repeat, what but an intelligent and confiding hope in "the good time coming," could have sustained these men under all discouragements they endured?

What but that indomitable spirit of the race, which never falters at perils or hindrances in the way when a desirable object is to be gained, under the wise ordering of a mysterious good providence, nerved them for their work, and cheered them on to its successful accomplishment?

In ardent imagination the young emigrants, who had selected and contracted for his farm, looked over his future abode and traced the boundaries of orchard and meadow, and pasture, and plain, and saw the shadowy outlines of his houses and his barns, his fences and his fields, looming into being where then the gray old trees stood in solemn grandeur, the sturdy sentinels of nature for centuries keeping watch over the primitive wilderness. He saw in vision of the future his crops of waving corn and his granaries bursting out with plenty, and himself the happy possessor of a home blessed with comforts and luxuries of life in abundance, and seizing his ax, then perhaps his only chattel, he went top work with a will, to prove the scene his fancy had portrayed.

It is a remarkable fact that the English settlements in America were in the main first made at points the most inhospitable and uninviting, thus bringing every part of the country to be settled and improved. The Puritans, who came over in the Mayflower, intended to have gone to Virginia, but through the treachery of the captain of their ship, as some assert, they were landed at Plymouth.

The first emigrant westward from New England, located in the forests of New York, Michigan and Ohio, because they came from a forest country and were not afraid of the woods, and because they could not get to the fertile prairies of the West. There were no roads by land, and no communication by water to these beautiful territories. They were compelled by necessity to clear up and settle the country as they went through it.

Had the Puritans reached their intended destination in the sunny South, and located along those noble rivers and fertile plains, they would never have removed to the hard, cold, ironbound, hills of New England. When then would New England have been settled? Never by emigrants from the West. And had the southern and middle States been first settled, and the application of steam to motive machinery been made, and the railroad and the telegraph and the knowledge of the useful arts we now possess been known 200 years ago, main, new Hampshire, and Vermont, would be to-day like parts of Lower Canada, a vast and dreary wilderness, and a such to remain until the more inviting regions of the West had all been settled. And had railroads and telegraphs, and steam power, as now used, been known even fifty years ago, I fancy some of these venerable pioneers would be now rejoicing in homes made happy upon the banks of the Missouri, or perhaps west of the rocky Mountains.

The Pioneer History of Orleans County, NY, By Arad Thomas

 

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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