Chapter 05 - History of Wyoming County

CHAPTER V.

THE TITLE TO THE SOIL OF WESTERN NEW YORK - PHELPS AND GORHAM'S PURCHASE - MORRIS'S RESERVE.

NO topic better deserves a chapter of local history than the ownership of the soil at early periods, on which the present titles rest; and this is the proper point for a statement on this subject with relation to Wyoming county. "A memorial prepared by the Commissioners of Trade and Plantations in 1697, relating to the right of the crown of Great Britain to sovereignty over the Five

Nations of Indians bordering upon the province of New York," recites that those nations had " by many acknowledgments, submissions, leagues and agreements been united to or depended on that colony;" that they, " being the most warlike in those parts of the world, held all their neighboring Indians in a manner of tributary subjection;" that in prospect of an invasion of their territory in 1684 by De la Barre, governor of Canada, Governor Dongan of New York warned that French official " that those Indians are the King of England's subjects, and also sent the then Duke of York's [to whom the province had been granted by the crown] arms to be set up in every one of the Indians' castles, as far as Oneygra [Niagara], which was accordingly done and Mons. De la Barre retired."

Governor Tryon, in 1774, in a "report on the province of New York," said:

"The boundaries of the province of New York are derived from two sources: first, the grants from King Charles the Second to his brother James, Duke of York; secondly, from the submission and subjection of the Five Nations to the crown of England. It is uncertain to this day to what extent the Five Nations carried their claim to the westward and northward, but there is no doubt that it went to the north beyond the 45th degree of latitude, and westward to Lake Huron, their beaver hunting country being bounded to the west by that lake; which country the Five Nations, by treaty with the governor of this province at Albany, in 1701, surrendered to the crown, to be protected and defended for them."

Such was the foundation of the English claim to sovereignty over the territory of the Iroquois. They themselves never recognized the claim in the sense in which it was put forth, and the French always denied and scoffed at it; but the British government had the power to maintain it, and up to the Revolution continued to assert it.

The encroachment of the whites upon the territory of the Iroquois gave the latter great uneasiness, to allay which a very numerously attended council was held with them at Fort Stanwix (Rome) in 1768, to agree on a line beyond which settlements should not be permitted. The line decided upon in the State of New York "ran along the eastern border of Broome and Chenango counties, and thence northwestward to a point seven miles west of Rome."

The close of the Revolution left the hostile Iroquois unprovided for by their British employers and at the mercy of the United States. Conquered after waging a long, bloody and destructive warfare against the patriots of New York, they had forfeited their territory and would have had little cause of complaint had they been dispossessed. The government, however, thought it wise to deal generously with them; and in a council held on the site of Rome in 1784 recognized their continued ownership of the land between the line agreed on at the same place sixteen years before, and one beginning at Lake Ontario four miles east of the Niagara river, running southward parallel with the river to Buffalo creek, thence still southward to the Pennsylvania line and following that to the Ohio river. All of New York west of this second line seems also to have been subsequently conceded to the Indians except a mile strip along the Niagara.

Every reader of English colonial history knows how ignorantly or carelessly grants of American territory were made by the crown to individuals and companies, the same tracts being in some instances given at different times to different parties, laying the foundation of conflicting claims. Thus the province of New York, when granted to the Duke of York in 1664, covered part of Massachusetts as denned by the charter given to the Plymouth Company in 1620. The territory of both provinces under their charters also extended indefinitely westward; but New York, in 1781, and Massachusetts, four years later, relinquished to the United States their claims beyond the present western boundary of this State, and Massachusetts contented herself with claiming that portion of New York west of the meridian which now forms the eastern line of Ontario and Steuben counties - some 19,000 square miles, New York of course also asserted jurisdiction and ownership of this vast tract.

The dispute was compromised by a convention of commissioners from the two States, held at Hartford in December, 1786. It was agreed that the sovereignty of the disputed region should remain with New York, and the ownership with Massachusetts, subject to the Indian proprietorship, which had been recognized by the general government. "That is to say, the Indians could hold the land as long as they pleased, but were only allowed to sell to the State of Massachusetts or her assigns." The meridian bounding the Massachusetts claim on the east was called the "pre-emption line," because it was decided to allow that State the right of pre-emption, or first purchase, of the land west of it There was one exception: New York retained the ownership as well as the sovereignty of a strip a mile wide along the Niagara river.

In 1788 the State of Massachusetts sold to Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, two of its citizens, and to others for whom they acted, its pre-emption right to western New York for $1,000,000, to be paid in three annual installments, in certain securities of the State, which were then worth about one-fifth of their face. The next thing with these gentlemen was to complete the title by buying the Indian interest. For this purpose Phelps held a council with the Iroquois at Buffalo early in July, 1788, and bought, for $5,000 down and a perpetual annuity of $500, about 2,600,000 acres, bounded on the east by the preemption line. Part of the western boundary was a meridian from Pennsylvania to the junction of Canaseraga creek with the Genesee river (being the line forming the western boundary of the eastern tier of towns in Allegany county). Thence northward the line followed the course of the Genesee "to a point two miles north of Canawagus village; thence running due west twelve miles; thence running northwardly so as to be twelve miles distant from the western bounds of said river, to the shores of Lake Ontario." The tract thus defined constituted the famous "Phelps and Gorham's Purchase."

In securing their vast estate Phelps, Gorham and company encountered the opposition of a set of land sharks who also had a covetous eye upon this magnificent domain. These were the capitalists forming the New York and Genesee Land Company, engineered by one John Livingston; and its branch the Niagara-Genesee Company, headed by Colonel John Butler, and consisting almost entirely of Canadians. As we have seen, the Indians were barred from selling their lands except to Massachusetts or her assigns.

Butler, Livingston and their associates proposed to get possession of them by a long lease; hence they are spoken of as the "lessee companies." Chiefly through the influence of Butler they obtained from part of the Iroquois chiefs and sachems a nine hundred-and-ninety-nine years' lease of most of their territory for $20,000, and an annual rent of $2,000. Their scheme fell through, the Legislatures of New York and Massachusetts declaring a lease of that length equivalent to a purchase, and as such null and void. Butler, however, profited by the purchase of Phelps and Gorham. He was one of the three to whom the Indians referred the question of the price they should charge those gentlemen, and is said to have had 20,000 acres placed at his disposal by the purchasers in consideration of the advice he gave the confiding red men. The " lessees " continued their intrigues until they succeeded, in 1793, in getting from the Legislature a grant of one hundred square miles east of the pre-emption line, instead of obtaining twenty thousand miles and founding a new State, as there is reason to suppose the Niagara-Genesee Company, at least, intended, with the cooperation of the Senecas, whom Butler and other Canadian officials were always embittering against the people of New York.

Before Phelps and Gorham had half paid for the entire pre-emption right they had bought from Massachusetts, the securities of that State, in consequence of the adoption of the Federal Constitution, had risen nearly to par: and finding that they should be unable to fulfill their contract they induced the State to resume its right to the portion of its original New York claim which they had not yet bought of the Indians, and release them from their contract as to that part, leaving on their hands the tract since called Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, and bounded as above described. This agreement was reached on the 10th of March, 1791.

Two days later. Robert Morris, the illustrious financier, whose services were of such vital importance to the nation during the Revolution, contracted with Massachusetts for the pre-emption right to all of New York west of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase. About this time he also bought 1,264,000 acres of Phelps and Gorham (paying ,£30,000 in New York currency), which he soon sold to three English gentlemen, Sir William Pultney, John Hornby and Patrick Colquhoun, for ,£35,000 sterling. It was only after much difficulty and delay that Mr. Morris completed his title to the tract of which he had purchased the pre-emption right from Massachusetts. It was necessary to buy out the interest of the Indians, and this was accomplished by a council at Geneseo in September, 1797, when he was enabled to purchase all of the State west of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, except that the Indians retained eleven reservations, amounting to about three hundred and thirty-eight square miles; among them the Gardeau reservation, elsewhere spoken of, a part of which was included in the present town of Castile.

It was by his speeches in the councils affecting the title to the lands of western New York that the Seneca chief Red Jacket came into prominence. He figures in history as a crafty demagogue, vain, ambitious and dishonest; a coward in war and a sot in peace; chiefly noted for his harangues against parting with the lands of the Seneca nation, and the bitterness he usually manifested against the power by whose grace alone the nation had any lands after the Revolution.

The conveyance from Massachusetts to Mr. Morris was made May nth, 1791, by five deeds. The first covered the land between Phelps and Gorham's Purchase and a line beginning twelve miles west of theirs on the Pennsylvania border and running due north to Lake Ontario. The next three embraced as many sixteen-mile strips crossing the State north and south, and the fifth what remained to the westward of these.

The tract covered by the first mentioned deed was what has been called " Morris's Reserve/' from the fact that he retained the disposition of this section in his own hands when he subsequently sold all west of it. It included in Wyoming county the eastern tier of towns. He sold the reserve in large tracts, though small as compared with his purchase. Its western boundary, separating it from the Holland Purchase, was the "east transit " line, so called because it was run with a transit instrument in connection with astronomical observations, the variation of the magnetic needle disqualifying the surveyor's compass for running a meridian line. It is called the "east" transit to distinguish it from a similarly surveyed meridian passing through Lockport, which is called the "west " transit. The laying down of this line was a slow and laborious operation. It involved nothing less than felling a strip of timber three or four rods wide most of the way across the State, to give unobstructed range to the miniature telescope of the transit. This required, beside three surveyors, a considerable force of axmen. On most of the line all hands camped where night overtook them in the unbroken wilderness. All of the summer and autumn of 1798 was consumed in running the first eighty miles of the transit meridian, there being about thirteen miles remaining undone on the a and of November.

The surveyor in charge of this work was Joseph Ellicott. He was born in Bucks county, Pennsylvania, in 1756. In 1770 the family removed to Maryland and founded Ellicott's Mills on the Patapsco river. Joseph was taught surveying by his brother Andrew, who was afterward surveyor-general of the United States and professor of mathematics at West Point. He assisted the latter in laying out the city of Washington, and in 1791 surveyed the boundary line between the State of Georgia 'and the Creek Indian lands. The remaining years of his business career were chiefly spent in the service of the Holland Land Company, so called. His intimate connection, in this capacity, with the history of western New York is thus summed up by the historian of the Holland Purchase:

"No man has ever, perhaps, been so closely identified with the history of any region as he is with the history of the Holland Purchase. He was not only the land agent, superintending from the start surveys and settlement, exercising locally a one-man power and influence; but for a long period he was far more than this. In all the early years of settlement, especially in all things having reference to the organization of towns, counties, erection of public buildings, the laying out of roads, the establishment of postoffices - in all that related to the convenience and prosperity of the region over which his agency extended - he occupied a prominent position, a close identity, that few if any patrons of new settlements have ever attained."

SOURCE:  History of Wyoming County, N.Y., with Illustrations, Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Some Pioneers and Prominent Residents; F. W. Beers & Co.; 1880