History of Ontario Co. & Its People

Vol. 1, Pub. 1911  Pg.  62 - 70

Thanks to Deborah Spencer for transcription of these pages.

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VI.  ONTARIO’S FIRST HALF CENTURY 

Her Politics and Politicians--Early Elections--Snap Methods--Ontario Firm in the Federalist Faith--The County’s Representation in Congress and the Legislature--Succession of County Officers--Oliver Phelps a Candidate for Lieutenant-Governor.

 

The first settlement of Canandaigua was cotemporaneous with the adoption of the Federal constitution, in 1788.  Ontario county was erected January 27, 1789.  So that the county’s first half century was practically the first half of the 19th century. 

In times of political quiet, when the affairs of government move on in the even tenor of their way, and turn upon questions of personal or party interest, the words and acts of men in each center of population are but the reflex of those prominent in the public eye as leaders.  This was especially true of the political history of the earlier part of the period under consideration.  Parties had names, it is true, in those days, but they had no organization, and they represented persons rather than principles.  The politicians were Clintonians, Lewisites, Burrites, of Jeffersonians, more than they were Federalists or Republicans. 

The restrictions on suffrage gave only a part of the people the right to vote, and but few of those having the right cared to exercise it.  Only one voter in five reported at the polls at the first elections in the State, as compared with over 90%, at our recent elections.  The simple but efficient system of caucuses and conventions which now enables every voter to exercise an influence, however distant it may sometimes seem, upon the naming of candidates and the enunciating of party principles, had no counterpart in those days.  Nominations to Congress or the State Assembly were made by the candidates themselves, or by open conventions or “respectable meetings” of such electors as cared to attend.  Nominations to the Governorship were left to members of the Legislature to make, or to coteries of politicians at the State capital, like the famous “Albany Regency.”  It could not well be otherwise.  Means of communication were few.  Travel was slow, difficult, and expensive.  It took longer to go from Canandaigua to Albany than it does now to cross the continent. 

Moreover, there were no contests over county officers in the earlier part of the period.  Beyond the election of town officers, members of Assembly, and members of Congress, even the select few who had the right to vote had no voice.  All the rest was managed at Albany--even to the vote of the State for candidates for President.  The voters generally did not have the privilege to vote for presidential electors until 1825. 

From the time of the adoption of the State constitution until the first general revision of that instrument in 1821, the appointment of all State officers except Governor, and for a part of the time Lieutenant-Governor, and of all city and county officers, was in the hands of a Council of Appointment named by the Assembly from the members of the State Senate.  Even auctioneers received their authority to do business from the Council.  This powerful body was often at variance with the Governor, and it used its power unblushingly to reward friends or punish enemies of the dominant faction in the Legislature. 

As often as the Assembly changed its political complexion, from Clintonian to Federalist, or from Burrite to Lewisite, or vice versa, so often was every important public office in the State, and some that were not so important, changed.  So it came about, for instance, that Peter B. PORTER was summarily removed from the office of clerk of Ontario county in 1804, on account of his friendship for Colonel BURR, then just defeated of election for Governor.  Mr. PORTER’s successor was Sylvester TIFFANY, a good Morgan LEWIS Republican, but evidently a poor speller.  At least the Ontario Repository of that date records the fact that protests had been signed and forwarded to Albany against his appointment as one which disgraced the county, and in a published address to the appointee, the BURR organ advised him to learn how to spell his own name before entering upon the duties of office.  It added: 

“Know then, Clerk of Ontario, that the way to spell your Christian name is S-y-l-v-e-s-t-e-r, and not S-i-l-v-e-s-t-e-r, as you like a blockhead, write it.”

But it must not be hastily concluded that because political control was confined so exclusively to the savants at Albany, Ontario county had no politicians in the days when it embraced all of Western New York from Geneva to the Niagara river. 

The founders of the settlement and the organizers of the county were doubtless Federalists.  All patriots recognized in those days the leadership of President WASHINGTON in national affairs, but the party in power at Albany was often in opposition to those who carried the same name at Washington, and when the State was rent in twain, as it was early in the century by the contentions of Alexander HAMILTON and John JAY, on one side, and Governor George CLINTON, who had up to that time retained the office of chief magistrate unopposed, on the other side, the echoes at least must have reached the “folks in the woods” of Ontario county.  But pictures of early politics must do without much local color.  We cannot tell even to which party or faction some of the first office holders belonged. 

The first political incident of note of which we have record as occurring in Ontario county, grew out of the fact that although not entitled by its population to representation in the State legislature at so early a period, the county by a special act was given this right in 1791.  The fact was not known in Canandaigua or Geneva, but the politicians of a small settlement in what is now Steuben county, obtained possession of the secret, and, with an appreciation of the possibilities of snap methods not surpassed by their descendants, gathered a few backwoodsmen, went through the form of an election, and cast their votes for Col. Eleasor LINDSLEY, of that settlement, for the office of Member of Assembly.

The proceeding may have been somewhat irregular, but no one contested, and Mr. LINDSLEY took his seat.  The year following, the people of the county, being awake to their rights, elected General Israel CHAPIN of Canandaigua to represent them at Albany. 

Their chief political interest of those days naturally centered about the election of Members of Assembly, for as we have seen, it was the office through which alone the voters could express their will, though ever so indirectly, as to State politics or as to appointments to office, but the incident related is about the only knowledge we have of the recurring contests, except that contained in the list of incumbents of office.  Even the local papers, so far as can be judged from the defective files remaining, throw little light on the subject. 

General CHAPIN was succeeded in the Assembly by Thomas MORRIS, of Canandaigua, he by Lemuel CHIPMAN, of Pittstown (now Honeoye), and Charles WILLIAMSON, of Bath; and among those elected in the following years were Amos HALL, of Canandaigua; Nathaniel NORTON, of Bloomfield; Peter B. PORTER, Augustus PORTER, and Thaddeus CHAPIN, of Canandaigua; Polydore B. WISNER, of Seneca; Daniel W. LEWIS, of Seneca; Philetus SWIFT, of Phelps; William RUMSEY, of Bath; Gideon PITTS, of Honeoye; Israel CHAPIN, Jr., and Reuben HART, of Canandaigua; Myron HOLLEY, Phineas P. BATES, and John C. SPENCER, of Canandaigua; Bowen WHITING, of Geneva; Francis GRANGER and Walter HUBBELL, of Canandaigua; John DICKSON, of West Bloomfield; Oliver PHELPS and Mark H. SIBLEY, of Canandaigua;

Henry PARDEE, of Victor; Henry W. TAYLOR, of Canandaigua; Jonathan BUELL, Timothy BUELL, and Josiah PORTER, of East Bloomfield; Alvah WORDEN, of Canandaigua; Lorenzo CLARK and Emory B. POTTLE, of Naples. 

In the office of clerk, Nathaniel GORHAM was succeeded by John WICKHAM, Peter B. PORTER, Sylvester TIFFANY, James B. MOWER, Myron HOLLEY, Hugh McNAIR, John VanFOSSEN, Gavin L. NICHOLAS, Ralph LESTER, Charles CRANE, John L. DOX, Thomas HALL, Alexander H. HOWELL and Reuben MURRAY, Jr. 

Judah COLT, the first sheriff, was succeeded by Nathaniel NORTON, Roger SPRAGUE, Benjamin BARTON, Stephen BATES, James R. GURNSEY, James REES, Wm. SHEPARD, Nathaniel ALLEN, Phineas P. BATES, Samuel LAWRENCE, Joseph GARLINGHOUSE, Jonathan BUELL, Jonas M. WHEELER, Myron H. CLARK, John LAMPORT, Eri DENSMORE, Phineas KENT, and William H. LAMPORT. 

Oliver PHELPS, the first county judge, was succeeded by Timothy HOSMER, John NICHOLAS, Nathaniel W. HOWELL, Bowen WHITING, Charles J. FOLGER, E. Fitch SMITH and Mark H. SIBLEY. 

The surrogates were John COOPER, Samuel MELLISH, Israel CHAPIN, Jr., Amos HALL, Dudley SALTONSTALL, Reuben HART, Eliphalet TAYLOR, Stephen PHELPS, Ira SELBY, Jared WILSON, Orson BENJAMIN, and George R. PARBURT. 

The first district attorney was John C. SPENCER.  He was followed by Abraham P. VOSBURG, Bowen WHITING, Henry F. PENFIELD,

George W. CLINTON, Nathan PARKE, Thomas M. HOWELL, Barzillai SLOSSON, James C. BROWN, and Stephen R. MALLORY. 

In the Senate, the district of which Ontario was a part, was represented by Thomas MOREY, Lemuel CHIPMAN, Philetus SWIFT, Amos HALL, Stephen BATES, Gideon GRANGER, John C. SPENCER, William H. SEWARD, Mark H. SIBLEY, and Albert LESTER. 

In Congress, during the 50 years under examination, the Ontario district had among its representatives Thomas MORRIS, Oliver PHELPS, Peter B. PORTER, Nathaniel W. HOWELL, John C. SPENCER, John DICKSON, Francis MAYER and John GREIG. 

Through succeeding campaigns in which George CLINTON was retired from the governorship in favor of JAY, and again elected to that office, John ADAMS was succeeded by JEFFERSON as President, and the Republicans of the time, of which our present day Democratic party is the direct descendant, controlled the State legislature, Ontario remained firm in the Federalist faith; and this continued true down to the exciting campaign of 1804, when there was  pretty general shifting of party lines in preparation for the gubernatorial election of the next April.  Ontario rose to new prominence in this campaign, through the nomination of her distinguished citizen, Oliver PHELPS, for the office of Lieutenant-Governor, on the ticket headed by the fatally ambitious Aaron BURR.  BURR and PHELPS had the support of a large section of the Federalists and of many influential Republicans.  But the Republican Legislative caucus, after much casting about, induced Morgan LEWIS to accept its nomination for Governor, and almost to its own surprise carried the succeeding election.  The same party elected also a majority of the Legislature, even including its candidates for the Senate in the Western district, Jedediah PECK  and Henry HUNTINGTON, and at least one of its candidates for the Assembly in Genesee and Ontario, then voting together in one Assembly district. 

That questionable methods were sometimes adopted to attain political ends in those days, is indicated by an address that was published in the Ontario Repository of March 20, 1804: 

To the Electors of Ontario County: 

A meeting of a few electors of the town of Phelps being called and held at the home of Samuel OAKS, inn keeper in said town, on Thursday evening, the 15th inst., in a very private and clandestine manner with a view to make nomination of a character to represent this part of the county in the Legislature at the ensuing election, and the business conducted with so many secrecy as to preclude the attendance of the greatest part of the electors of the said town, we, the subscribers, being by accident present at the said meeting and witnessing the irregularity with which it was conducted, think it a duty incumbent on us, in order that the general wish of the people should be known, to request that a general meeting of the electors of the town of Phelps and adjoining towns be held at the home of said Oaks on Thursday, the 29th instant, at 12 o’clock noon, for the purpose of nominating proper characters to be supported at the ensuing election to represent this Co. in the Legislature.  Deputations from all the towns of the Co. are requested to attend with a view to determining on the county ticket. 

This address was signed by Thaddeus OAKS, John BIGELOW, Sam’l SHEKELL, David COOK, and Elias COST. 

A spectator of the Phelps meeting wrote that it “was opened, conducted and finished in a manner peculiarly appropriate to that foul spirit of Democracy, which seems destined to prostrate at the feet of faction the glory, the happiness, and independence of our country.” 

Out of this and the preceding campaign, which had resulted in the defeat of Col. BURR’s ambition to achieve distinction in State or National politics, grew bitter animosity between him and HAMILTON, the Federal leader.  The latter had not hesitated to denounce BURR for his alleged treachery to President JEFFERSON, and the quarrel ended in the fatal duel at Hoboken.  Deep grief at the death of the brilliant HAMILTON was expressed throughout the country.  Myron HOLLEY, on invitation of a committee of citizens, delivered an oration in eulogy of the great man in the court house at Canandaigua. 

The spirit of P. T. BARNUM must have been abroad even in those days.  At least no time was lost by one showman in availing himself of the opportunity for profit afforded by public interest in the Hoboken tragedy. 

As early as June 4, 1805, he had penetrated the woods as far as Canandaigua, and in the Ontario Messenger “the ladies and gentlemen” of the village were notified that there was that day opened at the house of Mrs. GOODING, near the court house, “a new and elegant collection of wax figures, as large as life;” among which it was advertised that there was “a striking representation of the unfortunate duel between Gen. Alexander HAMILTON and Col. Aaron BURR;” also BONAPARTE, NELSON, a Pius Mother Instructing Her Children, and Samson Asleep in the Lap of Delilah, etc. 

The Republicans maintained their supremacy in the State until 1809, when the bad effects of the Embargo law furnished the Federalists an opportunity to regain control, and for the first time since 1799 they elected a majority of the legislators.  The representatives of the Western district were Federalists, nominated in each case “at a respectable meeting of electors from various towns of the county.”  The Federalists, of course, made sweeping changes in county offices, but the next year the Republicans carried the election and reinstated their friends.

 

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