History of Ontario Co. & Its People

Vol. 1, Pub. 1911  Pg.  36 - 50

Thanks to Deborah Spencer for transcription of these pages.

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IV.    “THE MOTHER OF COUNTIES” 

The Organization of Ontario County Cotemporaneous with the Election of Washington as President of the United States--Its Original Princely Domain--Unsuccessful Effort to Set It Off in a New State--Other Counties Erected from Its Original Territory--Rapid Settlement and Development.

 

The 640 square miles of territory now embraced in the county of Ontario has had a varied history.  When first known to white men, it was, as we have seen, in the jealous and undisputed possession of the Seneca Indians.  Then when the disputes growing out of the conflicting grants of the English kings had been settled, and the Indian title, by hook or crook, by sword or treaty, had been extinguished, which was cotemporaneous with the adoption of the Federal constitution, it found itself a part of the sovereign State of New York, but owned a syndicate of Massachusetts capitalists, the Phelps and Gorham Company. 

In 1789, within three weeks after the election of George WASHINGTON as the first President of the United States, the region referred to assumed the name Ontario and became the 15th county of the State of New York.  Before that and since the adoption of the State constitution, it had been a part of Montgomery county, which, if Ontario is to be known as the Mother of Counties, should be hailed as the Grandmother of Counties, for it formerly constituted all the State west of the Delaware river and a line extending north through Schoharie and along the east lines of the present counties of Montgomery, Fulton and Hamilton, continued in a straight line to Canada.  It included territory that is now comprised in not less than 36 counties.  And to go back another generation, Albany was the great-grandmother of counties.  Up to 1772 it embraced everything within the colony of New York north and west of its present limits, and at one time also the whole of Vermont. 

But to return to our subject.  The Mother of Counties.  Ontario, contained in 1789, all the State west of the Preemption line, including both the Phelps and Gorham and the Morris or Holland purchases.  It had an estimated area of six million acres, and a year later, in 1790, the Federal census showed that it had a total white population of 1075, or something less than one five-thousandth of a man, woman and child to the acre. 

The legislative act by which Ontario county was organized provided that “Whereas the County of Montgomery is so extensive as to be inconvenient to those who now are, or may hereafter settle, in the western part of the county,” all that part described should thereafter be “one separate and distinct county, and be called and known by the name of Ontario.” 

Whether there were heartburnings over this division of Montgomery county, or whether the citizens in its more thickly populated eastern portion resented the presumption of the handful of pioneers who had settled in Canandaigua and other border towns and desired to set up by themselves, neither record nor tradition states.  Probably the easterners were quite content to let go a territory so remote, so difficult of access, and so much of a wilderness.  But General CHAPIN and the other men who were directing the organization of government in these border towns were soon holding elections, levying taxes, and erecting public buildings.  Within three years after the organization of the new county, provision had been made for raising the sum of 600 pounds for building a court house and goal at “Canandaigua,” with the additional sum of “one shilling in the pound for collecting the same.” 

One of the first and most threatening problems with which the organizers of the county of Ontario had to deal was that involved in the attempt to make it a part of a new and distinct commonwealth to be set off from New York State. 

This ambitious project was involved, it is believed, in the original operations of the lessee companies alluded to in a preceding chapter.  The parent of these companies, “The New York Genesee Land Company,” organized by men of wealth residing in the eastern part of the State, first sought to nullify the agreement made at the Hartford convention of December 16, 1786, through long term leases made with the unsophisticated sons of the forest then acknowledged to be in actual possession of the land.

On November 30, at a council held at Kanadesaga, the land company induced the sachems or chiefs of the Six Nations to lease to it all the land of in the State west of the Preemption line, for a period of 999 years, for an annual rental of 2,000 Spanish milled dollars.  By means of this lease the company sought to acquire and hold possession of the lands to which Massachusetts had been accorded the preemption line right of purchase from the Indians.  But the scheme failed.  The lease was at once pronounced null and void by Governor CLINTON, and he was empowered to use the force of the State if necessary to prevent intrusion or settlement upon the lands claimed by the lessees. 

It was following this miscarriage of their plot, and after they had thankfully accepted in compromise a 10 mile square grant on the Military tract in the northern part of the State, that the gentlemen of the land company revealed or revived what from the start was probably their real purpose.  Then agents of the company sought to enlist the residents in the Genesee tract, title to which in the meantime had been lawfully acquired by the Phelps and Gorham Company, in a movement to set up a new State.  John LIVINGSTON and Caleb BENTON, two of the intriguers, issued a circular calling upon the people to hold meetings and sign petitions for the erection of a new State to embrace the whole of central and western New York, including the then existing counties of Otsego, Tioga, Herkimer and Ontario. 

This attempt to organize a movement of secession met with no encouragement.  At a meeting held at “Canandarqua,” November 8, 1793, at which “all the Judges and Assistant Judges, and a large Majority of the Justices of the Peace, together with all the inhabitants, convened from different parts of the County on that Occasion,” were present, and at which Hon. Timothy HOSMER, first judge of the county, acted as chairman and Nathaniel GORHAM, Jr., as secretary, public sentiment found expression in the adoption of resolutions resenting “the ill timed and improper attempt.”  These resolutions set forth “the impossibility of the proposed State’s defraying expenses of the most moderate government that can be devised,” pointed out “the impolicy as well as injustice of raising by enormous taxes on uncultivated lands such a revenue or of devoting to those expenses property purchased under the faith of the States of New York and Massachusetts, and of drawing into our flourishing county people that such iniquitous measures would attract,” recommended to the promoters of the scheme “to persuade some more laudable mode of gratifying their ambition and to desist from proceedings altogether hostile to our interests and welfare,” and urged those entrusted with the administration of the State to take “the most vigorous measures to suppress any of the attempts made to destroy the peace and quiet of this county.” 

The attempt miserably failed, but naturally was for the time the subject of the most excited discussion both at Geneva and Canandaigua, then the most important villages in the western part of the State. 

As might be expected on the part of men of their temperament and their enterprise, the Ontario politicians opposed strenuously the attempts soon after made to subdivide the county, but despite their efforts to this end, carried into the Legislature itself, they were compelled to consent in 1796 to the setting off of Steuben county, in which Williamson, the enterprising agent of the Pulteney syndicate, had established his headquarters, and where he was laying the foundations of what he planned to make the Metropolis of Western New York.  Steuben county had a population at that time of not much over 1,000, but doubled it within the next four years.  Ontario’s first born was a lusty youngster, and like her younger sisters has continued to grow in comeliness and strength to this day. 

In March, 1802, Ontario was again deprived of a big slice of territory, it being then enacted that all that part of the State situated west of the main stream of the Genesee river and the western boundary of Steuben should constitute the county of Genesee.  Neither the local histories nor the legislative journals, so far as examined, contain mention of opposition to this dismemberment, but opposition there must have been, in the market place where tradesmen and politicians congregated, if not in more formal public assemblage. 

Here we may note the wonderful rapidity with which the western wilderness was being settled.  Ontario had a population of only 1075 the year following her erection.  Ten years later, in 1800, in spite of the loss of Steuben, she had 15,218.  In 1802, as we have seen, Genesee was set off, but in 1810 what was left of Ontario’s original territory bore a population of over 42,000 people, and Genesee had 12,588.  In 10 years the territory embraced in the two counties had increased in population nearly 400 per cent.

The next successful attempt to deliver Ontario of a county was made in 1821, when both Livingston and Monroe were formed from territory theretofore embraced in Ontario and Genesee, but in the meantime there had been one or more abortive attempts.  One in 1806 elicited much discussion in the newspapers and at public meetings, and presumably in the streets. 

A correspondent who signed himself “Civis,” in the Ontario Repository of December 16, that year, discussed a proposed organization of a new county “to consist partly of territory which now belongs to this,” referred to the fact that neighboring towns take different sides of the question, and stated that such discussions, especially when public, generally become
“intemperate and result in bickerings and hatred.”  There was evidently discussion as to the most desirable shape for a county establishment, and “Civis” admitted that a square shape was the best, but argued that “circumstances may exist in many cases of sufficient weight to render other shapes most convenient.”  It was proposed at this time that the western tier of towns of Ontario be separated and together with the eastern tier of Genesee be erected into a county, to contain it was estimated a population of 4,650.  “Civis” referred to the fact that the year before a portion of the county applied to be incorporated with Seneca, but he argued that it was “a misfortune to the peace of a free country to have those of its civil divisions small which demand the appointment of numerous officers who have considerable authority and salaries.”  “Civis” went on to intimate that those who advocated the change did so for the advantage of the section where the court house is to be erected and county offices established, and said:  “One fights for it because the turnpike crosses his lands, another because it does not cross his; one because he has a grudge against his neighbor who opposes it, and many on account of the affability and condescension of their superiors who are interested in it.” 

On the 23d of December in the same year, 1806, the Repository, under the heading “Another New County,” reported that it was proposed to organize a county of “Williamson” out of the towns of Sodus and Phelps, Ontario county, and that part of Seneca lying north of the outlet of Seneca lake. 

In response to a published call, “a meeting of respectable inhabitants of Canandaigua and several other towns of the county of Ontario convened at Bates Hotel, Canandaigua, for the purpose of concerting measures to oppose the several applications which were about to be made to the Legislature for divisions of said county.

Thaddeus CHAPIN being voted chairman and Myron HOLLEY clerk, it was resolved unanimously that any division of said county would be highly inexpedient and therefore every plan to effect such division ought to be opposed.”  Nathaniel W. HOWELL, Peter B. PORTER, and Myron HOLLEY were appointed a committee to draft a remonstrance to be presented to the Legislature. 

For nearly two decades following the erection of Genesee county in 1802, these attempts to further deprive Ontario county of territory were unsuccessful.  In 1821, very likely through some bargain or combination of interests among the Rochester and Geneseo politicians, Monroe and Livingston were set off, each taking also some of the Genesee county territory.  It is noteworthy, as indicating the probability of a combination, that the two enactments effecting this further shrinkage of Ontario’s area were adopted on the same day, February 23, with the approval of the so-called Council of Revision (the Governor and the Chancellor and Judges of the Supreme Court.)  The Academy in Geneseo was designated as the court house of Livingston county, but the question of locating the shire town in Monroe county was left to commissioners. 

At this time, 1821, it appears from the legislative journals, there was yet another attempt to deprive the county of territory, for we find that Assemblyman Charles E. DUDLEY, of Albany, chairman of a select committee to which was referred a bill designed to erect a new county, to be known as “Hancock,” reported favorably to the proposition.  This report argued that after the cession of the towns on the west side embraced in Monroe and Livingston.  Ontario still had a population of 60,000 and that “the time must come at some period not distant if not here” when “for the convenience and interest of the inhabitants” other new counties should be created from its territory.  This report went on to declare that “whenever a compact population, approximating 20,000 inhabitants and with convenient territory, are unanimously in favor of organizing a new county, a proper regard to the principles of Republican government and to the maxim that all citizens of such government are entitled to equal political privileges, requires that the Legislature should grant aid;” and, therefore, “the committee being convinced in spite of the remonstrances received that a majority of the people directly interested want the erection of a new county,” recommended that “the relief sought for several years” should then be granted. 

Gideon GRANGER, the senior, then one of the members of the State Senate from the western district, voted, and presumably talked, “No,” and the bill was defeated in the upper house by a vote of 15 to 14 (February 24, 1821). 

In 1823, however, two more sections of Ontario’s shrunken area were cut off, a part on the southeast being erected into the county of Yates, and the towns of Lyons, Sodus, Williamson, Ontario, Palmyra and Macedon, and a part of Phelps were united to the Seneca towns of Wolcott and Galen to form the new county of Wayne (April 11, 1823). 

To make our record of the successive changes in the conformation of Ontario county complete, we must not neglect to state that it had two small accessions of territory in the earlier years of existence as an independent civil division.  On February 21, 1791, while it still had the magnificent proportions of the original Massachusetts cession, a strip of Montgomery county west of Seneca lake was annexed.  This was the “Gore,” which through a fault in the original survey was omitted from the first plotting of the county.  The “Gore” now constitutes parts of Ontario, Yates and Schuyler counties.  A small tract in the fork of Crooked, or Keuka lake, was taken back from Steuben county, February 25, 1814.  This also is now a part of Yates county. 

The process of dismemberment, or division, so far as it related to the territory that had succeeded through these many vicissitudes in retaining the name of Ontario county, was suspended with the birth of Wayne in 1823.  The process, for the time at least, had gone far enough.  Ontario was mother to enough daughters.  In the period of 34 years in which it had been going on, not less than six counties had been erected directly, in whole or in part, from Ontario territory, and by 1854, when the youngest granddaughter, Schuyler, was organized, the family group that calls her mother and grandmother had grown to the proportions it has since maintained--14 counties. 

That period of 34 years, ending with 1823, had been great with promise for the region under consideration.  Its population had increased from a little more than a thousand in the year following its organization as the county of Ontario to the great aggregate of 217,000;  the beginnings of two of the country’s great cities, Buffalo and Rochester, had been made within its limits, each being a village of something over 2,000 inhabitants in 1820; thriving villages, with churches, academies, public schools, banks, newspapers, and taverns, had sprung up in every part of the domain; the forest had made way for grass and grain fields of large extent; mills for the grinding of their products were erected; highways were laid out; a thriving, enterprising and growing population was established in comfortable homes; and the Erie canal, which was to provide means of transportation to the seaboard for the people of those homes and for the products of their mills and fields, had been brought to within two years of completion. 

In those 34 years the Great Western Wilderness had been subdued and was a wilderness no longer, but after all they were years of promise only, and the most prophetic eyes could hardly see in them the marvelous realization on which we look.  In the 90 years that have since elapsed the population of what was the original Ontario county has grown to over a million and a quarter of people, a population exceeding that of the whole State of Maryland, and that of either one of 18 other States of the Union; the two villages of Buffalo and Rochester, with 2,000 inhabitants each, have become (1910) cities of 423,715 and 218,149, respectively; the Erie canal has been completed, and is now practically superseded by a railroad system that better serves the public need, but that in turn is threatened by the competition of the rapidly extending trolley lines; petroleum and electricity for lighting, the telegraph, the telephone, and a thousand other discoveries and inventions, now so common that we forget our grandfathers were without them, have all come within these few years. 

The present Ontario county, insignificant as are its proportions as compared with those it had at organization, is not by any means unworthy of the name it bears.  Though shorn of so much of its original territory, it is still the Chosen Spot of Western New York, and deserves the honorable fame it is accorded, its population being 52,286, according to the Federal census of 1910. 

 

“THE MOTHER OF COUNTIES.” 

The First Census  - 1790

Under the statute of January 27, 1789, by which Ontario was set off from Montgomery, the justices of the Court of Sessions were authorized to divide the county into districts as they should deem expedient.  The primitive division, Turner states, constituted five districts, as follows:  “District of Canandaigua,” “District of Tolland,”  “District of Sodus,” “District of Seneca,” and “District of Jerusalem.”  For one or two years this division was little more than nominal, except in the district of Canandaigua whose organization in effect included the entire county.  At the time of the census of 1790, however, according to the returns of the Assistant United States Marshal, General Amos Hall, Ontario county included the four “towns” of Canandaigua, Erwin, Genesee, and Jerusalem, and had a total population of 1075, with an enumeration of 204 heads of families, including 11 slaves.  Of this number the town or district of Canandaigua, which must have comprised the greater part of what is now the county of Ontario, had 88 heads of families, two slaves, and a total population of 464.  The heads of families as listed by General HALL were as follows:

 

Latty, James

Benton, David

Wheeton, Samuel

Rice, ----

Smith, David

Pierce, Phineas

Forsyth, Easther

Smith, Thomas

Smith, Harry

Barden, Thomas

Reed, Seth, Esq.

Whitney, Jonathan

Warner, Solomon

Okes, ---

Kilbourn, Joseph

Whitcomb, John

Stevens, Phineas

Tuttle, Benjamin

Robinson, John D.

Granger, Pierce

Briggs, Francis

Pierce, Michael

Tibbet, Benjamin

Hall, William

Potter, Arnold

Gates, Daniel

Sweets, ---

Warren, Thomas

Chapin, Israel, Jr.

Platt, ---

Day, ---

Sweet, ---

Phelps, Ezza

Gorham, Nathaniel, Jr.

Sanbourne, Nathaniel

Fellows, John

Smith, Joseph

Fish, James D.

Chapin, Genl. Israel

Clark, John

Dudley, Martin

Bates, Phineas

Walker, Caleb

Colt, Judah, Esqr.

Barlow, Abner

Brainard, Daniel

Holcomb, Seth

Brocklebank, James

Castle, Lemuel

Wells, Benjamin

Freeman, John

Lapum, Abraham

Hathaway, Isaak

Harrington, Nathan

McCumber, John

Harrington, Joshua

Smith, Elijah

Pane, John

Smith, Jacob

Russel, John

Camstock, Nathan

Reed, Israel

Allen, Reuben

Herard, Webb

White, ---

Comstock, Daniel

Smith, Jereme

Wilder, Gamaliel

Wilder, Ephraim

Rice, Aaron

Spencer, Aaron

Goodwin, James

Goodwin, William

Fisher, Nathaniel

Fellows, Genl. John

Rice, Ephraim

Rice, Lot

Hubble, Matthew

Barns, John

Chapin, Oliver

Norton, Nathaniel

Addams, John

Rogers, Michael

Sage, Allen

Boughton, Seymour

Boughton, Gerard

Norton, Zebulon

Taylor, Elijah

  

Formation of the Towns 

The county of Ontario as now constituted contains 16 towns and a city, as follows: Bristol, Canadice, Canandaigua, East Bloomfield, Farmington, Geneva, Gorham, Hopewell, Manchester, Naples, Phelps, Richmond, Seneca, South Bristol, Victor, and West Bloomfield, and the city of Geneva. 

The territory embraced in the present limits of the county was originally laid out in towns as follows: Bristol, Canandaigua, Bloomfield, Farmington, Easton, Burt, Middletown, Phelps, Pittstown, and Seneca, all of which were formed under an act of the Legislature of 1789. 

Subsequent changes in the names and boundaries of the towns were as follows: The town of Easton became Lincoln in April, 1806, and Gorham one year later.  Middletown was changed to Naples, April 6, 1808.  Pittstown became Honeoye, April 6, 1808, and Richmond, April 11, 1815.  Victor was formed from Bloomfield, May 26, 1812.  Hopewell was formed from Gorham, March 29, 1822.  Burt was renamed Manchester, April 6, 1822.  Canadice was formed from Richmond, April 15, 1829; a part of it was returned to that town in 1836.  South Bristol was taken from Bristol, March 8, 1838, and a part was annexed to Richmond in 1848, but restored in 1852.  West Bloomfield was formed from Bloomfield, February 11, 1833.  The town of Geneva was erected by the Board of Supervisors from Seneca, November 15, 1872.  The city of Geneva was formed from the town of Geneva under act of the Legislature of 1897.

 

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