History of Ontario Co. & Its People

Vol. 1, Pub. 1911  Pg.  12 - 20

Kindly transcribed by Deborah Spencer.

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Coming of the White Man

French Traders and Priests the First White Men to Enter the Seneca Country--French Explorers and French Soldiers Followed--Sullivan Opened the Way for the Pioneers--Settlement Delayed by Disputes as to Title--The Phelps and Gorham Purchase--Sale of Land to Settlers. 

The first white man to enter the country of the Genesee was a French trader or a French priest. 

CHAMPLAIN in his explorations of 1615 penetrated the Iroquois country, but did not come further west than Oneida lake.  In 1669 LA SALLE, with Fathers DE CASSON and GALINEE, visited the principal Seneca Indian village, then 20 miles south of Irondequoit bay, and continued his journey to a burning spring, supposed to be that which is located near Bristol Center, Ontario county.  The Marquis de NONVILLE, in July, 1687, in a campaign which was undertaken with the intent of punishing the Senecas for their alleged inhospitable treatment of French traders, and of stopping their warlike invasions into New France, marched down from Irondequoit bay into the very heart of the Seneca country, and ambushed by the Indians at Gannagaro (Boughton Hill) engaged there in the only actual battle between armed forces known to have occurred in what is now Ontario county.  But before these French explorers had spied out the country or these French cavaliers had performed their bloody task, white traders had followed the Indian trails and bought for beads and bullets and for that yet more seductive and destructive medium of barter, rum, the peltries which they in turn exchanged in the eastern markets for good coin of the realm. 

Before the soldier also, and certainly close on his heels, marched the devoted Jesuit fathers.  At least Father CHAUMONOT is known to have visited the Seneca towns as early as 1657, and in 1668 Father FREMIN became a resident missionary among them, built a chapel at Gandougarae on the Ganarqua (Mud Creek), and labored to teach them the truths of the Christian religion.  In 1765, following the rise of English influence, the Rev. Samuel KIRKLAND, the first Protestant missionary to visit the Senecas, had extended his labors to Kanadesaga.  At Geneva some white traders had settled, and Jemima WILKINSON and a few followers had established themselves on the west bank of Seneca lake.  At Catharinestown at the head of that lake were one or two white families.  All else were Indians.  Western New York was yet a wilderness. 

So for nearly 300 years following the discovery of America by COLUMBUS, Western New York remained in possession practically undisputed of the Seneca branch of the Iroquois confederacy.  Traders had bought what the Indians had for sale, Jesuit missionaries had preached and taught and incidentally burned, and French soldiers had destroyed the homes and the stores of grain of the aboriginal possessors, but the “long house” of the Six Nations remained unshaken, and while the tides of conquest and settlement swung around to the north and further to the west, this “Great Western Wilderness,” as it was spoken of in the books of the time, remained practically a terra incognita to the white man. 

Western New York, thus protected against appropriation by the French, was saved to English immigration, the English tongue and the English faith.  At least the strength of the Iroquois and their ability to save their Eden from invasion and appropriation by the recurring tides of immigration from the Old World remained unbroken until after the Colonies had declared their independence and were in the throes of revolution.  Then in 1779 the SULLIVAN expedition forced its way into the very heart of the region and accomplished the double purpose of humbling the power of the cruel allies of the English king and of informing the hardy Continentals of the possibilities of the so-called “Wilderness” for new home making.  The men from the rocky hillsides of New England were only incidentally soldiers.  They were first and finally farmers and home makers, and they saw in the beautifully situated and fertile lands of Western New York a field that promised the largest rewards for industry and enterprise.  As a consequence they carried back with them to their homes, after the war was over and the victory won, lively recollections of this land of promise and hopes that could only be satisfied by the transfer of themselves and their families to the west. 

But 10 years elapsed after the strength of the Senecas had been broken and SULLIVAN’s soldiers had gone back to their homes before the work of actual settlement could begin.  Following the war of the Revolution came first the doubts involved in the rival claims of New York and Massachusetts. 

These were not settled until December 16, 1786, when under the terms of the agreement effected at a convention of commissioners, representing the two states, held at Hartford, Conn., Massachusetts formally acknowledged the sovereignty and jurisdiction of New York over all territory lying west of the present east line of that state; and New York ceded to Massachusetts the preemption right, or fee of the land, subject to the title of the natives, to all that part of the state lying west of a line beginning at the 82nd milestone in the Pennsylvania boundary and running due north to Lake Ontario.  This was the Preemption line famous in the subsequent history of Western New York.  The title to all land west of this line, excepting only a 20 mile wide strip east of the Niagara river, was ceded to Massachusetts, though thereafter to be a part of the State of New York.  Massachusetts had it to sell, New York to govern.  In the tract thus disposed of was about six million acres of land. 

The interests of the region were involved later in the attempts of the so-called Lessee companies to acquire possession of the Iroquois lands by 999 year leases, but the unlawful attempt was happily foiled, and although the Massachusetts purchasers thought it wiser, or, perhaps, cheaper, to grant the “lessees” some concessions in compromise, they had only to secure the consent of the Indians in order to enter upon legal possession and begin the settlement of the lands for which they had contracted. 

Oliver PHELPS, of Massachusetts, who had acted as a commissariat of the Continental forces during the Revolution and who had become interested in the stories told by the soldiers of SULLIVAN’s army, had the sagacity to foresee that a land of such natural beauty and yielding so bountifully under the rude agriculture of the Indians, was destined to be the seat of a vast civilized population.  He accordingly made arrangements with a number of friends to purchase a tract of a million acres.  Later he became associated with Nathaniel GORHAM, a prominent citizen of Massachusetts, who had made plans to a similar effect.  In 1788, yet more associates were admitted in order to avoid unprofitable rivalry, and the company agreed to purchase of Massachusetts all the lands embraced in the cession of the preemption right from New York, the stipulated consideration being 300,000 pounds sterling, or about $1,000,000 in the depreciated paper currency of the state. 

The purchase was subject to the Indian title, and with the purpose of extinguishing this, Mr. PHELPS, in July, 1788, made his first visit to the Genesee country.  In a treaty, concluded at Buffalo creek, he finally succeeded in getting the red men to relinquish possession of a tract of about 2,-600,000 acres.  This tract was the eastern part of that for whose purchase he and his associates had contracted with the State of Massachusetts.  It embraced the land lying between the Preemption line on the east, and, generally speaking, the Genesee river on the west.  For this domain, which was thereafter known as the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.  Mr. PHELPS agreed to pay the Indians $5,000 in cash and an annuity of $500 forever. 

Mr. PHELPS found the country to more than meet his expectations.  As the officers of SULLIVAN’s army had described it in their several diaries, it was a heavily timbered country, with occasional clearings and here and there an Indian orchard, and cultivated fields on which the Indians raised corn, beans, squash and watermelons.  Mr. PHELPS wrote to his associates, “You may rely upon it that it is a good country.”  Colonel Hugh MAXWELL, who had come on with Mr. PHELPS and had begun under the latter’s direction to survey the newly acquired land into townships, wrote to his family in Massachusetts, “The land in this country is exceeding good, but it wants good inhabitants.” 

The first stakes had thus been driven in the white occupancy of Western New York.  But at this juncture, after having settled with the Indians and set surveyors at work, and engaged choppers to cut a road through the woods from Fort Stanwix, Phelps and Gorham found themselves unable to carry out the contract they had made with the State of Massachusetts.  The paper currency of the state was worth, at the time they made the contract, only about 20 cents on a dollar, but before pay day arrived its value had risen to nearly par, and in 1789, with the consent of the Massachusetts legislature, they relinquished their claim to all the original purchase, except that in which they had been able to extinguish the Indian title. 

In the running of the Preemption line, in 1788, a blunder, or more probably a fraud, was committed which was the occasion of much subsequent controversy and embarrassment, and resulted in the selection by PHELPS and GORHAM for their headquarters, of “a beautiful situation and good ground for a town plot,” west of Canandaigua lake outlet, instead of at Kanadesaga as first intended.  The line which was run from the south was deflected toward the west at a point south of Seneca lake.  This was accomplished, at the instigation, it is believed, of unscrupulous lessees, during the temporary absence of Col. Hugh MAXWELL, the surveyor representing the Massachusetts purchasers, and when the line was brought back to due north, previous to or at Col. MAXWELL’s return to the work, it had been shifted enough to the west to pass westward of Geneva.  Though it is generally conceded that Col. MAXWELL was entirely unconscious of the deviation in the line, it was early suspected.  Oliver PHELPS, in a letter to William WALKER, the agent who had been sent into the new country to open at Canandaigua what is entitled to be known as the first office for the sale of land to settlers ever established in America, wrote, September 19, 1788:  “I am still dissatisfied about our east line.  I am sure it cannot be right.”  But it was not corrected and Geneva brought back into Ontario county until 1793. 

The “gore” between the true and the fraudulent Preemption lines contained 85,896 acres of land, and as the State of New York had promptly sold or granted the land up to the line which it supposed marked the limit of the Massachusetts preemption, much trouble followed the discovery of the surveyor’s “mistake.”  The State and Captain WILLIAMSON acting for the association of Massachusetts purchasers cooperated to extinguish the claims of the owners of the land in question, and later the State settled with the latter by giving them from 1 ˝ acres to six acres of public lands for each acre surrendered in the “gore.” 

In the spring of 1789 Nathaniel GORHAM, Jr., Israel CHAPIN and a number of other pioneers entered the purchase, Agent WALKER opened his land office, the survey was under way, and the influx of settlers had fairly begun. 

It their letter of instruction to Agent WALKER under date of August 21, 1788, the managers of the company wrote that they expected that the townships on the east line of the Purchase would sell at an average of 1s 5d lawful money of Massachusetts per acre, “but,” they added, “of that we cannot be quite competent judges until the townships are further explored; therefore you are to dispose of them (if any purchasers present) in the best manner you can, provided that the poorest township is not sold under 1/6 of a dollar per acre, referring the purchasers to us for the mode of payment unless they pay the money down.  The lands upon the Genesee river are to be considered as more valuable, and we think that they will undoubtedly average 1/3 of a dollar per acre; but as those townships will probably differ much in their value, the price will accordingly differ.

We suppose the best clear flat will bring $1 per acre, while some of the adjoining land may be very ordinary, but we cannot entertain an idea but they will average the 1/3 of a dollar per acre.”  He wrote than a great number of the best surveyors could be obtained to go into the new country at 9s per day and take their pay in lands, or at 7s 6d in cash.


On October 5 of  the same year, Agent WALKER reported that he had sold “to Gen’l CHAPIN & Capt. DICKINSON No. 10 first tier at 1s 10d per acre, to Gen’l CHAPIN & Capt. NOBLE,  No. 11 second tier at 1s 10d, and to the same Gentlemen No. 10 second tier at 1s 8d, all N. York currency; have likewise sold to Messrs. TALMAGE and BARTLE in No. 14 in the first tier about half a township, at 1s 7d, all the cash to be paid 1st next May; a number of other towns are exploring by different gent’m in view of purchasing, in fine the prospects of a rapid settlement is as great as could be reasonably expected.” 

In the wild land speculations that marked the history of this region 10 years later, good farm land brought as high as $5 per acre, an enormous price considering the condition of the country and the lack of all means of transportation except that afforded by ox teams over execrable roads or by bateaux on unreliable water courses. 

The speculators knew the land, however.  It only needed their gift of imagination, or the exalted faith of Col. MAXWELL, to picture the future realties of this country.  To the men from New England’s rocky farms, the rich and tillable lands of Western New York had possibilities that warranted the paying of even $5 an acre for them.  Col. MAXWELL while engaged in the surveys of 1788 had written his wife back in Massachusetts:  “I have no doubt that in the course of a very few years there will be many worshipping assemblies of Christians where now the wild beasts howl, and that the time is not far distant when this wildness shall blossom as the rose.”  Col. MAXWELL was a veteran of the Revolution, and 55 years old when he wrote thus enthusiastically. 

But before the value of the lands in their purchase came to be widely appreciated, and before, even, they could be advantaged by the wave of speculation referred to, Phelps and Gorham found themselves unable from the proceeds of the sales to settlers to meet their maturing obligations and proceed with the allotment.  They therefore availed themselves of the opportunity that offered in August, 1790, to dispose of the unsold part of their land, embracing something more than ˝ the purchase, and reserving only two specified townships, No. 10 of the 3d Range and No. 9 of the 7th Range, the two comprising about 47,000 acres, to Robert MORRIS, the great financier of the Revolution.  Mr. MORRIS paid for the 1,267,569 acres thus acquired at the rate of eight pence half penny per acre, Massachusetts currency, or between 11 and 12 cents per acre in U. S. money.  He sent his son, Thomas MORRIS, to Canandaigua to look after the property, but almost immediately his agent in London sold it entire to an English syndicate, composed of Sir William PULTENEY, John HORNBY, and Patrick COLQUHOUN.  The latter paid 75,000 pounds sterling (about $333,000) for the land, a price that netted a good profit for Mr. MORRIS.  The new owners placed the control and title of the property in the hands of Charles WILLIAMSON, a naturalized citizen, who settled in Bath and to whose wise and energetic management is due much of the credit for the subsequent development of the region.  He was a member of the Legislature from Ontario county for three years following 1796, and in 1795 he was appointed a judge of the county. 

Almost simultaneously with this sale to the English company, Mr. MORRIS purchased of the State of Massachusetts all the land west of the Genesee river which was embraced in the original purchase of Phelps and Gorham, but which the latter relinquished.  He sold all but about 500,000 acres of the last mentioned tract to the Holland Company in 1792 and ‘ 93, conditioned upon the extinguishments of the Indian title.  This last was brought about in 1797. 

Thus at last the title to all of Western New York had passed from Massachusetts to private ownership, and barring only about 3,500 square miles of reservation, the Indians had surrendered to the same interests their claim upon the land. 

The era of the aboriginal in Western New York had finally closed and that of the white man had opened.


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