The Early History of Ontario County, New York

 Kindly transcribed by Deborah Spencer

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From the History of Ontario County, NY    

Published 1893     Pg 74 - 85


Condition of the Six Nations at the Close of the Revolution--Their Treatment by the State Government--Treaty at Fort Stanwix--Land Grants Sought to be Secured--Operations of the New York Genesee Land Company and the Niagara Genesee Land Company--The Long Leases--How Obtained--Controversy Between New York and Massachusetts--Its Settlement--Annulled by the State--The New State Project--Its Promoters--How Regarded in Ontario County. 

IN the treaty of peace between the British government and the United States no provision whatever was made for the Indian allies of the former living in the State of New York, but the English authorities offered them land in Canada, which was accepted by the Mohawks alone. 

However, the United States treated them with great moderation, and that notwithstanding the fact that the Six Nations had violated their pledges, and without provocation had plunged into a war against the colonies.  Still they were readily admitted to the benefits of peace, and were even recognized as the owners of all the land in New York over which they had ranged before the Revolution.  The property line previously drawn between the whites and Indians ran along the eastern borders of Broome and Chenango counties, and thence northwestward to a point seven miles west of Rome. 

In October, 1784, a treaty was made at Fort Stanwix between three commissioners of the United States and the sachems and chiefs of the Six Nations.  The Marquis DE LA FAYETTE was present and made a speech, though not one of the commissioners.  It is quite certain that RED JACKET, then a noted young Seneca, who afterward claimed to have been there, did not take any part in the council.  BRANT was not present, although he had been active in a council with Governor CLINTON only a short time before.  CORNPLANTER, too, was there and spoke on behalf of the Senecas, but SAYENQUERAGHTA, or "Old King", was recognized as the leading Seneca chief.  The eastern boundary of the Indian lands does not seem to have been in question at this time, but the government commissioners desired to extinguish whatever claim the Six Nations might have to Ohio and other western territory, and also to keep open the right of way around Niagara Falls, which Sir William JOHNSON had obtained for the British; and it was accordingly agreed that the western boundary of the Indian lands should begin on Lake Ontario, four miles east of the Niagara River.  All the territory of the Six Nations west of this boundary line was ceded to the United States, and the Indians were to be secured in the peaceful possession of the lands they inhabited east of the same, except six miles around Fort Oswego, which was reserved to the United States. 

The treaty at Fort Stanwix was finally accomplished after many difficulties, and only after several adjournments.  The British officers at Fort Niagara used every endeavor to prevent the Senecas' from attending the council, and BRANT was also charged with using his influence in the same direction, and it is believed that had he been present no treaty would have been concluded.  However, the document was finally signed by CORNPLANTER and two other Seneca chiefs, and by two each of the Mohawks, Onondagas, Oneidas and Tuscaroras, and one Cayuga.  Among the names of the witnesses were three Pennsylvania commissioners, Missionary Samuel KIRKLAND, and James DEAN.  Although the attempt to procure a cession of lands by the State of New York from the Indians was not successful at this time, in consequence of the United States commissioners persisting in holding a treaty at the time appointed by the State for that purpose, the situation of affairs made it necessary that a grant should be obtained from them as speedily as possible, and in pursuance of that fact the next Legislature passed an act directing the governor and commissioners of Indian affairs to obtain a cession or grant of such lands as the Indians should be willing to dispose of on reasonable terms, on or before the first of October, 1785.


The treaty just mentioned as having been made with the Indians at Fort Stanwix was followed by others of like character, but that referred to above was the first that covered any portion of the broad Genesee country, and consequently was within the boundaries of Ontario county as originally created.  The granting of lands by the Indians, except as they included portions of the region of which we write, was of frequent occurrence and has no important relation to the subject.  While the Indians had no rightful claim to any of the lands within the State, they were nevertheless regarded as owners of the territory west of the property line, and the State sought only to acquire title through the recognized channels and upon the payment of ample compensation.  There was, however, a class of persons, land speculators, who were recognized as corporations, or as parties, and occasionally acting in an individual capacity, whose aim was to obtain Indian titles for the least possible consideration, often using liquor as a dominant factor in bringing about results and without the payment of adequate compensation for the lands they obtained. 

To put an end to operations of this character the Legislature passed a law which forbade the purchase of Indian lands by corporations, parties or individuals, reserving the purchase right to the State alone or subject to its approval.  To avoid the provisions of the law, the speculative capitalists of the region, many of them residents of the Mohawk and Hudson River valleys, thereafter sought to obtain at least a qualified title to the lands by negotiating leases for long terms of years, in the hope that after being possessed they might persuade the Legislature to confirm them in their titles.  Such a lease was made to run for a period of 999 years, covering a vast area of territory, being the same region that was afterward in part erected into Ontario county.  About that time, however, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of New York, through their respective authorities, were engaged in dispute regarding the title to the lands now of Ontario county, and as well of the whole western portion of the State.  As a matter of fact this controversy began previous to the Revolution, but the outbreak of the war united the otherwise opposing elements in the defense of common interests.  After the overthrow of the British dominion in America, and after the several colonies had taken upon themselves the character of statehood, the discussion was renewed with much warmth and some bitterness, and it was only after mutual concessions that an amicable settlement of the difficulty was reached.  This is a subject, however, that has a special bearing upon the early history of Ontario county, and therefore calls for a brief review of the claims of the contesting States from the time of the origin of those claims, an hundred years before. 

In 1628 Charles I of England granted a character for the government of Massachusetts Bay.  It included the territory between 40 degrees, 2 minutes and 44 degrees, 15 minutes north, extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, making a colony 154 miles wide and 4,000 miles long.  Ontario county was included with its boundaries, as was the whole of Western New York. 

On the 12th of March, 1664, Charles II of England conveyed by royal patent to his brother James, Duke of York, all the country from the river St. Croix to the Kennebec in Maine; also Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and Long Island, together will all the land from the west side of the Connecticut River to the east side of Delaware Bay.  The Duke sent an English squadron, under Admiral Richard NICOLLS, to secure the gift, and on the 8th of September following Governor STUYVESANT capitulated, being constrained to that course by the Dutch colonists, who preferred peace with the same privileges and liberties accorded to the English colonists, to a prolong and perhaps fruitless contest.  Thus ended the Dutch regime.  The English changed the name of New Amsterdam to New York.  Like the Massachusetts grant, that of the province of New York covered a vast extent of territory, and with subsequent additions by other charters likewise extended indefinitely westward, or from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Many were the controversies arising from these conflicting or overlapping grants; but previous to the close of the last French and English war, while there was still an uncertainty as to which would be the dominant power in America, there does not appear to have been any controversy between the colonial authorities respecting the extent of the several provinces.  We must except, however, from the last statement the case relating to the New Hampshire grants, in which the controversy in fact began about the year 1750. 

After the close of the French war the governors of Massachusetts and New York opened a discussion regarding the apparent conflict in their charters, but at that time as settlement had not progressed on the disputed territory, the controversy had taken no definite form.  At that time, too, the public mind was drawn in another direction, growing out of the oppressive burdens heaped upon the colonies by the mother country.  However, even before the outbreak of the Revolution, an agreement was entered into between John WATTS, William SMITH, Robert R. LIVINGSTON and William NICOLL, commissioners on the part of New York, and William BRATTLE, Joseph HAWLEY and John HANCOCK, on the part of Massachusetts, who were to run the line and agree upon a boundary between the respective colonies; but the Revolution soon followed and the line was never run.  It must be stated, however, that the agreement just referred to was to provide for the settlement of the boundary line between New York and Massachusetts as at present located, and had no special reference to the territory now included in Western New York. 

After the close of the Revolution, and after the independence of the United States had been secured, the newly created States of Massachusetts and New York resumed a discussion of the old controversy with a view to its amicable adjustment.  To effect a settlement Massachusetts, by an act passed March 14, 1784, petitioned Congress to take action in the premises, upon which the Federal body appointed Thomas HUTCHINS, John EWING and David RITTENHOUSE, commissioners to determine the controversy.  However, while proceedings were pending in Congress, the legislative bodies of the contesting States passed acts providing for the appointment of commissioners to settle the dispute otherwise than by the Federal Courts, and in such manner as should be deemed for the general welfare.  The claims of Massachusetts to the lands of Western New York were finally settled at Hartford, Conn., December 16, 1786, by James DUANE, Robert R. LIVINGSTON, Robert YATES, John HARING, Melancthon SMITH, and Egbert BENSON, on the part of New York, and John LOWELL, James SULLIVAN, Theophilus PARSONS, and Rufus KING, on the part of Massachusetts.  By the agreement of the commissioners, Massachusetts surrendered the sovereignty of the whole disputed territory to New York and received in return the right of soil and pre-emptive right of Indian purchase west of a meridian line passing through the eighty-second mile stone on the Pennsylvania north line, except certain reservations, consisting of 230,400 acres between the Oswego and Chenango Rivers in the southern part of the State and one mile in width along the Niagara River.  We may here state that the territory thus ceded by New York, west of the meridian line, in fee to Massachusetts, was substantially the same which, three years later, was erected into Ontario county.  The land, the pre-emption right to which was ceded, amounted to about six million acres. 

The plain interpretation of this agreement was that the territory in question should continue under the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the authorities of New York State and subject to its laws and government, but that its ownership and fee should be vested in the State of Massachusetts, subject only to whatever rights the Indian occupants had at that time.  This right Massachusetts was at liberty to purchase from the natives, while all other persons or corporations were expressly forbidden by the laws of the State from negotiating any purchase from the Indians, whether on the pre-emption tract or elsewhere. 

The proceedings of the arbitration commission were held, and its agreement reached, as has been stated, during the year 1786, and in 1787 Massachusetts began casting about for a sale of her newly acquired territory.  However, at this juncture there appeared a disturbing element which not only threatened trouble for the Bay State's interest, but as afterward developed, that same troublesome factor threatened to disrupt if not entirely overthrow the very institutions of the State of New York.  The troubles and vexations of the time were caused by the unwarranted and unlawful operations of the New York Genesee Land Company, and its auxiliary association, the Niagara Genesee Land Company, the latter being organized for the express purpose of carrying out the nefarious scheme of the former. 

In 1787 there was organized an association of individuals who styled themselves the "New York Genesee Land Company," prominent among whom were John LIVINGSTON, Major Peter SCHUYLER, Doctor Caleb BENTON, Ezekiel GILBERT, and others of more or less note.  The object of this association was the acquirements of lands from the Indians, not, however, by purchase, for that was forbidden by law, but by obtaining leases of land for long periods of years, and upon the payment of small cash considerations, and an annual rental.  The persons comprising this company were men of large means, most of whom resided in the Hudson River region, and who became members of it solely for purposes of speculation.  This company caused to be organized an auxiliary association, called the "Niagara Genesee Land Company," numbering among its members Colonel John BUTLER, Samuel STREET, John POWELL, JOHNSON and MURPHY, subjects of Great Britain, and Benjamin BARTON, a citizen of the United States, all of whom were supposed to possess much influence over the Indians and through whom the chief land-company hoped and proposed to secure its leases. 

Through the machinations of the lessee organization there was executed by the Six Nations a lease in which the lessee party was the New York Genesee Land Company, the instrument bearing the date of November 30, 1787, and running for a period of nine hundred and ninety-nine years.  The council or treaty at which this long lease was obtained was held at Kanadesaga at the time above indicated, and purported to be an agreement between the "chiefs or sachems of the Six Nations of Indians, on the one part, and John LIVINGSTON, Cabel BENTON, Peter RYCKMAN, John STEVENSON, and Ezekiel GILBERT, for themselves and their associates of the county of Columbia and State of New York, of the other part."  The territory conveyed by this lease included "all that certain tract or parcel of land commonly called and known by the name of the lands of the Six Nations of Indians, situate, lying and being in the State of New York, and now in the actual possession of the said chiefs or sachems of the Six Nations."  In brief, the lands included or covered by this lease comprised all that part of the State lying west of the "property line" which has been described in an earlier chapter. 

The consideration expressed in the lease was a yearly rent or sum of 2,000 Spanish milled dollars, payable on the 4th day of July in each year.  The instrument was signed by forty Indian chiefs, principally Senecas and Cayugas, among the signatures there being found the names of: FARMER's BROTHER, CORNPLANTER, BIG THROAT, BIG TREE, INFANT, CHAW TOBAC, HOT BREAD, and LITTLE BEARD.  The witnesses were M. ROSEKRANTZ, George STIMSON, Jr., Joseph SMITH, and Colonel LEWY. 

On the 8th of January, 1788, another lease was executed between the company and certain other Indian chiefs and sachems, by which another large tract of land, claimed to be that of the Oneidas, passed into the constructive possession of the lessees above named; but as the lease first mentioned was the one included all the lands of Ontario county, no further detail is necessary of others in this place. 

The lease consummated, the new proprietary at once set about the colonization of their extensive territory, but no sooner had the intelligence of this lease reached the ears of Governor CLINTON than that official at once dispatched trustworthy agents to the land of the Senecas for the purpose of informing the latter that they had been duped; that the lease would be declared null and void by the State Legislature, and that they, the Indians, should refrain from further negotiations with either of the land companies or their agents. 

It appears that the originators of the scheme for the acquirement of Indian lands by lease had another project in view than the mere acquisition of title.  At that time, as well as previously and afterward, there was a controversy between the authorities of this State and those of the then independently organized district known as the State of Vermont, over which latter New York claimed sovereignty and jurisdiction as against New Hampshire.  And while the situation in Vermont had no parallel in the case of the lessee company in this State, the latter was inspired with the hope that in acquiring a long lease-hold interest in the lands of the Six Nations, they, too, might organize a separate and independent estate.  Such was their intention, as was afterward disclosed, but the prompt and energetic action of Governor CLINTON thwarted their schemes, annulled their leases, and made them glad to sue for peace and compromise.  The result was that instead of possessing several million acres of land, and forming the region into a new State, they were ultimately content with receiving a ten mile square grant off the old military tract in the northern part of the State, together with other concessions and gratuities of less note from the Phelps and Gorham proprietary.  However, the consideration of the grants from the latter was the influence of the agents of the lessees among the Indians in enabling Phelps and Gorham to perfect their title. 

In noting events in connection with the long leases, it may be stated that in February, 1788, LIVINGSTON and BENTON, who appear to have been the leading spirits in the enterprise, presented to the Legislature a copy of the leases they had obtained, and solicited the appointment of commissioners to confer with them, the lessees, "on such terms and considerations as may be consistent with the justice, dignity and policy of the State, and that the Legislature would be pleased to recognize the said leases under such restriction as to them in their wisdom shall appear just and equitable." 

Although the lessees had at this session one of their number in the Senate, and three, including LIVINGSTON himself, in the Assembly, yet their petition was summarily rejected, and the Legislature by resolution passed February 16, 1788, declared the leases to be purchases, and empowered the governor to use the force of the State, if necessary, to prevent intrusion or settlement upon the lands so claimed. 

The prime movers of the lease scheme had, as has already been intimated, something more in view than the mere possession of the lands, and it was doubtless their design to form a new State out of the territory of Central and Western New York, and in case of success the long leases would have been declared titles in fee simple.  And this project was not abandoned by the surrender of the leases, but was kept in abeyance until compensation lands were procured for them by an act of the Legislature, and then in the autumn of the same year a circular "signed by John LIVINGSTON and Caleb BENTON as officers of a convention purporting to have been held at Geneva, was issued, urging the people to hold town meetings and sign petitions for a new state to be set off from New York, and to embrace the territory of the counties, as then existing, of Otsego, Tioga, Herkimer and Ontario," then comprising the whole of Central and Western New York. 

This daring attempt at secession was met in a spirit of true patriotism, and at a meeting held at "Canandaigua" immediately after the adjournment of court on the 8th of November, 1793, "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."  Hon. Timothy HOSMER, first judge of the county, was elected chairman, and Nathaniel GORHAM, jr., clerk.  At this meeting, after a full discussion of the situation, the inhabitants present unanimously adopted resolutions expressive of the sentiment of the people of the county, which resolutions were as follows: 

Resolved, That the inhabitants of the county of Ontario, sensible of many advantages that they have derived from their connection with one of the most respectable States of the Union, and desirous of the continuation of the same advantages, highly resent the ill-timed and improper attempt made by the characters above alluded to (referring to promoters of the new state scheme) to disturb their peace and harmony, that they conceive their measure as pregnant with danger, and such as, if carried into effect, would introduce into our infant county all the complicated evils which anarchy and confusion can create. 

Resolved, That this meeting highly resent the threats made use of by the said persons, and conceive that, under the protection of the State of New York, they have nothing to fear from any banditti they can collect for the purpose of forcing them into measures which they heartily disapprove of. 

Resolved, That this meeting, fully impressed with the impossibility of the proposed state's defraying expenses of the most moderate government that can be devised, and aware of 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; recommend to the persons above alluded to, to persuade some more laudable mode of gratifying their ambition, and to desist from proceedings altogether hostile to our interest and welfare. 

Resolved, Also, that it is the opinion of this meeting that the proposed meeting at Geneva ought not to be attended, as it was called by strangers to the county, and that we will consider as inimical to the county such persons belonging to it, who, at said meeting, shall consent to any of the proposals before reprobated. 

Resolved, That this meeting expect, after having made this public declaration of their situation, that those entrusted with the administration of the State, will take the most vigorous measures to suppress any of the attempts made to destroy the peace and quiet of this county. 

While the foregoing resolutions are not a full copy of the whole of the original, they nevertheless substantially set forth the sentiments expressed by the inhabitants of the county who attended the meeting.  From what is stated it will be seen that the promoters of the new state scheme had few adherents in Ontario county.  The lessees had in contemplation the formation of a new state previous to the erection of the county, and the annulment of their leases, and even the relinquishment of their pretended claim to the Phelps and Gorham tract seems not to have had the effect of changing their original purpose.  The new state project had many followers who were residents of the counties east of the pre-emption line, while in the region of the extreme western part of the State there were others who likewise favored the scheme.  It seems, too, from what is stated in the resolutions that emissaries of the lessees were going among the people of the newly created county, in the hope of persuading them to favor the new state.  At that time Geneva was a central point of operations, perhaps the most important location then in the whole Genesee country.  By this time, too, Canandaigua had become a village of some note, and in both of these places the subject of the new formation was the most important topic in the public mind. 

However, the whole scheme proposed and contended for by the lessees proved a complete failure.  As will be found more fully stated in the succeeding chapter, Phelps and Gorham became the proprietors of a vast area of territory west of Seneca Lake, and in perfecting their title by purchase from the Indian owners, they were, of course, confronted with the long lease, but by concessions made to the lessees, and by liberal inducements held out to some of the more influential members of the two land companies, they succeeded in winning them over, and thus without serious difficulty they soon afterward obtained a deed from the Indians for their fee in what has always been known as the "Phelps and Gorham Purchase."  The land purchased by Phelps and Gorham from the Indians was, of course, a part of the territory covered by the long lease; and in their negotiations the lessees relinquished their right to the tract, and at the same time the Indians released the New York Genesee Land Company from the payment of the entire sum of 2000 dollars per year, and in lieu thereof agreed to accept the annual rental of 1000 dollars for the balance of the land held under the long lease.

Created by Dianne Thomas  

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