Town of  Phelps History 

    History of Ontario Co, NY     

Pub 1878  pg 164 - 165


Transcribed by  Dianne Thomas


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The town of Phelps, originally called the district of "Sullivan" was organized in 1796, the same years in which Steuben county was set off form Ontario.  Its name was bestowed in honor of the extensive land proprietor, Oliver PHELPS, who acknowledged this unsought recognition by giving the inhabitants a "reception" at the aristocratic inn of Jonathan OAKS, where in all probability, Bacchus reigned supreme. 

This town was crossed by the impetuous SULLIVAN in his devastating march in 1779, and not one decade had yet passed since the Senecas were flying before his riflemen, ere a solitary white settler might have been seen threading his way through this dense, uninviting wilderness; his name was John Decker ROBISON, of honored memory, the first white settler within the present boundaries of Phelps. 

He located in 1788, and purchased of Phelps and Gorham, lot No. 14, in township 11, first range, said to contain three hundred and twenty acres of land, the wholesale price of which was two shillings per acre.  A mistake of one hundred and seventy acres was however, made in Mr. ROBISON'S favor, which reduce the price of the whole purchase to about one hundred dollars, and this enormous debt was satisfied by ROBISON erecting a building for PHELPS, in Canandaigua, which was the first frame structure in the village, located on the corner of Main street and Railroad avenue, southwest of the Canandaigua Hotel. 

When John Decker ROBISON and his sturdy associates left Columbia county for the land of the Senecas, they came with well defined ideas of the trials and hardships with which they would be obliged to contend in the settlement of a new country.  One of the most noticeable and wisest preparations made by this resolute band was the driving of one hundred head of cattle for Phelps and Gorham into the forest for beef, intended as presents to the Indians, without whose friendship they well know all attempts at settlement would be in vain.  They arrived at the outlet of Cayuga lake when not a white settler was to be found between Utica and Geneva.  The task of ferrying their stock across the lake was no light one.  Obtaining two bateaux at Geneva, they were strapped together, and a rude ferryboat was constructed, capable of carrying eleven head of cattle.  Starting from the outlet on the eastern shore, they rowed and poled the heavy craft and heavy load one mile up the lake to secure a landing place, the shore below being covered with a marsh.  James ROBISON, then a boy of sixteen, oldest son of John, and Nathaniel SANBORN, drove the cattle through to Geneva, where on the day following their arrival, the pioneer, John D. ROBISON, joined them.  Both subsequently became settlers of Phelps.  In 1789, Mr. ROBISON'S family came to the new country; and it may not be uninteresting in these days of fast steamers, fast trains and fast rails, to know in what manner of conveyance they traveled.  They were put on board a rude contrivance called a boat, which was propelled by rowing, pushing with setting poles, and dragging with ropes, and the course they pursued was up the Mohawk into Wood creek, through the Oneida lake into Oswego river, and up the outlets of the lakes to Phelps. 

A few days after the arrival of Mr. ROBSON'S family, they were followed by, Pierce and Elihu GRANGER, Nathaniel SANBORN, and Mr. GOULD, all of whom returned to Connecticut in the fall, leaving Mr. ROBISON and family sole inhabitants of the wilderness.   

They were however, in a delightful spot, hemmed in on all sides by a dense, living forest, where the song of the wild birds, the swift foot of the deer, with an occasional glance from old Burin to break the monotony, constituted their daily surroundings and their morning or evening calls. 

Mr. ROBISON opened a tavern in the year 1793, and was for many years its popular proprietor.  His son, Harry H. ROBISON, was the first white child born in the town. 

In those early days, as now, animosity and strife existed among the settlers, which often would close a warm friendship, and embitter the remainder of their lives.  An unpleasantness existed between ROBISON and GRANGER, and the latter being taken suddenly ill, and thinking death near, sent for neighbor ROBISON to come and see him.  He came, when Mr. GRANGER addressed him, saying, " Mr. ROBISON, we have been much at variance, and now I am about to die; I sent for you that you might ask for my forgiveness."  Mr. ROBISON, not feeling in just that mood, replied, " You d____d old "Picteroon,", I came to see you die, not to ask your forgiveness." 

Elihu GRANGER, purchased three hundred and twenty acres next east of ROBISON'S.  He had two sons, Pierce and Elihu, and one daughter, who married Mr. CASE.  Pierce resided in a large mansion at Unionville, erected by his father, and now owned by CRANSTON.  Elihu erected a house on the south side of the outlet, and there reared a numerous family.  General Gordon GRANGER, who attained much notoriety during the late rebellion, was a grandson. 

Soon after the ROBISONS and GRANGERS, came Jonathan OAKS, Seth DEAN, Oliver HUMPHREY, Charles HUMPHREY and Elias DICKINSON.  Jonathan OAKES was a sturdy pioneer, a man of good judgment and decision of character, and in every way well qualified to meet the hardships incident to the settlement of a new country.  He displayed excellent judgment in the selection of land, and soon conceived the idea of erecting a hotel, which resulted in the building of the “Oak’s Corners” tavern in 1793, which stood until a few years since, when it was destroyed by fire.  This was the second framed tavern in the whole Genesee country, and was a marvel in its day.  The remains of the wine-cellar, which was a huge affair, are still to be seen.  A strong and finely-built stone wall surrounded the garden, portions of which are now standing, al tending to show that the Oaks’ tavern was indeed, a gigantic affair in “ye olden time,” and must have appeared strangely grand looming up among the rude log habitations in the surrounding neighborhood.  Mr. OAKS was the first supervisor of the town, elected April 1, 1796.  A grandson, Nathan OAKS, Esq., resides at “Oaks Corners”, a prominent citizen, and one of the progressive agriculturists of the county.  He has five children: Thaddeus, residing in the village of Geneva, and William, Fannie, Edward and Nathan, with their parents. 

Prominent among the early settlers was Philetus SWIFT, who settled in 1789.  He was an honored and influential citizen; and held many offices of honor and trust, both civil and military.  He became judge of the County Court, a member of the State Senate, and at one time discharged the duties of lieutenant-governor as president pro tem of the Senate; and he commanded a regiment in the war of 1812, on the Niagara frontier. 

John SALISBURY settled in the town, a short distance west of Melvin Hill in 1791.  Mr. SALISBURY was one of the prominent pioneers, and did much toward the transformation of the wilderness to a land that “blossoms like the rose.” 

Osse CRITTENDEN Sr., emigrated from Conway, Massachusetts in 1796 and located between Orleans and Melvin Hill, on the road leading form Chapinville to Oaks’ Corners.  Other settlers on this highway were Deacon John  WARNER, at Orleans, and Jonathan MELVIN at what has since been known as Melvin Hill.  An anecdote is related of Mr. MELVIN too good to be lost.  He had been to the village of Geneva, and while on his return on foot to his home, in passing the old Indian orchard, he picked up an apple, when the owner o the orchard chanced to see him and in commanding tones, ordered him to “ put that apple down”.  Mr. MELVIN replied, “You must be mean to begrudge a neighbor an apple;  I will plant one hundred trees next year for the public;” and true to his word, the trees were planted along the highway on his farm for the benefit of the public. 

Jesse WARNER came in 1796, and located a short distance east of Flint creek, at what has since been known as “Warner Hill.”  Nicholas PULLEN and Walter CHASE settled in 1791; John Sherman in 1794; and in 1797 Theodore and Lemuel BANNISTER located a short distance north of Oaks’ Corners.  John NEWHALL located in 1796, between Melvin Hill and the village of Phelps. 

In 1794, Lodowick VADEMARK settled in the east part of the town, on the Canandaigua outlet, and erected a pioneer mill.  Joseph VANDEMARK, John and Patrick BURNETT, Cornelius WESTFALL, Coll ROY, Joseph, Eleazer and Cephas HAWKS, were also pioneers of Phelps. 

John HILDRETH came in the town in 1802, accompanied by his son, William HILDRETH.  A grandson, William HILDRETH, Esq., now resides in Rochester and is one of the popular proprietors of the “Bracket House”.  He has also served the people of Ontario County in many official capacities.  He held the office of sheriff a number of years, and a long time officiated as United States marshal.  George WILSON settled in 1800.  John R. GREEN was a pioneer merchant, and commenced business at Oaks’ Corners.  Wells WHITMORE came into the town with Jonathan OAKS, and was an enterprising pioneer.  The following is related of Mrs. WHITMORE: “AT one time there were six Indian wigwams, inhabited by Indians, which stood on her father’s mill yard; on a certain day, when the family were all absent except herself, not only during the day but the night following, an Indian, partly intoxicated, came into the house and demanded bread; she informed him that there was no bread in the house baked, and to convince him of the fact, showed him dough that was prepared for baking.  He told her that she lied; and drawing a knife, flourished it over her in a very threatening manner, and said he would have some bread.  On this she grasped the cheese tongs, that being the only weapon within reach, and made towards her copper colored antagonist, who instantly beat a retreat, and never troubled her again.  The cheese tongs were then applied to their appropriate use, and a cheese was put into a  press that stood in an open shed attached to the house, and she retired to her lonely couch, dreading most of all a return visit from the drunken Indian.  During the night, a firm step in the shed where stood the cheese-press accompanied by other noises, convinced her that he had actually returned, and she knew now what might be the final result, being still along.  The noise, however, soon ceased, when she found that her cheese had been stolen, not by an Indian, but by a bear.” 

The first marriage in Phelps was that of Joseph ANNIN, subsequently known as Judge ANNIN and Miss READ, daughter of Seth READ, the pioneer; and the justice that tied the silken knot was Thomas SISSON, one of the first magistrates in the county..  Tradition says that the father of the young lady was obstinately opposed to the union of his daughter with the one of her choice, and had forbade him entering the house, and in company with Esquire SISSON, he was passing the premises of the father of his inamorata about the hour of twilight, at which time she was engaged in milking her father’s cows near the highway; that she set her milk-pail aside for the time being, when they stood up under the shelter of an apple tree or grape vine, as the case might be, and then and there were solemnly and legally declared to be man and wife.  The justice and bridegroom prosecuted their journey home, while Mrs. ANNIN finished milking the cow that was commenced by Miss READ. 

The inventor of the threshing machine resided in this town, and here it was that machinery was first used in threshing grain.  Mr. Ezra GOODDELL, a machinist and mill-wright, was employed to operate the carding-works of Mr. Luther ROOT, and while there he suggested that if grain were thrown to the “picks” of the carder, it would tear the berry from the stalk.  After some discussion, a few straws were placed in the machine, and the result was entirely satisfactory, every stalk being nicely cleaned.  The carding machines were then placed against the wall and thrashing began, and was carried on with great success; and many years after, carding machines were used for purposes of threshing and were only discarded when horse-power came into use. 

The discovery of plaster in this town was made about 1812, and Thomas ROY was dispatched to Virginia for the purpose of negotiating for the purchase of the FRANAWAY lot, as it was called.  The purchase was made and the lot subsequently disposed of to several parties. 

The first plaster mill was erected by Cephas HAWKS, and about he same time Luther and Francis ROOT, Ezekiel WEBB and Nathaniel HALL formed a co-partnership and purchased the grist mill formerly owned by Seth DEAN, and changed it to a plaster mill, where they conducted a successful business. 

A prominent pioneer, large land and slave owner, was John BAGGERLY, who came from Maryland and located in the western part of town.  A son, Samuel H. BAGGERLY, resides in the village of Orleans. 

Harvey STEPHENSON, form Springfield, Massachusetts, located in the village of Orleans in about the year 1800; a son Dolphin STEPHENSON, is the present postmaster in the village of Phelps, and one of the oldest attorneys in the county.  His grandfather was also an early settler in this town.  Calvin STEPHENSON was a pioneer and a soldier of the Revolution.  It seems that patriotism predominated in the STEPHENSON family, as Calvin had six sons in the war of 1812.  James was taken prisoner and died near Montreal; William served gallantly through the war and afterwards joined the regular army, and died on the plains of the west; Luther was in battle of the river Raisin, and was with General HARRISON at the battle of Tippercanoe; other sons were Theodore, Calvin and Chester.


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