Friday, October 21, 2011

Settling the Land

When Major General John Sullivan’s soldiers returned to their New England homes in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut following the American Revolution, they carried with them memories of the fertile lands that lay west of Seneca Lake. In fact, the historian Royal Lovell Garff states that most of Sullivan’s veterans spent their days recollecting the lush gardens and orchards of the Seneca Indians and the height of the wild grasses that in places grew taller than the heads of their officers’ horses. Talk of the Genesee Country that they had left behind, therefore, filled more conversations than the actual exploits of their 1779 campaign against the Seneca did.

Following Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham’s successful purchase of Seneca lands lying between Seneca Lake to the east and roughly the Genesee River to the west in 1788, a slow trickle of settlers began to make their way to Western New York. The pace of settlement was surprisingly slower than Phelps and his fellow investors had anticipated as a result of Indian unrest in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky that made settlers to this region fear Iroquois involvement in what was becoming a general Indian uprising in the Old Northwest. Some prospective settlers also feared isolation or the scourge of the Finger Lakes region, the dreaded “Genesee Fever,” which was actually a form of malaria carried by mosquitos from either local swamps that were quite numerous at the time or from the Montezuma area to the east where unknowing victims were first bitten by the clouds of buzzing, blood-thirsty pests as they travelled west.

With the Indian issue in the Old Northwest resolved following Major General Anthony Wayne’s victory over the Western Indian Confederacy at Fallen Timbers in August of 1794 followed by the signing of the Canandaigua Treaty by the Iroquois Indians that November, New Englanders began to feel more confident in making the plunge into the Genesee wilderness. As many early settlers soon found out, however, fear of local Indians was to be the least of their problems. For most, years of hardship and heavy labor lay ahead. To the strain of back and livestock was also added the many unanticipated challenges that a devilish Mother Nature would near mockingly throw at the settler.

The initial hardships of clearing fields and building cabins was met by countless attacks on livestock, crops, and settlers by predators, rodents, and birds of flight. Chief among the threats to life and livestock were roving wolfpacks. Consequently, among the first laws to be established by Town Councils or County Boards were bounties offered on wolves and other predators such as Mountain Lions, which were not as numerous, but feared more than the wolf as a result of their clandestine behavior and ambush tactics. Bear were also prevalent in the area, but they mainly posed a threat to crops (bear were known to devour an acre of corn in a single night) and the settler’s fattened pigs that were allowed to run loose in the woodlands to forage. Rattlesnakes also presented issues for settlers since they were known to slither into warm cabins at night or struck out at unsuspecting passers-by. Rodents and birds, however, were arguably the greatest pests to the settler-farmer since it was the squirrel, the chipmunk, the raccoon, and the carrier pigeon that would swoop down on freshly seeded fields and in a matter of minutes could devour nearly every seed in the farmer’s field.

Settlers came in three variations characterized by when they arrived and the amount of resources that they brought with them. First phase settlers were many times made up of short-term transients that were often “squatters” on lands that they did not own. Travelling to the region either alone or with family, the squatter would clear a few acres of land and build a cabin providing the family with the basic necessities for a subsistence lifestyle that was only periodically supplemented by trade with the local Seneca Indians. Squatters represented the main portion of discontents that attempted to escape either the religious or societal constraints on life and individual action that were prevalent in Puritan New England, but they usually packed up and moved further west as civilization began to encroach upon their meager homesteads in the forest.

Second phase settlers were essentially made up of the transplanted small-time farmers of New England who had either purchased or more likely mortgaged their squared-off lots from the great land speculators such as Phelps and Gorham’s company. With the help of proprietors such as Oliver Phelps or Charles Williamson of the Pulteney Land Syndicate who saw to the construction of vital grist & saw mills, roads, general stores, taverns, and the primary villages, second phase settlers began life in Western New York by eking out a subsistence living until more fields could be cleared (usually by cutting down the largest trees and burning the rest) for planting. The potash that they gathered from the charred earth actually provided the settler with a bit of income since it could be sold in bulk to soap manufacturers. This income might help the settlers to purchase essential provisions from the local general store that might have helped to make that first year without a harvest more bearable. A few fortunate settlers might have purchased land that had already been cleared by its former Seneca or squatter residents, but most had to hack and burn their their clearings out of the wilderness.

With the settler’s first harvest, any produce that was not needed for feeding the settlers and their livestock or as seed could be sold at the general store or distilled for sale at the local taverns. As the size of crops grew, true profits might be made by transporting goods to eastern markets. Not a few second phase settlers were known to sell their improved lots to third phase (more permanent) settlers. The second phase settler would then take the profits of his sale west where he would by a larger plot and begin the process of clearing and planting all over again. Or, he might also decide to use his profit to construct and manage a mill, tavern, or general store somewhere near another promising infant community. In the very least, it was the sons of the second phase settlers of Western New York that packed up and moved further west to seek their own farms and fortunes. Thus was continued a process that would stretch to the Pacific Ocean and would take nearly a hundred years to complete.

As this process unfolded here in the Finger Lakes region, the proprietors and the second phase settlers quickly found themselves co-dependent on each other’s industriousness since the settler needed the proprietor-subsidized roads, villages, taverns, mills, bridges, and general stores to market their produce and livestock and the proprietors needed the settlers to produce as much as possible for sale in eastern markets since without profit from their farms, the settlers would be unable to make their mortgage payments. Any imoprovements made by settlers would also raise the value of adjacent lands that were still up for sale thus improving the proprietor's potential profits. It was also the proprietors who enticed the essential tradesmen such as blacksmiths and carpenters to the region with subsidies or land grants. Company subsidized improvements were more than charitable investments by the resident land agent, however, since with each subsidized improvement to the region, the land adjacent to the improvement such as a road or mill increased significantly in value.

As for the settler-farmers and how they met the challenges of frontier life, community support proved to be the key to any successful farm. Without the support of neighbors in labor intensive elements of getting a farm started and keeping it functioning, the number of initial failures (as shown by the number of “Sheriff’s Auctions” listed in the Ontario County Observer) in the Genesee Region might have drastically increased since livestock was in short supply, as was money for paid laborers, and machinery was near non-existent.

What most second, and later third phase, settlers had come west in search of was not an escape from eastern society or civilization itself. In fact, it has been shown that what most settlers desired was the reproduction of the communities and patriarchal lifestyle that they had left back in New England - or in the case of Charles Williamson’s vision for an aristocratic planter-dominated Southern Tier - replicas of their plantations along the Chesapeake. Fundamentally, what most settlers to the region desired was a reproduction of their former homes, communities, and lifestyles, but unlike back east or down south in the Chesapeake region, a place where they might establish themselves as financially independent from creditors by working the abundant lands now available within the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.

This helps to explain why the layout for Canandaigua with its village square, designated lots for schools and churches, and a central business district was chosen by Oliver Phelps in hopes of enticing the right ‘sort’ of people to come west. Settlers to the region were many times reluctant (especially women settlers) to leave their homes, but the “planned communities” founded by Oliver Phelps and Charles Williamson helped them to make what otherwise might have been a traumatic leap of faith into the forbidding wilderness of Western New York.

The settlement of Western New York was therefore orderly and primarily managed by the resident land agents, Oliver Phelps, Charles Williamson, and later, Joseph Ellicott. This was not the haphazard and conflict-ridden settlement of the frontier that might be better associated with the south and mid-west. Settlement occurred where the Land Agent preferred since it reduced the need for infrastructure and improvements made by settlers could increase the value of outlying lands.

We are interested to know what things you might like to know about or see on display within our upcoming exhibit that relates to early settlement so please feel free leave us a comment.