Town of Onondaga

Submitted by Sue Goodfellow

Source:  Past and Present of Syracuse and Onondaga County by The Rev. William M. Beauchamp.  NY: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1908, pp. 394-403.

The town of Onondaga had its name from its Indian inhabitants, people of the great hill or mountain.  It was not strictly a town of the Military tract, being a reservation laid out in lots for later purchasers from time to time.  In March, 1798, two tracts called the Onondaga and Salt Springs reservations, became the town of Onondaga, and the first town meeting was called at Allen Beach's house.  This included most of what is now Syracuse, the south part of Geddes, and twenty-two lots in Camillus.  Lots 1 to 12, east of Onondaga reservation, were annexed in 1817. Exclusive of these the original town had two hundred and twenty-one lots of two hundred and fifty acres each.  Of these sixty-five have been set off.

Early events have been related in the general history.  Ephraim Webster came first as both trader and resident.  Other traders were also there, followed by the Danforths, Tylers and others in 1788.  Danforth died at Onondaga Valley, September 2, 1818, at the age of seventy-two, after an energetic and honorable life.  He had been a soldier of the Revolution and acquired high military rank in Onondaga, as well as legal standing.  Comfort Tyler, his associate, had been a Revolutionary soldier, teacher and surveyor, settling at Onondaga in 1788.  He became a favorite with the Indians, and they called him To-Whau-ta-qua, one who can work and yet be a gentleman.  In 1811 he moved to Montezuma, being interested in the sale works there.  Before this he had been active as a surveyor and in public duties, opening roads, establishing schools and churches, holding legal offices, and serving in the Legislature.  He was first supervisor of the civil work of Manlius.  Unfortunately his connection with Aaron Burr's plans destroyed his public prospects.

As early in 1789 came John Brown, Abijah Earll, Levi Hiscock and Roderick Adams.  Among other early settlers were Job Tyler, Nicholas Mickles, Joseph Forman, John Adams, Peter Ten Broeck, General Lewis, George Kibbe, the Needhams, William H. Sabine, Joseph Swan and George Hall.  Before 1793 the settlers in this town held their lands by sufferance of the Indians.  After 1796 titles were obtained.  In that year Gideon Seeley and Comfort Tyler bid off at auction twenty-one lots of two hundred and fifty acres each, at two dollars per acre.  Seeley opened a road to the south line of the town, building a bridge over the west branch of Onondaga creek.  There Turner Fenner built the first sawmill in the present town in 1793, and Major Danforth a saw and grist mill the next year.

Dr. William Needham came to Onondaga Valley in 1793, followed by his brother, Dr. Gordon Needham in 1795.  The latter opened the first school in 1796, being sixteen years old, and received his medical diploma August 25, 1797, at the age of seventeen.  They built the dyke.

In 1794 Comfort Tyler opened the first post office in Onondaga county, and as late as 1812 this was the distributing point for Manlius, Pompey, Camillus, Lysander, Marcellus, Otisco and Spafford.  George Kibbe opened the first store in 1800, below the arsenal site.  Wadsworth's pioneer road, 1791, became the old state road.  It came from the southeast to Danforth's, passing westward south of St. Agnes cemetery.  This gave place to the Seneca turnpike, running westerly through Marcellus village.  In 1800 Comfort Tyler's tavern was on this, on the east side of the valley.  On the west side a team was kept to assist others up the steep ascent to Onondaga Hill.  In 1798 a road was surveyed from the salt springs to the reservation near the east bank of the creek.  The cinder road, on the west side, soon followed.

In 1794 Thaddeus M. Wood opened the first law office in the county.  The name is "legion" now.  Soon after Onondaga Hill was laid out for the county seat.  William Laird kept a log tavern there in 1795.  Jabez Webb and Nehemiah Earll settled there in 1796, the latter being the first postmaster, and an eminent man.

The first town meeting was held at Major Danforth's in April, 1798.  Ephraim Webster became the first supervisor, succeeded by James Geddes in 1799.  The general course of early legal events has been sketched, but for some time there was a rivalry between the valley and hill settlements about the county buildings, none of which were begun before 1801.  The jail came first, with court room added, James Beebe being first jailer.  This was used till 1829, but has disappeared.  The county clerk's records were kept at the Valley till 1813, when a stone office was built at the hill.  The stones from this were used for a schoolhouse many years afterward.  A road covers the site of the old courthouse, but a few early houses remain.  The Presbyterian church is a good specimen of some of early days.  There are fine views all about, and the evening view from the hill, when the city is lit up below, is grand indeed.  Some day it will again be a lively place.

Meanwhile Onondaga Hollow went prosperously on.  Thaddeus M. Wood was there.  Joshua Forman lived there, 1800 to 1825.  William H. Sabine came in 1801, dying there in 1863.  George Hall was there for more than twenty years; Jasper Hopper also.  Reuben Patterson kept the Owl's Head tavern, and that of John Adams was popular and good.  Yet for awhile it was a rude sort of village, having but eight frame houses and a log school house in 1803.  Though some changes have come since, the following list of houses in Onondaga Valley as they were in 1894, is worth recording, and follows verbatim, ending with that of John Adams:

The Pratt house on the Tully turnpike, west side, is probably the oldest house in the valley.  Opposite to it is the site of General Thaddeus M. Wood's residence.

The Ephraim Webster house (1796) is on the Bostwick farm, west side of the valley.

John Forman's house (1798) west end of village, on Seneca turnpike, known as the "red house," is occupied by Sidney Wood, colored, formerly a slave of Thaddeus M. Wood.

John Hasting's house (1800) is north of the village, west side.

William Sabine's house (1808) is back of the academy, and occupied by his widow and T. W. Meacham.

Joshua Forman's house, (1808) on the Seneca turnpike, north side, is occupied by Dr. Whitford.

Jasper Hopper's house (1800) is occupied by Mr. Loomis.

Samuel Forman's house (1812) south side of turnpike, is owned by Mark Potter.

Philo Gridley's stone house (1812) east end of village, on turnpike, is owned by R. R. Slocum.

John Van Pelt's brick house (1812) later known as Patterson's west side of the village, main street, is owned by E. J. Kline.

John Adams' old stage house (1802) foot of west hill, is occupied by W. H. Harrison.

Arthur Patterson's house and store (1820) are occupied by W. H. Card.

Rev. Dr. Caleb Alexander's house (1820) south of the village, is owned by estate of Lemuel Clark.

The town hall and Odd Fellows' hall (1808).

The Mercer mill (1813) was built by Joshua Forman and others.

The Fuller house, corner of Midland avenue and Main street, was constructed from several old stores and dwellings.

Dr. Tolman's barn has a frame made from the timbers in the old Danforth house.

The John Adams house, one of the oldest dwellings, is the Dorwin residence at the springs.

This interesting list might be extended there and in the vicinity.  Samuel Forman's fine old house is now the postoffice, and a glimpse of its interior may easily be had.  Part of the old Academy remains, and the old Presbyterian church is a fine example of its day.

At Onondaga Hill, at various times, were Judge Daniel Moseley, B. Davis Noxon, Rufus Cossitt.  Oliver R. Strong came there in 1802, opening the first school there in November.  Hezekiah Strong, grandfather of John M. Strong of Syracuse, kept a store there.  Josiah Bronson built and kept a tavern.  One of his successors was Philo N. Rust.  La Fayette stood on its piazza in June, 1825, to listen to Thaddeus M. Wood's address.  It was burned in 1884.  La Fayette's arrival is the subject of one of Mr. Knapp's pictures.  Captain James Beebe, drowned in 1817, kept a tavern near the court house.  Another inn was kept by Mr. Cheney.  At one time there were seven public houses there.  About 1810 there were forty houses, stores, etc., while the hollow had sixty-five and "an elegant meeting house."

In southern Onondaga settlers came before 1800, the first pioneers being Ebenezer Conklin, Phineas Sparks, Gideon Seeley, Gilbert Pinckney, Turner Fenner and Amasa Chapman.  Before 1805 came John Clark, Obadiah Nichols, John Carpenter, Zebulon Rust, Henry Frost, Oliver Cummings, Joseph Warner, Isaac Parmater and Daniel Chafee.  These were in the vicinity of South Onondaga, which contained a Presbyterian church and thirty-five dwellings, beside a tavern and the usual trades.  Ten years later there were two churches, two grist and two saw mills.  The old Presbyterian church afterward became a public hall.  There is now a brick Methodist church there.  In the vicinity is the home of W. W. Newman, superintendent of Indian schools.

Cradleville, or East Navarino, is in the southwest part of the town, having its name from the grain cradles made there by the Chafee family, who came there in 1800.  There is a Baptist church there.  Navarino was at first called Hall's Corners, from Shubael and Sarah Hall, who built their log cabin half a mile south of the corners in 1799.  The intersection of the State with the Marcellus and Amber road took the name of Hall's corners, and afterward of Navarino.  Freeman North kept tavern there in 1835, Andrew Cummings was a merchant, and Oren Hall postmaster.  There is a Methodist church and stores.

Cedarvale is of later date, with a grist mill and Methodist church.  E. F. Lounsbury was postmaster in 1873.  It is on the headwaters of Onondaga creek, and here the Solvay company had a test well.

Howlett Hill was an early center, named from the Howlett family, Parley Howlett having settled there in 1797.  An early Baptist meeting house became that of the Universalists.  In 1835 B. H. Case was postmaster.  Change of travel destroyed its importance.

Loomis Hill, farther east, had its name from Eleazer Loomis, an early settler.  The Methodist church there is conspicuous yet, but the brass angel on its spire once made it a notable building.

With the opening of the electric road, and the development of the quarries by the Solvay Process Company, Spilt Rock has become a small village, with a Roman Catholic church.  The Spilt Rock Cable Road company, organized in June, 1888, has a cable line for transporting limestone to Solvay, and it is a novel sight to see the great buckets going to and fro in the air.  From the grade the loaded buckets going down are able to draw the empty ones up.  The harts' tongue fern was first found here in America in 1807, and the rocks contain some ice caverns still.

Danforth was incorporated December 21, 1874, with Edward Abeel as president.  In February, 1887, it became a part of Syracuse.  Elmwood was incorporated about 1894, W. W. Norris being postmaster.  Enoch M. Chafee built a grist mill, cradle factory, etc., here, and Henry Morris has greenhouses.  Elmwood park, with its little lake at the stone mill, once made an attractive resort, and close by is St. Agnes cemetery, "beautiful for situation."

St John's church (P. E.) was organized at Onondaga Hill, November 26, 1803, by Rev. Davenport Phelps, and as the first Episcopal parish in the county.  It became Zion church, January 3, 1816, but the congregation was weakened by removals to Syracuse, and services were discontinued in 1840.  The church building has disappeared, but the bell went to Trinity church, Syracuse.  A mission is maintained at East Onondaga, called St. Andrew's.

The First Presbyterian church was organized at Onondaga Hill before 1806, in Daniel Earll's log tavern, the first pastors being Rev. Messrs. Higgins and Healy.  The present church was built in 1819.  The Onondaga Hollow Religious Society (Presbyterian) followed, completing its church in 1810, the Rev. Dirck C. Lansing being installed pastor in February.  South Onondaga had also a Presbyterian church for many years, built in 1827.

St. Michael's (R.C.) parish was commenced at Onondaga Hill as a mission about 1874, and St. Peter's church, Spilt Rock, was completed in 1892.

The First Baptist church of Onondaga was formed at Howlett Hill, January, 1804, erecting a house of worship in 1821.  The society moved to Camillus village in 1848, and the Universalists now own the church.  Part of the members formed a Baptist church at Onondaga Hill in 1833.  Another Baptist church was formed at Navarino in 1812, erecting a church in 1823, at East Navarino.  The Universalists formed a society at Howlett Hill about 1848, Rev. Nelson Brown being the first pastor.  Eleazer Loomis built a Methodist church at Loomis Hill in 1845 and a Methodist society was formed on the hill east of the reservation quarries as early as 1820, which built in 1847.  The First Methodist society at the valley was formed about 1816, the church being built in 1825, and replaced with the present edifice in 1885.  The Methodist church in South Onondaga was built about 1837, and another at Cedarvale about 1840.  Another is in Navarino, and the society at Onondaga Hill erected its church in 1874, Rev. Frederick De Witt being pastor.

One important institution at Onondaga Valley was the Academy, which was projected in 1812, and incorporated April 10, 1813, the building being erected in 1814.  Rev. Caleb Alexander was the first principal and gave it a high standing at once.  He died there in April, 1828. Like other academies it changed its form, and became a union free school April 28, 1866.  Many persons of note were educated there, and in a letter to Whittier, referring to one of his poems, Willis G. Clark said:  'The pleasure which you say you have in listlessly gazing upon the sky makes me think of my old school hours at Onondaga Academy, when I used to sit and with my window open look out for hours upon the landscape, while the fresh winds were fluttering the neglected Horace or Virgil."

One pleasant feature of the old Academy is the annual presentation of prizes by John T. Roberts, for excellence in subjects assigned by him.

The old arsenal has been elsewhere mentioned.  It was kept by Captain James Beebe in the war of 1812.  Onondaga Lodge, No. 98, F. & A. M., was chartered January 1, 1803, Jasper Hopper being W. M.  It ceased to work in the excitement of 1826, but the records have been preserved.  An Odd Fellows' lodge came later.

The first County Agricultural Society was organized at Onondaga Hill in 1819, with Dan Bradley as president.  The first fair was at Onondaga Valley, November 2, 1819, and fairs were held for about six years.  The society was reorganized in 1838, and again in 1856.  It then purchased grounds east of Onondaga creek, and near Danforth.  These were sold in 1866.

The town, with Marcellus and others, had a spirited celebration of the Onondaga County Centennial, in May, 1894.  Among the speakers were Dr. Israel Parsons and Joel Northrup of Marcellus, Cyrus D. Avery of Geddes, John T. Roberts, R. R. Slocum, John M. Strong, and Rev. Dr. Beauchamp.  Miles T. Frisbie read a spirited poem, and among the papers by ladies were those of Mrs. Harriet H. Wilkie and Fannie A. Parsons.  A loan exhibition was a feature of the day.

Slavery lasted in this town till about 1830, and wolves were killed as late as 1807.  It was hard killing them then, and the bounty was doubled.  In settlement and early industries the town differs little from others.  "Old things have passed away; all things have become new" in a large sense; but there are old houses and places worthy of study yet.

The County poor house is well kept and is a little northwest of Onondaga Hill.  It was first authorized in 1826, and the site on Lot 87 was selected the next year.  A better building was erected in 1859, and water provided in 1867.  There have been various improvements since, and the farm of one hundred and forty-five acres somewhat diminishes expenses.

In 1888 the Syracuse Water Company sank tubes down to and through a substratum of gravel ten feet thick near Onondaga creek and proved, to their satisfaction at least, that south of Onondaga Valley village, through a tract twelve hundred feet wide, twenty million gallons of water passed from south to north every twenty-four hours.  Through the entire valley it was thought several times this amount passed.

The third newspaper in the county, at Onondaga Hollow, was called the Lynx, and was founded in December, 1811, by Thomas C. Fay.  He closed his prospectus this:  "I shall endeavor to promote the nation's interest with the industry of a BEAVER, while I watch its enemies with the eyes of a LYNX."  Thurlow Weed learned printing in this office.  Lewis H. Redfield issued the Onondaga Register at the hollow in September, 1814, removing it to Syracuse in 1829.  Webb & Castle published the Citizen's Press at the valley in 1832, for six months.  The Onondaga Gazette was founded at the hill in 1816, by Evander Morse.  It was changed to Onondaga Journal of 1821, and removed to Syracuse in 1829.

When the town was erected it was at once enacted that hogs might run at large if properly yoked.  In 1803 there was added five dollars to the county bounty for wolves.  In 1807 the bounty for foxes was fifty cents, and ten dollars for panthers.  That year it was voted that all land owners must cut down "to the center of the road the weeds commonly called 'tory' under a penalty of $5."  The name of tory-burr is obsolete now.  It was Cynoglossum officinale, having this popular name from the troublesome loyalists of the Revolution.  Quite a number of slaves were held, and some were freed before full emancipation came.  One belonging to Thaddeus M. Wood died but a few years since.

In speaking of the frequent rattlesnakes Clark said:  "It was no uncommon occurrence for these poisonous animals to insinuate themselves into the house of the early settlers, and coil themselves snugly in the corners of the fireplaces, and beneath the beds, for the purpose of gathering warmth."  Yet no one seems to have suffered.

General Danforth died in September, 1818, aged seventy-three, and his wife January 6, 1837, aged ninety.  In a note on his death the Onondaga Register said he had often been known, in early days, to divide his last loaf with a neighbor.  These lines were added of one

                      "Whose heart was generous, warm and kind;
                      Whose lib'ral hand oft clothed and fed
                      The naked, hungry, halt and blind,
                      Or saints or savages might find
                      And share with Danforth half his bread.
                      He's gone, and we no more behold
                      That bounteous hand stretched forth to give.
                      That hand is stiff--that heart is cold;
                      So died our patriot sires of old,
                      Such is the fate of all who live."

He has had many eulogies, and Henry C. Van Schaak, said:  "He aided more than any one other man in laying the foundation and preparing the way for our present prosperity."

The early Masonic lodge has been noticed.  It is also said that a chapter of Royal Arch Masons was founded in 1807, by Dr. Gordon Needham, then master of the lodge.  Mr. John T. Roberts does not mention this in his very interesting history of this early lodge.  The first site he said was "exactly midway between the Adams and the Tyler hotels."  He adds:  "During the years of the lodge's occupancy of Masonic hall, the annual dinner on the festival of St. John was held in quite regular alternation at Tyler's and Adams's, and the procession back and forth in full regalia was one of the Valley's great events of the year."

In his "Evolution of Onondaga," Mr. Roberts imagines a gathering of pioneers at Mrs. Danforth's, ten years after her coming.  "Comfort Tyler stands foremost among them, a handsome young fellow, well educated," etc.  "Young Thaddeus M. Wood is here also, paying attention to Maj. Danforth's daughter Patty.  He was the first lawyer in the county, a man of strong expression and strong aversion."  "George Hall, his partner in business...is more affable in manner, not so rich in land but more easy as to credit.  Gideon Seeley, George Olmsted, George Kibbe, Reuben Patterson, John Adams, the tavern keeper, William Needham, and "Gordon Needham, just from college with the first medical diploma shown in the county."  Others follow who were of early note.

"Cornelius Longstreet is introduced all round as a new comer.  That highly dressed young man with fine manners is just from Albany...His name is Jasper Hopper.  Another young man of fine address is introduced as Joshua Forman, recently arrived on a tour of inspection...That little man with very bright eyes and rapid speech is James Geddes, already noted as an engineer.  You would hardly recognize him in his dress-up suit, having seen him so often at his work...A fine looking military man drives up with his horse, 'Pomp,' and salutes the major.  It is General John Ellis from Onondaga Hill, and he brings with him his young friend Oliver Strong, the schoolmaster...That little Dutchman, a good talker and laugher, is Nicholas Mickel, from Elbridge, who is looking for a different location...There was that brightest of all the young pioneers, Moses De Witt, high born and splendidly educated, a gentleman every inch," and a host more undescribed.

In 1894 an old inhabitant gave some account of slaves in Onondaga. "There were lots of them.  There was old Thad Wood, the lawyer; he had a slave maid in his family. 'Squire Sabine had a man slave.  Lots of the old settlers had them.  They used them well, too, and sent them to school.  Why, there was old 'Squire Sabine's slave, he used to carry a watch and dress like a lord.  Judge Forman had a slave, and when she went away he made provision for her support.  Then his son wanted to go, too, and he left the old negress 50 acres of land during her life."

Lewis H. Redfield came to Onondaga Valley in 1814, issuing the Onondaga Register September 17, removing it to Syracuse in 1829.  He said the hollow "was a good place for conducting a polite newspaper," the people being of high culture.  Willis Gaylord Clark worked for him, and Thurlow Weed for a little time.  He would not employ Horace Greeley, thinking him lazy.  At the valley he replaced the wooden Ramage press with the first iron press used here.  He also introduced the composition roller in place of the inking balls.  For a time he was post master at the valley.  His daughter, Mrs. Margaret Tredwell Smith, gave, in 1894, this account of La Fayette's visit to the valley:

"The magnates of the county were present--a very remarkable company gathered--old pioneers, Revolutionary soldiers and of the war of 1812, 'walking in picturesque twos and threes,' in procession, under the bowery shade of evergreen arches erected in his honor, over the broad main street of the Hollow.  A multitude greeted him at Syracuse, where a dinner was given in his honor, at the hotel on the site of the present Empire house.  The Hollow had its special tradition of the occasion--as the procession passed along the street, it was arrested and stopped when it came in front of Mr. Redfield's house, and Mrs. Redfield presented a bouquet of flowers, which the General gracefully accepted."

Thurlow Weed came to Onondaga from Cortland, and he helped his father cut cord wood at Salt Point in 1809.  In 1810 he worked on Joshua Forman's farm, and afterward at Mickles' furnace, where he tempered sand for casting cannon balls.  He was living near there when he caught his salmon in the creek.  He sold it to Judge Forman for a silver dollar, the first he ever had.  His father Joel Weed, lived at the head of the cinder road and worked in the furnace.  He was in the habit of going to Mr. Redfield's office where Thurlow afterward worked for a time.  In 1811 the latter entered the office of the Lynx, where he learned his trade, afterward becoming one of the most influential journalists of the state, "the power behind the throne."

In speaking of Mickles' furnace, Richard R. Slocum said:  'The furnace fires were not allowed to die down for six months or more, but were banked with religious scrupulousness every Saturday night.  The following insertion is found in the Onondaga Register, published 1817, by Lewis H. Redfield:


The subscribed respectfully informs the above mentioned class of people that they will confer a favor on him by omitting to visit his works on that day.

        N. MICKLES.
Onondaga Furnace."

Onondaga Hill was no longer the county seat in 1836, but some of the buildings had not been removed, and there were fine residences there.  It had an Episcopal and a Presbyterian church, four stores, two taverns, and from forty to fifty dwellings.  It is now a very quiet place.

Onondaga Hollow (now Onondaga Valley) had then a Presbyterian and a Methodist church, as it has still.  There was the academy, a store, three taverns, a grist and saw mill, and about sixty dwellings.  In 1886 it had the academy and churches, two hotels, two grist mills, a cider mill, blacksmith shop, fruit drying establishment, wagon shop, and shoe shop.

South Onondaga is about ten miles south of Syracuse.  In 1836 Oliver Jones kept the hotel; A. H. Bradley and Elijah Lawrence were merchants; Elijah Welch was the miller, and Orlando Fuller the maker of cloth; Stephen Betts the tanner; Amasa Chapman made bricks; Allen Rice and Stephen Field were blacksmiths; Himas Wood, tailor; Samuel Kingsley, physician; Olmsted Quick, shoemaker; Amasa Chapman, Jr., mason; Ira Rue, wagon shop; L. Hodgkins and Volney King, cabinet makers; Abner Chapman, justice and school teacher; Alanson West, constable; E. L. North, M. E. preacher.  There were thirty-five dwellings and a Presbyterian church.  Fifty years later (1886) the place had a Methodist church, two general stores, hotel, two grist mills, wagon shop, two blacksmiths, three carpenters, four masons, two physicians.

Navarino, fourteen miles from Syracuse, had this record in 1836:  Freeman North, hotel; Andrew Cummings, merchant; Morris Wells, tailor; Jehiel Hall & Son, foundry; Clark Bentley, shoemaker; William Weed, gunsmith; George Andrews, blacksmith; George Enney, harness shop; Bradley Curtis, broom factory; A. B. Edmonds, physician.  In 1886 the place had a Methodist church, two general stores, two carpenters, a blacksmith shop, millinery store, dressmaker, two paint shops, shoe shop, broom factory, wagon shop, saw and cider mill, apiary, and a physician.

Onondaga Castle was the name of a post office just short of the Indian reservation line, now supplied by rural delivery.  Twenty years ago over four hundred Indians and about seventy whites received their mail there.  There is a hotel and blacksmith shop there, and at one time a flourishing store.  Quite a street of houses runs along the north line of the reservation.

East Onondaga in 1886 contained two stores, hotel, wagon shop, and blacksmith shop.  There are two hotels, and the place is almost a part of Syracuse.

In 1886 Danforth was an incorporated village, a suburb of Syracuse, and then had twelve hundred inhabitants.

Brighton was then South Syracuse post office, and was described as "a hamlet two miles south of Syracuse, containing a hotel, store, and about half a dozen buildings."  Of course these two places do not now belong to Onondaga, and it cannot be long before more of its territory will be added to the city, so rapid is its growth to the southward.

Submitted 3 December 1998