Steuben Co. NY GenWeb - History of Steuben Co., NY - McMasters - Preface

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History of the Settlement of Steuben County, New York

by: Guy McMasters [1853]


     The collection of the following annals was undertaken at the request of the publishers of this volume. When of course it was not expected that the general public would feel any interest in the subject of the work, it was yet believed that to the citizens of Steuben County a chronicle of its settlement would possess some value. The task was entered upon, not without misgivings that the historic materials to be found in a backwoods county, destitute of colonial and revolutionary reminiscence, and possessing an antiquity of at most seventy years beyond which there was nothing even to be guessed at, would prove rather scanty; and, while it cannot be pretended that the vein has been found richer than it promised, it is nevertheless hoped that something of interest to citizens of the county has been rescued from the forgetfulness into which the annals of the settlement were fast passing.
     All the facts set forth in the pages ensuing, except those for which credit is given to other sources, were collected by the Editor of the volume, by personal inquiry in most cases, from the surviving pioneers of the county. He has been unable to enrich his collection by any ancient documentary matter--letters, diaries or memoranda. The early history of the county rested in the memory of the few pioneers who are living, and in the traditions handed down by the who are departed. The appearance of Mr. O. Tuner's timely History of "Phelps and Gorham's Purchase," after this work was prepared for the press, has enabled the editor to correct the results of his own inquiries in several important instances.
    Those whose memory extends to the period of settlement, will find this but an unsatisfactory chronicle of the old time. Individuals who merit notices as early settlers of the county have probably been passed over unnoticed; many facts of interest and importance have doubtless escaped the researches of the editor, and serious inaccuracies will undoubtedly be discovered in the statements recorded. A fair degree of diligence in searching for facts, and a sincere desire to preserve honorable among those who shall hereafter inhabit this county, the memory of those plain, hardy and freehearted men who first broke into its original wilderness and by the work of their own hands began to make it what it now is, are all that can be offered in extenuation of the meagerness of the results of the editor's labors. The collection should have been made twenty years ago. Many pioneers of note--men of adventure, of observation and of rare powers of narration, have gone from among the living since that time. Much of valuable and entertaining reminiscence has perished with them.
    It is well enough, perhaps, to add in explanation of vagaries of divers descriptions which may be encountered in the following pages, and for which the reader may be at a loss to account, that this volume was written nearly two years ago, and at a period of life which such a lapse of time happily brings great changes of taste and feeling.
The editor takes pleasure in acknowledging his obligations to citizens in various parts of the county to whom he had occasion to apply in the course of his inquiries, for the readiness with which he has in all cases been assisted in the prosecution of his researches.
Bath, Dec., 1852.


    STEUBEN COUNTY occupies the summit and eastern slope of that ridge which divides the waters of Seneca Lake that flow to the Susquehanna, from those that enter the Genesee. The course of this ridge is northeast and southwest; its breadth from base to base is from forty to fifty miles; the elevation of the eastern base is about nine hundred feet, and that of the western base (the valley of the Genesee,) nearly eighteen hundred feet above tide water; while the highest intervening uplands attain an elevation of twenty-five hundred feet above the same level. The summit of the ridge follows the curve of the Genesee at the distance of about ten miles from the river. The streams flowing down the brief western slope are, therefore, but inconsiderable creeks, while the waters collected from the other side supply the channels of three rivers, the Tioga, the Canisteo and the Conhocton, which uniting from the Chemung, and add essentially to the power of the noble Susquehanna. The region composing this dividing range is an intricate hill county, consisting of rolling and irregular uplands, intersected by deep river walls, by the beds of several lakes, and by the crooked ravines worn by innumerable creeks. Few rocks are presented at the surface of the ground, and the whole land was originally covered with a dense forest--as well the almost perpendicular hill sides, as the valleys and uplands. The river valleys are bounded by abrupt walls from two hundred to eight hundred feet high, which sometimes confine the streams within gorges of a few rods in width, some grant a mile, and sometimes at the meeting of transverse alleys enclose a plain of several miles in circuit.
    The dividing ridge curves from the western along the northern boundary of the county.
The waters of the principal northern towns run to the Conhocton, while those of the counties adjoining, flowing in an opposite direction, feed the central lakes of New York and find ultimately Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence and the foggy bays of Newfoundland. But that the abrupt gulf of Crooked Lake pierces deep into the hills from the north, and carries off the meager brooks of two towns seated upon its western bluffs, our county would contain within itself a complete system of waters. The streams would pour down on all sides from a circle of hills and escape only by the narrow gate of the Chemung, at a depth of sixteen hundred feet below the springs upon the bounding summits. A wall would enclose complete province, and the scientific citizen hovering in a balloon above the single gateway in the south would behold, fifty miles to the northward, blue ranges sweeping in a splendid curve, to the Seneca, then bending southward to complete the perfect ring of highlands. The Crooked Lake is an intruder and sadly mars this scheme of uniformity. Breaking through the barrier which separates the northwestern tributaries of the Susquehanna from those nomadic waters that wander to Canada and the ocean of icebergs, it lies in a dark and deep bed sixteen miles within the county, while the southern extension of its valley pierces through to the Conhocton and forms, by its junction with the channel of the river, the broad and pleasant valley of Bath. But few streams, however, have been carried captive by this great robber to the shivering seas of Labrador. Two or three unfortunate brooks are compelled to send thither their unwilling waters; and, aside from these resources, it subsists upon secret springs and the rains that fall upon the bluffs and pour into the lake by a thousand short ravines or gutters.
    The hills of Steuben county are irregular blocks cut out of a plateau of clay, rock and gravel, by the action of the elements. Of the forces and elements by the action of which this original plateau was created, and of the later forces which afterwards hewed it into its present form--forms like those of a block of ice shattered by the blow of a hammer--we have a singular account from men of science.
    That the regions we now occupy, and indeed this whole western region, even to the Cordilleras (or rather the foundations upon which they are built,) were, in times past, at the bottom of a vast ocean; that certain continents which in the earliest ages sat in the east, were broken up violently by convulsions of nature, or were gradually dissolved by forces milder than the arms of those rude slaves dwelling under the earth which are of old reported by Geologists to have overturned mountains, and cloven in twain fast anchored island, and that the currants of the ocean flowing like steady rivers towards the setting sun, were laden with the dust of continents thus destroyed, and strewed it over the submerged plains of the West: that after these rivers of the ocean had labored silently and without ceasing for many ages, the whole bed of the Western deep was covered to the depth of many thousand feet with the materials of which the ancient Eastern world was built, till at length peaks, then islands, then a new continent, appeared upon the face of the globe, while the waters by many channels ran down into the vast hollow of the uprooted continent to form a new ocean;--all these things State Geologists seem to believe established--or at least they feel at liberty to surmise substantially to this effect.
    Further than this, we are invited to see the builders at their secret labors. Sluggish rivers of mud roll through the deep like enormous serpents, and waste themselves before they reach the valley of the Mississippi. Brighter torrents of sand following spread a gay carpet over the brackish trail of the mud-snake; then streams of pebble and shattered rock and of all the powders of an abraded world deposit, now Niagara Groups, now Chemung Groups, or when stirred by tempests and water-spouts settle into course conglomerate. We are shown also, periods of a wonderful life. Millions of those brilliant "shells and crinoideans and crustaceans," whose fantastic images are stamped upon the rocks, dwelt in numberless nations among the waters, while those hideous monsters whose names were only less formidable than themselves, prowled through the depth below, or floundered in elephantine antics among the billows above.     Once a part of the floor of the ocean, which seems to have been the roof of a cavern occupied by certain "secret black and midnight" powers, sinks downward, arouses the horrible Pinto of Mud from his slumbers in bottomless volcanoes, who, rising in towering anger through the rafters of his broken house, overwhelms coral forests, the empires of the gorgeous fossil tribles, and all the beautiful mansions of the deep with a tremendous flood of mire. Other atrocious giants came forth from the volcanic furnaces into which the waters have fallen, and the heat the ocean with spouts of steam, while certain angry chemists, drenched in their subterranean laboratories by the sudden inundation of brine, let loose their most poisonous gasses, and catching the unfortunate nymphs, dose them with deadly physic. All creatures perish. Even the gigantic and roaring monsters, choked with mud and suffocated by the poisons that rise from the reservoirs of death below, flounder in dying agonies. Their carcasses are drifted to and from a time, and thousands of years afterwards, men digging in mines lay bare their huge white jaws and their mighty shanks, and fasten up their skeletons with wire in National Museums. All these, and many other strange things, showing how at last the region we inhabit was built, we see, from the happily settled times of the present, into the troubled times far away--times truly of "agitation and fanaticism."
    Let us now leave greater speculations, and look homeward. That tract of land now occupied by the five western counties of New York in the southern tier, appeared above the waters in the form of a regular plateau with a mean elevation of two thousand feet above the level of the present ocean, overlooking the sea which covered the northern counties, the Canada's, and the Great Western Valley. The detritus from which this plateau was constructed, had ripened into a series of shales, flagstones and sandstones, which from the difference of the organic remains of the upper and lower ledges, have been divided by geologists into two groups,--the upper or Chemung group, and the lower or Portage group. The maps represent these as first appearing near Chenango County in this State, thence running westwards through the southern counties, with a breadth of some fifty miles, and a thickness of about 2,500 feet, thence continuing along the shore of Lake Erie, and toward the western extremity of that lake, making a bold curve southward. Their course, however, appears not to have been carefully followed in their wandering toward the far west; for we hear of them as being "probably" in Indiana, in reduced circumstances, with a thickness of less then 400 feet.
    But this matters not at present. We are shown then at the period of our deliverance from the deep, a fine plateau, extending from Lake Eire far toward the east, and from the foot of the Pennsylvanian mountains northward about sixty miles, to a great bay of the ocean. How did this become a labyrinth of hills? The waters that fell from the clouds, or that issued from the grounds wandered this way and that, under the guidance of their restless instincts seeking the ocean.              Many combining, formed rivers, and furrowed, for themselves deep and curving valleys; the creeks conquered crooked but triumphant passages through ledges of sand stone, and beds of shale, wearing their channels by industrious labor through many centuries; while the brooks, the runnels, the spring torrents, and all those lesser hydraulic tribes, slashed the fair table land, in all directions with gorges and ravines.
     Work like this would have hewn the plateau into abrupt blocks. It would have left a multitude of isolated and inaccessible tables, islands divided by perpendicular gulfs. Neither man nor beast could have ascended to the upland. The river valleys would have been broad halls enclosed by walls of rock; and the lumberman roving up the beds of the tributary streams, would find himself involved in hopeless defiles, with precipices jutting forth on either side, while hundreds of feet above his head the pine and the fir swayed their princely plumes in derision, like savage kings jeering the Spaniard from inaccessible cliffs.
     But observe how the judicious elements, with rude and ungeometrical but kindly labor, prepared the new made region to be a habitation for man. The frosts with powerful wedges cracked the precipitous bluffs, or with mighty hammers, as it would seem, shivered to atoms rocky pyramids. The rains rounded the edges of the cliffs, here pushing off great masses of earth, there sweeping loosened ledges into the ravines, while the invisible powers of the air working many centuries with those more boisterous slaves, which hollowed the water courses and broke up the rocks, wrought at length the rolling ridges, the broad knobs, the blunt promontories, and all the curiously designed mountain-figures that now cover the land. The work was thus made perfect. Forests cover the hills, and republicans coming after many days with plows and axes, find a land made read for them. After many days, too, civil engineers, with their glasses and brazen instruments, appear at the foot of the ridge dividing the Susquehanna from the Genesee, and find that the rivers and industrious brooks have been laboring at this gravel rampart for many thousand years, guided, indeed, by very rude trigonometry, hired by no pledge of public stocks and undisturbed by loans or rumors of loans, but have yet done the labor of myriads of miners, and have pierced the ridge with such admirable cuts, that the locomotive, instead of dragging its weary wheels up an abrupt ascent of fifteen hundred feet, winds swiftly through mountain halls, (at the risk, it is true, after the equinoctial rains, of encountering in certain places, a sliding hill-top or an avalanche of cobble-stones, which is quite alpine but unpleasant,) ever finding a gorge cloven through the broad bulwarks that seem to bar the valley; ever finding some crooked but deep defile through the bristling promontories that crowd together as if expressly for the discouragement of railroad directors.
     It will be remembered that at the deliverance of Steuben county, with its four western neighbors, from the water, a large tract of land in the North, which is now high and dry, was lying under the sea. This sea lost life rapidly, and bled to death as it were through many wounds. Until its level sank below the level of the upper valley of the Canisteo, the channel of that river was one of the passages through which it was drained. The torrent that ran roaring through the hills when supplied from such a reservoir was a powerful one; but since that has failed, the river has shrunk to very moderate dimensions, and now subsists upon the scanty charities of the mountain springs. Similar rivers probably flowed through many of the southwardly inclining valleys and covered them with "northern drift."
     In descending to details, the prospect is quite disheartening. We are mortified to confess that our county is destitute of volcanoes. We have not so much as a Geyser. Of scoriae and moonstones there is an utter deficiency; and as for trap-rock there is not an ounce of it between Tyrone and Troupsburgh. The true patriot will, however, hear with pride, the fucoides are tolerably abundant, and his ecstasy will with difficulty be suppressed when he learns not only that here was once the abode of the Hotoptychus and the Goniatites Acostatus, but that here we find the relics of the Astrypa Hystrix and the Ungulina Suborbicularis, and of other eccentric aborigines which nibbled sea-weed on our native hills in ages past, when Saturn was but Crown Prince. It is consoling also to remember that the tooth of a mammoth was once found under the bed of one of our central mill-ponds; reasoning from which fact, he is a bold man who will dare to deny that the broad-horned mastodon once bellowed through these gorges, and that here the gigantic antediluvian transfixed the monster with his iron javelin! It must be confessed, however, that the State Geologists are silent which regard to antediluvian sportsman. It will be with intense satisfaction that the sincere patriot meets upon the hills of Troupsburgh and Greenwood the airiest localities in the country, being 2,500 feet above the sea, that venerable and most worthy patriarch among the rocks of the earth, Old Red Sandstone. "Here the rock consists of a thin layer of argillaceous sandstone, highly ferruginous in character, and bearing a general resemblance to the iron ore of the Clinton Group. Its decomposition stains the soil a bright red color, and from these indications it has been supposed that valuable beds of ore would be found. It is extremely doubtful, however, whether this stratum will ever prove of any importance as an iron ore."--(State Geol. Rep.)
     Rocks of the Portage Group "appear in all the deep ravines and along the water courses in the northern part of the county, while the high grounds are occupied with those of the next group.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

     At Hammondsport, in the ravine above Mallory's Mill, we find about three hundred feet of rock exposed belonging to the Portage Group; they are well characterized by the forcoides graphica. The mass exposed consists in the lower part principally of shale and thin layers of sandstone, and at a higher point numerous layers of sandstone from four to ten inches thick. The edges of all the layers exposed are covered crystals of scienite or crystallized gypsum. About one mile from the mouth of this ravine an excavation for coal has been made in the black shale with alternates with the sandstone and olive shale. The indications of coal at this point was a few fragments of vegetables, iron pyrites, and the odor of bitumen arising from the shale. The work is at present abandoned until some new excitement, or reported exhibition of burning gas shall induce others to engage in the enterprise.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

     One mile north of Bath there is a stratum of very tough argillo-calcareous rock three feet thick. This furnishes some of the finest building and foundation stone, and should be of such a quality as to receive a fine polish, it will be a valuable acquisition to the mineral wealth of the county.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

     The rocks of the Chemung group continue along the valley of the Conhocton to Painted Post and as far the Tioga as the south line of the State, the tops of the high hills excepted, which are capped by conglomerate in a few places. The valley of the Canisteo is bounded on both sides by almost unbroken ranges of rock of the same group. The same rocks are seen along the valley of the Five Mille Creek which appears to have been formerly a continuation of the Canandaigua Lake Valley.

* * * * * * * * * *

     The Valley of Loon Lake is the continuation of Hemlock Lake and Spring water Valleys. In the neighborhood of the lake large accumulations of draft, arise in rounded hills fifty or sixty feet above the general level, and skirt the valley on either side.

* * * * *

     The country known as Howard Flats is formed of drift hills and ridges, but little elevated above the general level. I could not ascertain the depth of the drift, but the deepest wells do not reach it termination.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

     Sandstone proper for grindstone are found along Bennett's and Rigg's Creeks.
This place is about four hundred and five hundred feet above the Canisteo and fifteen hundred feet above the tide-water. The source of Bennett's creek is about eight hundred feet above the Canisteo. Grindstones are obtained in Canisteo on the land of Mr. Carter; in Woodhull, on the land of Wm. Stroud, Esq., and elsewhere in Jasper, on the land of Col. Towsley. And sandstone is quarried on the land of Mr. Marshall, near Lagrange, which is used for hearthstone, tombstones, etc. On the land of Mr. Davis, at Lagrange, a salt spring rises in the green shale. Several years since salt was made at this place and previously by the Indians.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

     There are numerous beds of lake marl and tufa in this county. Near Arkport there is a bed of this kind which furnishes a considerable quantity of lime. In the town of Troupsburgh there is a bed of this marl. There is an extensive deposit on the Canasaraga, south of Dansville, from which lime is burned. The summit level between this creek and the Canisteo presents an extensive muck swamp, and some beds of marl but their extent has not been ascertained." (State Geol. Rep.)
     We add the elevations of a few points above tide water: Seneca Lake, 447 feet; Mud Lake, 1,111 feet; summit between these lakes, 1,644 feet; Village of Bath, 1,090 feet; summit between Mud Lake and Bath, 1,579; Arkport, 1,194; summit between Bath and Arkport, 1,840; summit between Arkport and Angelica, 2,062; Troupsburgh Hills, 2,500; Corning, 925; Hornellsville 1,150; Crooked Lake, 718.


NOTE.--The Mastodon's tooth alluded to above was dug from a bed of blue clay near steam saw-mill of Mr. George Mitchell, in the Gulf Road between Bath and Wheeler. It is eight or ten inches in length. A large bone was disinterred at the same place which crumbled on exposure to the air. Further examination will doubtless disclose other grinders of this huge beast and perhaps a pair of those broad tusks, curving outwardly at the points, somewhat like scythes, which adorn the heads of its brethren found elsewhere, and with which one good able bodied fellow, sweeping his head to and fro in wrath, might mow down and army of antagonists like meadow grass.
     The bed of clay in which the tooth was found is of unusual depth and tenacity, and it is guessed that the animal of which the said bone was an appurtenance while rambling through the gulf, indiscreetly bounced into the mire and was unable to disengage his ponderous feet. It is further surmised that the bears may have pulled his skull around after death but the frame of his body remains where he mired.

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