Chapter I - Hist. Steuben Co - McMasters [1853] - Steuben Co., NY GenWeb

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History of the Settlement of Steuben County, New York

by: Guy McMasters [1853]

History of the Settlement of Steuben County.

Chapter I

     The early History of Steuben County cannot be a record of events which are called great. The chopping of forests, the building of cabins, the founding of settlements, and the gradual subjugation of a most stubborn wilderness, are the only matters which can engage the attention of the chronicler. The events to be recounted are neither tragic nor terrible; the trouble to be told as far from overwhelming; the mysteries are not mysterious, the disasters are not disastrous. No battles has ever been fought within these boundaries. These hills have not, within the memory of man, spouted fire or been shaken by an earthquake. No carved stones or rusty weapons have been found in the valleys which would indicate that this county was in past ages aught more than an abiding place of wild beasts and a hunting ground for barbarians. And yet, notwithstanding the dearth of noisy heroism in our county’s annals, it may be avered that its citizens have accomplished, in the last sixty years, that which they may honestly be proud of, and that the work which they have done in the woods has proved them to be stout-hearted and stronghanded men.

     The records of events previous to the settlement of the valley of the Chemung by American backwoodsmen, must be brief and unsatisfactory. Beginning our investigations at the earliest times which Eastern nations are believed to have caught glimpses of a Western world, no evidence can be found to warrant a belief that those ancient rovers, who are declared by the learned to have visited the American shores before Columbus, ever strayed to that rugged region over which the supervisors of Steuben county now wave their democratic scepters. The Phoenicians undoubtedly lived and died in ignorance of Loon Lake. No more traces are to be found of Madoc the Welshman than of Esau the Edomite. Biorn, the Northman, it is to be feared, never planted his Scandinavian heel upon our river-flats, and no rams-horns have been found in the clefts of the rocks which by possibility may have been blown by the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.

     Of those interesting relics of the ancient empires of the continent, which are dug from the earth of the northern counties of our state, this county is utterly destitute. Mounds which may have been the tombs of kings coeval with Agamemnon; battlements upon which princes greater than Cyrus stalked; javelins of stranger fashion than the harpoon of the Argonauts; graven images, suspects to have been cousins to Dagon of the Philistines; swords and truncheons of gigantic cavaliers; and other strange relics of exterminated nations which Oswego, Onondaga and Genesee give up to the chronicler, are not found here. The farmer, it is true, may sometimes lay open with his plow the trench where lie the moldering bones and the rust-eaten hatchet of one of those red consuls whose whooping legionaries fired the wigwams of the Catawbas in the far South, or saluted from Illinois bluffs the Father of Waters; but as for antediluvians or giants, whose skeletons occasionally turn up in the fortunate counties of the North, not one of those venerable pioneers to our knowledge, reposes on these Southern river-sides.

     Relinquishing, then, all hope of enriching these pages with extracts from the ledgers of Phoenician traders, the tax rolls of Israelitish colonists, the diaries of Welsh wanderers, or the logbooks of Danish Pirates; and refraining from all discussion of the quality of the tenancy of those ancient settlers whose titles, if any they ever had, were long since extinguished, and who are not likely to set up claims against the grantees of Phelps and Gorham, all matters that transpire, or that may have transpired before the voyage of Columbus, may be dismissed without comment or conjecture. From the time of the event down to the period of the actual invasion of our country by the backwoodsman, near the close of the last century, a faint light, hardly more satisfactory than the total darkness of previous time, rested upon our forests, but in searching for tangible facts, the Historian meets only chagrin and disappointment.

     At the time of the discovery, this region, with a large and indefinite territory, now comprising portions of several states, constituted the domain of the five of the Five Nations, a fierce and crafty people, eloquent sometimes, and of proud bearing, the “Romans of the West,” as some call them. For many years after the anchors of the discovers first sank in the bays of the new found continent, these wild warriors dwelt in their Long-House unmolested by the Europeans who sought in the Western world. The councilors of their dreaded league met for conference at Genesee or Onondaga castles; their armies marched from the Mohawk to the Miami, and there was none to dispute their supremacy over the magnificent forests of which their arms had made them the masters. But in a century and a half new commotions began to agitate the wilderness. Enemies more formidable than the Huron or the Algonquin, encamped on the borders of the domain of the Iroquois. The drums of England were heard in the South, and the bugles of France in the North. Britons stood girt for battle behind the windmills of Manhattan and the palisades of Albany, while Gauls from the ramparts of Quebec, looked off over broad forests and wonderful valleys towards the Gulf of Mexico, and awaited the beginning of a contest which was to determine the destiny of a continent.

     The silence, which had for centuries pervaded the wilderness, was broken, and the chronicler may be reasonably required to gather from the battles, plots, and treaties which ensured upon the meeting of these antagonists, something which may be fairly claimed as part of the history of these ancient valleys. In the varied triumphs and disasters which diversified the long protracted struggle of French, English, and Iroquois, it may rightfully demand of the annalist that he find some event in the history of the hemlock ravines over which rhetoric may rave, research puzzle, or poetry whimper.

     But the conscientious chronicler will be compelled to disappoint public expectation. As the clouds will sometimes roll up black and thunderous in the West, so that cattle fly from the fields, and prudent townsmen inspect their lightning rods, and after all the storm drifts toward the North, and rains floods, and flings thunderbolts in our very sight; so did the great political tempest of colonial times rain itself dry along the shores of Ontario and the St. Lawrence, while our own ill-starred mountains parched. From the day when Champlain, the voyager, fired under the bluffs of Ticonderoga the first musket volley that disturbed the forests of the Six Nations, down through a period of one hundred and sixty years, more than a half dozen armies, of a wild and picturesque composition, invaded, encamped, fought; and besieged, almost within sight of the Northern townships of this county, but had not the charity to fire so much as a pistol over its borders. Montcalm’s bugles and Bradstreet’s drums sounded through the neighboring groves. Provincial rangers and Britons, French chevaliers and feathered sachems filed along the Ontario trails. There were treaties, alliances, plots and conventions. There was also occasional oratory--as for example, the speech of Garanguala to De La Barre, the Canadian Governor, a masterpiece of daring and picturesque irony. Cannonading at Niagara, at Oswego, at Frontenac, startled the wilderness. Yet, though all this fine tumult disturbed the secluded courts of the Long House, not even rumors of wars agitated the valleys of the Conhocton and Tioga. It May be said that during the long contest for the rich plains and noble lakes of Western New York, our old hills sat quietly apart, like the camels of a captured caravan, while two hostile bands of robbers quarreled for the booty.

     We gain, however, a single glimpse of the ancient time, which is of some interest, as revealing to our view the first communication of this country with the civilized world. Two centuries ago the still streams and the outlets of our lakes were alive with beaver. Many a harmonious phalanx of these sagacious little socialists reveled in undisturbed ponds, where they had lived generation since the flood, and busied themselves with the building of dams and other industrial pursuits, with none to molest or make afraid. At length, however, remorseless Dutch Traders established themselves at Albany, and combining with French merchants in the forts of Canada, laid foul plots against these tranquil republics, tempting the barbarians with bells and bright knives to begin the work of destruction. So presently the red huntsmen might have been seen skulking through the willows that overhung the creeks, and setting snares for the feet of the honest and unsuspecting beaver. Hundreds of these poor creatures suddenly found themselves bereft of their fur, and long-limbed savages, laden with ill-got plunder, hurried through the forests to the forts of the rapacious traders. Thus the first demand of the aristocracy of Europe upon our county was for the hides of its citizens--a very singular request, and one which the indignant republican will remember in connection with the tribute paid at this day to the Royalty of Hanover.

     A little more than a century after the massacre of the beaver, the Revolutionary war was raging through the land. Here again the Historic Muse displayed her ungraciousness, and refused to refresh our parching chronicles with a single skirmish. While the whole neighborhood in the North, East, and South, was alive with rangers and Indians, and rang daily with conflicts, scalpings, and burnings, silence of the grave reigned in our slumbering forests. The utmost that can be said for our county in setting up a revolutionary claim for it is, that it was sometimes a place of preparation for the ferocious allies of Great Britain before their attack on the frontiers, and a place of retreat after the slaughter. The utmost border settlements of our countrymen at that time in the States of New York and Pennsylvania were in the upper valley of the Mohawk, on the head waters of the Susquehanna, west of the Catskills, in the Wyoming country, and on the west branch of the Susquehanna. Down the valleys of the Conhocton, Canisteo, and Chemung, and up the valley of the Tioga, ran the trails by which sometimes the Tories and Indians stole upon the settlements in Pennsylvania from Fort Niagara, and by which again their bands, like hounds returning from the hunt, hurried to that notorious old kennel to be fed by their keepers.

     Hardly a fact, however, with regard to the movements of our county’s primitive citizens during the war is preserved for us. An intrepid imagination might do much toward filling this unfortunate blank in our annals, but till such a one assumes the task, each one must be content to make a Revolutionary History for himself out of such hints as may lawfully be suggested. Each must imagine as he can the wolfish fraternity of Tories and Indians traversing the war-trails of our wildness. Hiakaatoo, Little Beard, Brant, and the Great Captains of the Six Nations holding councils under elm-trees by the Chemung--the British officer, conspicuous with his sash and pistols, conferring by moonlight with savage chieftains that lean on their rifles, without the encampment, on the river bank, where the wild warriors are sleeping--the occasional squadron of canoes gliding down the swift stream toward the farms below on the Susquehanna.

     Now a file of barbarians descends the Canisteo trail from the north, turns up the Tioga and disappears. Soon their hatchets glitter afar off on the laurel ridge. Next is heard at midnight the ringing of rifles on the West Branch, and the shouting of the borderers as the blaze of their cabins lights up the wooded cliffs around. Strange processions sometimes straggle up the vallies. Now the mongrel hounds of old Fort Niagara return from encounters with the foresters of Pennsylvania, shattered and discomfited; but again the marauders return with scalps dangling at their belts, hurrying along captives, women and children who grow weary and are tomahawked, and also stout and weary woodsmen who must be bound and watched lest they rise in the night and beat out the brains of their captors.

     In the midst of the war the first lumbermen of the Canisteo may be seen on the its upper waters hewing down pine trees, and shaping them by fire and steel into canoes. One would in vain search for the peers of that savage gang among the boisterous raft men who, in modern day build their fleet in the eddies of that quiet stream. When the work is done and the little galleys are launched, what a lovely crew embarks! The Butlers with their merciless renegades, the chosen chiefs of the Six Nations, the fiercest soldiers of the forest, all with their war trapping and weapons ride in the slender canoes down the stream--down through the silent gorges, over the brawling rifts--then emerging from island groves of elm descend the strong Tioga, then bending their long file into the Chemung, disappear beyond our borders in that blue notch chosen for the river’s course in the hills below. This was the Armada that bore the destroyers of Wyoming.

     Sullivan’s two hundred barges move from Otsego and Wilkes-Barre to Newtown. His five thousand men march northward through the wilderness, barely brushing the edge of our county. We hear a great crackling of orchards and skirmishing of scouts, but a few miles from our northern towns. That singular fatality however which marks our earliest history forbids a scout to be tortured, a corporal to be scalped, or even a pack-horse to be beheaded within the bailiwick of our own Sheriff. A few adventurous boatmen, however, moved up the Chemung to see what land might lie on the upper branches of that unknown river.

     It appears, therefore, that Steuben County, from the earliest ages to the close of the Revolutionary War, was but a jungle of barbarism, without name and without history. Invading whirlwinds sometimes crushed the hemlocks of the hills in the courses, insurgent floods sometimes poured through the defiles with a tumult like the roar of a multitude, and the rival houses of wolf and bear, enlivened the wilderness with civil strife; but concerning human onslaughts and insurrections, the chroniclers of the Six Nations are silent, and the hope of recovering the memory of them must be forever dismissed. It remains, then, only to consider how the race which broke into these solitudes after the Revolution acquired their title to the same, and how they accomplished the great work which this day beholds performed.

     The freeholders of Steuben County generally derive their titles from Sir William Pulteney, of England, and his heirs. Sir William acquired his title from Robert Morris, Morris from Phelps and Gorham, the latter from the State of Massachusetts, and that commonwealth held under the Royal Charter of James I, King of Great Britain. How King James became the proprietor of this tract of land, it would not be easy to say, unless we adopt the presumption which the law sometimes establishes in cases of unaccountable possession of chattels, and aver that he “casually found it.”

     The grants of the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut, comprised vast tracts of land extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, including large portions of the present States of New York and Pennsylvania. The latter provinces loudly denied the validity of the royal grants, so far as they affected the territory within their boundaries, as at present settled, and the controversy arising from the claims of their sister provinces, was a fruitful source of correspondence and worse, between the rival claimants. In Pennsylvania it proceeded to blows. Colonists from Connecticut established themselves in the famous valley of Wyoming, and resisted with arms the edicts of the Assembly and the offers of the high courts of the latter commonwealth. Heads were bruised, bones broken, crops destroyed, settlements plundered, and even lives lost, and the peace of the Susquehanna Valley was destroyed by a feud worthy of the middle ages. In 1774, for example, an army of 700 Pennsylvanians moved up the river to conquer the intruders, but at the defile of Nanticoke, their boats being stopped by an ice-jam, and themselves confronted by a fortification hostilities were terminated by a rousing volley from the bushes, and a rousing volley into the bushes, the latter killing one man.

     The Controversy between New York and Massachusetts never reached deplorable virulence as that between the other two provinces. In the war of Revolution, private quarrels were by common consent suspended, and not long after that contest, the difficulty was adjusted. On the 16th day December, 1786, by a compact entered into between the State of New York and Massachusetts, it was agreed that the latter State should release to the former all claim of sovereignty over lands lying within the present boundaries of the former, and that the State of New York should release and confirm to the State of Massachusetts the right of pre-emption of the soil from the Indians, of the greater part of New York lying west of Seneca Lake.

     On the 21st day of November, 1788, the State of Massachusetts, for the consideration of three hundred thousand pounds in the consolidated securities of the State, ($100,000) conveyed too Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, all its right, title, and interest to lands in Western New York, which now constitute the counties of Steuben, Yates, Ontario, part of Wayne, most of Monroe, a small part of Genesee and Livingston, and about one half of Allegany; containing about 2,600,000 acres. The Indian title to this tract had been purchased by Messrs. Phelps & Gorham by treaty, at a convention held in Buffalo, in July, 1788.

     The purchasers speedily caused their lands to be surveyed and divided into seven ranges, numbered from east to west by lines running north and south. The ranges, which were six miles in width, were subdivide into townships designed to be six miles square, and the townships were farther sub-divided into lots. That portion of the purchase which now constitutes Steuben County, was surveyed for Phelps & Gorham by Frederick Saxton, Augustus Porter, now of Niagara Falls, Thomas Davis and Robert James, (or by the two first named,) in the summer of 1789. Judge Porter, in his narrative, published in Turner’s History of the Holland Purchase says, which regard to this survey, “While engaged in it, we made our head-quarters at Painted Post on the Conhocton River, at the home of Old Mr. Harris and his son William. These two men, Mr. Goodhue, who lived near by, and Mr. Mead, who lived at the mouth of Mead’s Creek, were the only persons then on the territory we were surveying.”

     Mr. Phelps opened an office for the sale of land at Canandaigua. The fame of the Genesee Country had been spread through all the East. Sullivan’s soldiers brought from the wilderness glowing accounts of vast meadows and luxuriant orchards hidden amongst the forests of the Six Nations, and the adventurous men of New England and Pennsylvania were not backward to seek new homes in the fastnesses of their old enemies. Before the middle of November, in 1790, about 50 townships had been sold, the most of which were purchased by the township or half townships, by individuals or companies of farmers.

     The settlement of Steuben County was commenced under grants from Messrs. Phelps s and Gorham, but for convenience the whole history of the title to the county may be here stated.

     Messrs. Phelps and Gorham, by deed dated the 18th day of November, 1790, conveyed to Robert Morris of Philadelphia, (the patriotic merchant of Revolutionary memory) the residue of their lands remaining unsold, amounting to about a million and a quarter acres.

     Robert Morris, by deed dated the 11th day of April 1792, conveyed to Charles Williamson about one million two hundred thousand acres of the Phelps and Gorham tract, which has been since known as the Pulteney estate. Mr. Williamson held this estate in secret trust for Sir William Pulteney, and English Baront, and others. In March 1801, Mr. Williamson conveyed the estate formally to Sir William Pulteney, an act having been passed by the Legislature of New York in 1798, authorizing conveyances to aliens for the term of three years. This conveyance was made three days before the expiration of the act by its own limitation.

     Sir William Pulteney was the son of Sir James Johnstone. He assumed the name of Pulteney on his marriage with Mrs. Pulteney, niece of the Earl of Bath, and daughter of General Pulteney. He died in 1805, leaving Henrietta Laura Pulteney, Countess of Bath, his only heir. Lady Bath died in 1808, intestate. The Pulteney estate descended to Sir John Lowther Johnstone, of Scotland, her cousin and heir-in-law. Sir John Lowther Johnstone died in 1811, and devised the estate in fee to Ernest Augustus Duke of Cumberland, (since King of Hanover,) Charles Herbert Pierrepoint, Masterton Ure and David Cathcart (Lord Alloway,) in trust, nevertheless, to sell the same as speedily as possible, and to pay and discharge the encumbrances on his estates in England and Scotland and to purchase copyhold estates adjacent to his estates in Scotland. John Gordon was afterwards appointed a trustee of the estate, in the place of Pierrepoint (the Earl of Manvers,) who in 1819 relinquished his trust. The present trustees (since the death of the King of Hanover) are Masterton Ure and John Gordon.

     The policy of the proprietors and trustees has been to sell the lands as rapidly as possible too actual settlers. In sixty years, as might be expected, by the greatest and most valuable portion of the State has been disposed of, but considerable tracts of wild land yet remain unsold.

     The validity of the title of the Pulteney estate has never been the subject of judicial construction in the highest court of the State. A cause now before the Court of Appeals, (decided in favor of the proprietors in the Supreme Court,) will probably set at rest the question of title.

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