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

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Hist. Steuben by McMasters Table of Contents

History of the Settlement of Steuben County, New York

by: Guy McMasters [1853]


The Air Castle Vanishing--The Close Of Col. Williamson’s Agency--His Character.

Nearly sixty years have passed away since the Scottish Captain started from the West Branch in pursuit of the air-castle which shone so brave like a balloon to him, looking northward from the Cliffs of Northumberland. The changes which have in the mean time been wrought upon this continent, are without a parallel in the World’s annals. Prophecy has been put to silence: conjecture has proved a fool; for the things which have been accomplished exceed so far anything promised in the visions of political prophets, or in the ravings of dreamers, that the extravagance of our ancient soothsayers is this day accounted moderation. No conquests of Goths, or Tartars can be compared for rapidity with the which has been achieved by the woodsmen of American in the overthrow of a forest as broad as an ocean. The little weapon which they wielded against the innumerable host that they went forth to conquer, seemed enchanted, like the swords of those champions of old, who are said to have slain their pagan enemies till rivers were choked, and hollows became hillocks. States have been founded, cities built, savage rivers made highways, prairies where the Genius of Barbarism fed his herds of elk and buffalo, made pastures for mules and bullocks, and the lakes which lay afar off in the solitudes, crossed only by the flocks of wild fowl and the fleets of Indian admirals, have been gladdened by the keels of steamships and the watchful flames of light-houses. The utmost western wilderness which the settler of “The Genesee” beheld over the Lakes, and which he surmised might become the dwelling place of desperate pioneers when he had been a century in his grave, is now but midway between Niagara and the outposts of the Republic, and caravans of restless men, pressing beyond the momentary borders, have crossed the Cordilleras and built cities on the coast of the Pacific.

Where now is the gallant Scot and his city? The Genesee country has not lagged in the advances of the Republic. Its population is counted by hundred thousands, and its wealth is told by millions; but the memory of the city builder and his schemes has almost perished. While the Northern counties have been making almost unexampled strides to power and opulence, the district which wise men of the last century pointed at as the centre of future Western commerce has dragged its slow length along in poverty and obscurity, and only by the sheerest labor has reached it present position of independence. The Great Western Highway was diverted from the Conhocton. For a quarter of a century the wealth of the North and West has been rolling in one tremendous torrent to the Mohawk and Hudson, and by side of the channel through which it poured, the demon, our ancient enemy aforementioned, has struck swamps and salt-bogs with his staff, and forthwith cities have risen from the mire. The little river which was to have been the drudge of the board northwest, carrying to the seaboards rough arks ladened with the grains of Genesee and far-off Michigan, has been happily delivered from the tedious servitude, turning a few mill-wheels and watering meadows. The fair valley of Bath, instead of groaning under the weight of a wilderness of bricks where brokers and cashiers, and other mercantile monsters might go about, gratifying their financial instincts to the full, bears at this day only a quiet village and a few ranges of farms, and is girdled by wooded hillsides as wild as in the days when the great Captain of the Six Nations was wont to rest with his warriors under their shadows.

The memory of the Scot and his city has almost perished. A Senator of the United States, addressing not long since the members of the Legislature of the State of New York, guests of the city of New York, at the Astor House, spoke of the prediction of a traveler in the year 1800, that the village of Bath on the Conhocton river, would in fifty years become the commercial metropolis of the State of New York. The public heard it with surprise. Many men of the past generation remembered the name of Williamson, but of the present generation few, except citizens of Western New York, knew of the attempted assassination of the great Atlantic city.

The story of the downfall of Backwoods Baron and his city, is a brief one. Ten years Col. Williamson lived on the Conhocton, and exhausted all chemistry in his experiments upon the possibility of turning a castle of rainbows into stone. His expenditures had been enormous, and the British proprietors began to grumble audibly. The towers of glass, which they once imagined they saw glimmering in the wilderness, were scrutinized with profound suspicion. But whatever doubt there might be about the reality of those structures, as to one thing there could be no doubt at all. The greedy wilderness was swallowing the fortunes of the Pulteneys with as little gratitude as an anaconda. Hundreds of thousands of pounds had been thrown away to that monster, and like the grave it was yet hungry. To satisfy such a remorseless appetite one needed a silver mine, or a credit with the goblins.

Col. Williamson, however, was not discouraged. Time enough has not been given, he argued. Even a magician would not undertake to perform such a chemical exploit in ten years. The brilliant balloon which overhangs the wilderness is not yet securely anchored, it is true, and sways to and fro as if it might possible rise into the air and sail away. Give but a few years more and everything will be accomplished.

But the faith and patience of the proprietors had become utterly exhausted. They had had enough of balloons and ballooning, and were deaf to argument. Like one awakening from enchantment, the Baronet saw the towers of ivory to be but squat pens of logs, and the spires of glass, but long dead trunks of hemlocks, bristling with spikes and blackened with fire. It was determined to change the system which had regulated the estate. Accordingly, in 1802, Col. Williamson descended from the throne, and Robert Troup, Esq., of the city of New York reigned in his stead.

Col. Williamson, after the termination of his agency, returned to England. He afterwards made occasional visits to America. He died in the year 1807, (at sea, it is said,) of the yellow fever, while on a mission from the British Government to the Havana.

He was a man of spirit, energy and ability. Repossessing in person, free and frank in manner, generous and friendly in disposition, he is remembered to this day as a “fine fellow” by the farmers who were once young pioneers, and opened his roads and hewed his forests. A keen follower of sports, a lover of the horse, the rifle and the hound, he was accounted a man, by the rudest forests. High-bred, intelligent, of engaging address, and readily adapting himself to the circumstances of all men, he was equally welcome to the cabin of the woodsman or the table of the Peer: and whether discussing a horse-race with Canisteo, a school project with Prattsburgh, or the philosophy of over-shot wheels with Bartle’s Hollow, he was entirely at home, and pronounced opinious which were listened to with respect. His hale, prompt, manly greeting won for him the good will of the settlers, and gave him influence at the occasional assemblies of the citizens. A crowd of men, for example, waiting in the meadows behind the Land Office for the beginning of a horse-race, became impatient, and at last Canisteo began to kill time by fighting. The Colonel, galloping over from the village, had but to exclaim, in his clear, cheerful way, as he rode around the mob, “What, boys, have you begun the fun already? Don’t be in such haste,” and wrathful Canisteo became pacified.

He had a gallant and impetuous way of doing what was to be done. Where he was, everything was kept stirring. The ordinary routine of a land agent’s life had no charms for him. To set in a drowsy office the live-long day, among quills, and maps, and ledgers, hearing complaints of failing crops, sickness, and hard times, pestered with petitions for the making of new roads and the mending of broken bridges, were unendurable. He must ride through the woods, talk with the settlers, awaken the aliens, show his lands to strangers, entertain gentlemen from abroad. By the pious and substantial settlers from the east, of whom there were many in the county, his tastes and practices were sternly condemned, but even these, while they were offended at his transgressions, and felt sure that no good would come of a state founded by such a Romulus, acknowledged the spirit and vigor of the man, and were willing to ascribe his failings partially to a military and European education.

He was dark of feature, tall, slender, and erect of figure. His habits were active, and he pleased the foresters by vaulting lightly to his saddle, and scouring the roads at full gallop.

Gen. McClure says, “Col. Williamson was an excellent, high-minded, honorable man, generous, humane, obliging and courteous to all, whether rich or poor. In truth and in fact he was a gentlemen in every sense of the word. He was well qualified for the duties conferred upon him as agent of such an immense estate, and for the settlement and growth of a new country, so long as Sir William Pulteney would furnish the means to improve it.”

Col. Williamson’s objects and motives in conducting the affairs of the estate, were not merely those of a speculator. His pride and spirit were aroused. In invading the wilderness, in hewing, burning, bridging, turning and overturning, till the stubborn powers of the forest were conquered, broken on the wheel and hanged up in terorem, like the rebellious in ancient warfare--in these he found excitement. To stand in the midst of the mountains, and hear the crashing of trees, the ringing of axes, and the rattling of the saw-mills--to see wild streams made tame, to see the continuous line of emigrant barges moving up the lower river, and to feel himself the centre of the movement, would brighten the wits of a dull man, much more invigorate one so wakeful as Col. Williamson. In his fine, dashing way, he would carry the wilderness by storm. Down with the woods; down with the hills; build bridges; build barns; build saw-mills, and shiver the forest into slabs and shingles--these were his orders, and they express the spirit of his administration. In this swashing onslaught his enthusiasm was fired. Besides, the money which he controlled, and the power which he wielded, made him a great man in the land. HE was Baron of the Backwoods--Warden of the Wilderness--Hemlock Prince--King of Saw-mills. There was not a greater than he in all the land of the west. When, therefore he found himself at the head of a little state which might sometime become great, the Napoleon of a war against the woods, it is not wonderful that in the excitement of building Babylon’s, or in the exultation of an Austerlitz among the pines, he should be animated with the thoughts and emotions which principles are not accustomed to expect in their agents.

All these dashing operations were fine sport to the men who rode on the whirlwind, but to the magician over the water, who was expected not only to raise the wind, but to keep it whirling, the fun was rather exhausting. To support a missionary of civilization in the American backwoods, purely out of philanthropy, or to keep amateur city-builders in funds, merely that gentlemen might enjoy themselves, were acts of benevolence, not, of course, to be expected from the British Baronet. When, therefore, Sir William Pulteney became alarmed at the encroachments upon his fortune, and abruptly stopped the operations of his viceroy, it would be difficult to say what fault could be reasonably found with him for this determination. Considering the remoteness of his possessions, their tenure under the supposed uncertain laws of a republic, and the great uncertainty of the enterprise attempted, he did no more than a man of ordinary prudence would have done, in his situation, in determining upon a change or a modification of policy, and the exercise of greater caution in his expenditures.

Time has proved that the reasons and expectations which induced Col. Williamson to undertake his great enterprise were ill-founded; and upon the strength of these acknowledged errors, he is often sweepingly condemned as a visionary--a heedless, wasteful man, engaged in business of which he was ignorant, and for which he had little capacity. Against such broad and unqualified condemnation we must protest. He founded his schemes upon the expectation that the tract known as the Genesee country would sometime become a region of vast wealth, and that through it the products of an indefinite Western country would pass to the Atlantic coast. Has time branded him a dreamer for these things? His error then, was, in mistaking the channel through which Genesee and the West would go to the sea-board. But, considering the modes of transit known to the world at that time, and the shape and position of the navigable waters which drained the Genesee, is any one prepared to say that there was a flagrant absurdity in pointing out the Valley of the Chemung as the destined outlet of the undefined Northern country? Most men of sense and experience, at the close of the last century, entertained this opinion. A prophet, it is true, might have unveiled the future of the Scottish chief, and shown him canals and railroads; but, except the wigwam of the Indian doctor, where the destinies were questioned by rattling porcupine-quills, and shaking the horns of a buffalo-bull, there was no oracle for the Western Cadmus to consult. To abuse Col. Williamson and his coadjutors, for want of common foresight, is as unreasonable as it will be for newspapers sixty years hence, to be astounded at the modern project of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific by railway to San Francisco, when, “anybody might have seen” that the natural port of the Pacific coast was Nootha Sound, and that the way to get there from New York would be to take the wires by way of Lake Winnipeg and the Sakatchawan river.

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