Early Settlement of Orleans County, NY
From: Landmarks of Orleans County New York
Edited By Hon. Isaac S. Singor
Assisted by H. P. Smith and others.
D. Mason & Company, Publishers, Syracuse, 1894

Early settlements-Character of the Pioneers- Their Hardships and Privations- The War of 1812-15- Effects of the "Cold Summer" - Early Mills and Manufactures- The Morgan Case- The Lake and Its Traffic- Town Organizations and Formation of the County-Establishment of Schools and Churches.

The great purchase by the Holland Company which we have described, and the easy terms offered by them to buyers of small tracts, was instrumental in promoting settlement in the western part of the State. But the counties lying upon Lake Ontario, or parts of them at least, were not settled so early as the territory a little farther south. At the first the sales of the Holland Company were not numerous, but they rapidly increased as the beauty and fertility of their lands became better known. As far as Orleans county is concerned, it was almost an unbroken wilderness down to the beginning of the present century. A writer who passed through Western New York in 1792, left the following record:

Many times did I break out in an enthusiastic frenzy, anticipating the probable situation of this wilderness twenty years hence. All that reason can ask may be obtained by the industrious hand; the only danger to be feared is that luxuries will flow too cheap. After I had reached the Genesee River, curiosity led me on to Niagara, ninety miles-not one house or white man the whole way. The only direction I had was an Indian path, which sometimes was doubtful. At eight o'clock in the evening I reached an Indian town called Tonnoraunto; it contains many hundreds of the savages, who live in very tolerable houses, which they make of timber and cover with bark. By signs I made them understand me, and for a little money they cut me limbs and bushes sufficient to erect a booth, under which I slept very quietly on the grass. The next; day I pursued my journey, nine miles of which lay through a very deep swamp; with some difficulty I got through, and about sundown arrived at the Fort of Niagara.

Turner writes that two or three log and one framed hut at Buffalo, and two or three tenements at Lewiston, were all the improvements on the Holland Purchase before the close of 1799; and at the end of the century there was little more accomplished than the addition of a few families along the Buffalo road. The sales of the Holland Company in 1801 were 40 in number; in 1802, 56; 1803, 230; 1804, 300; 1805, 415; 1806, 524; 1807, 607; 1808,612; and in 1809, 1160.

In 1803 Joseph Ellicott laid out a village at the mouth of Oak Orchard Creek, which he named "Manilla," hoping that a harbor might be established there for lake transportation. In the spring ol that year James Walsworth settled there as the pioneer of Orleans County,(1) and the first settler on the lake shore between Braddock's Bay and Fort Niagara.

Referring to Mr. Walsworth's settlement and a few others of the first decade of the century, Mr. Turner wrote as follows:

Walsworth and the few others that located at Oak Orchard, were all the settlers in Orleans before 1809, except Whitfield Rathbun, who was the pioneer of all that part of the Ridge road in Orleans county embraced in the Holland Purchase (that is, west of the transit line.) Settlement had just begun at the mouth of Eighteen-Mile Creek, in Niagara, and at Johnson's Creek in Orleans, in 1806. Burgoyne Kemp settled at the Eighteen-Mile Creek in 1808. There was then settled there William Chambers and --- Colton, and there was one family at Johnson's Creek on the Lake. At that period there was no settler between Lake and Ridge in Niagara or Orleans.

West of Oak Orchard and on the Ridge the earliest settlers of prominence were Ezra D. Barnes, Israel Douglass (the latter the first magistrate north of Batavia), Seymour B. Murdock and his sons, and Eli Moore. Besides these, George Houseman settled at the site of Lyndonyule, in Yates, in 1809; a Mr. Gilbert in Gaines about the same time; Epaphras Mattison in Murray in 1809, and others in the following year; Alexander Coon in Shelby in 1810; and the first clearing on the site of Albion village (then in Barre), was made in 1811, prior to which a few families had come into that town. Further settlements in the several towns will be followed in detail in the town histories in later pages.

The first settlers in the county were chiefly natives of New England, and possessed the traditional Puritan energy, thrift and economy. They came, sometimes by single families, and occasionally two or more families in company, secured their lands, built their primitive log houses in which so many eminent Americans have been cradled, neighbor aiding neighbor, cleared away sections of the forest and began life under circumstances scarcely to be appreciated by their descendants of to-day. Hardship and privation were everywhere present during the early years. Money was scarce and markets were distant, while the products which would bring money were few in number and limited in quantity. To get grain ground the settlers were obliged to carry it to Niagara or to Genesee Falls, until mills were built within the county. Sickness, especially fever and ague, was prevalent, and the doctors were often far away. The scarcity of breadstuff, at least in a ground state, was perhaps felt during the first ten years of settlement more than any other privation.

Buying his land on easy terms, and inspired with the vigor of young manhood, the pioneer thought the road to independence would not be a long nor a very hard one; but many of them were disappointed in this. The meagre crops raised on the small clearing were needed for home consumption; or, if there was a small surplus, it could not be sold. The roads to market were often impassable for teams; sickness demanded the time and the resources of the well members of the family; interest accumulated, and it is not a wonder that many wanted to sell and go away. The number of the discouraged and helpless would have been much greater had not the Holland Company been extremely lenient with its debtors.

Orleans County was sparsely settled at the outbreak of the war of 1812-15, the few inhabitants being chiefly located along the Ridge road. This is one of the reasons, and probably the principal one, why it suffered so little from the effects of that war. It requires people and property to satisfy the ravages of war, and it is not known that a single hostile incursion was made into what is now Orleans county. But it was a period of anxiety and fear for those who had settled here, which was aggravated by the proximity of the frontier at and near Buffalo. In that vicinity the, conflict was actively carried on at times, and the Ridge road became the highway of flight for many refugees eastward.

The first news of what seemed to be an impending attack on this immediate locality in the winter of 1813-14, was brought by William Burlingame. He lived near the western border of the town of Gaines, and John Proctor, who lived four miles farther east, has left it on record that Burlingame came to his house, called him out of bed and asked him to arouse the people on to the eastward. Proctor mounted his horse and before daylight had visited all the inhabitants as far east as Clarkson. The effect of this action was prompt and a large company of men were on the move early the following morning to check the expected enemy. The organization marched to near Lewiston, where they remained on duty about two weeks. Mr. Proctor, with several others, went to Fort Erie in September, 1814, and performed excellent service there. One of the company named Howard was killed; one named Sheldon was wounded, and Moses Bacon was taken prisoner. Several bullets passed through Proctor's clothing.

Not long after the breaking out of the war the people of Gaines organized a company and elected Eleazer McCarty, captain. Of the operations of this company in the campaign Judge Thomas wrote as foliows:

In December, 1813, the British burnt Lewiston and news was brought to Captain McCarty by the fleeing inhabitants, that the British and Indians were coming east on the Ridge. He sent a messenger to John Proctor, the only man who had a horse in the settlement, to carry the news to Murray, and call the men together to resist them. The next morning the company was enroute towards the foe. The next night they came in sight of Molynenx Tavern, ten or twelve miles east of Lewiston, and saw a light in the house. Captain McCarty halted his men and advanced himself to reconnoiter. Approaching the place he saw British and Indians in the house, their guns standing in a corner. He returned to his men and brought them cautiously forward; selected a few to follow him into the house, and ordered the remainder to surround it and prevent the enemy from escaping. McCarty and his party rushed in at the door and sprang between the men and their guns and ordered them to surrender. The British soldiers and Indians had been helping themselves to liquor in the tavern, and some were drunk and asleep on the floor. The surprise was complete. Most of the party surrendered; a few Indians showed fight with their knives and hatchets, and tried to recover their guns, and several of them were killed in the melee. One soldier made a dash to get his gun and was killed by McCarty at a blow. The remainder surrendered and were put upon the march towards Lewiston, near which our army had then arrived. One prisoner would not walk. The soldiers dragged him forward on the ground a while, and getting tired of that, Henry Luce, one of McCarty's men, declared with an oath that be would kill him1 and was preparing for the act when McCarty interfered and saved his life. McCarty encamped a few miles east of Lewiston. While there he went out with a number of his men and captured a scouting party of British soldiers returning to Fort Niagara laden with plunder they had taken from the neighboring inhabitants. McCarty compelled them to carry the plunder back to its owners and then sent them prisoners of war to Batavia. After fifteen or twenty days' service, McCarty's company was discbarged and returned home. Most of his men resided in Gaines, and comprised nearly all the men in town.

Most of the inhabitants of Orleans county who did not go to the frontier, fled from their homes. Among other settlers within the limits of this county who took part in that war were Justus Ingersoll, who lived in Shelby and Medina; who joined the army in 1812, as ensign in the 23d Infantry, was in the celebrated charge on Queenston Heights, was twice wounded and received promotion to a captaincy. Allen Porter, who settled in Barre in 1816, was drafted in 1812, and was present in'the memorable sortie at Fort Erie in September, 1814, also Reuben Root and, his father, of Yates. Samuel Tappan, of Yates, afterwards a judge in the county, who was in the service as adjutant and captain, and took part in the fighting at Fort Erie and in the battle of Lundy's Lane; Joseph Hart of Barre, Robert Treadwell, of Gaines, Hubbard Rice and Chauncey Robinson, of Murray, Amos Barrèt, David Hood and Jeremiah Brown, of Ridgeway, all called out one or more times to defend the frontier against the enemy. The latter (Mr. Brown) left the following record:

In the war of 1812 1 was called to the lines to defend my country. I received notice on Friday night (1812) about 9 o'clock, to be in Canandaigua on the next Monday morning at 10 o'clock to march to Buffalo. I hired a man and woman to take care of my sick wife and child during my absence, while I responded to the call. I was then an officer in the militia, and I marched on foot with the rest of the officers and men to Buffalo, where we arrived the second day after the battle. Our company was the first that arrived and assisted in collecting the dead.

Others of the inhabitants probably took part in the war; but the number of settlers within the limits of the country was then small, and consequently the effects of the war were less conspicuous than at many other points. With the return of peace those who had left their homes returned, immigration revived and prosperity was restored, except as it was temporarily checked by the remarkably cold season of 1816. The crops of this year were almost wholly destroyed and provisions of all kinds became very scarce and prices abnormally high. Flour reached $15 a barrel and wheat $3 a bushel, while money was also scarce. These conditions continued through the year 1817. Live stock almost starved in many instances. Gideon Freeman of the town of Gaines, chopped over fifty acres of woodland for his cattle to browse during the winter of 1816-17, and six of them died from starvation. The family of Levi Davis had nothing to eat for three weeks before harvest time but some small potatoes, milk and a little butter. In the month of June, 1816, Jeremiah Brown of Ridgeway, who has been mentioned as a soldier of the war of 1812, went to Farmington to get food for several families who were in danger of starvation. He obtained a load of corn at one dollar a bushel, which gave temporary relief to many. There was much sickness in the county in early years, and this was aggravated by the scarcity of food. Mr. Brown made another journey to Farmington in the winter of 1816-17, and bought two tons of pork, at ten dollars per hundred, and paid three dollars per barrel for salt. Levi Davis, of the same town, has left the record with Judge Thomas that previous to the opening of the Erie Canal he paid seventy-five cents a yard for sheeting and the same for calico, and on one occasion paid fifteen dollars a barrel for salt. But the summer of 1817 brought good crops, and by 1821, so active had been the farmers in raising wheat, and so difficult was it to get it to market, that it fell in price to twenty-five cents a bushel.

But better times and conditions were near at hand. The energetic clearing away of the forests and further tillage of the soil, both gave the settlers larger crops and more area to cultivate, and at the same time diminished sickness. Mills, schools and churches were founded; newspapers were established, the Gazette in Gaines in 1822, and the Newport Patriot in 1824; the roads were improved; the formation of the several towns progressed-Ridgeway and Murray in 1812, Gaines in 1816, Barre and Shelby in 1818, Yates and Canton in 1822, and Kendall in 1837. The details of all these subjects will receive proper treatment in later pages of this volume.

Meanwhile the all-important topic of the Erie Canal had absorbed public attention during many years, and the great project was nearing completion when Orleans county was organized under the act of November 12, 1824, as before noted. The first election of county officers was held with the following result: Elijah Foot, first judge; S. M. Moody, Cyrus Harwood, Eldridge Farwell and William Penniman, judges; William Lewis, sheriff; Orson Nicholson, county clerk.


1) In order to avoid confusion the name "Orleans County" will be often used in referring to the history of the first quarter of this century, and, of course, prior to the organization of the county. It will be understood that when the county is thus mentioned, reference is had to the territory afterwards and now embraced within its limits.


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