Life of a Salesman - Part III

 

In 1798, five years after Williamsburgh had weathered the Berczy troubles, a series of pamphlets began emerging from the presses of Albany printer Loring Andrews & Company.

 

DESCRIPTION OF THE GENESEE COUNTRY, ITS RAPIDLY PROGRESSIVE POPULATION AND IMPROVEMENTS: IN A SERIES OF LETTERS From a GENTLEMAN To His FRIEND.

 

The illustration facing the title page, perhaps meant as much for Canadian eyes as those in the United States, was a drawing of Fort Oswego. Not terribly near the Genesee Country. But, not too far away either. A word to the wise...

The letters, addressed only "Dear Sir," were unsigned, but no-one knowing the workings of land agent Charles Williamson's mind could doubt their source. The purpose was succinctly spelled out in the first sentence.

 

I with pleasure comply with your request, and will endeavour to furnish you with such information relative to the soil, climate, situation and present state of the Genesee country, as may enable you to judge of the propriety of making it the place of your future residence.

 

In the first two letters the correspondent recounted the history of the original Phelps and Gorham purchase and the subsequent land dealing with Robert Morris. He then proceeded to extol the glories of this northward flowing river and the lands, shores and lakes (both great and finger-sized) of the surrounding area.

 

Each year seemed to add to the promising appearance of the country by the increased industry & exertion of the inhabitants, whose numbers increased with astonishing rapidity, every situation which nature had pointed out to possess superior advantages, was the scene of the action under the direction of some enterprising characters.

 

None, of course, more enterprising than the author.

In Williamsburgh, back in 1792, builder John Johnstone had moved his chief's house to make way for a barn, two outbuildings and, anticipating the region's suitability for raising fruit, a peach orchard, the whole complex to be known as Hermitage Farm. By winter his animal population included 60 cows, 100 oxen, 8 horses and 100 pigs. Williamson's father and brother sent seeds and fruit trees from Scotland. Nearby, Nathaniel Fowler had built the Starr Tavern, at a total cost of $275. When not touring the area and exploring Bath, Keuka Lake and the future Dansville, Williamson was laying out plans for a joint U. S.-Canada postal system for which, the following year, he had a post office put up. A school was opened as well. The village was taking shape, with 542 building lots sold. In the spring New Jerusalem resident Alexander Macdonald returned from Albany with four bateaux loaded with iron, steel, nails, hardware, chocolate, leather, scythes, rum, and pork, much of which he sold to Williamson. The Berczy disturbance mostly behind him now, his plans went forward, both at Williamsburgh and elsewhere.

While streets and lots were being laid out in Geneva, a survey was run on the Conhocton lands by Charles Cameron and Thomas Rees, Jr. for the village of Bath, named for Pulteney's daughter, the Countess of Bath. Williamson had a cabin built for himself there, as well as a land office and nearly 20 other log buildings, including a sawmill. He himself traveled off to Albany to begin registering deeds and mortgages, at the same time getting himself named a judge of the Court of Common Pleas for Ontario County. On July 15th he inserted an ad in the Albany Gazette, for an agricultural fair to be held at the fifteen-month-old Williamsburgh, beginning Monday, September 23rd. His capital on the Genesee was ready to play host to the outside world, especially Pennsylvania land investors. Featuring a horse race on September 25, on the flats of the Genesee River below the village (with a purse of £50), followed the next day by a grand sweepstakes horse race, as well as a huge ox roast, the affair was meant to be a transplanted version of the village fairs Williamson remembered from his life back in Scotland. The whole event was enough of a success that the land agent would repeat the experiment several years later in Bath. But Bath played a different, sadder role now. The day following the grand sweepstakes race his young daughter Christy died there of Genesee Fever.

If Charles Williamson felt his troubles were over in 1794, with the departure of Berczy and the German immigrants to the far side of Lake Ontario, he soon learned otherwise. There were more troubles in store and the most immediate came from that same direction. Upper Canada Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe, having lured the Germans to Toronto, was out to make further mischief. He had received orders on June 11th from his superior, Governor General Guy Carleton, Baron Dorchester, to prohibit the U. S. from founding any settlements on the south shore of Lake Ontario. The following month he sent a protest off to George Hammond, British minister to the U. S. in Philadelphia. Canada was seriously threatened by one of Williamson's settlements on the south shore of the lake, a menace to international harmony by the name of Sodus.

Earlier this spring Williamson, who had planned for several years on a settlement at the large bay the Seneca called Assorodus (silvery water), had a road cut north out of Palmyra to the lake. His surveyors had been active that summer, laying out streets for a large city. But when Simcoe got wind of the scheme Sodus was nothing more than a paper city. It would be several years before the first mills would be erected there on area creeks.

Williamson cranked up the propaganda machine, as only he could, and within a week U. S. newspapers were making their readers aware of the threat from the north. Meanwhile, on August 10th a British party lead by Major Roger Hale Sheaffe crossed Lake Ontario, delivered a formal protest the settlement at Sodus and requested an audience with Williamson in a week's time. Williamson, always the gentleman, agreed to meet with Sheaffe. If the officer had suspected he was wasting his time, that feeling was probably reinforced when he arrived for the interview. Tom Morris, an aide of Williamson, met the boat alone. He conducted Sheaffe up the path to a log cabin, probably the sum total of the great "threat", and Sheaffe entered. Williamson sat at crude table. On it lay a few papers. And a pair of loaded pistols.

Williamson asked if it was only Sodus that England objected to and was informed that it was the entire south shore of Lake Ontario. Canada wanted a buffer zone against the Iroquois. Williamson replied that England had no say in what an American citizen did with his own property and asked the intended consequences if the demand were ignored. Sheaffe was not able to speak for Simcoe. The challenge countered, the meeting broke up and the major sailed back across the lake. Williamson suspected Canadian inaction but he was taking no chances. He sent a post off to Robert Morris in Philadelphia with the latest news, and drafted a letter to family friend Henry Dundas, secretary in the English Home Office, strenuously protesting Simcoe's threats, thereby presenting the English government with a quandary. A colonial official was interfering with the property rights of the richest, and thereby extremely influential, man in England, William Pulteney.

Meanwhile Williamson, never engaged in just one thorny situation at a time, was facing another threat, this one from the west. Canada was involved there also, stirring up the western tribes against U. S. speculators and traders, hoping to maintain their own toehold in the Ohio Valley and beyond. Bluntly, a landgrabbing contest. And neither side was above cynically using the Indian nations to hasten the downfall of the Indians themselves. A series of victories had emboldened the natives in the west, and now the tribes of New York were taking notice, sending delegations west to see conditions for themselves, growing increasingly dissatisfied with the European encroachment in their own lands. The western New York land speculators saw land sales fall off dramatically, as prospective settlers began fearing that if the Canadians didn't force them out, the Indians would. U. S. Indian agent Colonel Timothy Pickering, although in failing health, worked tirelessly to keep the situation from exploding, pleading with tribal leaders to remain neutral, buying extra time. He bought just enough.

It was August 20, 1794, the day after Williamson sent off his message to Henry Dundas. U. S. Army officer "Mad" Anthony Wayne, hero of Stony Point in the recent revolution, met an western Indian force numbering close to 2,000 warriors on the banks of Ohio's Maumee River, at a place where trees littered the ground. When the guns grew silent and the battle of Fallen Timbers had ended, the threat to the Europeans vanished. As word spread from the defeated to their once potential allies, word that the English had stood by and hadn't discharged a single weapon during the battle, British aspirations in the Ohio Valley were dealt a crippling blow. It would be nearly another generation before they and their native allies would try again. In November the Seneca arrive at Canandaigua, joining the Cayugas, Oneidas, and Onondagas, and by November 11th Pickering had engineered a treaty that would bring peace to the Genesee Valley. He hadn't long to savor his own personal victory. By March 7th of the following year his body had finally worn out, and he was gone.

In Bath a blockhouse erected for protection against natives and Canadians, no longer needed, was torn down. A one-story frame courthouse and a log jail were built; 40 log homes, a theater and a racetrack were added. The month of the treaty signing, Charles and Abigail further augmented the population when Alexander Williamson was born. Over in Geneva another addition was made the following month when Williamson's $15,000 Geneva Hotel opened for business. He hired former English hotelier Thomas Powell as its manager, as well as an English chef, and celebrated the opening with a grand ball. But Williamson wasn't content to just sit around Geneva, dining on Old World delicacies. Dashing up to Sodus, he established another inn there and picked James and Moses Sill to operate it.

Williamson wintered over with his family down in Bath. It was at this time the agent began bringing black slaves into Bath, the first seen here, in spite of the fact that New York began officially discouraging slavery seven years earlier. In January he bought Hans from Rensselaer Schuyler for $250, and soon bought other males, importing the first female slave later the following fall. The village grew busier. Unlike in our own times, winter was often the best time of the year for freighting supplies. Oxen were particularly well-fitted for hauling large supply-laden wooden sleds across the snowy landscape and this winter a number of them arrived in the Pulteney settlements, dragged there from the Hudson freight boats at Albany.

After the snows melted and the spring mud season slowly passed, visitors began arriving in the area. Among the earliest were the drovers, bringing cattle Williamson was importing from New England. The exiled French nobleman the Duke de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt dropped by to visit Williamson at Bath, where he was put up at the inn and escaped daily from its two rooms with their six beds (often occupied by 25 men) to visit with the agent. Another notable, U. S. senator Aaron Burr, traveling to Niagara Falls with his daughter Theodosia and her husband Joseph Alston, left his party at Canawagus and passed through Williamsburgh on his way to see the falls of the Genesee - the future Rochester - staying overnight with settler Peter Shaeffer at Wheatland. Several Englishmen passed through and put up a log cabin further to the west, at what would become Caledonia. For Williamson's Pulteney fiefdom area was continuing to grow. Over the course of the next two years Williamson would purchase other small tracts of western New York land - four from Thomas Morris, four from Oliver Phelps, and 14,000 acres from Birdsong and Nathaniel Norton. He continued to make trips to Albany, recording 31 deeds and 157 mortgages for his backers. His miscellaneous expenses alone would run to £790 for the year. Not quite petty cash back then. Occasionally Pulteney would balk at further expenditures. When Williamson tried to promote investment in Connecticut's Lake Erie lands to the west, sending Colonel Benjamin Walker to Hartford to talk with the Connecticut Legislature, Sir William Pulteney turned down the proposal. Still the growth continued. Charles Scholl completed grist and sawmills on Canaseraga Creek, at the site of today's Leicester; Williamsburgh itself had twelve residences by the end of 1795. An outbreak of Genesee Fever that summer didn't slow progress noticeably. Williamson even found time somewhere to accept an appointment to an Ontario County judgeship. As winter on Bath descended again new plans were hatched to promote the region.

In the spring of 1796 a circular began appearing in large cities across the eastern seaboard. An agricultural fair was to be held in September in New York State at Bath, centered around several horse races. Readers were informed that guides would be posted at such far-flung places as Utica; Albany; New York City; Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Lancaster; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Alexandria; Richmond, Virginia; Montreal, Quebec; Niagara; and Presque-Isle, to guide caravans into the York State wilderness. Parties attending the September fair were already beginning to arrive in July. and by the announced date 3,000 prospects had arrived. The games began. Williamson's purebred Virginia Nell lost a £1,000 race to Silk Stockings, a horse owned by New Jersey sportsman William Dunn. Southerners, who bet heavily on Virginia Nell, lost money, goods and slaves. (Bath's black population increased.) For those who tired of the horse races there was a new theater (with daily performances) and wrestling matches. Hundreds of newcomers settled in the area and land values rocketed.

Things may have become a bit too cosmopolitan for some. A marker on the site of the theater today cites a description of Bath as a "cesspool of iniquity," and in her book, Genesee Valley People, Irene A. Beale of Geneseo quotes a letter from a father who wrote about his son,

...just returned both a speculator and a gentleman, having spent his money, swapped away my horse, caught the fever and ague...Previous to his late Excursion, the lad worked well and was contented at home on my farm; but now work is out of the question with him. There is no managing my boy at home; these golden dreams still beckon him back to Bath, where, as he says, no one need either work or starve; where though a man may have the ague nine months in the year, he may console himself spending the other three fashionably at the races."

Make a great song title, wouldn't it? How You Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm, after they've seen...Bath? Maybe not.

By the time the fair drew to a close the Pulteney Associates had made a £50,000 profit. The cash also flowed the other way. Clearing the Bath land had cost a thousand dollars. Over the summer Williamson spent £1,252 in wages for a scheme to make the village of Hopetoun a wheat distribution center. By the end of the year he had spent another £1,524. However declining levels of the water in the Seneca Lake outlet doomed that project. Undeterred by any reverses, the Agent launched further projects, incurred other expenses. He encouraged attempts to establish a newspaper chain across the Pulteney lands, setting up William Kersey and James Edie on the Conhocton where they began publishing the Bath Gazette and Genesee Advertiser and a year later, with Williamson's active encouragement, printer Lucius Carey set himself up in Geneva where he began publishing The Ontario Gazette and Genesee Advertiser. Costs for the Geneva hotel included $770 for masonry work, $1,400 for lumber from James Barden, and $4,538.47 for carpentry work by David Abbey. Another $112.60 went to John Woods for chimneys at nearby Mile Point. The 40-ton Seneca Lake sloop Alexander, named for Williamson's father, was launched there. He formed a company along with Samuel Colt, Jacob Hallett, John Johnstone, Thomas Powell, Polydore Wisner, and others, to provide a piped water supply for Geneva. In December Williamson visited Philadelphia and agreed to take over part of the Morris Reserve land sold to promoter Andrew Craigie. Sir William Pulteney put his foot down and once again and refused to finance the transaction. Williamson went ahead with his own money.

This same year his political career was advanced when he was elected to the state assembly. Which didn't keep him too busy to build the Patterson Inn at the junction of the Tioga and Chemung rivers to the southeast. The town of Painted Post (later named Corning) would grow up around this primitive version of a Holiday Inn. Still, it was becoming obvious to Williamson that his enterprises were in danger of withering for lack of convenient water transport for future purchasers. Williamsburgh settlers couldn't get their produce to market by way of the Genesee because of the falls up near the lake. A canal across the state was little more than a gleam in a few eyes at this point. To facilitate overland traffic from the Mohawk he joined with other businessman to erect a bridge across the northern end of Cayuga Lake. In the late summer of 1797 a stage line began operating between Utica and Geneva along the Genesee Road, (later renamed the Seneca Turnpike, today's Route 5). He would also obtain legislation permitting up to $45,000 to be raised by lottery for roads and was appointed the sole road commissioner for Ontario County.

In spite of what the info-mercials tell us, the real estate market is not always predictable. This was as true in the 1790s as it is today. Fortunes were to be made, but not overnight; the process required patience and the ability to hold out over the long run. Until transportation could be improved, settlers would trickle into the new lands. Only time could make the difference. Williamson did not know that his time could be running low.

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My thanks to John Topham for providing a copy of the Williamson DESCRIPTION OF THE GENESEE COUNTRY letters.

 

© 2000 avid Minor / Eagles Byte

 

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