EB Odds & Ends

A Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historical Research

December 1998 No. 34


Ever the master juggler, Williamson kept his various enterprises in constant motion in 1793. Advertisements appeared in the spring in Maryland and Pennsylvania for laborers to erect his seat of empire on the Conhocton. He brought family friend "Muckle" Andrew Smith over from Scotland to act as crew boss. Smith, acting in concert with former Indian trader George McClure, newly employed by Williamson, set to work with his horde of boatmen and axemen, with an energy and panache that would help fuel the legend of the half-horse, half alligator river roustabout later epitomized by boatman Mike Fink.

Up at Bath, Pulteney Square had been laid out by midsummer and a home constructed at the site for Williamson. A nearby square, St. Patrick's, was added for balance. His grandiose plans were for the namesake to rival the English original. At Geneva plans were underway for that settlement to become the center of a road stretching from Albany to the Niagara frontier, with an arrangement giving the Pulteney interests the exclusive contract to transport government mails across the state. But more settlers were needed, many more, and Williamson knew, in these pre-Barnum days, that nothing draws crowds like an entertainment. He was quite familiar with Scottish agricultural societies and their accompanying market fairs, and as the summer of 1793 approached, he determined to duplicate the tradition in central York state. The world would beat a path to his door. Thanks to the German problems the world almost had to do exactly that.

Invasion of the Opera Singers

What was uppermost in the minds of the ruling class throughout New England at this period
[c. 1813] was the peril from the "licentious turbulence of democracy," and both social and
political life were organized to scotch this particular serpent.

- Paxton Hibben - Henry Ward Beecher (1927)

Once he had established that Jack and Hervey were connected with families he knew, he treated
them as human beings; all the others as dogs - but as good, quite intelligent dogs in a
dog-loving community.

- Patrick O'Brian - HMS Surprise (1973)

The Germans brought over by Berczy and his fellow recruiter Father Georg Siegmund Liebich have made excellent scapegoats for some of the shortcomings of Williamson's early plans. (Folklorist Carl Carmer even made Berczy the villain of his historical novel Genesee Fever.) They have been described in most accounts as shiftless, lawless scum from the streets of Hamburg. Williamson himself has described Berczy as, "a designing villain...salesman...he has sold pictures in Hamburg...living in drunkenness, idleness and insolence." Berczy's immigrants are, "former Sailors, old Soldiers, Barbers, Butchers, Bakers in abundance, Sugar bakers, Banditti, Opera Singers...everything but farmers." They would fare no better when they finally moved on and emigrated to Canada. Their initial reception on the other side of Lake Ontario would be no friendlier.

The account written by Margaret Cowan in 1941 (admittedly at a time when Germans were about as popular as body lice) is very anti-Berczy, as are most other accounts of the fiasco. The victors write the history - in small, bloodless skirmishes as well as in major battles. Descendants of the Berczy immigrants in Canada have had an uphill battle trying to dispel the traditions fostered by the Pulteney agent and his adherents. In fairness to them we should explore briefly the hostility displayed against their ancestors. It seems to be a combination of the British class system of the time, with its anti-democratic attitudes , combined with unfortunate miscalculations from the beginning, not to mention a personality clash of temperaments too much alike.

Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy in the U. S. had yet to elbow to the forefront of national affairs. It may be an oversimplification to say that the political faction of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton was not unlike that of the English under George III; but more allied them than separated them. They were, or recently had been, English. That set them (and their cousins and business partners) above all others, made them a race destined to run the affairs of the world. Rule, Britannia! Rule Recently British America! Particularly upper class Britannia and America. Anglo-Saxons were God's chosen, especially the Anglo component. The Saxons could be useful, if one didn't expect too much of them. Much like quite intelligent dogs, actually. Their care and feeding was important enough, but could always be a bit sub-standard.

Wilhelm von Moll (Berczy) was more than a picturemonger. His father had been a German diplomat, a minster for the duchy of Brunswick at the Court of Vienna. He had joined the military and fought in Hungary, where he had been captured and held hostage by a local baron. (Not unlike Williamson's experience, except that no wife came of it.) Moll and the baron struck up a friendship over time and when Moll was finally released he'd been given an affectionate nickname - Berczy. Like Williamson, he returned home and looked around for employment suitable to his station, adopting the nickname as surname. Somewhere along the line he'd developed a talent for painting and many of his works, displaying impressive talent, hang in museums today. Some "salesman"! By the time the Pulteney Associates began seeking "hands" to labor on construction projects in the U. S., Berczy had become an assistant to the Baron de Damar. The baron assigned him to the American venture and Berczy began gathering his work force.

The original plan called for recruiting German farmers, but harvests had been good and there were no volunteers. Berczy turned to the city of Hamburg. The only pool to draw from seems to have been small shopkeepers and tradesmen fallen on hard times, with few prospects except debtor's prison or army service. America looked good by comparison. The agreement the seventy families accepted (most family heads could at least sign their names, at a time when literacy was not common) covered a six-year period. Houses, cattle, tools, meat, and flour were promised them. In return deductions were made from their pay of $2 per week to pay for a minister, medical expenses, fees for laundering and other necessities. Much like tenant farmers at a later period they were reduced by these terms to virtual serfdom.

They made the voyage in two groups, landing in early August of 1792. One group, under Liebich, landed in New York City. The other, Berczy's group, was diverted to Philadelphia, then sent to Northumberland, to begin construction of the roadway to Williamsburgh. Liebich's group was sent on to Jemima Wilkinson's settlement at New Jerusalem and from there to Williamsburgh.

Benjamin Patterson and others had already worked out the route and, on August 26th, construction began. At first the work was light, widening an already existing path, and things went fairly smoothly. Four miles had been improved by the 28th. Then the land became more rugged and the pace slowed dramatically. A few, perhaps the sailors mentioned by Williamson, were somewhat familiar with the use of a saw. But this was a task for sturdy woodsmen, requiring the use of spades, hoes and axes weighing nine pounds. The job called for bushwhackers. It received butchers and bakers. It's been said that the felled trees left in their wake looked as if beavers had been at them. In three weeks they had only cleared another four miles. And early snows had begun. Added to all this were bears, wolves, wildcats, rattlesnakes (perhaps even savages) and other fauna not encountered in downtown Hamburg. Arguments about the route retarded progress even further. Six more weeks. Five miles gained. The reluctant woodsmen were discouraged; their overseers probably even more so. Had there been no terrors lurking just beyond the campfire's light, escape was still not an option; the men's families had been brought along with them.

Charles Williamson had his own problems. It was at this time that the Genesee fever had attacked him, and when he was again fit to travel reports had reached him of the miserable, quarreling party of road builders nearby. Still weak from his fever, he set off into Pennsylvania to meet them, prepared to take over the enterprise and see that it was done properly. No objective account of the first meeting between Williamson and Berczy exists. Historian Lawrence Turner believes the bad blood between the two men that immediately surfaced was simply a case of two proud, headstrong, visionaries - empire builders who were so much alike that they couldn't stand each other. It seems as good an explanation as any. Williamson had arrived with Ben and Robert Patterson overseeing a crew of thirty frontiersmen, and soon the veteran workers were felling the trees while the German road builders came along behind, clearing the underbrush and doing the necessary spadework to level the road. Real progress was made. Williamson had moved on to the Genesee and Berczy and the Pattersons pushed the road forward. When mid-November arrived the Pattersons built several log blockhouses along the route and prepared to hunker down for the winter. But foul weather soon arrived and the hunters would return empty-handed at the end of each day. Supplies of all sorts began running low. Berczy was not prepared to sit around until spring and starve.

Up the Tioga

He had been promised that provisions would be available to his party as soon as they arrived at Painted Post, a settlement on the Tioga River, just over the border into New York. Selecting fifteen of his fittest countrymen, he sent them on ahead under Ben Patterson, to clear a trail across the border, while he went back for the others. Together they passed out of Pennsylvania and reached the Tioga. Disappointment met them.

Berczy had ridden on ahead as the party neared the Tioga and encountered millwright Peter Roberts, who informed him that the only provisions awaiting his crews were a few beef cattle. When this was confirmed at the next settlement, Berczy swung into action. He returned to Roberts and learned that a supply of meat and flour was about to be shipped from Newtown, New York, down the Susquehanna by barge to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He dispatched one of the Pattersons to Newtown to purchase some grain and ship it ahead to Painted Post. Then he returned to his main camp and set the American woodsmen to building a small flotilla of dugout canoes to fetch everyone along.

And found himself with a near-mutiny on his hands. The Hamburg contingent spotted the unsteady-looking craft and nearly panicked. They announced they would rather starve than enter a floating tree. Berczy immediately had their tent poles chopped up and forced the women and children into the canoes, at the same time loading all of the equipment onto packhorses. He again went on ahead to Painted Post, being forced to abandon his horse because of deep snow, and continued on in a commandeered canoe. He arrived at his destination and arranged for another flotilla to go back up the Tioga and help bring everyone in. It was not a happy band of adventurers that disembarked in the village on December 5, 1792. The quick arrival of the Newtown provisions cheered them considerably, helping them to forget their terrified introduction to one of America's oldest and most common modes of transportation.

Reunited with the group from New Jerusalem, Berczy's Germans were moved into small wooden cabins but soon began complaining about the primitive conditions and inadequate supplies (tools, wool, food) and looked to Berczy as their advocate. Williamson himself was not having an easy time of it in the early months of 1793. While on a business trip to Philadelphia in February he got word that his young son Alexander had just died of fever over in Northumberland. He was unable to get away before early March, leaving Abigail to deal with the loss of their child alone. When he did arrive he could only stay a short while before he was off again, to Williamsburgh.

Here he soon began to worry that Berczy could be undermining his authority and he began spreading word among the local Scots that Berczy and the Germans were attempting to sell them goods stolen from him. Berczy in turn accused the Pulteney Associates of giving the his settlers false promises from the beginning. The whole situation had Williamson frustrated. He had other matters on his mind; he was preparing to launch a campaign to attract needed new settlers to Williamsburgh. He had only recorded three deeds and eighteen mortgages at Albany so far this year. Also, he had seen land on the Conhocton River that intrigued him. Plans for a new, more accessible wilderness capital began forming in his mind. But the problems with Berczy's settlers got in the way, retarding all of his plans.

He was out of the village one day when Berczy, Liebich and a group of their settlers came to confront him. Having looked for him in many of the village houses they went on to his office and demanded of his aide John Johnstone that Williamson show himself. There were threats made on Williamson's life, as well as on Johnstone and on Thomas Morris. Morris headed off for Canandaigua for help.

Williamson arrived, saw the increasingly dangerous situation and took refuge in his office. The protesters gathered at the door and angry negotiations began taking place through the crack underneath his door. Gradually tempers began to cool and Berczy was able to begin calming his men. It was at this point that officers from Canandaigua arrived and arrested a number of the protesters.

Berczy, along with four others, headed off to Philadelphia to appeal for aid from the newly formed German Company, which had been organized to finance migration and settlement and aid their newly-arrived countrymen. The suppliants brought along an address (appeal) written by Liebich and signed by "52 husbandmen". Meanwhile Williamson had left for the Conhocton site the day after the arrests, leaving Thomas Morris and another aide, William Cuyler, to appeal to authorities in Albany. It would not be until the following June that a circuit court would hear the case. Indictments were not obtained against the protesters ("rioters" some claimed) but Williamson swore out his own complaints and the Ontario County sheriff arrested a number of the Germans. Witnesses may well have been bought by the local Federalists. The upshot was a number of convictions, and the settlement quieted down. Most of those arrested were fined and became indentured servants to various residents of Canandaigua until the amounts were worked off.

Across Lake Ontario in Upper Canada, Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe had learned of the situation. Although he'd been advised to do nothing to stir up trouble south of the lake, he offered refuge to Berczy and his settlers. Most accepted the offer and moved away from the detested Genesee region. Their experiences eventually paid off. Instrumental in the growth of Markham, a section of York (later renamed Toronto) Berczy's road builders were engaged in clearing a path to the north that would one day become Yonge Street. They would become influential in the early political and social life of the future metropolis.

Margaret Cowan sums up the entire episode, saying, "Civilization had put down roots in the Genesee Country." Perhaps there may have also been some prejudice planted there.

Meanwhile, Williamson's challenges were far from over. As plans for Bath began blossoming Williamsburgh was languishing. The recent civil strife may have soured some potential settlers and, even more importantly, investors. The crude carriage road up from the south still discouraged anyone not traveling by foot or on horseback. "Bread" was not easily come by. "Circuses" might do the trick. The salesman became a showman.

To be continued...


Historian Lawrence Turner spotted some inaccuracies in Part I, pertaining to the actual physical and temporal layout of the village of Williamsburgh; I want to set the record straight. Most importantly, the town was on the site where Route 63 passes today, not Route 36 (which runs down the other side of the Genesee).

There was actually no church building as such, services were held in the granary occasionally. No school building existed either. Classes were conducted by Sam Murphy in the Starr Tavern. The ballroom was on the second floor of the Starr Tavern; Murphy's Tavern was built earlier, around 1792. As far as can be known Murphy's didn't come along for another thirty-some years. Much of the history of the village can only be surmised.


© 1998 David Minor / Eagles Byte