Well, here I am back again; I was so far behind in my self-set deadline for completing a book about the early settlement of Yates County, plus gearing up for a major outside-and-inside remodeling of my 157-year-old house (I’m still sleeping on the floor in my parlor, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel), plus a few other personal odds and ends — take it from me, I needed a break!
I began this book project some time ago, on the theory that my previous work on the subject needed updating. The fact is that it’s been somewhat of a struggle to track down the original sources needed to answer some of my questions. And not all of these record-quests have been successful, but in the end I believe I uncovered some new material, or at least a few things that were forgotten for so long, they feel new.
To pick a single example: I already knew that the Pre-Emption Line had caused a great deal of trouble. Phelps and Gorham had the boundaries of their 2 million acre purchase surveyed in 1788 by Hugh Maxwell, a man of impeccable (not to say exalted) reputation. Anyone looking at a realistic representation of the Line on a map can easily tell there’s something wrong with it. Most people even then knew it wasn’t right, but the politics of land speculation pretty much ensured that no one would do anything about it unless forced. It was supposed to run due north from a point on the Pennsylvania line until it struck the south bank of Lake Ontario about 90 miles away.
The fact is, though it started in the right place, it deviated somewhat to the west from the onset. About halfway up, it crosses the very difficult ravine of the Keuka Lake Outlet, abruptly takes an even wider swing to the west and then reverts almost to a proper northward direction. In the end, the deviation from where it should have been to where it actually was was about 2 miles.
Since by treaty this line was not only the eastern boundary of Phelps and Gorham’s purchase (and after 1789 of the brand-new Ontario County), but the western boundary of state lands earmarked largely for military bounties, all kinds of confusion ensued. Oliver Phelps had pursued treaties with the Senecas, whose eastern boundary was also the Preemption Line — which meant that negotiations between the state of New York and the Cayugas (the next nation over) covered lands that lay west of Seneca Lake, in an area everyone had assumed would fall to the Senecas and hence out of contention for further sale.
Phelps had been forced to cede four townships to the Lessee Companies, two gangs of land speculators with ties to the state Legislature, in return for their influence with the Senecas. Three of these townships were adjacent to the Pre-Emption Line, with excellent farmland between them and Seneca Lake that the state had owned since 1786, when the Cayugas ceded their land to New York. A couple of parcels were excepted — one at the mouth of Kashong Creek and another stretching both north and south from there, from the present site of Geneva to include the northern half of the present town of Torrey. The state granted this same parcel to another man linked to the Lessees, and page after page of testimony wound up in a decision that the land belonged jointly to both.
Meanwhile, the census was taken in 1790, assuming that the eastern boundary of Ontario County was where Hugh Maxwell had drawn it, thus omitting a large percentage of the inhabitants. The most populous settlement in western New York was east of the Line, thus left uncounted by the Ontario County enumerator. The Montgomery County man never bothered to go west of Seneca Lake, so about 700 people were transformed into phantoms, and Ontario County left pretty thinly populated with 1,084 residents.
The following year the state Legislature added the land between the Pre-Emption Line and Seneca Lake to Ontario County. At the same time much of this land was granted piecemeal to various speculators, most from New York City, who evidently believed anything anyone told them. In 1792, when the Pre-Emption Line was resurveyed, it was found that the greater part of this land now belonged to the even more gullible Pulteney Syndicate, English partners who bought the former Phelps and Gorham lands. All the titles transferred in the last four years were thrown into confusion even where all the deals had been honest.
Meanwhile, the Military Tract was surveyed so Revolutionary veterans could receive payment for their service; this survey began in 1791, but wasn’t finished until 1794, during which period a great deal had changed. Furthermore, the original enormous Montgomery County was calving off new counties, with Herkimer created in 1791 with its western boundary the original Pre-Emption Line; then Onondaga in 1794, with its western boundary the New Preemption Line; in 1799 Cayuga was formed from Onondaga, with the same western boundary; and finally in 1804 Seneca County was created, with more or less its present boundaries, except for an obscure clause noting that if there was any land west of Seneca Lake that seemed to belong (if one believed the official description) to the new county, it was instead to be part of Ontario and Steuben.
Thus in one important case, the lands between the New Pre-Emption Line and Seneca Lake that were now in Steuben County (where actually they had been all along, by one interpretation), when the town of Reading was created in 1806 it contained all of what is now the town of Starkey, where no deeds had been recorded to mark the arrival of its first inhabitants. The land patent filed in Albany describes it as in Onondaga County, but when the patentee passed it on his deeds noted that actually it was in Ontario County, though of course by then it was Steuben. This land contained quite a little community, full of people only recently arrived from Vermont. If you’re feeling confused, think of how they felt.
More to come on what Hugh Maxwell actually did, how the soldiers were cheated anyway and the politics of county-making. And why any of it matters now.
Dumas has been a resident of Yates County for 43 years and served as research assistant and county historian for 30 years. She has authored books on the Universal Friend, Penn Yan and Yates County.