One of New England’s many distinctive bequests to its daughter settlements all across the northern tier of states is the town.

I mean the town in its New England sense, of course: a unit of government with a board or council elected by its people. In New York a town is a subdivision of a county; the English original, based upon the parish, is basically Anglo-Saxon. The word means a small fortified place, but the meaning shifted over time to the space enclosed by the walls.

The New England institution had boundaries designated in law. All the freeholders (males of legal age who owned property, which meant practically all of them) met once a year to vote on the expenditure of funds and to elect the upcoming year’s officers. The officers met between these annual meetings to take care of routine business, pay the bills and approve ordinances.

As New York is a kind of hybrid of England and the Continent, its list of municipal corporations is unrivaled. Dutch governmental forms were left undisturbed for years after the English took over in 1664. It was a proprietary colony, which the restored King Charles II granted to his brother the Duke of York, and the whole hodgepodge of Dutch and English forms was reorganized in 1683 with a section of the so-called “Duke’s Laws” which established 12 counties. If towns were Anglo-Saxon, counties were Norman.

In England, counties were at least nominally ruled by an earl (in France, this official was called a “count”). They all had sheriffs and other office-holders and were the basic bridge between the king and the people whom he ruled.

In the United States, the farther south you go, the more important counties are. They often combine executive and judicial functions, and the chief official is called “Judge” so-and-so even though he has nothing to do with courts. That’s a different kind of judge.

All of New York outside the city is made up of counties subdivided into towns. Cities fall somewhat outside this system in that they have no towns; in some states (like Virginia) cities aren’t part of counties either, but thank heaven we don’t need to worry about that. Villages are part of one or more towns, which confuses everybody, because it affects elections and taxation. Yates County has nine towns, and has had since 1851. One thing you learn fast if you’re a local or family history researcher is that towns are founded, and then change their names and boundaries every 10 minutes, and then, as it were, harden. Each phase poses its own challenges. This is primarily important if you want to find records, because they pretty much stay where they were created and all the new towns created from the original start over clean.

Let me give a local example. The town of Potter was created in 1832, a nearly perfect square, six miles on a side. Since 1823 it had been in Yates County, created from a very small piece of Ontario County in that year. Its name at that time had been Middlesex, and it had been about two-thirds of that town, which included also the land between its new western boundary and Canandaigua Lake. That land kept the old name of Middlesex when Potter was created and all the former town’s records. These were all destroyed by fire in 1901 (luckily, they had before that been reprinted in the local paper, whose editor was an amateur historian).

The old town of Middlesex had been named that in 1808; the townspeople had to get rid of the very pleasant original name (Augusta) because it was already {span}in use{/span} in a county farther east (which seems to have happened more often than one would think), but why “Middlesex” I have been unable to determine.

Augusta was created in 1797 from Canandaigua, which was huge. Originally that town was a census district, formed in 1790 so the first census could be taken. Ontario County, which was organized in 1789 and comprised all of western New York, had other districts; Jerusalem (which included most of what is now Yates County); Erwin (the Southern Tier) and Geneseo (west of that river). The total population was supposed to be 1,087, and none of these was populous enough to constitute a legal town. However, Canandaigua and Jerusalem both had town meetings in 1791.

So … a very early and long-lived resident of Potter would have been on the 1790 census in Canandaigua, 1800 in Augusta, 1810 and 1820 in Middlesex — all in Ontario County. In 1825 (state census) he would still have been in Middlesex, in Yates County, also in 1830; in 1835 he’d have been listed in Potter.

Middlesex residents did not have to jump so fast unless they lived in the valley of Flint Creek in the town’s southeast corner, in which case 1851 saw that area welcomed into Potter. The only roads out of the valley went east, and people had evidently had had enough of mountain-climbing to do their town business.

One hears a lot of talk nowadays about abolishing towns in the interests of efficiency. In New England they have mostly abolished counties instead. Myself, I’m rather fond of our state’s impenetrable municipal complexity, but of course no one else is. I kind of look at history as a series of losses, mostly unintentional but still irrevocable. I hate to add on-purpose ones to the roll.

Dumas has been a resident of Yates County for 40-plus 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.

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