New York’s Finger Lakes Region was well known to many Revolutionary War veterans as a place of both strife and potential. Strife because of conflict with Indigenous people, and great potential for lush productive farmland.
Soldiers witnessed both ends of the spectrum first-hand.
During 1779, Continental Army soldiers were sent to the area to put down Indigenous uprisings. Native Americans, under British direction, were raiding unguarded frontier farms and terrorizing settlements in many parts of Upstate New York. General John Sullivan and 6,200 men went into Ontario County to put an end to the raids. Sullivan was ordered to be thorough and decisive to permanently drive Native People away from white settlements and farms. In the process he burned Native villages and crops and killed many. The so-called Sullivan Expedition left a scar in Ontario County, and has been more recently called a genocide.
The objective of Sullivan’s Continentals was to improve security for new colonial settlers and to resettle those who previously fled the turmoil. Sullivan’s Army burned long houses, large quantities of stored grain, crops and even fruit producing orchards. The army marched through Seneca, Phelps, Gorham, Canandaigua, Bristol, Bloomfield, Richmond, Livonia and Conesus.
Many of the men in Sullivan’s Army were farmers from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Southern New York. Burning crops may have went against their instincts, but absolute destruction resulted. In the process that recognized that the area was a farmer’s dream. The soil was rich, crops flourished and orchards and gardens were lush. It was a vision that they wouldn’t soon forget.
When fighting finally ended in 1781 the region became a prime destination for settlement. It attracted significant numbers of people after the Treaty of Paris that took effect in 1784.
In 1788 land speculators Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham bought rights from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to sell six- million acres of land in Northwestern New York. The so-called Phelps and Gorham Purchase was later carved out and reduced in size to about two-million acres in Ontario and Wayne Counties.
After it was surveyed, the Phelps and Gorham Tract was ready for marketing. Developers were eager to sell properties to whoever would buy. The Seneca however, had other ideas. Some Native leaders said that their “heads were clouded” and they had been cheated into selling their land.
Regardless, Phelps established a land sales office in the small village of Canadaigua and sold parcels of land to speculators and adventurous settlers. A Berkshire County, Massachusetts consortium of speculators was one such group. In 1789 they purchased thousands of acres in Ontario and Wayne Counties. Members of the group included General John Fellows, Captain John Bacon and Deacon John Adams (all from Berkshire County, Massachusetts) and General Isreal Chapin from New York. Many more settlers eventually purchased land from these Revolutionary War officers. Veterans of the war followed as hundreds flocked to the area. Many Revolutionary War soldiers lived out the rest of their lives in Ontario County and were eventually buried there.
As more settlers came to Ontario County it became apparent that infrastructure was needed to support growth. There was an immediate need for roads and navigable waterways to facilitate commerce. Although Indigenous People had previously established numerous paths, wider wagon roads were sought to transport household goods, tools and equipment. The only east-west road that would accommodate wagons was the road to Fort Niagara, not useful enough for the anticipated development.
One of the Berkshire County developers, General John Fellows, was quite familiar with military logistics. He served during the Siege of Boston, the New York City Campaign and the Battles of Saratoga. He recognized the importance of infrastructure to enable the movement of supplies and equipment and trade. During 1789 he set about to open a trade route from Lake Ontario southerly into the interior of the county. Not by coincidence, the route also improved access to some of his his land holdings.
The route consisted of a sled road from Sodus Bay south to his block house near the hamlet Clyde in Wayne County. This gave traders from Lake Ontario access to interior and extensive waterways. In Ontario County. Mud Creek, Canandaigua Outlet (River) and Lake Canandaigua facilitated travel into the heart of undeveloped land. Another settler opened a second important north-south road, running south from Irondequoit Bay on Lake Ontario to Manchester Landing on Lake Canandaigua.
General Fellows also constructed a sawmill in East Bloomfield. It would provide rough-cut wooden structural members for houses and barns. It may have even produced the sleepers for his new barn. The barn raising called for a celebration. One member of the crew recorded that, “the(r)e was much drinking and enjoyment.”
The 1790 Census recorded that General Fellows’ household consisted of seven white males over age sixteen, four under sixteen and one white female. No doubt the residents were part of the group that previously migrated with him from Berkshire County. Although his house was crowded, it was only a temporary situation. Families living under his roof would soon build there own dwellings. There were eighteen houses recorded in the village with a total population of eighty-eight people in 1790.
Because of the land disputes with Native People, clear titles were not possible. That didn’t stop some settlers however, who built houses and barns anyway. The friction between settlers and the original Native occupants persisted however, and another treaty was proposed. The new treaty extinguished all disputes and permanently secure the rights of some Haudenosaunee, whose leaders declared, “Brother, we the Sachems of the Six Nations will now tell our minds. The business of this treaty is to brighten the Chain of Friendship between us and the fifteen fires.” (The fifteen fires were actually the original thirteen colonies of the United States.)
Deeds for much of the land in Ontario County were up in the air until the Treaty of Canandaigua was signed in 1794. After the signing many areas in Ontario County exploded with new settlers. One account says that “One winters day in 1795 in Albany – 500 sleighs passed westward heading to Canandaigua and stakes in the Phelps and Gorham purchase.” Another group of settlers left Dutchess County for Ontario County in wagons. The journey was arduous and the roads bumpy. One housewife remarked that her jug of cream was churned into butter because of relentless shaking.
The 1794 treaty was durable, but some deeds were not perfected and filed until 1802. The treaty, still in force today, is commemorated each November by the Seneca Nation and others in Canandaigua.
Illustrations, from above: typical Seneca village (courtesy www.hhhistory.com); map showing Fort Niagara (upper left), the Finger Lakes Region and Cherry Valley; and map of Phelps and Gorham Purchase.