Saturday, September 6, 2008

"No" From Ontario County to 1793 Proposal

From John Robortella
Canandaigua, N.Y.

In 2001, the citizens of the Town of Farmington in Ontario County (N.Y.) spoke out to oppose a truck stop development in their town. The expression of their views was another in a long line of examples on how individuals have shaped Ontario County through the years.

Perhaps the first collective voice of the people was that heard in Ontario County in 1793. If the settlers back them had remained silent, today we might be living in the State of Genesee instead of the State of New York.

While looking up information on the Phelps and Gorham Purchase and the survey of the Pre-emption Line, I came across a more-than-200-year-old proposal to create a new state here in western New York. It was the idea of some apparently less-than-solid citizens—land speculators who wanted several counties, including Ontario, to break away from New York and form a new state that would encompass all of central and western New York.

The people of Ontario County would have none of it.

This started when soldiers from Sullivan's expedition returned home and told of the beauty and bounty of the Genesee Country and the Finger Lakes region. Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend, envisioned her New Jerusalem here. Prospective settlers imagined better lives for themselves and their families. Investors saw dollar signs.

Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham realized that land prices would drop if they competed and acted separately in their bids to acquire the rights to western New York. Instead, they joined forces and, with other investors who wanted "in" on the deal, purchased the rights from Massachusetts to six million acres, subject to clearing the Indian title to the land.

On July 8, 1788, Phelps reached an agreement with the Indians at Buffalo Creek for 2,600,000 acres, not the entire conveyance from Massachusetts, but all that the Indians would let him have. He hired Col. Hugh Maxwell, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, to survey the Pre-emption Line (the eastern boundary of the purchase) and divide the entire purchase into six-mile-square towns.

But while Phelps and Gorham were taking the legal steps to purchase their lands and prepare the property for sale to settlers, "covetous eyes," as historian and author Charles F. Milliken describes, had been cast upon the same land. Another group of speculators/conspirators, according to Milliken, also wanted the land. This group, led by John Livingston, Major Peter Schuyler, Dr. Caleb Benton and Ezekial Gilbert, organized the New York Genesee Land Company. Since they couldn't buy land from the Indians (state law prohibited that) or from Massachusetts (Phelps and Gorham were making those arrangements) they skirted the law by acquiring a 999-year lease from the Six Nations of the Iroquois in 1787.

James Parker, acting on behalf of Jemima Wilkinson and the Universal Friends, was one of their first customers. He "leased" (and probably didn't know that it was a lease) a large tract overlooking Seneca Lake, never imaging that the New York State governor would declare the "leases" null and void. The governor informed the Indians that they had been duped by men who had no legal right to negotiate real estate deals with them. The Friend and her followers at City Hill suffered heavy financial losses by having dealt with the "lessees," as the speculators were called. She and her group immediately moved west to the present-day town of Jerusalem in Yates County. Others lost their money and their land, as well.

The state's renunciation of their "leases" incensed the lessees. Two of them, John Livingston and Caleb Benton, circulated petitions urging the people of Otsego, Tioga, Herkimer and Ontario counties to "join a movement for the organization of a new state embracing the whole of central and western New York."

If the lessees were incensed, as Millken describes, then the people of Ontario County, which at the time comprised everything west of the Pre-emption Line, were furious. They wanted no part of the lessees' scheme.

A meeting of the judges, assistant judges and large majority of the justices of the peace, together with the residents of Ontario County, was called at Canandaigua on November 8, 1793. The Honorable Timothy Hosmer, first judge of the county, was elected chairman, and Nathaniel Gorham Jr., clerk.

In a five-paragraph resolution, the people strongly expressed their resentment with Livingston's and Benton's proposal to form a new state, saying that it disturbed their peace and harmony. They urged New York to take "most vigorous" methods to stop the plan.

For its time, the resolution adopted that day in Canandaigua was strong and harsh. Public opinion was unmistakably clear:

RESOLVED, That the inhabitants of the county of Ontario, sensible of many advantages that they have derived from their connection with one of the most respectable States of the Union, and desirous of the continuation of the same advantages, highly resent the ill-timed and improper attempt made by the characters above alluded to (referring to Livingston and Benton—JR) to disturb their peace and harmony, that they conceive their measure as pregnant with danger, and such as, if carried into effect, would introduce into our infant county all the complicated evils which anarchy and confusion can create.

RESOLVED, That this meeting highly resent the threats made use of by the said persons, and conceive that, under the protection of the State of New York, they have nothing to fear from any banditti they can collect for the purpose of forcing them into measures which they heartily disapprove of.

RESOLVED, That this meeting, fully impressed with the impossibility of the proposed state's defraying expenses of the most moderate government that can be devised, and aware of the impolicy as well as injustice of raising by enormous taxes on uncultivated lands such a revenue, or devoting to those expenses property purchased under the faith of the State of New York and Massachusetts, and of drawing into our flourishing county people that such iniquitous measures would attract; recommend to the persons above alluded to, to persuade some more laudable mode of gratifying their ambition, and to desist from proceedings altogether hostile to our interest and welfare.

RESOLVED, Also, that it is the opinion of this meeting that the proposed meeting at Geneva ought not to be attended, as it was called by strangers to the county, and that we will consider as inimical to the county such persons belonging to it, who, at said meeting, shall consent to any of the proposals before reprobated.

RESOLVED, That this meeting, expect, after having made this public declaration of their situation, that those intrusted with the administration of the State, will take the most vigorous measures to suppress any of the attempts made to destroy the peace and quiet of this county.

The people of Ontario County had spoken. Citizen activism in Ontario County was underway.

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