The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2001

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Henry O'Reilly and
Orsamus Turner


Robert G. Koch

Henry O'Reilly and Orsamus Turner had broadly parallel early careers and Turner eventually finished a project that Henry O'Reilly started. Their pioneering journalism is also the source of a recent local publication.

In 1826, O'Reilly arrived in Rochesterville to edit the first daily newspaper, THE DAILY ADVERTISER. A 20-year-old Irish immigrant, he was already an experienced printer. According to Blake McKelvey, "The new paper,…a commercial journal, independent in politics, attracted favorable notice in Eastern journals, further stimulating village growth." O'Reilly was soon deeply involved in the village and its politics.

When the disappearance of William Morgan brought an Anti-Masonic backlash, O'Reilly supported prosecution of the guilty, but wrote: "…we can by no means follow…some editors in branding societies with the guilt of a few." That alienated him from vehement anti-Masonics. He briefly went back East, but soon returned when public opinion swung towards his position.

The next year, "Though his paper was still restrained by its Eastern backer from taking a partisan stand, O'Reilly himself assisted in organizing a local…committee [for Andrew Jackson]." He was also active in other ways; for example, as a founder of the Mechanics Library. Then, he was appointed Postmaster. Meanwhile, Rochester flourished and O'Reilly charted the growth in print. The self-conscious boomtown asked for more, and O'Reilly obliged.

In 1838 he published "SKETCHES OF ROCHESTER, with Incidental Notices of Western New-York. A Collection…Designed to Illustrate the Progress of Rochester during the First Quarter-Century…." An epigraph declared: "The soul of ENTERPRISE has changed the land!" and the dedication was "To The People of Rochester-the laborious artisans and practical business-men-the founders of their own fortunes, and the architects of a town which has already attained the third rank among the cities of the Empire State." He predicted that it would be 15th in the land by 1840 and compared its population with that of cities around the globe, finding, for example, that, "There is not now in the kingdom of Greece a city larger than this of which we speak."

He cited Rochester's growth in postal revenues-from "three dollars and forty-cents for the first quarter [of 1812, to]…about $4000 per quarter. Such are the vast changes which are revolutionizing the wilderness of Northern America!" Statistics, lists, and pioneers' memories jam the 400 pages and illustrations show many of its buildings. His thoroughness has helped subsequent historians of Rochester. He assured his local reader: "… what citizen of Rochester can find any cause for envying the growth or prosperity of any other city either 'Down East' or in the 'Far West?'"

The volume was enthusiastically received, so he began to gather material for a history of Western New York. But in 1842, discouraged about the political climate here, he moved to Albany. He later embarked on a series of business activities that we'll look in on another time.

All of which brings us to Orsamus Turner, who was born in Honeoye five years before O'Reilly first opened his eager eyes in Ireland. Fatherless at eight, Turner knew the hardships of frontier life, including threats during the war of 1812. At 17 he was an apprentice printer in Palmyra. His mother died the next year. "Fortunately," according to a Rochester Historical Society article, "he secured an opportunity to complete his apprenticeship in the office of the ONTARIO COUNTY REPOSITORY at Canandaigua… [and was] well fitted… for the struggles ahead." At 21 he acquired his own paper, the LOCKPORT OBSERVATORY and in 1827 combined it with the NIAGARA SENTINEL.

Meanwhile, he was active politically and joined the Masons. Although he was jailed and fined for suspected complicity in the disappearance of William Morgan, the anti-Masonic agitations did not slow his progress. He married and a decade later, in 1837, came to Rochester to advocate canal improvements. He met Henry O'Reilly and their friendship blossomed, so when O'Reilly projected a history of Western New York, Turner volunteered or was invited to collect "recollections of pioneer settlers still living in his neighborhood." But with the pressure of maintaining his newspaper to support a growing family, he did not accomplish much. In 1842 a soured real estate investment forced him to find other paid work. O'Reilly aided his appointment as collector of canal tolls at Lockport.

Turner resumed his local history research and became interested in Joseph Ellicott, the pioneer manager of the Holland Purchase tract that spread from the Genesee to Lake Erie and the Niagara. When he asked O'Reilly's clearance to write on Ellicott, he received a somewhat discouraging reply, but O'Reilly was soon swept into other projects. By this time Turner was interested in more than Ellicott. He projected a history of Western New York and eventually got clearance and an unspecified amount of primary research from O'Reilly. Turner's 666-page PIONEER HISTORY OF THE HOLLAND PURCHASE OF WESTERN NEW YORK went into a second edition in 1850, by which time he added a 600-page PIONEER HISTORY OF PHELPS & GORHAM'S PURCHASE, covering the area between Seneca Lake and the Genesee. Between them O'Reilly and Turner had written about 1700 valuable pages on the beginnings of Rochester and Western New York.

In 1852 the careers of O'Reilly and Turner further entwined, when Turner came here as political co-editor of a new paper, the DAILY UNION. Two years later he returned to Lockport, bought back his old paper, but died suddenly in 1855. Two years later the Rochester DAILY UNION and O'Reilly's old DAILY ADVERTISER were combined into the UNION AND ADVERTISER, which in turn was acquired sixty years later by Frank Gannett and combined with the EVENING TIMES into the Rochester TIMES-UNION, now expired.

© 2000, Robert Koch
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