The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2001

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Reminiscences of Stephen Durfee

from the History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, and Morris' Reserve by Orsamus Turner

selected by

Robert Koch

The Durfee Family

The Durfee family, who have been named, were from Tiverton, Rhode Island. In the summer of 1790, Gideon and Edward came first to Farmington, and Gideon returning in the fall, represented the country so favorably, that the whole family resolved upon emigration. Gideon, with Isaac Springer, came back in the winter of '90, '91, with an ox sled, consuming 17˝ days in the journey. Gideon purchased of John Swift his choice of 1600 acres. He located it on what was long known as "Durfee Street," a short distance below Palmyra, securing a large amount of the flats on the Ganargwa. Being soon re-joined by his brother Edward, the brothers and Springer built a cabin, and clearing six acres, and without the use of a plough, planted it to corn. The brothers returned to Rhode Island, and brought out their brothers, Pardon and Job, with their families, coming in a batteaux, and landing at their new home in the wilderness, almost destitute of food. They were rejoiced on their arrival to find their corn fit for roasting, a forwardness they have never since known. It served them the two-fold purposes of food, and confidence in the soil and climate. The six acres yielded 50 bushels to the acre, a quantity that served their own wants and over-stocked the market, as there were few consumers. The remainder of the large family came out in the winter of '91, '2. They had a large crop, some of which was marketed at Schenectady, probably the first that ever reached that market from as far west as Palmyra. Otherwise prosperous, sickness soon laid a heavy hand upon the household, 17 out of 22 being prostrated at one time with fevers. Their first bread was made from pounded corn; their first grinding was procured at Wilder's mill, and occasionally at The Friend's mill, Jerusalem.

The descendants of the Pioneer and Patriarch, Gideon Durfee, were 11 sons and daughters , 96 grand-children, and the whole number are now over 200. The daughters became the wives of the Pioneers, Welcome Herendeen of Farmington, Weaver Osborne, Humphrey Sherman and William Wilcox, of Palmyra. The only surviving son, is Stephen Durfee, of Palmyra, aged 75 years; and the only surviving daughter, is Ruth Wilcox, aged 76 years… .

Reminiscences of Stephen Durfee

There was general prosperity in the early settlement; all were friendly; mutual dependence made us so; and struggling with the hardships of pioneer life, there was a fellow feeling, a sympathy for each other's misfortunes, but little of which exists now. The first curse that came upon us was whiskey distilleries, when the new settlers would take their corn and rye, and get them converted to what was the cause in many instances, of their ruin, and that of many of their sons. There was not only habitual, every day drinking, but much intoxication. I saw so much of the evils of intoxication, that I refrained entirely, and was almost alone in it. I think the first temperance movement, practical one, in all this region, was made by me when I raised my house in 1811. When I invited my neighbors to the raising, I gave out that no liquor would be provided; and although it was a new experiment, I had no difficulty in raising my house. Strict temperance was not then a discipline with the society of Friends to which I belonged, but afterwards became so.

In the way of markets, our earliest grain mostly went to the distilleries, and supplied the new settlers. After Zebulon Williams, the early merchant established his store, he commenced a barter trade, receiving for goods, grain and cattle. Money was scarce; those who were pretty well off were troubled many times, to pay their taxes, and much property used to be sacrificed at public sale. Williams was the first cash purchaser for wheat, but the prices were fluctuating; running down sometimes to 37˝ cents. One of my neighbors once sold his wheat in Rochester for twenty-five cents.

In early years we could hardly believe that settlement would go much beyond the Genesee River, during our life time. We thought we were quite far enough to the west; as far removed from markets as it would answer to venture; and we that had seen the hardest features of pioneer life, were surprised to see or hear of men attacking the dark heavy forests of the Holland Purchase.

Our first commerce was the navigation of the Ganargwa creek; then came the "big wagons," and then the Erie Canal, that gave us fair, steady prices for produce, raised the value of lands, and brought on a new era of enterprise and prosperity.

The Indians, were hunting and trapping, camping in our neighborhood, in all the earliest years. The flats of the Ganargwa, and the adjoining up lands were favorite hunting grounds. Many of the sons of the early settlers were trappers. It was about our only means of obtaining any money. I have realized from muskrat and coon furs, $50 in a season. I caught a beaver in a trap that I set for otter. Henry Lovell, a famous hunter was here in early years, he had trapped beaver for years. He said he had often tamed the young ones. Following their instinct (or reasoning,) when it rained they would knaw up chairs, and other household furniture, and go through with all the ceremony of erecting dams. When suffered to go out, they would commence dams upon the small streams.

All the low grounds of Palmyra were very heavily timbered; there were but small patches of open flats. To look out before we got clearings, we had to go upon the top of "Wintergreen Hill." Upon this hill, just before Wayne's victory, we contemplated the erection of a blockhouse, fearing an outbreak of the Indians. But we were soon quieted by events that followed.

I remember very well the first town meeting. It was held at my father's house. All were well pleased with the idea that we had got along fast enough in the "District of Tolland" to have a town organization. John Swift was the Captain of our first training-his beat, all this north country. The company parade was at his house; he gave out a liberal supply of damaged powder-salutes were fired-occasionally an old revolutionary musket burst; as holidays were scarce then, we used to make the most of them. We began to have apples, from the seed, soon after 1800. Previous to that we had plenty of wild plums, crab apples, cranberries, &c. Evans root chocolate was a common beverage; and we used wheat and tea for coffee. Our nails cost us 25 cents per lb., "hum hum" for shirts, 50 cents per yard, a luxury that but few could indulge in. Our wool had to be carded by hand, in all the early years. John Swift built the first carding machine, on the present site of Goddard's mill.

Nathan Harris was the principal early hunter of Palmyra; and fisherman too; in 1792 he drew a net across Ganargwa creek, near the present residence of Mrs. Williams, and caught eighteen large salmon. He was the father of Martin Harris, who was an early convert to Mormonism, and mortgaged his fine farm to pay for the printing of the "Gold Bible."*

*The late Mrs. Eden Foster, of Batavia, whose first husband was Moody Stone, of Palmyra, was an inmate of the family of Dr. Town. She gave the author a graphic description of a husking frolic in '96, at the house of Nathan Harris: "We had a pot pie baked in a five pail kettle, composed of 13 fowls, as many squirrels, and due proportions of beef, mutton and venison; baked meats, beans and huge pumpkin pies. Hunting stories, singing, dancing on a split basswood floor, snap and catch 'em, jumping the broom stick, and hunt the squirrel, followed the feast. All joined in the rustic sports, there was no aristocracy in those days." "In Canandaigua" continued the old lady , "dances were more fashionable, but there was no aristocracy there; though a hired girl, in families of Gen. Taylor, and Abner Barlow, I used to attend the frolics and dance with Peter B. and Augustus Porter, Thomas Morris, Samuel and Judah Colt, Dr. Atwater, and many others of distinction." The old lady was even eloquent when reminiscences of the past, one after another, would flash upon her memory.
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