The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2002

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Personal Explorations

in the History and Archives of
Steuben County

Address to the Steuben County Historical Society
at the Dedication of the Steuben County History Center
Bath, New York, September 29, 2001

James D. Folts

Memories of Bath

I passed the big five—oh a few years ago. That means I can remember when Harry Truman was president, and Thomas E. Dewey was governor. I can remember when my cousin, sixteen years older than I, came home from the Korean War. I guess that means I am old enough to indulge in some nostalgia, and I'd like to start my talk this morning by sharing some pleasant memories of Bath, our county seat. I will use those memories to help explain, as best I can, how I got interested in local history. Maybe my reasons are similar to yours. I think an interest in history is really an outgrowth of a basic human interest in the people and places around us. An interest in history is a way of overcoming distance in time, through our imagination, though the imagination must be guided by traces of the past—words and pictures and objects and buildings. We all know that changes in fashion and technology have radically changed the externals of how people live, even in our own lifetimes. But when we plumb the depths of the past, we come to realize that people back then were not so different from people right now. The interest in history may come when one is younger, as it did with me, or it may come when one is older. But I think it always starts with a sensitivity to change. And as we grow older and wiser, that sensitivity to change is touched with sadness as we change ourselves, as we begin to lose those whom we love.

I grew up in Cohocton. Believe it or not, Bath was like a big city to kids who lived in Cohocton in the early 1950s. Our family rarely went to Rochester to shop in the big downtown department stores—Sibley's and McCurdy's. (Remember, there were no shopping malls then!) We went to Bath several times a year. We drove down the beautiful Washington Boulevard, with handsome street lamps in the grassy middle lane, and the grey stone Civil War monument at the intersection with Liberty Street, turned a right into the business district, with easy diagonal parking, and we reached our destination—Cohn's clothing store. Every summer we visited Cohn's basement to pick out our back-to-school clothes. A boy's shirt cost a couple of dollars, a pair of pants, three or four dollars. Upstairs we always said hello to Marguerite Holzmeier, my grandmother's cousin, who worked in the ladies' department. We usually saw young Bill Cohn, the proprietor, with his measuring tape sticking out of his pocket, and old Mr. Cohn, sitting in his chair and surveying the situation. It was a family business, and it is not just nostalgia to say that family businesses—stores, farms, even small factories—were pretty much the economic foundation of the community.

This photograph of Washington Boulevard was taken by Dr. William Paddock and used for the cover
of the book Williamson's Dream published by the Bath Commemorative Committee in 1992.

The other great attraction in Bath was the county fair. We went to the Bath Fair every year. It was full of sights and sounds and tastes and smells that are hard to forget. I'll start with the smells—the animal smells from the cow barns, the sheep barns, the horses, the poultry, and some people smells too, in hot weather! The sounds of happy, relaxed crowds of people. The sounds of the merry-go-round, of the bumper cars, which we rode. The tastes of cotton candy and salt-water taffy. The sights of displays of late-summer flowers, and of beautifully arranged vegetables and fruits and canned goods, some with yellow, red, or blue ribbons next to them. For some, an especially fascinating sight was the pioneer log cabin. It seemed so much bigger than pictures of log cabins in books. The cabin was dark inside, with a musty smell and full of fragile-looking furniture and bedding and dishes and tools that people once used (I remember especially some sort of farm machine, made out of wood, and powered by a dog treadle.) Even then I liked history, and the log cabin was my favorite place on the fairgrounds.

Why Have Archives?

I am an archivist and historian by profession. I now live and work in Albany, a long way from Steuben County, though I am always happy to see the hills of home. My job is Head of Reference Services in the New York State Archives. At the Archives, archivists and clerks talk with researchers, identify and retrieve the records they want to see, and sometimes have photocopies made for them. We help several thousand researchers each year. There are nearly 70,000 cubic feet of records in the State Archives. The earliest document is dated 1630; it is a land grant from the government of New Netherlands, written in Dutch. Most records are on paper, but the State Archives also has thousands of documents on parchment, over eighty thousand maps, countless photographs, and the 1990 U. S. Census for New York on computer tapes. None of this should surprise you—we live in a populous state with a long, rich history.

Steuben County, like New York State, has a long history, and many valuable records—including those books and documents and pictures housed in the John Magee house, the new home of the Steuben County Historical Society. Think about it: Steuben County was established in 1796, during the administration of a president named George—not George Bush, but George Washington. Our county is nearly as old as our nation. I would like to talk now about three projects I have undertaken to help preserve or do research in records relating to the history of Steuben County. The first project was a history of my home town, Cohocton. The second project was a guide to the records of the Pulteney Land Office in the Steuben County Clerk's Office. The third project is still under way. It is a history of the Indians who lived in the upper Susquehanna and Chemung Valleys—including the Canisteo and the Conhocton Valleys—during the eighteenth century. These projects were possible only because many original documents have been preserved—newspapers, government records, manuscripts, photographs. The projects were difficult because many documents have not been preserved. Often the historian, whether of a family or a community, has to piece together a story from fragmentary information, incomplete documentation. I will talk about some of the losses of documents in Cohocton and Steuben County, just to make the point that documents do not save themselves—some people must care enough to save them and preserve them. But the most important point I will make today is this: historical documents and artifacts can be used to tell fuller, richer stories about our past, stories that may differ considerably from the ones we read in our school books, or in our local history books.

History of Cohocton

In 1955 Cohocton observed its sesquicentennial—its 150th birthday. I was seven years old at the time, and I liked everything that was going on: the big parade, the old costumes, the old cars, the historical displays in the store windows, the mock robbery of the Cohocton State Bank, and the great fireworks display, ending in a depiction of the American flag. Ever since then, I have been interested in the history of Cohocton. I knew some of that history in living people. Dr. Floyd Spaulding started practicing medicine in Cohocton in 1898. Edith L. Strobel started working in the office of the Cohocton Valley Times-Index in the same year. Both of them were still on the job into the 1960s. In high school I wrote a short history of Cohocton as a high school term paper. I then decided that someday I would write a real book about Cohocton. And I did. The book was published by the Cohocton Historical Society in 1994, and it is still in print if anybody wants a copy.

What sources of information did I use to write the history of Cohocton? First of all, newspapers. There are nearly continuous files of the local paper from 1893 to 1963, when it ended publication. For earlier years, I copied hundreds of items of Cohocton news from newspapers published in Bath, Naples and Dansville. (Starting in the late 1860s, every weekly paper carried reports from neighboring towns.) Most of those newspapers are on microfilm—which is a good thing, because woodpulp newsprint is highly acidic and becomes very brittle over time.) The Cohocton town record books are complete from 1813, when the town of Cohocton was organized, to the present. I also got a lot of information on Cohocton from court records and the Pulteney Land Office records in the Steuben County Clerk's Office. The federal census (at the National Archives) and the state census (at the Steuben County Clerk's Office) were very helpful.

However, there are big gaps in the documentation about Cohocton. For example, there are no surviving church records prior to about 1860. The old records of the Cohocton Presbyterian Church were thrown out during a house-cleaning about 1940. The old records of the local Methodist churches were probably destroyed when the North Cohocton Methodist Church burned down in 1948. The oldest record book of the St. Paul's Lutheran Church was also missing. But sometimes gaps in documentation can be filled. There may be substitute records available elsewhere—sometimes in other states. I'd like to provide three examples from my research on Cohocton.

The first example is Civil War records. In 1865 the New York State Legislature required every town and city clerk to prepare a register of soldiers and sailors who had served in the conflict. Two copies of the register were to be prepared. One copy was supposed to be retained as a "permanent" record in the office of the town or city clerk. The other copy was forwarded to the office of the Adjutant General in Albany. Most town clerks did their duty and prepared the registers. However, the register of Civil War soldiers and sailors is missing from the Cohocton town clerk's office. It seems as though most other towns have lost their copies too. Fortunately, the state preserved its set of the registers. They are now in the State Archives, and the Steuben County Historian's Office has obtained a copy of the microfilm for this county.

The second example of records located far away is credit reports. Since the 1840s the firm now known as Dun & Bradstreet has been collecting and selling confidential information about the credit-worthiness of businesses nationwide. During the nineteenth century the credit reports took the form of huge ledgers, arranged by state, with entries for practically every business that needed credit. The credit reports [prepared by the R. G. Dun Company] are now in the library of the business school of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. There are hundreds of entries about businessmen (and a few businesswomen) in Cohocton and other communities in Steuben County. These reports were supplied by bankers and other reliable businessmen. They provided confidential information about the business, the owner's estimated net worth, and his reliability for paying debts. I'll give a couple of examples of credit reports from Cohocton:

In 1871 a merchant at Blood's Station [now Atlanta], was reported to be a "Careful steady businessman, does good business. Sales average about $1100 per week. Buys considerable butter and produce and considered the most successful business man here."

In 1862 a harnessmaker at Cohocton was reported to be "a worthless fellow lazy and intemperate, no responsibility whatever…Perfectly worthless and no prospect of improving unless in drinking of whiskey and not much room for that."

What was the confidential credit report on John Magee—founder of the Steuben County Bank, proprietor of stagecoach lines, builder of the Erie Railroad? The report on John Magee was short and simple— "rich as Croesus."

This credit data is available for Steuben County businesses from the 1850s through the 1890s. You have to go to Boston to use the records—they are not on microfilm, and they are still owned by Dun & Bradstreet. But the data is very useful for reconstructing the careers of local businesses. The local histories published in the late nineteenth century make it sound as though every businessman had a sterling character and a successful career. The credit reports reveal what we all know to be true—some businesses succeed, others fail.

The third example of documents located far away comes from New Orleans, Louisiana. The library of Tulane University holds the records of the American Home Missionary Association. Between about 1825 and 1850 that organization provided financial aid to hundreds of small Presbyterian and Congregational churches in central and western New York. Among those churches was the Presbyterian church in Cohocton. As I mentioned earlier, the church's old records have been destroyed. However, the Presbyterian ministers in Cohocton received some financial support from the A.H.M.A. and they sent regular written reports of their activities. Those reports provided me with a lot of information about Cohocton's part in the great age of revivals and reforms, the 1820s and 1830s. The reports are available on microfilm in the State Library in Albany. There are reports from several other churches in Steuben County among them. Sometimes important documents can be found just over the next hill. The Naples Library holds the manuscript reminiscences of a minister in Naples during the 1830s, which describe in fascinating detail the rise of a perfectionist cult in Cohocton. I used that information in my book about Cohocton, and in an article that appeared in the journal New York History.

I'd like to make a general observation and suggestion here for the Steuben County Historical Society. As you continue to collect materials for research in history and genealogy, try to get photocopies or microfilms of documents from other archives for use here in Steuben County. And consider putting some of your own information on a web site-for example, the indexes to Steuben County cemeteries and wills. That would save you a lot of time in answering genealogy requests. (I know how it is—the State Archives in Albany gets thousands of genealogy requests every year. We are moving toward putting our genealogical resources online just to manage the flow.)

The Pulteney Papers

In 1977 and 1978 I was employed part-time by Steuben County to arrange and describe the records of the Pulteney Land Office. When the land office closed in 1909, the Steuben County Board of Supervisors purchased the land office records—account books, letter books, and hundreds of maps and surveys dating back to 1792. Most of these records were stored up on the second floor of the County Clerk's Office on Pulteney Square. Charles Oliver, the County Historian, got a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to microfilm the records. I have to say I had a great time. Charlie Oliver was a great guy, and I also got great support from the county clerk, Chilton Latham; from Marion Springer down in the basement; and from Jim Hope, the Bath town and village historian. I inventoried all the land office books and papers. I unfolded hundreds of maps and put them in folders in big steel cases. (Sometimes I had to piece together the maps, because they had broken up at the folds.) Most of the bound volumes were microfilmed, and many of the maps were photographed at the Corning Glass Works.

The records of the Pulteney Land Office are very important sources of information for the history of Steuben County. But I have to tell you that some key records are missing. Back in the 1930s the WPA Historical Records Survey made an inventory of all the records in the Steuben County Clerk's Office. The survey described each book in the office, with dimensions in inches and number of pages, and the room in which it was located. The survey forms are in the State Archives in Albany, and I got copies of the forms. The survey data says that there was in the Steuben County Clerk's Office in the late 1930s a complete set of the contract books and deed books kept by the Pulteney Land Office. The books dated back to 1801. The deed books still exist. The contract books do not (except for a few small books dating from around 1812). Back in 1978, I questioned the oldest employee of the county clerk's office, who started working there about 1950. He knew the records in the office backward and forward, and he did not remember ever seeing the contract books. It seems clear that the contract books were discarded, probably in the late 1940s. (That may have been the same time when a large, leatherbound account book of Charles Williamson himself was found on the Bath village dump. The account book is on display today in the Magee House.)

Why would the lost contract books be so important for historical and genealogical research? They would be important because they gave the date when a settler got a contract and settled his lot. Most settlers bought their land from the Pulteney Land Office on contract, with a deed given only when the principal and interest were paid off. Most settlers never got deeds. They moved to the next town, or maybe moved west. Thus we have lost the records that would have charted the settlement of the Pulteney Estate, lot by lot year by year. Unfortunately, there is no substitute record. But there are alternate records relating to the business affairs of the Pulteney Land Office, available outside of Steuben County. The main office of the Pulteney Estate was not located in Bath, but in Geneva (Bath was a sub-office). The summary ledger of the Pulteney Estate receipts and expenditures for the first half of the nineteenth century is now in the archives of the Geneva Historical Society. There are also records relating to the Pulteney Estate in the Rochester Public Library and Cornell University. The business records, maps, and surveys of Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, who owned what is now Steuben County between 1788 and 1791, are in the New York State Library in Albany. None of these records have been microfilmed—one has to go to Geneva or Rochester or Ithaca or Albany to use them.

Indians of the Chemung Valley

One of the most extraordinary records kept by the Pulteney Land Office in Bath is a bound volume of surveys of townships in what is now Steuben County in the years 1792 and 1793. The Phelps and Gorham Purchase had been surveyed into townships six miles square in 1788-1789. However, the surveys turned out to be inaccurate, and they were redone in 1792 - 1793. The surveys describe the terrain and the types of trees growing on the land. They also indicate where Indian paths crossed township lines. Through careful comparison with modern maps, one can plot the general course of Indian paths before white settlers moved in, opened up roads, chopped down nearly all the millions of trees, and turned Steuben County into a land of fields, pastures, and a few woodlots here and there. The Steuben County Historical Society published the results of my research on Indian paths back in 1976. The society recently reprinted the work with a nice new cover—thank you.

My work on Indian paths of Steuben County concerned the geography of the county at the time of first white settlement. My current project is researching and writing the history of the Indians who lived in this region in the eighteenth century. Some of you have read Arch Merrill's book, Land of the Senecas. The Senecas, and also the Cayugas, did live in this region two hundred years ago. Other Indian groups lived here too. The Senecas and Cayugas sponsored and supervised groups of Delawares, Shawnees, Nanticokes, Foxes, and Tuteloes, who moved into the Chemung River watershed during the eighteenth century. These Indians were refugees who came from all directions: the Foxes from the Great Lakes region, the Shawnees from the Ohio region, the Nanticokes and Tuteloes from Maryland and Virginia, the Delawares from the Delaware and Hudson Valleys. A missionary's travel account dated 1750 says that the Chemung and Canisteo Valleys were settled right up to the head of the valley, apparently as far as Canisteo. Our local histories say a lot about the Senecas and the other nations of the Long House. They do not say much at all about the refugee peoples. There is information about the Indians who moved into the Chemung Valley in the official records of the colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; in the reports of the French commanders of Fort Niagara; in the correspondence of British Indian Superintendent, Sir William Johnson; and in the journals and travel diaries of Moravian missionaries who traveled and worked in this region during the 1750s and 1760s. (The Moravian documents are written in German, in the old German script. I had to brush up on the German I took back in college, and I had to learn to read that awful script.) I am happy to say that the Corning-Painted Post Historical Society has agreed to publish the results of my research.

The story of these Indians is full of light and shadows. The Indians of the Chemung Valley were sometimes hospitable toward whites in peace time, but they were mostly hostile toward whites during wartime. The Senecas and Munsees (Delawares) who lived in this region attacked white settlements of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York during three wars within a period of thirty years: the French and Indian War, between 1755 and 1758; Pontiac's War, in 1763; and the Revolutionary War, between 1778 and 1782. The Delawares living along the Chemung believed they had been cheated out of much of their land in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and they were right. The Senecas feared the same thing would happen to them. The response to the Indian attacks was military counter-attack. During the French and Indian War, Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops burned Indian towns on the Susquehanna (though they did not reach as far as Steuben County). In 1764 Sir William Johnson sent two hundred Mohawks to destroy all the towns from Chemung up to Canisteo. And in 1779 an American army of four thousand men, commanded by General John Sullivan, invaded the Indian country and destroyed most of the villages between Tioga Point and the Genesee River, including all the villages on the Chemung. There are two sides to the story of the Indians in this region during the eighteenth century and I will try to tell both sides without taking sides.

I have talked about the interrelationship of documents and history. History is poor without documents, because our memories are not perfect, and because memories pass away unless they are recorded in some form. The dedication of the Magee House as the home of the Steuben County Historical Society is really a landmark in our county's history. Documentary resources of all kinds will now be more accessible to the public, in a comfortable environment, in a beautiful old house. I am glad to be part of this celebration. I wish the members and friends of the Steuben County Historical Society success in your future historical endeavors.

©, 2001, James D. Folts

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