February 1989

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The Maps of the Pulteney Estate


Bill Treichler

Maps have always been vital to travelers and voyagers. They have been just as indispensable to land developers with large tracts of new country to advertise and sell. The agents for the land holdings of the Pulteney group in New York State acquired a great many maps of western New York. They needed maps to be able to keep track of the land that they had for sale, and they needed maps to be able to show their prospective buyers where land was available and how near it was to towns and streams or navigable lakes or to other settlers. A map is a means to indicate the relative locations of known places as well as a way to locate oneself by recognizable physical features: prominent hills, lakes and streams, noted on the map itself.

Charles Williamson and later overseers of the Pulteney property had maps drawn for this great tract of land. They also bought and used maps. The Pulteney Estate had hundreds of maps of their holdings. Even maps of areas outside the original purchase were in their collection because Williamson exchanged Pulteney land for other land and in that way the estate acquired some land in eastern New York and even other states. To readily locate the property they had acquired in these other regions, they obtained maps of that area for their records. For instance, in the collection there are a number of maps of localities in Madison county, New York.

In the large collection of maps that was amassed by the managers of the estate's land are the state survey maps made by David H. Burr in 1829. This was the first complete atlas of New York State. Also in the collection are maps made by the men who surveyed the property for Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, the original purchasers of the Massachusetts claim, and of the men who resurveyed the property for Robert Morris. There are also maps drawn by surveyors who made local measurements when each parcel was sold.

The first Pre-emption Line was run north from the Pennsylvania border by Col. Hugh Maxwell working for Phelps and Gorham and another surveyor representing Seth Reed and Peter Ryckman. Phelps and Gorham were buying the Massachusetts claim west of the line and Reed and Ryckman were buying sixteen thousand acres east of the line along Seneca lake. The line was run west of true north. This offset reduced the amount of Phelps and Gorham's purchase. They became aware of the error and when they sold to Morris they deeded their portion east of the line to him, too. He engaged Joseph and Benjamin Ellicott, who had just surveyed the city of Washington, to supervise a resurvey in 1790. In the new survey of the Pre-emption Line they employed a newly developed sighting instrument, the transit, just brought to this country from Germany. Augustus Porter, Frederick Saxton, Morgan Jones, and Mr. Armstrong were all in the surveying party. The land between the two lines, a wedge called the gore, contained 85,000 acres not counting the area in Seneca lake. The city of Geneva was in this gore. . A law in 1793 awarded Williamson 56,000 acres of land near Sodus Bay as recompense for land sold out of the gore by New York.

Some of the early maps have notations on them saying that the map is inaccurate, because the survey was based on the original Pre-emption Line and did not account for the gore.

The maps showed the blocks of property that had been sold by Phelps and Gorham and others prior to the Pulteney purchase and, of course, they marked the property sold already by the Pulteney group.

Hugh Maxwell had subdivided most of the northern part of the tract by 1789. Also among the earliest surveyors of subdivisions were Porter, Adlum and Saxton. The Pulteney purchase was divided into seven ranges six miles wide and these into townships six miles square. This is thought to be the first rectangular subdivision of a large area. Later this method was used in the Northwest Territory and then for all of the western states.

These maps are interesting, too, because the names of the buyers are recorded on their lots shown on the maps. Many early names appear, names that are still common in different towns. Charles Williamson's name is one frequently seen, often on large blocks. Williamson evidently bought or held these tracts for his own speculation. His large personal holdings may have had some connection with his being replaced with another agent by the owners.

In the southeastern corner of the area, a large amount of property was held by the Erwin family. One map shows equal parallel and adjoining strips of land all with different Erwin names, as though all the children of a large family had been left a share of a large plot. Just north and west of the Erwins was property held by members of the Cooper family. One of these maps has a small drawing of a house marked "Homestead".

Some of the maps are old, dated 1795; many have no date on them; and some are dated as recently as 1895. The earliest maps show trails and later ones mark railroads. Some of the maps look well used with ragged edges, breaks at the folds, and a tattered appearance. Others look as if they were never out of the office.

These maps were kept at the Pulteney Land Office which stood at the corner of Lackawanna and Morris streets in Bath, just west of the Presbyterian Church and facing Pulteney Square. The maps stayed in this building until it became the first hospital in Bath. Later they were stored in the County Clerk's building on the other side of the Square. Here they stayed, ignored and largely forgotten, until 1975 when Charles Oliver became Steuben County Historian. He realized their great historical significance and arranged to get them photographed and copies made to preserve their information and make it more available for viewing and study.

The Corning Glass Works made negatives and prints of the maps without charge for the labor and equipment use. A grant obtained through the Steuben County Historical Society from the federal government paid for the materials used to photograph and reproduce the maps. The map prints are now in transparent plastic pockets bound in very large books, much like over-sized photo albums.

There are few maps in the set of the northwestern region of the holdings of the Pulteney group. However, maps of the country around Geneseo are in the Wadsworth Collection at Geneseo College. The Wadsworth family in Geneseo had large land holdings and they handled land sales for the Pulteney Estate in that area so that the land office at Bath didn't need, and had very few, maps of the country around Geneseo.

The last of the Pulteney land wasn't sold until 1904. Sometime later the maps passed into the possession of Steuben County. A number of the maps bear the stamp of Reuben Oldfield, a former county clerk.

The Wadsworth Collection was given to Geneseo College recently. At the time, four or five years ago, it was appraised at $160,000. This figure gives some measure of the present day antiquarian value of such a collection.

Charles Oliver and the people who supported and assisted him, and the people at the Corning Glass Works who photographed the maps have our appreciation and gratitude for preserving this great visual record of the early settlement and steady development of this region.

Richard Sherer, Steuben County Historian, suggests that if photo-reduced copies of these maps were available for purchase many people with an interest in the settlement of this part of New York State would be able to acquire their own collection of the maps. This could be a valuable project of the Steuben County Historical Society. Mr. Sherer has for sale full-sized copies of some of these maps. The price is $10 apiece.

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