November 1990

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The Pre-Emption Line


Alfred G. Hilbert

Part I, Part II, Part III

Part II

Fraud, Error, or Hard Liquor

Many of the soldiers who had campaigned with General Sullivan to drive the hostile Indians out of this region had fallen under the spell of the beauty of the Finger Lakes area and the wealth of its forests and fertile valleys. They were, therefore, very pleased to accept the soldier-bonus grants in the New York "Military Tract," and also the opportunity to purchase lands in the Genesee Country to the west.

Several Hudson Valley politicians and the very Canadian renegades whom Sullivan, in 1779, had driven out, also coveted this land. Being unable by law to buy land, they obtained leases to all these same western lands from their former allies, the Senecas.

Known as the "Leasee Companies," they established a post at Geneva and hoped by political maneuvering to have their leases legalized by New York State, and then to create their own new State of Genesee. But the plans of these Canadians, including Joseph Brant and Col. John Butler, were frustrated by Gov. Clinton's Fort Stanwix Treaty and by the Pre-emption Line agreement. It made their leases valueless. Failing in this, they asked the western settlers meeting in Canandaigua in November 1793 to vote on secession from New York. The settlers turned it down.

The trading firm of Reed and Ryckman, from the Auburn-Seneca Falls area, on the assumption that the Pre-emption Line lay entirely to the west of Seneca Lake, obtained a land grant from New York, for services rendered in the treaty with the Cayugas. The deed description reads as follows: "From a tree on the bank of Seneca Lake at Geneva, passing by the cabin of Elark Jennings westward to the Pre-emption Line and southward along the lakeshore until it contained 16,000 acres. This company contacted the Phelps, Gorham Company and offered to provide a surveyor to help establish the original line. Curiously enough, the "Leasee Company" also offered to help finance Jenkins, this second surveyor.

The original line had been surveyed by Col. Maxwell using the time-honored "Jacobs Staff" method of compass and plane table. For the second survey a pair of professional surveyors, Joseph and Ben Ellicott, were hired. They had just finished a survey of the then new District of Columbia. A new-fangled surveying instrument had recently been designed in Germany. Ben Ellicott made one and they used it for the resurvey of the Pre-emption line. It was called a transit and it was essentially the same as the present day instrument. Again the surveyors started at Milestone 82 on the New York-Pennsylvania border near Millerton.

A crew of axmen worked ahead of the surveyors clearing a line of sight 30 feet wide. When the shore of Seneca Lake was reached just north of Dresden, night signals and flares were used to re-establish the line at the north end of the lake. Checks and double checks were made to insure the accuracy of this second line which has never been questioned.

Several stories have sprung up about the Pre-emption lines: One was that the Pre-emption Line is a line drawn due north from Washington, D. C. The 77th Meridian which goes through Washington is only one and three-quarter miles west of the second or true line, and does almost coincide with the original or false line. But, at the time of the survey, the District of Columbia was still in the planning stage.

Another story, a variation of the first, was that the Pre-emption roads were designed as project roads leading to Washington. There are a number of segments of Pre-emption Roads on both the false and the true lines, but their is no evidence of any plan to connect them, and their is no evidence that a line or road ever existed south of the New York-Pennsylvania border.

Other stories contend that fraud was connected with the survey of the original line. There have been many accusations; there are facts that indicate fraud, but no specific proof against any person or persons.

The survey of the original line started July 25, 1788. Thirteen days later, on August 7, the surveying party reached Keuka outlet, and Col. Maxwell, the surveyor, went to Geneva for supplies. Here he was detained "against his will" from returning until the 11th. Many historians have strongly hinted that the fraud occurred during this period. Even Phelps reported that he suspected fraud at the time he arrived in Geneva, but because of the press of business, he did not investigate.

Phelps and Gorham had expected to make Geneva their headquarters, as it was already established as a trading post, and was the chief seat for the entire Genesee Country. They assumed Geneva was within their purchase tract, but when they arrived, they found themselves unwelcome, as it was already an outpost of the "Leasee Company." They were told they were wrong about its location; so rather than argue, they continued onward to establish their base at Canandaigua and set up there the first land office ever established in America for the sale of land to settlers.

Another commonly held belief about the inaccuracies of the Pre-emption Line is that the surveyors were often drunk. The reputation of most colonial surveyors was very bad. It has been said, "they did their work mostly in the back room of an inn accompanied by the distilled residue of fermented molasses."

Surveyors did enjoy the "old sauce" in those days. There is in existence a letter written by one of the men who surveyed the southern boundary of Pennsylvania, The Mason-Dixon Line. In his letter to his wife he stated that the food was poor, the game scarce, the work difficult; but otherwise the life was endurable and enjoyable for they had with them 120 gallons of spirits, 40 gallons of brandy, and 80 gallons of Madiera wine. The New York surveyors, Maxwell's party, had "several kegs of whiskey" in their supplies.

It should be understood that whiskey in those days was considered to be a staple, like sugar and salt. To the early settlers, tea and coffee were unattainable, and water was considered unhealthy to drink. It was thought to be the cause of a kind of malaria, a swamp fever, known as Genesee Fever. Even bathing was discouraged. Some of our ancestors had a bad need for deodorants.

When General Sullivan's army assembled in the Wyoming Valley for their expedition against the Iroquois of central New York, they were delayed by an outbreak of fever. The doctor accompanying the troops issued an order that no one was to bathe more than twice a week and then only before dawn or after dusk. Punishment for breaking this rule was to be several lashes. It was felt that the effect of sunlight on naked wet skin was detrimental to health and was one of the causes of the fever. Whiskey, however, both satisfied their thirst and was known to be free of fever, and if you imbibed enough you needn't worry about fever.

Colonel Hugh Maxwell was considered an honorable man. All the field notes found were in his own handwriting. I was told in 1966 that they are still in Geneva.

Another belief about the error in the line is that the surveyors ran the line by compass on magnetic North without making any correction for deviation from true North. It is believed now that the deviation in this area at that time was about 4 west. The error is only 2 west. Modern survey tables indicate that the deviation increased to 12 west around 1900, and by 1989 had returned to 9 west.

By the time the original line had reached Keuka Outlet is was almost two miles west of the true line. In the next four miles of survey northward the line veered west so much that the error increased to a distance of two and one half miles from the true line. Surprisingly, from this point on, the line ran almost true north, and was only 600 feet farther westward when it reached the lake 85 miles north of the Pennsylvania border. These errors placed 85,000 acres, including the entire present city of Geneva in New York, instead of the pre-emptive area of Massachusetts.

Most of the suspicion of fraud has been focused on the Canadian leasee company, which would have lost its Geneva area posts, had the line been run straight north the first time. The suspicion was strengthened by the offer made by a prominent member of the Leasee Company to buy from Phelps and Gorham a tract of land which lay entirely to the east of the original false line.

The two traders, Reed and Ryckman, who had hired Jenkins, the suspect surveyor, had at the time no established posts in the disputed area.

No one has been able to furnish specific proof of fraud. To quote one writer, "We'll probably never know whether the error was caused by direct fraud, faulty instruments, or too much liquor." Actually within the last few years new evidence seems to indicate that the cause was surveyor's error.

Here are entries from Moses DeWitt's journal of 1788.

"SUNDAY 18th May, 1788 —Very warm and sultry

"At Mr. Wynkoop's all day - about 12 o'clock Squire Gore and Col. Wisner returned and reported that he had run from the 82 mile stone with 2 West variation and at 8 miles 22 chains struck the Tioga River—yet he ought to have run with a variation of 2 35' or 40' which in ten miles and 22 chains would make about seven and one half diff —or about 300 acres.

"MONDAY 19th May 1788 —Very warm and sultry in the forenoon —showry in the afternoon

"Left Mr. Wynkoop's about 10 o'clock and proceeded to the Susquehanna River in order to take the meander thereof from the State line as far as Mother Nilson's. Accordingly began about 2 o'clock and traversed up about four and one half miles as the river runs and stayd at one Taylor's.

"TUESDAY 20th May 1788 —Warm and pleasant

"Began very early this morning and got to Mother Nilson's about 12 o'clock being about the same distance; then returned to Mr. Wynkoop's and stayd all night — Then proceeded from there on Wednesday the 21st up the Tioga River to run Col. Wisner's locations — as may more fully appear reference being had to the field notes then used or made."

© 1990, Alfred G. Hilbert
Part I, Part II, Part III
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