January 1993

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Edward and Martha Prentiss

with Eight Children Journey Overland

From Massachusetts to Pulteney in 1813


Betty Smalley

This tale is about the Edward John Prentiss family who for some reason seemed to be either restless or adventurous, but surely ambitious. He was from Lancaster, Worcester Co., Massachusetts, but in the early part of his life he went to Vermont as a surveyor. He purchased and cleared a farm in the town of Rutland and at least one child, his daughter, Rebecca, was born there to his wife, Martha Bridge, or Bridges, in 1792. His health failing, he returned to Lancaster, commenced a mercantile business, and continued in it six or eight years.

It would be interesting to know why, in 1813, he decided to leave his comfortable home and a way of life where he had few hardships, and his children had some advantages, to bring his family of wife, four boys and four girls to the woods of Pulteney. Perhaps he was influenced by Stephen Prentiss, a judge and carpenter from Massachusetts who came to Pulteney in 1805, and was a path master in 1808. Stephen Prentiss was a supervisor of Pulteney in 1813, the same year that the part where he lived was set off to be Prattsburgh. His daughter, the famous Narcissa, was born there in 1805, the third of their nine children to have lived in the house that he built in 1805. He also built the Presbyterian manse and the chapel on the street of that name. At one time Stephen operated a flour mill and a saw mill back of his house. One of his sons was named Edward which makes me wonder if Stephen might have been a brother of Edward John Prentiss. If so, it could be the explanation for the move from Massachusetts.

The ages of the emigrants, according to the census records were: Edward John, 53; Martha, 45; Rebecca, 20; John A., 15; William, 11; Josiah, 9; and Mary Ann, 3. A boy and two girls are not recorded. Other records show that a Peter B. Prentiss born in 1795 died in 1813 in Pulteney, and that Harriet Prentiss of Pulteney married on January 1, 1817, William C. Welles of Wayne. (Rebecca Prentiss, daughter of Edward and Martha, had married Benjamin Welles in 1814.) Another Martha Prentiss born in Massachusetts in 1808 had married B. H. Hotchkin. (Two Prentiss boys married Hotchkin girls.) Peter, Harriet, and Martha may be the names of the other children of Edward and Martha Prentiss who brought their eight children to Pulteney in 1813.

In 1876 Josiah Prentiss, who had been nine years old in 1813, wrote of his family's experiences for the Hammondsport Herald. He said that they came in two wagons, one with bent hoops covered with India muslin for the ladies (two of whom were between 16 and 20).

There were many obstacles for the travellers in the shape of swamps, logs, and brush. Trees had to be cut and some which had fallen across the trail had to be moved. Saplings and brush were used to fill mud holes, and repair log causeways. Their route was from Lancaster to Albany, up the Mohawk to Utica, through what is now Syracuse, Geneva, and. Penn Yan. A sled road came from the mill on the outlet of Crooked Lake through the woods with here and there a shanty. There was no wagon road through the site of Branchport so the Prentisses went over the hills to Larzelere's Hollow, two miles north of present Branchport. Their last camp was at Daniel Brown's farm. It took them from early morning until 10 pm to go that 12 mile distance to their destination. For the last several miles there was only a path going west. Wagons had to be left; they went on by sled and foot.

In those days hunters set fires in the woods to burn over the ground in the spring. At least half the way for the remaining miles they passed through smoke and fire, sometimes in tall trees. Josiah said that the terror of that night, the darkness, the awful glare of the fire, the lonely condition of the women and children can scarcely be imagined and surely never forgotten. The only comfort to the women was that there was no danger from wolves while passing through the fires.

Their destination was the Seth Pierce homestead at the end of the path. Pierce was a land agent and could afford a block house of hewed logs. It was 18' x 16' with a lean-to, 13' x 9'. This was to hold 14 persons, 4 already in his family, but Mrs. Pierce, from Connecticut, was very glad to welcome the new family.

Most of the surrounding country was uninhabited wilderness with sled paths between the few cabins. There were some Indian wigwams along the shore of Crooked Lake. A family of Millers lived on what is now Roff's Landing, and there was a family of Briggs on Boyd's Point once known as Wageners, then as Centerport, and later Gulicksville. After the lake road turned west through the center of the town there was a block of woods several miles wide extending to Prattsburgh village with scarcely a tree cut. In the middle of this woods were two 160 acre lots, north and south, that were to belong to the Prentisses.

Wild game was plentiful, but they were not hunters. The Prentisses were no longer going to be merchants, but would now be farmers. The settlers who came before them had not grown more than enough for themselves to eat and hardly that much. The Prentisses paid $3 a bushel for wheat for their bread. They ground many bushels in their coffee mill as there was no other mill as yet.

There was no snow or frost the first winter and twenty-five apple trees, from the Linsley farm in Prattsburgh, were planted. Twenty-five more that came from Epiphas Bull of Bath were planted in the spring.

Four acres were cleared, the brush burned and corn planted before all the logs were removed. Between planting time and harvest a log cabin was built for the family, a log pen for the horses and some rail fences. On the journey several cows and pigs had been purchased. Soon there was a shed for the cows, a sty for the pigs, and a pound for the sheep. Wolves were seldom seen except when caught in steel traps when they came at night seeking the sheep. The black bear came sneaking around the pig pen by day.

Bare-footed Josiah grew used to these problems but never lost his dread that a coiled rattle snake might be on the other side of a log when he stepped over it.

Some corn was grown for mush and johnny cake, and some fodder raised for the animals. Wheat was sown in the fall. What was not needed for bread, was taken 26 miles to the mill at Dresden and sold. 70 pounds of wheat (allowance was made for the unsaleable parts in the grain because it had not been cleaned in a fanning mill) brought eighteen and one half cents. It took 4 bushels of wheat to buy 1 pound of shoe leather.

The first pair of shoes that Josiah ever owned cost 16 bushels of wheat delivered at the shoemaker's shop at now Pleasant Valley. One of the girls made shoes from cowhide or from sheep skins. They also made a coarse cloth from their own flax that was made into pants and shirts, called "hickories," for the boys. They learned to make quite fine linen. One of the girls once spun 2 runs of flax a day for six days and on Saturday night went to the store with 75. This bought a pair of cotton hose.

(To be continued.)

1993, Betty Smalley
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