June 1993

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Painted Post

and its Monument


Audrey Phelps

Uri Mulford in his book, Pioneer Days and Later Times in Corning and Vicinity, 1789 -1920 states that "before the County of Steuben was established, all the territory drained by the Chemung River and its tributaries was known as 'The Painted Post.' Later the term was used to designate the section of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase lying south of the Finger Lakes and east of the Genesee watershed." One of the first settlers to this area (name unknown) wrote in the spring of 1778 that he was starting out for the Genesee Country and added that he would go to the Painted Post.

The name Painted Post may be found in the deed given by Oliver Phelps to Colonel Arthur Erwin signed and sealed the eighteenth day of July, 1789. In which deed, Oliver Phelps for the sum of 1400 pounds lawful money of the State of New York "freely clearly and absolutely give grant bargain sell alien release convey and confirm unto him the said Arthur Erwin his Heirs and Assigns forever the certain piece or parcel of land lying in the County of Ontario in the said State of New York being Township Number Two in the second range of Towns being six miles north of the Pennsylvania Line and six miles West of the Massachusetts pre-emption, being six miles square containing 23,040 acres known by the name of Painted Post."

By 1790 there were three settlements in what became known as "The District of the Painted Post," a small colony at Lindsley's, 25 settlers at Erwin's, and 59 at the site of what would later be named Corning. There were a few scattered homes on the Upper Canisteo and cabins of squatters and woodsmen.

After the County of Steuben was established in 1796 (a date which Guy McMaster used, but Charles Erwin wrote that the date was 1793), the Town of Painted Post was set-up. The present townships of Erwin, Lindley, Corning, Campbell, Hornby, and Caton were part of the town of Painted Post. The term "The District of Painted Post" ceased to exist.

The County of Steuben, named in honor of Baron Frederick William Ludolf Gerhart Augustin von Steuben, was made up from the southeastern portion of Ontario. Painted Post was one of the six towns of the county: Bath, Canisteo, Dansville, Fredericks, Middletown, and Painted Post. Painted Post was 18 miles north and south and twelve miles east and west. In 1826 the original township was divided into three towns: Painted Post, Erwin, and Lindley. The town of Erwin was organized and held its first election on March 7, 1826. Capt. Samuel Erwin was elected the first supervisor and was re-elected the next three years. Captain Erwin was a prominent and well-liked figure in those frontier days. It is said that physically he was the ideal settler and pioneer. He was tall, 6 and one half feet, with a powerful frame, and his appearance was dignified and imposing.

In the Spring of 1833, Capt. Samuel Erwin first laid out the village plot of Painted Post, that portion lying between the Hornby road and the river and Hamilton and Steuben Streets. The plot was subsequently enlarged—on the east by Gen. F. E. Erwin, H. I. Badger, and George W. Patterson, and on the west by Charles H. Erwin. The village was incorporated July 18, 1860.

Early settlers saw some kind of post or monument located where the Tioga and Conhocton Rivers join to form the Chemung River. And it is from that marker that the name Painted Post is derived. I learned in 6th grade history that a post painted with the juices of wild berries had been erected at that junction of the three rivers to mark the grave of Chief Montour. Legend and folklore surround the story of who was buried at the "painted post."

There are many stories surrounding the origin of this early marker. The earliest account of the painted post was told by General Freegift Patchen in 1780 who described it thus (quoting from Arch Merrill.)

"An Indian chief on this spot had been victorious in battle, killed and took prisoners to the number of about 60. This event he celebrated by causing a tree to be taken from the forest and hewed four square, painted red, and the number he killed, which was 28, represented across the post in black paint, without any heads. But those he took prisoner, which were 30 were represented in black paint with their heads on. This post he erected and thus handed down to posterity an account that here a battle was fought but by whom and who the sufferers were is covered in darkness, except that it was between whites and Indians."

In June, 1781, Horatio Jones, an interpreter and Indian agent who was adopted by the Senecas was taken captive in Pennsylvania and brought to Painted Post. He described the significance of the Post at that time in this way, "It was a central crossing of the principal Indian trails, and a general resting place and rendezvous for Indians journeying east, west, north, and south. Several Indian houses were located near the river, and numerous fields were cultivated in the vicinity. A huge post had been set up in an open place and painted in a fantastic manner to represent an enemy. When war parties halted at this place they usually held brag dances about the post. Any person who felt so inclined could dance and brag upon making a small present to the Chief of ceremonies, usually the head warrior. Soon after their arrival at the camp, the victorious warriors determined to hold a dance and the prisoners were permitted to witness the ceremonies. The Indians, Tory soldiers, and captives gathered in one great circle about the post, the vicinity of which was illuminated by several huge fires during the festivities."

In 1783 John Gould, driving cattle from New Jersey by way of Tioga Point and Newtown to Fort Niagara past the painted post which he claimed was at the junction of Indian trails and striped red and white.

Yet another to view that rude post was Samuel Harris who with his son, William, came from Pennsylvania in 1784, and built a log cabin on the river near the marker. They were the first settlers in the area.

Benjamin Gilbert, captured by the Indians during the Revolution described it in 1785 as a huge post painted in a fantastic manner and located in an open place at a central crossroads of the principal Indian trails.

And in 1792 Samuel Cook, then 13, came to the area with his father and family by canoe on the Chemung and Conhocton Rivers. He wrote of the post that it was an oak post 10 to 12 feet above the ground and 10 to 15 inches square. It was square to the height of four feet above ground and then octagonal to the top. Cook remembered it as plain with no marks or carving and the color of a weather-beaten oak rail.

The stories of what happened to the post through the years are as varied and colorful as the descriptions of its early appearances. The post found by the first settlers and travelers was located near where the Conhocton flowed before Army Engineers and Hood control projects changed the course of the river. (The river used to flow almost immediately in back of Water Street in back of the bank.) The post might have been located where Hamilton Street and Water Street cross. It remained there until 1801 or 1802 when it was dug up and replaced by a new oak post. The old post was taken to the tavern of Captain Samuel Erwin. Even in those days, people acted like the "Bad Tourist," and pieces of the old post were chipped off for souvenirs. Then one night, as the story goes, a bunch of rowdy, drunken boatmen tossed it into the Conhocton. It's successor met much the same fate—chipped to pieces and then carried away by one of the floods the Conhocton so frequently bestowed upon the village.

In 1824 another post was erected. Commissioned by Captain Samuel Erwin, it carried an Indian figure made of sheet iron by John Wygant, a blacksmith who was paid one cow for his work. The Indian warrior was painted with ruffled shirt and a plume in his hat. He can still be seen in the Erwin Museum on the third floor of the Erwin Town Hall in Painted Post. In 1880 a second sheet iron Indian to replace Wygant's creation was dedicated.

In the summer of 1893, a subscription was circulated for a new Indian, and a cast figure supposedly of John Montour was erected on a fifteen foot stone monument and dedicated June 21, 1894. It bore the inscription.

To perpetuate the name of
Painted Post
preserve its traditions
and honor the memory of
its early settlers.

On November 20, 1948 in a violent windstorm the chief was blown down and shattered. At a town meeting held April 7, 1949 citizens of Painted Post voted to replace the deposed chieftain.

Norman Phelps, Painted Post High School art teacher, was chosen to design and model the new monument. The Indian and post were first modelled in soft clay supported by a steel armature. This clay model was then cast in plaster of Paris. From the plaster figure a mold was made and the figure was cast from molten bronze.

The monument shows an Indian with upraised arm standing against the post which is a replica of the original post. The post is 12 1/2 feet tall, the Indian is slightly over 8 feet from the base to the tip of his lifted hand.

The stone pedestal on which it stands was partially paid for by pennies donated by the school children of Painted Post. In this way young and old contributed to this community project. On the pedestal is a bronze plaque telling the history of the "Painted Post" through its many stages. This text was written by Kenneth Erwin, a descendant of Colonel Arthur Erwin, an early settler. The sons of Kenneth Erwin, great, great, great grandsons of Colonel Erwin—David 9 and Thomas 5, pulled the cord which unveiled the monument.

The unveiling and dedication of the monument took place on Tuesday, May 30, 1950. 15,000 people jammed the streets of the village and Chief Montour Square on Water Street in Painted Post to witness the unveiling and hear the dedication speech given by Representative W. Sterling Cole.

© 1993, Audrey Cloos Phelps


Dimitroff, Thomas P. and Janes, Lois S,. History of the Coming-Painted Post Area, Corning Area Bicentennial Comm., 1977

Erwin, Charles H., History of the Town and Village of Painted Post and the Town of Erwin, Times Book and Job Printing Office, Painted Post, N.Y. 1874

McMaster, Guy, History of the Settlement of Steuben County, N.Y., Humphrey Press, Geneva, N.Y., 1975

Mulford, Uri, Pioneer days and Later Times in Corning and Vicinity 1789-1920.

Merrill, Arch, Southern Tier, Vol I., Empire State Books. Interlaken, N.Y., 1953

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