September 1993

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The Williamson Road


A. G. Hilbert

Part I, Part II

Part III

As we know, the original plan called for the road to turn west at Lawrenceville and follow the present Route 49 through Elkland to Knoxville northward on Route 36 to Troupsburg, Jasper and Canisteo and Dansville, thence down the Canaseraga to Williamsburg. "The Lost City of the Genesee," near present day Mount Morris. As built, it is essentially Route 15 north from Williamsport.

Few emigrants came over the road during its first four years until the battle of "Fallen Timbers" erased the threat of an Indan war. Then, as a result of the intensive advertising, they came by the thousands from New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Encouraged by awesome stands of virgin timber, pines and hemlocks reported over 200 feet high, the abundance of game and the lush stands of grass in the bottomlands, wagon trains of over 100 people and 30 vehicles were common sights on the road. There were youngsters and young ladies on horseback, elderly in chaises tied in with props and ropes and carried on the shoulders of servants.

For the next 30 years the Williamson Road was the great road between the South and Western New York. Colonel Nathaniel Rochester (partner of Henry Clay's father-in-law) came over this road and founded what is now the city of Rochester. Such famous families as the Fitzhughs and the Carrolls mingled with the Yankee traders from Connecticut, the Puritans from Massachusetts and the stolid Dutch of the Hudson Valley to influence the customs, institutions and life of central and western New York. Over this road marched the troops that helped protect the Niagara frontier in the War of 1812. This road, by itself, was the greatest single influence in the development of that area. The vision of Charles Williamson became a reality.

The road was not the only link between the Genesee Country and the South. There was still the ancient way of the original red-skinned people. Emigrants and supplies still poled up the Susquehanna into the Chemung and spread out into the upper branches, particularly the Cohocton and Canisteo rivers. Using dugout and Durham boats, it was cheaper to come by water. Durham boats 80 feet long and 3 feet deep could carry 20 to 30 tons. They were manned by five men, one at the stern with a steering sweep while two on either side manned poles or oars. In shallow sections of the rivers, passengers and cattle walked along the bank while the boat was dragged to deeper water. Return trips were made with grain, lumber and hemp.

The river flats had huge stretches of wild hemp grass, a kind of marijuana, and would grow excellent crops of regular hemp. The Baltimore merchants desperately wanted this hemp to sell to the British navy for cordage. There was only one other source—that was to buy from the Russians who were far away and asked a high price. The Canadians in Quebec also clamored for this hemp. The Baltimore merchants even sent buyers as far as Tioga Point to buy hemp and planned to build a cordage mill there. Local merchants also shipped large quantities of saleable products downstream during spring and fall high-water periods. They sent huge log rafts and a kind of flat boat called an ark. The body of the ark was loosely built of crude timbers and would carry 300 to 500 barrels of flour or other supplies such as grain, lumber, whiskey and cattle. Operated by three to five men, they drifted about 80 miles per day. Estimated trip was five days. On reaching Baltimore, the supplies were sold and the ark disassembled to be sold for lumber. The men then walked or worked their way back home. Arkport on the Canisteo River was one starting point. The other main source was Bradford on Mud Creek, north of Savona.

As the Philadelphia-Baltimore market averaged a 50% higher price than Albany and New York, this cheap water transportation was highly desirable.

The river valleys yielded huge crops of grain but this was difficult to store and bulky to ship. Since Canada had a terrific demand for whiskey for its Indian trade, local distilleries sprang up and the grain converted into whiskey was available, not only locally for cash, but also for both colonial and Canadian markets to which it could be easily shipped.

In 1804 the road was relocated to eliminate many river crossings but when route 15 was built up Bloss Mountain, it exactly followed the old trail.

Towns in the Pennsylvania section were slow in developing. Covington, Liberty and Mansfield were merely stopping places until the 1820's and Blossburg was no more than a tavern until 1826. The blockhouse in Liberty was operated as a tavern by Anthony. Peter's Camp was also operated by a worthless fellow named Gaylord but taken over by Aaron Bloss in 1802. A tavern was established at the river crossing at present day Tioga by Benjamin Ives in 1794. He sold it to Thomas Berry in 1796. Williamsburg, the projected terminal of the road, gradually disappeared. Today, nothing remains but a monument in the vicinity of Groveland, south of Geneseo.

New York State, to attract settlers, passed a law allowing alien immigrants to purchase and own land. It proposed that they could set up settlements where they could maintain their customs and language, subject only to their observance of the general state laws. To my knowledge, only one group took advantage of this. A party of Scotchmen settled what is now the village of Caledonia. The Dutch purchased great acreage throughout the state, particularly in the western part of the state, but they were interested in real estate profits, not in settlement. As Williamson set up a model settlement on the Cohocton and named it Bath, after the wife of his employer, so Lincklaen, the Dutch agent, set up a model village and named it Casenovia, after his employer, Casenova.

The Black population brought in by the southern speculators remained for the most part slaves but generally under very favorable circumstances and with the added knowledge that under New York State law any Black born in New York State would automatically gain his freedom at age 28. In 1827 all slaves were automatically freed.

To summarize, this area was primarily settled by New Englanders and Hudson valley colonials, until with the opening of the Williamson Road the discontented or adventurous of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia supplemented the influx of former soldiers pouring into the Military Tract to claim their soldier bonus grants. Orange County poured people into both tiers and of course Connecticut into the northern tier. In a relatively few years civilization had torn apart the unbroken wilderness that was our area at the end of the Revolution.

Today, however, as we with our many forms of transportation travel over modern-routes 15 and 17 here in the south and Routes 5 and 20 in the north, we parallel the trails traveled by the runners and raiding parties of the Delaware and the Iroquois, the canoes, the wagons and pack trains of the early settlers. We travel accompanied by the shades of those that made our area historically rich and economically great.

© 1978, A. G. Hilbert
Part I, Part II, Part III


Papers of Judge Charles G. Webb

Description of the Genesee Country by Charles Williamson

Description of the Genesee Country by Robert Munro

Charles Williamson by Arthur C. Parker

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