Brigham Young's Presence
in the Finger Lakes
Lives on in Legend and in Fact
The country between Keuka and Seneca Lakes is characterized as being hard as nails. The landscape in the vicinity of Tyrone and Sugar Hill has never been very tolerant of human habitation.
Driving on the back roads, one can quickly be enamored with the scenic beauty of the countryside, but at the same time become depressed by the rundown condition of the buildings and land. The stark reality of the recession is omnipresent.
The remnants of once prosperous farms stand like skeletons of the past—tumble down barns and old homes gone to rack and ruin. Such is the nature of things in the high country of Schuyler and Steuben counties—or most of the surrounding counties for that matter.
But history tells us that life was always hard in this country. The only difference between pioneer times and now is that there was more community and individual pride in the old days. People didn't have much but took care of what they had.
Among the early pioneers who made the best of what little they had was the family of the famous Mormon leader Brigham Young.
Long before they were swept up in the fire of religion they were among the many who worked as no one has worked since carving habitation out of a wilderness.
Brigham's father, John, came from a rich New England heritage but struck out on his own from Vermont in 1800 to seek a new life in the West. He was one of a group of hearty individuals who had served in the Revolutionary War and knew the meaning of hardship. His first residence in New York State was a wilderness area near the village of Smyrna in Chenango County. He and his wife had several children, all of whom learned the meaning of hard work at an early age.
In those days, the family made their own clothes, and once or twice a year, an itinerant cobbler would come around and make shoes for the brood. John also maintained a portion of a local road as his in-kind contribution to the community in lieu of taxes.
Besides maintaining a small farm, John and his boys worked for permanent settlers clearing their land of trees and brush. They knew the true meaning of "fallowing" a parcel for the next year's crops.
Once this country had been cleared, the Youngs moved farmer west, to the town of Lansing in Tompkins County (then part of Genoa, Cayuga County). When Brigham was about eight years old, his mother died, and he went to live with a sister for a time near Auburn.
The region west of Watkins Glen was being settled after the War of 1812, so John, now widowed, moved to an area known as Sugar Hill. Although the legend persists that "Brigham Young once lived there," he actually didn't—only visited his father and brothers there occasionally. On Aug. 20, 1815, John married "a widow woman" named Hannah Dennis, who had many relatives in the area, as well as in Bath and Campbell. The marriage ceremony was performed by William Harnan, a justice of the peace and one of the community's pioneer leaders.
The new Mrs. Young had three children by John. Two died in infancy and the third, Edward, was born on July 20, 1823.
Florence E. Miller, of Watkins Glen, whose ancestors, the Hamners, were contemporaries of the Youngs, recalled: "As a young girl I was aware of the stones just south of the home where Brigham Young's family lived on the east side of the road. Later, in 1920-21 when I taught school in the Sugar Hill District, I often walked that three mile distance and can still see [in her mind] those weather-worn grave stones." Any evidence of these stones has long since vanished.
Lorenzo Dow Young, Brigham's brother, who lived with his father here, recalled that John "had taken up land on which to make a home about six miles east" of the isolated settlement of Tyrone. He recalled the country in those days was covered with "a dense forest in which wolves were very numerous."
John Young remained here until 1827 when he moved to Mendon, south of Rochester, to join other members of his family. Here he purchased a farm. Hannah tolerated this first move to a more habitable region of New York State. But she called it quits when the family got caught up in Mormonism. Although she reluctantly followed her husband to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1833 with Joseph Smith, it wasn't long before she returned to Tyrone.
For a time the Hamners apparently took her in, along with her son, Edward, for several months. The Hamners were returning a favor the Youngs had given them several years before when the Youngs took them in until they could build their own home.
After John Young had been in Kirtland nearly two years, Hannah wrote to him stating that if he would send for her she would come and live with him again. Lorenzo, with a good team, took his father and traveled several hundred miles back to Tyrone and moved Hannah back to Kirtland.
There the Youngs lived in fairly comfortable circumstances until Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders deemed it proper to move out of harm's way to western Illinois. Here they would establish a city on the banks of the Mississippi called Nauvoo.
Apparently Hannah's tolerance for the Mormon way of life and for frequently moving was more than she could take so she packed up again and returned to New York State.
It is believed that Hannah, whose maiden name had been Brown, lived with relatives in Bath. The 1840 census places her in the town of Reading with one male 15 to 20 and one male 20 to 30 living in the household. She was between 50 and 60 years old at the time. Her neighbors were Abraham Forshee and Abraham P. Mead. The Forshees lived in Tyrone.
John Young died in Quincy, Illinois down river from Nauvoo, on Oct. 12, 1839, after having suffered from poor health for a long time. Hannah and Edward were out of touch with the rest of the Youngs, including Brigham, for several years.
Records show that Edward married Diadoma Vanderwarka (also pronounced Vanderworken) on Jan. 1, 1847, at a small settlement south of Bath known as Mud Creek. Today, it is the village of Savona. She was born Oct. 14, 1831, and was married on the same day as her brother, Peter, was to Abigail Davidson.
© 1995, Richard F. Palmer
The author's book, Brigham Young: The New York Years, attempts to sort the truth from the folklore.