The White Woman
The strange story of "The White Woman of the Genesee" has become part of the folklore of America.
The story begins on the sailing ship William and Mary, out of Londonderry, Ireland, and bound for Philadelphia. It is the Autumn of 1743. Aboard ship, Jane Erwin, wife of Thomas Jemison, gives birth to a girl child, She is named Mary. There are two older brothers.
The Jemisons settle in a fertile Pennsylvania valley in what is now Adams County. There two other sons are born to them. In later years Mary recalled her girlhood on the frontier as a happy time. She was only 15 when tragedy struck.
The child who was born on the ocean is a comely girl, fair skinned with chestnut hair and deep blue eyes. She is slender and small boned, hardly five feet tall, yet sturdy and never ill.
On the night of April 4, 1758 Mary is sent to a neighbor's home to bring back a horse the next morning. It is the time of the long French and Indian war and although the redskins are known to be in the region, Thomas Jemison elects not to take his family to the safety of a stockade only six miles away.
On her way to the neighbor's, Mary has a vision-a white sheet seems to descend and catch her up, saving her from a doom that threatens others.
Returning home, she finds her father shaving an axe helve in the yard, her mother preparing breakfast, her two older brothers in the barn. There are guests, a neighbor, his wife and their two children. The neighbor goes to take care of the horse Mary has brought. Then a shot is heard, followed by the dread Indian war whoop. Six Indians and four Frenchmen run out of the woods, surround the house and take captive everyone save the two boys, unseen in the barn.
Prodded by whips, the prisoners are driven into the woods. Along the way they see the body of the neighbor. That explains the shot. All day long they are marched through the woods without food or drink. On the second day of her captivity Mary sees some bloody scalps. Bred on the frontier, the girl knows she never will see her family again.
They reach Fort Duquesne, the site of Pittsburgh. Mary is given to two Seneca sisters who have lost a brother in battle. The weird adoption rite with its dervish-like dancing and screeching frightens the white girl. The Indian women name her Deh-gi-wanus which means "Two Falling Voices." They replace her tattered garments with clean Indian clothes.
The Indians paddle down the Ohio to another village. The sisters are gentle with Mary but she is forbidden to speak English aloud. She murmurs to herself the prayers her mother taught her. She learns the Indian language although she never becomes fluent in that tongue.
The tribe decrees that she marry a young Delaware. His name is Shenigee and he is tall, brave and kind. She learns to take care of the wigwam, to hoe corn and perform the other tasks of a squaw.
A baby, fair skinned, is born to her and she names him Thomas after her father. Slowly the memories of her life in the green Pennsylvania hills grow dim. She counts time by moons rather than months; she tells the seasons by the changing leaves and by the ways of the animals. She takes up the Indian way of life and time heals the horror of her memories.
At the time of the harvest moon, her husband goes off on a long hunt. Her sisters implore Mary to join them in their new home on the Genesee, Little Beard's Town. Shenigee is to follow them after the winter hunting.
Mary and two Indian foster brothers set off on a 600-mile trek. The young mother, a nine-months old papoose strapped to her back, trudges through an almost pathless wilderness, fording streams, sleeping on the ground in a wet blanket in the cold rains. Footsore, cold and sometimes hungry, she plods on until she reaches the Seneca stronghold.
She is to spend nearly all the rest of her long life in that pleasant valley beside the winding river.
She is safe and happy in her new home. Then a messenger comes in the Spring with sad news. Her husband is dead.
A Dutch trader, enamored of her blond beauty, tries to kidnap her. A chief of the tribe, in the trader's pay, is in the plot, but others warn Mary and she hides with her baby in the reeds and in a cabin at Gardeau until the danger is past.
She marries again. Her new mate is Hiakatoo, six feet tall and a famed and ferocious Seneca warrior thief. He is over 60 and she is only 24. For more than 40 years, until he died, she never wavered in her loyalty to the big Seneca. To them were born four daughters and two sons.
The Revolution changes her peaceful life in the Valley. The Senecas cast their fortunes with the British. The Tory leaders, the Butlers, and the Mohawk thief, Joseph Brant, stop at Mary's cabin and she pounds corn from dawn to dusk for her guests. Her husband is off to the wars.
In September of 1779 guns boom in the distance and terror strikes the Indian town. Sullivan's American army nears the Genesee and the Indians flee. Mary puts two young children on the back of an old horse, straps the baby on her back, bids two older children follow on foot.
In October she returns to the Valley and finds the village and the crops destroyed by the invaders. She seeks shelter in a cabin with an old Negro and a young boy on the Gardeau flats near the Genesee High Banks and husks corn for her keep. In the Spring she has her own cabin. Gardeau is to be her home for half a century. Now it's part of Letchworth State Park.
After the Revolution, white settlers began trickling into the Valley. They learn the strange story of Mary's captivity. She is given a chance to rejoin her own people and rejects it. She knows and trusts the Indians. They are generous and give her four square acres of land at Gardeau flats.
At the treaty of Big Tree in 1797 when the Senecas settled their land claims with Robert Morris, she drives a hard bargain. She tells Thomas Morris, representing his father at the council fire, that she has tilled patches here and there on the flats and wants an extension of her tract. Morris, thinking it involves only a few acres, yields to her request. The White Woman becomes the owner of 30,000 fertile acres, a veritable estate.
She gathers her children about her and tills her many acres. She becomes a tradition, "The White Woman of the Genesee." She tells the story of her life to James Seaver, a writer, and he puts it into a little book, which has been reprinted many times through many generations and has never lost its appeal.
Shy at first, she makes friends with the white settlers. When they are ill, she brews tea for them made from herbs. She tells them where the choicest wild berries grow. White children visit the bent little woman in her cabin and go away with gifts. She wields considerable influence with the Indians and helps settle disputes.
Mary is an old woman now, no longer the little beauty who came to the Genesee so long ago. She walks quickly, her head bent forward because she has earned heavy weights from a strap bound round her forehead. Her hair is still curly but snow white, no longer golden. The tired eyes are still Irish blue. She speaks English with strange Irish and Indian idioms.
She wears a brown flannel short gown with long sleeves, the shirt reaching to her hips and tied in two places with doeskin thongs. A blue cloth skirt is tied about her waist and her legs are encased in blue cloth leggings. She wears buckskin moccasins and rags in lieu of stockings. In cold weather she has a blanket over her shoulders and an ancient brown woolen bonnet on her head.
She sleeps on skins on the floor of her cabin. She shuns chairs and prefers to sit on a bench or on the floor. She holds her victuals in her lap or in her hand as she eats. Mary Jemison does not take to the ways of her own people. She has lived the Indian way so long.
Her old age is full of woe. Her aged husband dies. Her second son, John, who has the features and the worst traits of his father's race, in a drunken frenzy kills his older brother, Thomas, the pride of Mary's heart, the first born she has carried on her back to the Genesee. Later John kills another brother, Jesse, in a similar fashion before he himself meets an inevitable violent end. The bereaved mother raises voice against the sale of liquor to Indians.
She takes in a white impostor who claims to be a kinsman and tries to cheat her out of her land. In 1831 she sells her Valley holdings and goes to live on the Buffalo Creek Reservation. At the age of 89 she attends an Indian mission school and renounces paganism for Christianity. It was almost a death bed conversion, for Mary Jemison died within two months.
Until 1874 her bones rested in the reservation burying ground. Then, thanks to William Pryor Letchworth, they were reinterred on his Glen Iris estate which today is a part of the park he gave the people of the state. A statue of the white girl who came to the Geuesee is at her grave. Nearby is the cabin Mary built for her daughter in 1800.
The White Woman is not forgotten in the Genesee Country.
The Publick Universal Friend
It was in the year 1776 that the typhus spread through Rhode Island. It had been brought to Providence by British prisoners on the American ship of war Columbus.
The people called it "the Columbus Fever" and many died of the plague. In April it reached the humble farmhouse at Cumberland, 10 miles from Providence, where lived Jeremiah Wilkinson and his 12 motherless children. His Quaker wife had been dead some eight years.
Among the stricken was the eighth child, Jemima, a handsome, willful girl of 18. On her mother's death she had been put in the charge of her older sisters but soon she was dominating them. In that Spring of 1776 she had come under the spell of religious exhorters and kept to her room with her Bible, withdrawn from the world.
As the girl lay apparently near death and her family assembled at her bedside, she had a vision in which:
"She saw two archangels descending from the East with golden crowns upon their heads, clothed in long white robes . . . putting their trumpets to their mouths, proclaiming 'Room, Room, Room in the many mansions of glory for thee.'"
Then she rose from her bed, prayed and called for her clothing, announcing that her carnal existence had ended and that from this time forth she was neither man nor woman but the Publick Universal Friend, Christ's messenger on earth, destined to save sinners.
Thus began a ministry that was to last for more than 40 years and to take this strange, magnetic woman, "who rose from the dead," to a far wild country amid the slender lakes of Upstate New York where her followers were to plant the first settlement west of the Genesee.
The Friend began her preaching career in her native Rhode Island. Boldly she attacked slavery in coastal towns that thrived on the slave trade with the West Indies. In Roxbury, Mass., she and her band were stoned from the streets amid cries of "heretic."
The unlettered country girl-evangelist gained converts throughout Southern New England. Meeting houses were erected in New Milford, Conn. and South Kingston, R. I. While most of her following were humble farm folk, she attracted some people of influence and standing. One such was James Parker, one time thief magistrate of Rhode Island, who became her close advisor. At one time she lived in the Parker home. Another was William Potter whose family name is preserved in Yates County.
The Friend preached a simple doctrine. She urged her audiences to live chastely, deal justly, obey the Golden Rule, avoid bad company and ardent spirits. Her rule over her flock was nearly absolute. Her proclamation of 30 days fasting on bread and water in Connecticut was generally obeyed. But her insistence on celibacy broke up families among her adherents and in the end it was a prime factor in wrecking the sect she founded.
There was little of the spectacular about the Friend's creed, other than her claim to divine inspiration. She did borrow from the Bible two apocalyptical Witnesses, James Parker, who professed to wear the mantle of Elijah, and Sarah Richards, who "was the prophet Daniel operating in these latter days in the female line." The pair served as her prime ministers.
According to Thomas Morris, Parker "before prophesying, would wear around the lower part of his waist a girdle, tied very tight, and when it had caused the upper part of his stomach to swell, he would pretend to be filled with prophetic visions which he would impart to the community!"
A visit to Philadelphia in 1782 was a milestone in the Universal Friend's career. She was warmly welcomed by the Quakers who provided the church in which she preached. Jemima created something of a sensation in the City of Brotherly Love and won a mixed reception from the public. The fashionable and sophisticated always were to scoff at the plebeian preacher. Humbler folk regarded her more kindly. In his old age a Philadelphian set down his youthful impressions of young Jemima Wilkinson, who in 1782 was in the full bloom of her somewhat voluptuous beauty. He wrote:
"She was beautifully erect and tall for a woman. Her glossy black hair was parted evenly on her pale forehead and smoothed back beyond the ears, from whence it fell in profusion around her neck and shoulders.
He remembered "her arched black eyes, darting as though to read the thoughts of people . . . her beautiful aquiline nose, handsome mouth and chin, all supported by a neck conformable to the line of beauty and proportion."
A connoisseur of feminine charms, the Marquis de Barbe Marbois who saw Jemima in Philadelphia, had this to say:
"This soul from heaven has chosen rather a beautiful body for its dwelling place and many living ladies would not object to animate those dead remains."
Not so flattering was the report from a Philadelphia correspondent to the New Haven Gazette and Connecticut Magazine:
"She is about the middle size of a woman, not genteel in her person; rather awkward in her carriage; her complexion good. Her eyes remarkably black and brilliant; her hair black and waving with beautiful ringlets around the neck and shoulders; her features are regular.
"As she is not supposed to be of either sex, so this neutrality is manifest in her personal appearance. She wears no cap, letting her hair hang down. She wears her neckcloth like a man; her chemise is buttoned around the neck and wrists. Her outside garment is a robe, under which it is said she wears an expensive dress, the fashion of which is made to correspond neither with that of man or woman.
"Her understanding is deficient, except touching her religious fanaticism. She is very illiterate, yet her memory is very good. She is artful in discovering any circumstances which fall out among her disciples. On all occasions she demands the most extraordinary attentions that can be bestowed on her and one or more of her disciples usually attends on her and performs the most menial service.
"Her pronunciation is after the peculiar dialect of the most illiterate of the country people of New England. Her preaching has very little connection and is very lengthy; at times cold and languid, but occasionally lively, zealous and animated."
During her lifetime people could not agree about Jemima Wilkinson. She was a contradictory personality and it is difficult at this distance in time to separate the false from the true. So much legend has grown up about the Friend.
The Philadelphia invasion was so successful that the Friend settled in nearby Worcester, Pa., while making frequent trips to her flock in New England. Her people were so widely scattered and vulnerable to persecution that Jemima began to dream of some sequestered wilderness where, without outside interference, she could found a new Jerusalem.
Sullivan's soldiers had come back from the wars with glowing tales of the richness of the Finger Lakes country in York State and in 1786 the Friend sent Ezekiel Shearman to investigate that region as a possible site for her colony. Shearman got as far as Kanadesaga (Geneva) where trappers and traders told him the Indians were too hostile to permit any settlement.
Despite his gloomy report, three other scouts were sent out the next year for the Genesee Country. The Friend did not give up easily once she had set her heart and mind on a project. The trio, Abraham Dayton, Richard Smith and Thomas Hathaway, came back with an optimistic report. They had explored the Seneca Lake region around Kashong and were enchanted with it.
The Friend determined on moving to this promised land and in July, 1788, an advance guard of 25 left Schenectady by the water routes to pick the site of the new home for the faithful. A little west of the present dreamy village of Dresden on Lake Seneca, they heard the tinkle of falling water. It was Keuka outlet spilling over a ledge before it joined Seneca. The spot was idyllic. There in August they ended their search.
They made a clearing in the woods, built a few cabins, sowed 12 acres to wheat. They called their chosen place City Hill. It was the first settlement in all the Genesee Country, begun a year before Phelps and Gorham moved in on their purchase.
Spring of 1789 brought new arrivals, from New England and Pennsylvania. Sarah Richards came in June to take command. The Friend had started out from Pennsylvania for her colony but her carriage overturned in a swollen ford and she was hurled into the stream. She narrowly escaped drowning and, ill and shaken, returned to Pennsylvania.
The Winter of 1789-90 was a grim one for the little band in the clearing. They lived on the provisions they had brought, the meager crop they had raised and the wild game and vegetables of the countryside.
Still when the Publick Universal Friend arrived in the Spring of 1790 she found a colony of 250 industrious, orderly people, many of them Quakers, most of them capable farmers and mechanics. Jemima, happy to be away from critical city eyes, was enraptured by the wild beauty of the landscape. She was only 32 and in the full prime of healthy young womanhood.
The society's land lay in "the Gore," the no-man's land between the true and false Pre-emption lines of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase and there was difficulty about titles, which the Friend finally ironed out with Pulteney land agent Charles Williamson, The holdings of the society totalled 14,000 acres.
The New Jerusalem began to take shape. The society built a grist mill, a log meeting house and later a frame house for the Friend. In a log room attached to the house Rachel Malin taught the first school in the region.
Jemima made friends with the Indians and was their advisor at the Canandaigua treaty council. They gave her a tribal name which meant "great woman preacher." But her efforts to convert them were rebuffed-often with biting sarcasm. When 500 Senecas, enroute to the Newtown treaty fire, encamped at the Friend's Landing on Seneca Lake, Jemima preached to them. The Indian preacher, Good Peter, then spoke in his own tongue. When the Friend asked to have his discourse interpreted, he said: "If she is Christ, she knows what I said."
The Friend fed the settlers Williamson had brought into the region but did not neglect to collect her bill. Many of her flock found lucrative employment with the land agent. Jemima got on well with the courtly Scot although she frowned on his sinful ways. And if the gallant land agent or his young henchmen eyed the undeniable charms of Jemima and her handmaidens, they were doomed only to frustration.
A mixed system of community and private enterprise prevailed in the colony. Private property was allowed complete freedom. Some of the more affluent owned their own land. Others contributed to a joint fund and each shared in profits according to the amount of his investment. The Friend professed merely "to maintain a family," which depended for support on voluntary labor and gifts. Of course as a spiritual being, she could not own temporal possessions. Needless to say, Jemima and her household always were amply provided for.
But all was far from serene at City Hall. Land values rose and some sought to sell their lands at a profit to outsiders. The Friend's unbending rule of celibacy caused desertions. Enoch Malin, brother of Rachel, eloped with the giddy Eliza Richards, sister of Sarah, right under the Friend's nose, from the Friends' own house.
James Parker, her right hand man, her "Elijah," ablest of her counselors, quarreled with the Friend and became her bitter enemy. The influential William Potter also quit the fold.
Four times Parker placed blasphemy charges against Jemima. The first time she escaped the minions of the law by digging her silver spurs into the side of her horse and galloping off into the woods. The second time, when an officer came to her house, her handmaidens roughed him up, even tearing his clothes, so that he beat a disorderly retreat. The third time, when a posse of 30 men surrounded the house, Jemima pleaded illness and they left, emptyhanded.
But finally she was brought to trial in Canandaigua before the old politician-judge, Ambrose Spencer. She was speedily acquitted and at the close of the trial, the Friend was asked to give a short sermon in the court room. Her talk so impressed the judge that he told the gathering:
"We have heard good counsel and if we live in harmony and do what this woman has told us, we shall be sure to be good people here and reach a final rest in heaven."
The Friend had many troubles. Outsiders edged closer to her colony and coveted the fine land which her people had cleared and cultivated. But with strife inside and pressure without, Jemima went her way serenely, preaching, praying, planting, nursing the sick, comforting the troubled. She became an expert horsewoman and delighted in riding over the trails like the wind. On one occasion she was found handling a cross-cut saw like a veteran woodsman. She added a wide brimmed beaver hat to her startling ensemble.
A mass of apocrypha clings to this extraordinary woman. Much of it sprang from malicious frontier gossip. For instance there's the oft-told tale that the Friend once announced that on a certain Sunday she would walk on the water of Seneca Lake. A crowd of the faithful gathered at the designated place. On the appointed hour Jemima swept grandly down to the lakeside in her coach, alighted and addressed the multitude:
"I cannot do this thing unless ye have faith that I can. Have ye faith?"
With one voice the answer came: "We have faith."
Then said the preacher: "If ye all believe I can do this, no evidence is needed." She drove away leaving them silent and humble.
And there's the story of the Friend catching a member of her flock peeking into her bedroom from a tree and sentencing the "peeping Tom" to wear a cowbell about his neck for six weeks.
Another offender against Jemima's rules was supposedly banished to Nova Scotia for three years and at the end of his exile returned dutifully to the fold.
The fame of Jemima spread. Like Niagara Falls, she became one of the frontier wonders, and curiosity brought notable visitors to her door. Sometimes they repaid her hospitality with mean and sneering accounts. The French Duke de Liancourt, who visited the Friend during his frontier tour, wrote that "her hypocrisy may be traced in all her discourses, actions and conduct, even in the very manner in which she manages her countenance."
An English tourist, Thomas Cooper, who visited the Friend in 1809 when she was ill and aging, ungallantly described her as "corpulent and masculine-featured." He wrote that "neither her voice or manner of tone bespoke much intercourse with the world and nothing with the polite part of it." He said "her conversation strongly savored of what seemed to me affected mysticism."
The social status of her visitors did not impress Jemima nor did their supercilious remarks shake her aplomb. She was too busy managing the affairs of her people.
She determined to move away from the greed and dissension of City Hill. In 1792 two of the richest disciples, Benedict Robinson and Thomas Hathaway, bought from Phelps and Gorham six square miles of Yates County near the Crooked (Keuka) Lake. The purchase was aptly named Jerusalem Town. The Friend and Sarah Richards picked the site of the new home.
Jemima moved into a house beside a brook in the "Vale of Kedron," now the Guyanoga Valley. The meetings were held there and two sections were added to the house at different times until it became a long, rambling structure. Cooper described it as "a mean-looking frame building externally but clean and comfortable within."
In the meantime the faithful were hard at work building a grand big house for their leader on Shepherd's Hill, commanding a view of the distant blue radiance of the Crooked Lake. Into that two-and-one-half-story New Englandish, clapboard house with the fan windows above the fluted doorways and high-ceilinged, spacious rooms went five years of good workmanship and the best materials the frontier afforded. It was finished in 1814 and still stands, staunch and stately, on its hilltop.
There the Friend lived in a style that was the envy of the toil-worn, poverty-pinched pioneer women who were believers." While Jemima taught simplicity of dress and manners, in the Quaker tradition, and she herself wore the curious ensemble hitherto described, she had elegant tastes.
Seven attractive handmaidens waited on her every wish. Among her personal belongings were many luxurious things dear to a woman's heart, things Jemima had hardly dare to dream of in her penniless childhood. Her big, airy boudoir was filled with such things-a mirror in an ornate frame; a medicine case of exquisite wood inlay, a silver salver, perfume bottles, a warming pan. Most of her belongings bore her crest, dominated by the letters UF with a cross between them. Beneath was the all-seeing eye and under that the symbolic chain of faith.
Despite the luxury of her new abode, the Universal Friend was a sickly, aging woman while she occupied it. Time had not dimmed the fire of the black eyes but the raven hair was dappled now with gray. Dropsy had cruelly bloated the once gorgeous figure. The Friend could no longer dash on horseback over the hills and valleys of her realm.
So she ordered a fine carriage, an open coach with a crescent shaped body, with tapestry of burnished gold and the letters UF engraved on its back panel eight inches high. The distinctive body was custom built in Canandaigua. The chassis came from Philadelphia. The British had used it during the Revolution to transport soldiers. Later it served as a stage coach. Jemima had used it in Pennsylvania.
Now that once proud equipage, showing its age and its elegant tapestry rotted away, is a prized exhibit in the Historical Museum at Canandaigua, the gift of its last owner, Velma Remer of Penn Yan. For years the Friend's carriage had a prominent place in Penn Yan parades.
After Sarah Richards died ("left time" in the society's language) in 1795, Rachel Malin succeeded her as high priestess. She also was the Friend's amanuensis and wrote down in her day book events of the colony and even the visions of Jemima.
Thomas Morris wrote that the Friend could neither read nor write; that she memorized the passages from Scripture which she quoted so fluently by having them read to her-which seems absurd. While she did sign documents with a cross and no specimen of her handwriting survives, those loyal to her memory contend that she did not sign her name because she was a reincarnated spiritual being-not a woman named Jemima Wilkinson. That woman "left time" in 1776.
During her long last illness, the Friend did not relax her rule over her people. She saw that the barns were full, the cattle sleek, the fruit plentiful, that the grounds of her house were well kept. An ominous note to this seeming Utopia was the lack of children to carry on the colony-because of the Friend's decree of celibacy. The original members grew old and "left time." The handwriting was on the wall.
The Friend did not recognize it. To the last she preached to her flock at the meetings in her house. Saturdays and Sunday were rest days, with Saturday the meeting day. Jemima insisted on punctuality at the meetings, which were conducted in the Quaker fashion. She wanted the congregation "to make as little stir as possible, gather in silence, not to speak at all vocally except they be moved by the Holy Spirit or there be real necessity." Usually she was the first to speak and Rachel Malin followed.
On the cover of Rachel Malin's day book is written-and one imagines it was sprinked with tears:
"Twenty five minutes past two on the Clock, the Friend went from here."
Apparently the customary expression "left time" did not apply to the passing of the Publick Universal Friend.
Jemima Wilkinson breathed her last in her big house on the hill on the morning of July 1, 1819. It was on a Saturday, a meeting thy. She was in her sixty-seventh year.
The people held service as usual that day and they filed past the board on which the Friend rested-as if she had only fallen asleep. They were sure their leader would rise on the third day.
On Sunday, the second day, while the service was going on, according to a story often repeated in the land of vineyards, four strangers, two men and two women, in Quaker garb, drove up to the Friend's house in a carriage which seemed to have come from a far place. One of the women mounted the horseblock in the yard and spoke to the assemblage a parable. She likened the colony to a flight of steps supported by a single beam. Now that the main beam was gone, she prophesied, the whole structure would collapse. The strangers climbed into their carriage and drove away.
After the third day, the body of the Friend was placed in a specially-built vault in the basement of her house, For an indefinite time-some say months-it remained there while the people waited hopefully. But this time Jemima Wilkinson did not rise from the dead as she had when she was a girl in Rhode Island.
Finally two men took the Friend from her house and buried her in a secret place. It is known only to the descendants of the two men who put her in the grave. One of those descendants is Rodney Pierce of Keuka. Arnold Potter of Penn Yan was another but that genial soul is gone.
In her will, which she signed with a cross, Jemima commanded her heirs, Rachel and Margaret Malin, to see to the employment and support of "her family" and to provide "assistance, comfort & support during natural life for all poor persons belonging to the Society of the Universal Friend."
Just as the strange woman had predicted the day after the Friend died, the structure fell apart after the main prop was gone. The Malin sisters struggled to keep the society together but were beset by disputes and litigation.
Margaret died in 1844 and Rachel in 1848. After that the society dwindled into extinction, Even the Friends' house fell into disrepair. At the close of the Civil War it was bought by John Alcooke, an English Quaker, who planned to turn it into a home for disabled war veterans. But he died suddenly in 1866 and left no heirs. The property reverted to the state and for many years it was neglected and forlorn.
Only a historical marker tells where City Hill stood and not a headstone remains in its burying ground. Jemima's followers were buried under unmarked fieldstones, There are many such in the woods near the Friend's House in Jerusalem. Only two or three bear names and they were erected after Jemima "went from here."
In that romantic countryside where they were the first pioneers, the memories of Jemima and her people are kept alive and cherished. For there are many descendants of those men and women who wore the plain clothes and were followers of the Friend living in the bright, brisk village of Penn Yan and the surrounding region. Jeering at the Friend will bring hot resentment even today and the many objects associated with her are treated with a respect that approaches reverence.
For seven years the Friend's House of the massive hand-hewn timbers stood vacant. it was terribly run down. In 1949 Mr. and Mrs. J. E. Florance of Hornell purchased it for a Summer residence. They have restored it to its oldtime stateliness, On its hilltop the big house gleams in a coat of white, a shining landmark of the Lakes Country.
The Florances have carefully preserved the original red pine floors, the cherry stair railings, the balcony above the hall where Jemima preached; the fireplace bricks which were baked on the premises. The past lives again as you see the three great rooms, 10 feet high and 20 feet square; the boudoir that was Jemima's, the third story cubicles where dwelt her pretty handmaidens, the outside crypt for the dead where vegetables now are stored.
And in Penn Yan's Oliver House, the home of the Yates County Historical Society, are many things that belonged to the Friend and her colony. There is the bier board, the pine board on which Jemima lay while her flock was waiting for her resurrection, Florance found it in the basement of the Friend's House. There is the broad-brimmed beaver hat Jemima wore, along with her saddle, her whip and two baskets made by friendly Senecas for "the great woman preacher."
At Oliver House you see the Friend's clock made in Bavaria in 1722, Jemima's medicine box and perfume bottles, two chairs that belonged to the Malin sisters and you read the "Death Book" of the society which Ruth Pritchard kept in her precise copperplate hand. After each name is written, "Left Time" and the date of departure.
But the greatest prize of all in Oliver House is not on public view, except on special occasions, It is securely crated and locked in a safe. It is the portrait of the Friend that a Canandaigua artist painted in 1816 when Jemima was in ill health and growing old. It is said that she never liked it although it hung over a fireplace in her boudoir.
Only recently an unfinished canvas of Jemima by the same artist, J. D. H. Mathies, was uncovered in Scottsville. Mathies also did a rather well known painting of Red Jacket.
For years the Friend's portrait was the prized possession Arnold Potter who lived in a gracious yellow-coated mansion in downtown Penn Yan. In his lifetime he allowed only a selected few to gaze at the features of Jemima. He bequeathed his treasure to the Historical Society on condition that it not be shown publicly, save on special occasions, that it be kept in a safe place and never photographed.
The society had the painting restored and in July of 1957 it was dedicated and for an evening it hung in Oliver House where the public could gaze on it. Then it went into its crate and the locked safe.
We were flattered when one Summer's day the custodian of the portrait, the courtly Jay Barnes of Penn Yan, former county historian and a descendant of Ruth Pritchard who kept the "Death Book," unlocked the safe, unscrewed the fastenings of the crate and brought out the restored painting.
We looked upon a woman no longer young, no longer shapely but a striking person nonetheless in her eccentric costume. There is fire in the dark eyes, determination in the strong chin and nose and an aura of magnetism about the Friend.
It is the face of a born leader. But it is not a patrician face. It is a plebeian face. After all Jemima Wilkinson was of the people-and proudly so.
Charles The Magnificent
Charles Williamson, the land agent, was a glamorous being and in his lifetime he had many loves. Most abiding of them was his affection for the Genesee Country.
And that was passing strange. For he was born a Scot, raised among the governing classes, had been an officer in the British army. He first came to America during the Revolution, a prisoner of war. A decade later he returned on a stupendous business mission.
An agent for a group of unsentimental British land speculators, his task was to sell and settle a million wilderness acres. While developing this frontier, he was expected to show a profit for his principals.
In the end the free-spending Scot was fired because of the red ink on the ledgers in London. Yet in a dozen years no man ever accomplished more on any frontier than did Charles Williamson in the Genesee Country. And he left the imprint of his energy and his personality deep on the land he had come to adore as a fond parent adores a beautiful and capricious child.
Some called him "Charles the Magnificent." He built roads where there had been only narrow Indian trails. He founded towns and developed others. He established schools and the first newspaper on the frontier. A born promoter, he spread afar the glories of the Genesee Country. His lavish promotions brought some important settlers, among them Nathaniel Rochester, father of the city that bean his name.
The land agent built a grand hotel at Geneva and launched ships on Seneca Lake. He even opened a theater on the backwoods square of Bath that presented the sophisticated French plays of Molière. He sponsored the first fair and horse races in Western New York. He was an early judge of Ontario County and was the father of Steuben County.
Williamson was of the stuff of which empire builders are made. Always he operated on the grand scale. His energy was as boundless as his optimism and he was able to impart his enthusiasm to others.
He was tall, slender, courtly, with ways that few men-and fewer women-could resist. Often he walked the primrose path and 'twas said that in each of the land agent's three frontier mansions a different lady ruled-and only one of them was his wife.
He was a vital figure of earth, this transplanted Scottish laird who wore lace cuffs, knee breeches, buckled shoes and a powdered wig, who was equally at ease in a settler's cabin and in a drawing room. No more gallant picture has come down to us out of the frontier past than that of "Charles the Magnificent," superb horseman, galloping over the frontier, his blue eyes alight with dreams and plans, his blue cape floating behind him in the wind.
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In 1791 William Temple Franklin, grandson of Benjamin, crossed the ocean. As representative of Robert Morris, his mission was to interest British capital in the vast York State tract that Morris had acquired from Phelps and Gorham. It was important to the ruling Federalists and their leader, Alexander Hamilton, that British dollars be invested in America-both for financial and political reasons.
Franklin made his sale-to the Pulteney Association of speculators, led by Sir William Johnstone Pulteney, the greatest landowner in Britain, and a fellow Scot, Patrick Colquhoun, who once had lived in Virginia. The price was 26 cents an acre.
As New York State laws forbade aliens holding title to land, the Association had to find an agent who would go to America, take out citizenship in the republic, hold title to the land-until the bothersome law could be repealed-and live on and develop the purchase.
Their choice was 34-year-old Charles Williamson, a native of Balgray, Scotland, the son of the factor for the Earl of Hopetoun. The young man came from the same Scottish circle in which Sir William Pulteney, born William Johnstone, had been reared. Johnstone had gone to London, married a fortune and acquired a title.
Williamson had been a captain in the British army but had left the service and was on his way to America, without a commission but with a letter to Lord Cornwallis, the British commander, when his ship was captured by a Yankee privateer.
Technically a prisoner, Williamson spent the rest of the war years in the home of Ebenezer Newell, merchant of Roxbury, Mass. He became infatuated with the new country and with the comely daughter of his host. He and Abigail Newell were married and, after the war, he took his bride to Scotland.
There the former captain was pretty much at loose ends until the Pulteney offer came up. He grasped at it, although the British speculators were not overly generous in their terms with their agent.
He took with him to America, two young Scots, John Johnstone and Charles Cameron. Both became his faithful lieutenants in building the frontier. With Abigail and their two children, Christy and Alexander, the land agent arrived in Norfolk, Va., in the Autumn of 1791. He spent some time in Baltimore and Philadelphia, shaping his plans for opening up the vast tract that was now his in name.
During the Winter he visited the purchase, traveling by way of the Mohawk Trail and the waterways to Geneva. He thrilled at the setting of the little town on Seneca Lake. Then he visited Canandaigua before going through the woods to the Genesee River. The promise of the new land captured his imagination. Immediately he began plans for a southern entrance to the domain he was to manage.
After the land agent had quartered his family at Northumberland, Pa., he hired scouts and woodsmen to cut a trail over the mountains from Northumberland to the Genesee. Led by that doughty frontiersman, Benjamin Patterson, the axmen blazed the trail, long known as the Williamson Road, past the present Blossburg along the Tioga to Painted Post, thence through the valley of the Conhocton past the site of Bath until they came to the place where the Canaseraga meets the Genesee River.
There at the western boundary of the Pulteney Purchase Williamson planned his first town which was to be "the capital city of the Genesee" and which he named Williamsburg after Sir William Pulteney.
John Johnstone and his sturdy men began building the "city" around a central square. By the Fall of 1792 Williamsburg emerged, a row of cabins, a store, a tavern, a mill, the agent's house and a great L-shaped barn that was the wonder of the frontier. Fifty two building lots had been taken.
Williamson was laid low by the Genesee fever but even the ague could not repress his buoyant spirit for long. There were financial worries, too. The Yankees wanted cash for all they sold. Williamson noted that his neighbor, James Wadsworth, at Big Tree was a "very pressing man." The Friends of Jemima Wilkinson's strange colony in the Lakes Country he found more co-operative.
Added to the land agent's cup of woe were Williamsburg's ill-chosen first settlers.
The London speculators had a rather medieval, six year share-crop plan for colonizing their Genesee lands. To this end, a former picture peddler, a pushing and plausible fellow, one William Berczy, had been engaged to recruit German farm workers for shipment to America. Instead of sturdy Saxon peasants born to the soil, he rounded up a motley crew of 60 men and women from the slums of Hamburg.
On their arrival in the New World, they proved their utter unfitness for frontier life. Put to work building roads, they were clumsy, unskilled with ax or saw. They were sullen and frightened by the wilderness, for they were used to cities. Finally 30 of the strongest made their way to the Genesee village John Johnstone had built.
Dissension marred their stay in Williamsburg. Berczy piled up debts against the company. He complained, with some justice, that the land agent had not kept his compact with the emigrants. The covenant called for houses, land, live stock and equipment for each settler. There were not nearly enough houses and half of the promised land had been preempted by Williamson. Few tools were available. It is unlikely the Germans would have used them anyhow.
Matters raced to a showdown that torrid Summer of 1793. The land agent was weary of the useless Germans and their complaints. They were not the type of settlers he wanted and he resolved to get rid of them. He was particularly irked by Berczy's assumption of authority which threatened his own prestige.
Justifying his action by Berczy's debts and errors in his accounts, along with refusal of the Germans to work on the land, Williamson summarily dismissed Berczy as a representative of the company and refused to transfer an acre to the Germans.
This ultimatum Williamson coolly delivered to a howling mob at Williamsburg. He was driven to cover in a cabin and escaped bodily harm only through the intervention of Berczy. Then he invoked the law. A sheriff's posse rounded up most of the feckless emigrants and marched them off to Canandaigua jail. They were convicted of defrauding the land company and made to pay off their fines in labor. Eventually most of them found their way to Canada. A pioneer experiment in colonization had been a complete failure.
Now free to proceed with his promotion schemes, Williamson in August of 1793 sent out broadsides advertising "the Williamsburg Fair and Races at the Great Forks of the Genesee," to be held two days in late September "for the sale and purchase of cattle, horses and sheep."
It was the first such fair ever held west of the Hudson and it was a colorful show which attracted sporting gentry from the seaboard, along with yeomen of the frontier and some wandering Indians.
As long as he was the agent, Williamson never neglected his first born, Williamsburg, but already he was building a new town in 1793. He picked the basin of the Conhocton River as the future commercial center of the Purchase, at the junction of his land and water highways and envisioned the products of the frontier floating down the lesser rivers to the Susquehanna and the great port of Baltimore. This new capital of the domain he would name Bath, after the English seat of his principal, Sir William Pulteney.
Among the Bath legends is the one of a band of axemen springing from the two boats that had brought them up river and, under the command of Benjamin Patterson and Charles Cameron, clearing Pulteney Square in the twinkling of an eye. The village was not built quite that fast but it was not long before in the clearing, shadowed by mighty hills, there rose a tavern, the Agency House and a dozen log cabins. The first newspaper on the frontier and the first theater came later.
Two Williamson children died in one year. While Abigail was still at Northumberland, Alexander died and the land agent wrote to his father in Scotland: "The loss of my child shows in the sharpest light the folly of all my ambitions." In 1793 the eight-year-old daughter, Christian, died, probably a victim of the Genesee Fever, and her grave was the first one dug in the settlement of Bath. She sleeps in the old Presbyterian Cemetery in the heart of the shire town.
His personal misfortunes did not deter Williamson's promotions. He inspired the building of roads and backed inn-keepers who opened stands on the new highways. He hoped to lure settlers of means, but most of the new arrivals had to be helped with gifts or loans of stock, tools and seeds. Williamson pushed through the formation of a new county which was named Steuben and he saw to it that his town of Bath was the seat. He was its first Member of Assembly and was often in Albany and New York, mingling with the influential and the socially elite. At home he was a master of the Masonic Lodge and a colonel of the militia.
He built at Bath the finest residence on the frontier, a frame mansion with wings, porches and elaborate gardens beside a sparkling little lake which he called Salubra. There Abigail played hostess to celebrated visitors, among them French noblemen and the American politico, Aaron Burr.
In 1795, as a promotion stunt, Williamson laid out a race course at Bath and announced a fair, racing meet, barbecue and wrestling matches on a scale unheard of on any frontier. He sent out couriers with handbills which announced:
"There will be trusty and civil guides to meet and conduct gentlemen and their suites to the far-famed city on the upper reaches of the Susquehanna, in the land of crystal lakes and memorial parks, located in the garden of the lately vanquished Iroquois."
In August caravans rolled into Bath from all directions. Plantation owners with their Negroes, gamesters, jockeys, hunters, backwoodsmen, Indians, society ladies and pioneer women with calloused hands to the number of 2,000 assembled on the Pine Plains of Bath, awaiting the starting gun.
There were no pari-mutuel windows but large sums changed hands. Williamson's Southern mare, Virginia Nell, raced Sheriff Dunn's New Jersey Silk Stocking, and lost. The wives of the two owners wagered $100 and a pipe of wine on the result and dumped the gold coins into the apron of a third lady who was the stakeholder.
There was a sprinkling of New Englanders among the Southerners, Scots, New Jersey and Pennsylvania pioneers who had settled in the basin of the Conhocton and they looked askance at the racing and the betting, the revelry in the tavern and the new theater. Jemima Wilkinson, the Universal Friend, regarded her neighbor Bath as a den of the devil.
The invasion jitters seized Bath in 1794 when a British Indian alliance seemed imminent. Colonel Simcoe, British lieutenant governor of Canada, did not like, among other American activities, Williamson's development of the port of Sodus. At that fine natural harbor the land agent was building docks and mills and dreaming of extensive trade with Canada.
Although Britain had lost the Revolution, she still held Oswego and through alliances with the Indians, who were on the warpath in the West, hoped to control the southern shore of Lake Ontario.
Simcoe sent an emissary with a detachment of soldiers to Sodus with an ultimatum to Williamson to desist from his Operations. The land agent had been warned of an attempt to kidnap him and so he went to the meeting with a sizeable guard and with Thomas Morris as an aide. The British agent turned out to be a former comrade in arms, Lt. Roger Sheaffe, but Williamson defied the British threat and nothing was settled.
Four days later, "Mad Anthony" Wayne's American troops defeated the Western Indians in Ohio and the threat to the York State frontier faded away.
Williamson then turned his attention to Geneva, where he planned great things. He built a mansion on Mile Point and then an elegant three-story hotel which cost $22,000 and which was called "the Astor House of the West." A famous London innkeeper was installed as manager.
The land agent launched a sloop on Seneca Lake, he built another mansion on Bluff Point and a mill beside the Keuka Lake outlet. He sought to develop a mill center at Lyons and named the settlement at the confluence of the Canandaigua Outlet and the Clyde River after the French city at the junction of the Rhone and Saone.
He settled a group of penniless emigrants from his native Scotland at the Big Spring (Caledonia) and took his pay for the land in wheat and provided for the settlers until they could sustain themselves.
At the turn of the century Williamson achieved in a measure one of his dearest ambitions-to induce wealthy Southerners to invest in his Genesee land. Peregrine Fitzhugh came from Virginia and settled on an estate overlooking Sodus Bay. Judge Daniel Dorsey of Maryland came to Lyons. And in 1800 three Maryland gentlemen came riding up the Williamson Road. They were Nathaniel Rochester, Charles Carroll and William Fitzhugh. Rochester bought land at Dansville; the two others near Geneseo. Later the trio was to acquire the One Hundred Acre Tract at the Falls of the Genesee on which downtown Rochester stands today.
But these important sales came too late to save Charles Williamson. The old men in London, as they studied the land agent's reports, grew increasingly uneasy. The frontier expenditures ran far in excess of the proceeds from land sales.
In 1801 Sir William Pulteney refused to honor further drafts for money and requested Williamson to withdraw from the agency. The agent was instructed to divide the holdings among Pulteney, Colquhoun and William Hornby and was offered 30,000 pounds and 12,000 acres for his services, if he would convey to the Association the entire tract.
Fast action was needed to transfer the title before expiration of a state alien land-holding act and Robert Troup of New York, a shrewd, self-made Federalist lawyer and no friend of Williamson, was engaged by the Association to secure the transfer. Williamson's wife, estranged from the land agent because of his affairs of the heart, balked at signing the necessary papers and yielded only two days before the deadline. By that time Abigail had left Bath and Williamson had installed in the mansion beside Lake Salubra Henry Thornton of Virginia and his beautiful, red-haired wife.
Finally a settlement was effected whereby Williamson was paid $89,000 in cash for his services and his creditors were satisfied. It must have wrenched him when he turned over his agency to the colorless Robert Troup and had to leave his "garden home" forever.
When he had come to the Genesee, it was a wilderness. A little over a decade later, he left it dotted with towns, linked with highways. There were schools, churches, an emerging commerce. The hand of "Charles the Magnificent" was written boldly over it.
Perhaps he tried to do too much in too short a time. Not all of his dreams came true, In 1791 he could not foresee the coming of the Erie Canal and of the Iron Horse, Williamsburg dwindled into a "ghost town," Bath became, not the metropolis of the frontier, but a stately county seat. Sodus Point never quite became the great port of the land agent's vision but a pleasant summer resort.
The land agent blazed a spectacular trail through the wilderness. He gallops through our early history, an engaging figure.
Charles Williamson died of yellow fever in 1806. He was stricken aboard ship and was buried in the sea. He had been bound for the West Indies-and some bold new venture.
The Wadsworths of Big Tree
In the Spring of 1790 two young men said farewell to their ancestral home in Durham, Conn., and set off for the wild Genesee Country and 2.000 newly acquired acres they had never seen.
Their names were James and William Wadsworth, names to be forever linked with the Valley of the Genesee.
James was 22, a graduate of Yale, who had taught school in Montreal. Already he was a polished man of affairs, at home in any society, of finely chiseled features and the bearing of an aristocrat. William was seven years older but he had seen much less of the world. He was more the rough-hewn type, bluff and vigorous, a born frontiersman.
The Wadsworths were of English stock. The first of the line in America, another William, had arrived in 1632 and was a founder of Hartford, Conn. His son, Joseph, attained fame one night in 1687. At a session of the Assembly, the charter of the colony was about to be surrendered to a royal governor when every candle in the room went out and in the darkness. Joseph grabbed the charter and hid it in a great tree that thereafter was known as the Charter Oak. He had saved the charter of Connecticut.
Another Connecticut Wadsworth, Jeremiah, was a commissary general in the Revolution, a Federalist and a friend of Washington and Hamilton. When the Massachusetts speculators, Phelps and Gorham, made their vast purchase of York State lands, he acquired 4,000 acres in the Genesee Valley.
Jeremiah Wadsworth, too old to settle on his purchase, offered his two nephews, James and William, one-half interest in the lands and told James he could have the agency of the other half if he would go to the Genesee. Both brothers decided to go and contracted for 2,000 acres for eight cents an acre.
The brothers went by different routes. William, with two hired men, the family Negress Jenny, an ox cart and three yoke of oxen, started across country for Albany. James, the businessman of the partnership, went to New York to purchase supplies before traveling by sloop from New York to Albany. Aboard he met a fur trader with a Teutonic accent. His chance acquaintance with John Jacob Astor ripened into a life-long friendship.
The brothers met at Albany. James made the rest of the trip by the waterways, William with the ox cart and oxen went through the woods. West of Whitesville he had to make his own road most of the way to Canandaigua, the headquarters of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase. There he and James were united again and the pair started out for their new home.
After camping overnight near the foot of Conesus Lake, they separated again, James going on horseback down the Indian trail to the Genesee and William by slower ox cart. William got lost in a swamp and had to spend the night there. Meanwhile James had found the chosen home site, just west of the present Geneseo village. It was the 10th of June, 1790.
The Wadsworths began building a log house and until it was finished all slept in the cart or on the ground. James again had business in Canandaigua the second night in the Valley and on the way home got lost-until he saw a light in a clearing. It was the candle Jenny was holding for brother William as he hewed planks for the new house.
The Wadsworths were in the Valley to stay. Soon they acquired 4,000 more acres. A few settlers drifted into the region and the Wadsworth settlement became known as Big Tree, the name of a Seneca chief and an Indian village. Out of it grew the present Geneseo.
The brothers became widely known on the frontier, James as a courtly, rather reserved man with a keen eye for land values and ability as a land agent and Bill as a practical farmer, a captain of the militia, popular with the pioneers.
In 1792 the French Duke De Liancourt while touring the frontier was an overnight guest of Bill at the Wadsworth cabin. What the Duke wrote in his journal about the first Wadsworth "manor house" was hardly complimentary.
He wrote of a "small log house as dirty as any I have ever seen." Meat, vegetables and live poultry about the place offended the titled Frenchman's delicate nostrils and he found his bed uncomfortable. But he was pleased at his host's bluff courtesy. The Duke noted that while the Negro woman Jenny was dressing Captain Bill's hair the next morning, an Indian brought in a barrel of whiskey and two settlers came to talk about a land purchase. Then the captain's fine black horse was brought and he galloped away to muster at Canandaigua.
While Bill was running the farms and holding town offices, James was away much, selling lands. He visited London in 1796 and obtained from Sir William Pulteney the agency for large tracts in what is now Western Monroe County. On his return he began exchanging new Genesee lands for depleted farms in New England and in that way brought many settlers to Western New York.
For the rest of his life James Wadsworth was a land agent as well as a land holder. His commissions from sales of the Pulteney tract and other lands enabled him and his brother to increase their Valley holdings until they were operating one of the largest estates in America.
They established a farm tenancy system, which is still in operation on Wadsworth lands, the oldest in America. "Anti-rent wars" ended the reign of the patroons in the Hudson Valley but under the more lenient Wadsworth plan, there has been no such trouble in the Genesee Valley.
A feature of the system under which the tenant pays the taxes on the farm he works has insured stable tenants. Today on some Wadsworth farms the third generation of the same tenant family is living.
In times of adversity, such as the drought of 1806, the Wadsworths gave generous help to their people, as evidenced by this letter from James to Robert Troup, the Pulteney land agent:
"I am supporting three or four families and expect to be called on by more soon. My brother has been compelled to turn 50 fat oxen from our stables to preserve for poor families the grain they were consuming."
In 1804 James Wadsworth married Naomi Wolcott of a high-toned Connecticut family. His bride did not have to live in the log cabin which had failed to please the French Duke, nor in the little cobblestone house which succeeded it. Around 1800, the Home Place, now known as the Homestead, was built on the southern fringe of Geneseo. William Wadsworth never married.
The Wadsworths were progressive, pioneering farmers, operating on a magnificent scale. They raised hemp and flax on the moist river flats. They tried cultivating tobacco but found the climate was wrong. They grew corn until wheat became the great Valley crop. They even had their own brand of flour, a premium brand, ground in their own mills.
They imported Merino sheep and at one time they were called the greatest sheep farmers in the nation. They imported young mules from New England and after the animals matured, sold them to Southern tobacco growers. They bought Kentucky and Indiana cattle and fattened them for profitable sale. Their acreage multiplied as James pooled his land agent fees with the proceeds of the farms his brother managed.
James Wadsworth believed in order and attention to detail. He directed his farm agent to "frequently visit every farm, make suggestions to the tenants, see how they manage affairs, see that every farm has growing on it good and wholesome fruit; look to the compost heaps and manure, see that the premises are made conducive to health. Any shortcomings . . . you are to report to this office."
The brothers were active in local affairs. They gave the site of the court house and jail when Livingston County was formed in 1821 and were instrumental in seeing that Geneseo was made the shire town over the claims of Avon, Lakeville and ghostly Williamsburg.
William served several terms as Geneseo supervisor. In the War of 1812 he volunteered his services and was a major general of militia. When General Van Rensselaer was wounded at Queenstown, Wadsworth assumed the American command. Lack of reinforcements lost him the engagement. He was taken prisoner and came home on parole. His personal bravery and ability to handle men were never questioned.
James Wadsworth shrank from active politics although he exerted much behind-the-scenes influence. Unlike most wealthy men, he favored the Anti-Masonic movement and was proposed as that party's candidate for United States Senator and for governor. He discouraged the boom and his name was withdrawn.
His prime interest was in education and he may well be called one of the fathers of the common school system. He was a pioneer advocate of district school libraries. He supplied books and lecturers for such libraries out of his own pocket. He distributed tracts on educational matters at his own expense. He urged the establishment of teacher training schools.
He pushed enactment of the school library law in 1838, founded the Geneseo Athenaeum which became the present Wadsworth Library and induced his friend, John Jacob Astor, to build the fine Public Library in New York. He gave the land on which the cobblestone schoolhouse was built on Center Street in 1835. That building now houses the County Historical Center. During his lifetime James Wadsworth contributed nearly $100,000 to the cause of education.
Maj. Gen. William Wadsworth died in 1833, leaving his share of the vast family estate to his brother's children. Although not as intellectual as James or with the wide interests of his younger brother, the hearty arid energetic Bill was a significant figure of the frontier.
James Wadsworth, who had come to the Valley in 1790 and had lived in a log cabin, died in his Geneseo manor house in 1844, one of the greatest land owners in America. He left two daughters and two sons.
The bulk of the estate went to the sons, James S. and William W. Each founded a distinctive branch of the clan.
The Wadsworths have distinguished themselves in the nation's wars and political life, Few families have lived on the same land for so many years. The sixth generation of the family is living at the Home Place today.
The Wadsworths have been credited with founding in the Valley a way of life that is unique in the Upstate-with manor houses, tenant farms, fox hunts and long-held traditions.
It must be remembered that the pioneering brothers, James and William, did not come to the wilderness as landed gentry. They came as young pioneer farmers-in an ox cart-to the old Indian valley of the winding river. They gambled on the richness of the Genesee soil and won.
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