Steuben County Origins

The area that was to become Steuben County in the last decade of the eighteenth century was part of the territory controlled by the Seneca Indians, the western most nation of the Iroquois League, prior to the American Revolutionary War. For several centuries they had been the dominant native Americans in the north east. As colonial settlements developed along the eastern seaboard, conflicts occurred with the Indians. At the time of the war for independence from England, the lands west of the Mohawk River were not part of colonial New York and held native villages and hunting lands. Major Indian villages were located at Canisteo and Painted Post and only a few trails ran through the wilderness. In the 1770s the Senecas, who were the most numerous of the Iroquois, gave their support to the English. Because the Indians made raids on the border settlements and took pioneers and their families as prisoners, General George Washington sent troops under the command of General Sullivan to the area to destroy their villages and drive them from the area. This provided some of Sullivan’s soldiers an opportunity to see the rich river valleys and the fine crops the Senecas were growing. At Newtown (near Elmira) a major battle of this campaign took place. Many of the Indians and their families were forced to flee to the areas held by the English. Some of the soldiers were to return in the following decade to settle in Erwin, Caton, Canisteo and the lower Conhocton valleys.

When the war for independence was won by the colonies, the English abandoned their Indian allies. The new United Colonies were then able to begin negotiations for the land formerly occupied by the Indians. Actually these lands west of the preemption line, so called because it marked the division between New York State and lands to the west that were claimed by the State of Massachusetts based on a former grant from the King of England, were in dispute. By 1788, an agreement was reached that allowed treaties to be made with the Senecas for Massachusetts’ agents to purchase lands and when properties were sold, then they would come under the civil government of New York State. The sale of these lands was begun by the Phelps and Gorham Land Office and several parcels were sold by them in what became Steuben County. By 1791, the success of their venture failed and the 1,200,000 acres that became known as the Genesee Country came up for sale. At this time Robert Morris agreed to purchase the tract from Phelps and Gorham and soon transferred it to the Pulteney Land Syndicate, a group of English investors headed by Sir William Pulteney. Charles Williamson, a Scotsman, agreed to come to America, take out citizenship in the new country, and become owner of record of the tract as well as land agent for this huge Genesee Country. Williamson with his family and a group of 30 hardy men came into the area and began a settlement on 15 April 1793.

by Dr. Joseph E. Paddock