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Early Orleans County History
- On Lake Ontario, between Monroe and Niagara counties, and north of Genesee, lies Orleans County, with its compact area of 405 square miles. Its surface is undulating in the form of three distinct plateaus extending from the east to the west. The odd character of the terrain is due to the fact that, in the ancient geological times, all the north front of the county was under the lake, and what is called the Lake Ridge was the shore of the older and larger Ontario. Farther back is a more marked ridge which extends across the county; and almost at the back, or south part of Orleans, is the third ridge, which is almost mountainous in character. The plateaus between are generally level, or partake of the nature of the ridges.
The middle ridge, which is about 100 to 300 feet wide on the top, has a peculiar interest to the student of the history of the county, for on it was, from time immemorial, the great trail or road through the country. The Indians knew of it and used it in their journeys to this, one of their great hunting grounds. When the whites drifted into the region, it was by this ridge road that they came and along it they established their first settlements. In 1792 it was the principal route into Canada, and the road on which cattle and supplies were sent to the soldiers at Niagara during the War of I812, and even earlier. And when the Holland Land Company, of which more later, built the first road from Batavia to Buffalo, it was but by improving the ancient "Ridge Road."
Who was the pioneer of the county is not known. There is a tradition that a Canadian settled in the region in 1792. It seems likely that the first permanent settlements were made by James and William Walworth, who came from Canada and located, the first at the mouth of Oak Orchard Creek, the second at Johnston's Creek, both in the town of Carlton. In 1803, Joseph Elliot had planned a village, which he called Manilla, hoping that this might grow into a harbor town for the entrance of settlers, and handle the commerce that settlement would produce. It was at this projected village that the Walworths came in 1803, and proceeded to make a home.
Settlement proceeded at a rather slow pace until 1809, when the Ridge Road was thrown open to travel. The Holland Company had sold between 1802 and 1808, inclusive, nearly 3,700 parcels of land, but it would seem that practically all of these had never been occupied until the latter date. The influx of settlers was great from 1809 until the breaking out of the War of 1812. When the British captured Fort Niagara in 1813 many of the newcomers in the section returned to their former homes, but soon came back after peace had been declared. The tide of immigration rose. The most of the settlements were in the more northerly parts, still clinging to the Ridge Road. But the Erie Canal soon opened a more attractive path and settlement moved to the south.
The county area was one fitted to agriculture, and when once the fever of land speculation had abated, and the timber of the section had been removed enough to open wide areas, farming became the great industry. Grains, particularly wheat, were the main crops, and were successful until the insects and diseases which follow the repeated planting of any one crop cut down the amounts produced, and the canal proved to be a drawback, since it opened too much wheat land. Then came a diversifying of crops. Potatoes were found to do well; the coarser grains were planted; both the sheep and the cow were brought in on a commercial scale. But the more interesting development in farming came in more recent years. Little use had been made of the fact that the climate and soil of the county were particularly adapted to the growing of fruit. Apples had been planted, but only on a small scale. It was not until 1845 that there was a concerted attempt to care for the orchards, and to graft a few and improved varieties. The apple crop is one of the most important in the county, with its allied industries, evaporators, canneries, and presses. Beans came in as a paying crop and soil improved about this same year (1845), and wheat under modern culture has in this century come in again as a paying grain.
Meanwhile we have been discussing a section as Orleans County, which was a part of the large Genesee County (the whole of western New York) until November 11, 1824. In that year Orleans was set off as a separate entity, to have added to it on April 5 of the next year the town of Shelby. Gaines was appointed the shiretown of the new division, but the county seat was soon removed to Albion on the Erie Canal in the central part of the county. A fine set of buildings was erected in a park in Albion, and the choice of the village for so great an honor proved wise.
Mention has been made of the Holland Company as a great factor in the settlement and growth of the county. The three eastern towns of Orleans belonged to the Connecticut Tract and the Pultenay estate; the remaining section was the possession of the Holland Company. This was a group of Hollanders who, through an American agent, purchased from Robert Morris 3,600,000 acres in 1792-93. The company had their land surveyed, offered all manner of inducements to settlers, and assisted by building roads, establishing inns, convenient land offices and low initial payments by prospective settlers. The latter mentioned aid proved to be a boomerang, for when full payment was in the end insisted upon, there were riots by malcontents and ne'er-do-wells, and the company found it expedient to sell out its remaining lands and retire from the field.
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Each of these sections has different books on the same region:
- Town & County
- Native American
- Trains & Steamboats
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