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Early Tompkins County History
- The map of New York State shows Tompkins County to be located in the western part, nearly equidistant from Lake Ontario and Pennsylvania. It is practically square in shape, is bound on the north by Cayuga and Seneca counties; on the east by Cortland and Tioga; on the south by Tioga and Chemung; on the west by Schuyler. The land within its borders has an area of 292,724 acres, a population in 1920 of 35,285 and it is divided into nine towns.
When General Sullivan, in 1779, went on his expedition to punish the Iroquois for their aid given the British in the Revolution, and to so destroy their towns as to prevent their taking further part in the conflict, he found and burned one of the largest of these Indian towns in what is now Tompkins County. The Cayugas fled before the avenger and not many of them ever returned, although there were quite a number of the tribe in the county as late as 1823 who were living amicably with their one-time enemies. In the end, ravaged by disease, deserted by their British allies, the original owners of Tompkins gave or sold their territory to the whites. In 1789 a treaty was completed by which the Six Nations ceded the land in the State east of Seneca Lake, thus opening the country to a new race and people.
Led here by the tales told of the region by Sullivan's soldiers, and in many cases induced by the proprietors of vast acreages bought from the State, settlers began to flock over the trail of the army to cast their fate in with the new region, so that the evacuated lands of the aborigine were soon occupied.
A group of nineteen from Kingston were the first of the permanent settlers, September, 1789. An idea of the difficulties standing in the way of any prospective settler, may be gained from the length of their journey to the new home: They were a month getting from Kingston to Owego, and nineteen days to travel from Owego to the present site of Ithaca, a distance of twenty-nine miles. It is, of course, to be realized that these families were traveling along a narrow foot trail of the Indian; and had, by great labor, to widen it to permit the passage of their teams and cattle through the primeval forest.
Just what reason led this band to leave the river lands where most of the new comers into this part of the State settled, and locate on the decidedly isolated spot of their choice is not known. Probably the undoubted fertility of the "inlet lands" of Lake Cayuga was the deciding factor, and nn doubt the water powers had their appeal. Whatever the thing which influenced their selection, as the result of that choice the city of Ithaca has come to be. The names of the original pioneers were Jacob Yaple, his wife and three children; John Yaple, his brother; Isaac Dumond, wife and three children, and his brother John; Peter Hinepaw, his wife and five children. They were evidently well pleased with their tracts for their enthusiastic praise of the wonderfully rich and beautiful lake country soon brought neighbors.
The first of the settlers gathered around the site of the future Ithaca, early known as the "Flats," or Maricle's Flats, the present title not having been given until 1808. Six years after the settlement at the "flats" had been started Captain David Rich settled in the area now known as Caroline town. A year later the Dumonds and Yaples, who had lost their Ithaca lands through an agent's carelessness or crime, located at Danby and built the first house in that town. In 1797 first settlement was made in Dryden by Amos Sweet; Enfield had its start in 1804 by John Giltner. Groton was settled in 1796 by Samuel Hogg; Lansing by the Ludlow brothers in 1791; Newfield in 1800 by James Thomas, and Ulysses in 1792 by the Tremaines.
The land to which these pioneers came was the "Dark forest" or densely wooded region of the southern Finger Lake section. The area cleared and planted by the Indians was, for the greater part, farther north. The greater part of the country is high and rolling, with elevations approaching 800 feet, forming the water shed from which the streams started either on their way to the south by way of the Susquehanna, or to the north by way of the Seneca and Oswego rivers. It is also no great distance from the head-waters of streams flowing into the Mississippi. The many streams have worn gorges and valleys' break over natural dams, spread out in swamps, until it has made of this area a region seldom equaled in the variety of its terrain or the beauty of the scenic effects.
The forest was the source of much of the early prosperity. Much of the wood was burned, for even as early as 1804 the making of potash was an important industry, and as late as 1832 the ashes for that year were valued at $27,000. The water power was harnessed, two gristmills were grinding grain by 1794, and sawmills began to operate but a few years later. In 1832 the value of the timber cut was $400,000, a large sum for so small a county, and by 1853 a writer, H. C. Goodwin, related that three quarters of Tompkins was improved land. In 1886 the only sizeable bit of virgin timber was a tract of forty acres. It would seem as though the denudation of the hills had gone too far, with ill effects on the soil and water conditions which in this present century is being remedied by the reforestation of the barren summits and the intelligent encouragement of the second growth timber.
The forest was full of deer, sufficiently so as to make deer skins a valuable export even in 1832.
- Read more about it! . . . Summer Driftings Among the Lakes - a 19th century travelogue.
PLUS . . .
Each of these sections has different books on the same region:
- Town & County
- Native American
- Trains & Steamboats
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Copyright © 1996 by Richard Frisbie -- All rights reserved.