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Early Yates County History
- There is one name so closely allied to the early history of Yates County that no record of the affairs of the county would be in any way complete without it. This is Jemima Wilkinson, the "Universal Friend," who was responsible for the first colonizing of the area now within Yates. A native of Rhode Island, born in 1758, when she was sixteen she had a dream which inspired her to devote her life to Christianity. She felt that she had passed to the spirit world and while there received "authority to preach the Divine Word." After some years' preaching and founding societies, she wanted to plant a colony of her more devoted followers in some remote place. In pursuance of this idea, she sent Ezekiel Sherman, in 1786, to the lake country of New York, in search of the proper place. He visited the present Yates County region, but returned with an unfavorable report. Unsatisfied, she chose and sent a committee for further investigation, with the result that, in 1788, Isaac Nichols, Abel Botsiord, Peleg and John Briggs, George Sisson, James Parker and others came to the west shore of Seneca Lake and carved out of the wilderness the first settlement in Yates. In 1790 came the "Friend," who seemed much pleased with the location, although four years later she moved to the present town of Jerusalem and built her home in the Keuka Inlet Valley five miles from Branchport. She died in I8I9, and with her departure began the downfall of the society she had formed.
Several of the "first things" of the county are connected with this Friends settlement. The first house of worship was the Friends Log Meeting House erected 1790 in the town of Torrey. The first teacher was Sarah Richards, and the first regular school was taught by Benjamin Andrews, in 1793. The first justice of the peace was James Harper, and this same gentleman, with others, built the first grist mill in the part of New York west of Seneca Lake (1790). This also was in Torrey. A Doctor Benton put up a saw mill, and the first regular road in the county was between these two mills. The first of the land grants was the Phelps and Gorham purchase, secured from Massachusetts under the preemption act of 1786. Their tract included practically the whole of West New York, and in connection with the sale of their lands the first land office in the State was opened in 1789 at Canandaigua. The Friends grant of 14,000 acres is dated October 10, 1792.
Ontario County was erected about this time (1789), which included the present area called Yates. Townships have been laid out and given numbers, which were changed to names as soon as there were people enough on them to warrant names. The Yates district was so thinly populated that a number of these townships were grouped together and called Jerusalem. In 1803 this district was divided and one part became Vernon, later called Benton. Milo separated from Benton in 1818; Middletown, erected 1789, lost Italy, 1815; Middlesex, Iying next to Italy, was named Augusta, but changed to the present title in 1808. Potter was organized 1832; Starkey, 1796; Barrington, 1822; Torrey, from Benton and Milo, 1851. Barrington and Starkey were parts of Steuben County until a year after the formation of Yates.
From the foregoing it will be seen that much of the early history of Yates took place before it was set aside as a separate section, and most of the towns organized before becoming a part of a county. The region was becoming well settled, roads had been built and had brought the various parts of the district in touch with each other. Not only were there primitive saw and grist mills, but woolen mills and tanneries had been opened up. The isolated location of the region retarded the growth of a cash business for its products. For that matter, in spite of the lake route and the Erie Canal, Yates did not reach any great importance agriculturally until after a railroad opened up the possibility of quick transportation for perishable crops and fruits.
The growing community became dissatisfied, eventually, with going to Canandaigua to transact all its legal business, so in answer to petition a legislative act was passed forming the new county, which took the name of the Governor of the State, Yates, February 5, 1823. Several villages staged the usual fight for the honor of being the shiretown, but Penn Yan won and a courthouse was built. In 1834 this was destroyed by fire, requiring the erection of another the next year.
Yates County lies between the Mohawk Valley and the Genesee Country, and partakes of the beauties and fertility of both. It is fairly elevated, five ridges running north and south, giving it drainage and variety. Seneca Lake is the eastern boundary, Keuka lies on the south and Lake Canandaigua touches the west. The higher lands are those of Italy, Middlesex, Potter and Jerusalem, while the more level lands are to be found in Benton, Milo, Torrey, Starkey and Barrington. There is little waste land in Yates, for where the terrain is too steep for the cultivated crops, grapes are planted, and are, no doubt, the characteristic and most profitable crop of the county. It was the completion of the Northern Central Railroad, or rather a branch of it, that brought the grape and fruit industry forward, and since then the tendency in agriculture has been away from grain crops for shipment, to fruits, particularly grapes, perishables, and dairy products.
- 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.