Greater Western New York’s Split Personality Explained

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To the uninitiated, Batavia might seem like a mere crossroads on the map, but the hustle and bustle of Route 5 (a.k.a. Main Street) tells a much different story. Any visitor will immediately see a testament to a thriving community. Without the telltale skyscrapers of a modern city, the heart of Genesee County clearly doesn’t come across as a quaint nineteenth century town. No, there’s a hint of modernity in its traffic, its business and even in the complexity of its inner city layout.

Yet within this bastion of modest progress lies a jewel with a much deeper backstory than meets the eye of the casual passerby. But before we get there, perhaps it makes sense to first return to pick up the Pre-Emption Line story where we left it off in Chapter 10.

If you recall, the 1786 Treaty of Hartford settled the dispute regarding the ownership of Western New York by creating the Pre-Emption Line – a straight line from the 82nd milestone west of the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania border due north to Lake Ontario. According to this agreement, Massachusetts held title to the land but New York State held political jurisdiction over it. The Pre-Emption rights gave Massachusetts the “pre-emptive” or first right to buy the land from the Indians.

Massachusetts sold their pre-emptive rights to Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham on April 1, 1788 for $1,000,000.1 That same year, the two negotiated what turned out to be a controversial treaty with the Seneca to formally acquire roughly a third of the 6 million acres they had rights to. Phelps paid £2,100 in New York currency for these nearly 2 ½ million acres included lands primarily east of the Genesee River and a portion on the west side of the Genesee River known as the “Mill Yard Tract,” located on the river’s northern end.2 Phelps agreed to pay the Seneca in two equal annual installments, but, when he came to make the second payment in the summer of 1789, the Indians were surprised to find he had only $5,000, not the $10,000 they expected.3 Apparently, the Indians were unaware of currency exchange rates and had been used to dealing in terms of the Canadian dollar which had a value of only half that of New York currency.4 Phelps and Gorham then set up the first land office in America in Canandaigua, not in their originally intended location of Geneva because the then well-established trading post fell on the New York State side of the mistakenly surveyed original Pre-Emption Line.5

This would not be the last time continental currency would impact this story. When Phelps and Gorham purchased the preemptive rights from Massachusetts, they promised to make their three annual payments in Massachusetts securities, then valued at 20 cents on the dollar.6 Unfortunately, before the third payment came due, the Continental Congress guaranteed the Massachusetts securities at full face value.7 Phelps and Gorham thus defaulted and gave all the unsold land back to the state of Massachusetts in 1790. A year later, 1791, Massachusetts again sold its preemptive rights, this time to Robert Morris, Revolutionary War financier and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Morris immediately sold that portion of unsold land east of the Genesee River known as the “Genesee Tract” to Sir William Pulteney in 1792.8

But our story here focuses on the Morris’ purchase on the west side of the Genesee River. This consisted of five tracts of land. He kept the eastern most tract for himself. Called the “Morris Reserve,” this tract includes a protrusion once called “Allens Hill,” then “Richmond Hill” that today we call “Mount Morris.” Bonus points for those readers who can correctly guess which Revolutionary War financier and signer of the Declaration of Independence the Town and Village of Mount Morris are named after.

Morris sold the four western most properties (tracts 2-5) to a group of six Amsterdam bankers in 1791-1792, although this sale didn’t become final until the Treaty at Big Tree, just outside the current village of Geneseo, on September 15, 1797.9 On November 20, 1795, the “Club of Six” merged their holdings into a single company called the “Holland Land Company.”10 But our hero enters the picture in 1792. That’s the year Joseph Ellicott, surveyor par excellence, is hired to resurvey the original Pre-Emption Line (and discovers the error that placed Geneva on the wrong side of the line).11 In the summer 1797, the agent of the Holland Land Company hired Ellicott, who previously surveyed the Company’s western Pennsylvania properties, to survey their Western New York properties.12 After spending nearly four years in the wilds of Western New York, Ellicott travelled to Philadelphia on November 1, 1800 and signed a contract to become the Resident-Agent for the Holland Land Company.13

Fast forward two centuries and a bit more. Unless you grew up in any one of the traditional eight Western New York Counties, you’re not going to believe the following statement. Joseph Ellicott is a Saint, a hero, a cultural icon of unequalled status. He was, quite literally, the creator of Buffalo and much of Western New York. And there’s a shrine in his honor right in the heart of Greater Western New York. More than a shrine, it remains an artifact from his duties as Resident-Agent.

When he was initially hired, Ellicott set up a temporary office in Asa Ransom’s Inn (present day Clarence) before spotting an ideal site centrally located at the intersection of two Indian trails.14 Although the Seneca called this traditional meeting place “Tonawanda,” Ellicott chose the name “Batavia” to honor his Dutch paymasters who lived in the Republic of Batavia (but only after his immediate boss, Paul Busti, rejected Ellicott’s initial suggestion to call the place “Bustiville”).15 So confident was he in his choice to build this new city, Ellicott declared, referring to the natural harbor on the eastern shore of Lake Erie, “God made Buffalo. I will try and make Batavia.”16

By 1810, land sales were brisk and Batavia became the de facto capital of Greater Western New York, even more so after, as described in Chapter 2, the British burned Buffalo to the ground in 1813.17 Perhaps with this recent blaze still lingering, in 1815 after working out of his mansion for more than a decade, Ellicott decided to build a two-story stone building to house all land office papers.18 It is this building that we see today as the Holland Land Office Museum on Main Street (Route 5) in downtown Batavia.

And let me tell you, this is one solid building. I have twice visited it and, rest assured, Museum Director Jeff Donahue keeps a remarkable shop. Rightfully proud of his charge, he exudes a passion for his region’s rich history. He explained to me how, much like Ontario County after the formation of the Pre-Emption Line, Genesee County became the “Mother of all Western New York Counties” following the Holland Land Purchase. (Does that now make Ontario County a grandmother?)

The interior of the museum contains many wonderful displays not only from the Ellicott era but through the early twentieth century. It even houses the gallows once used by Batavia to administer capital punishment, although Donahue is quick to point out it wasn’t used that often. He’s also aware enough to keep it hidden behind a curtain during the Christmas season.

While the contents of the interior will please many visitors, I remain struck by the exterior of the building. Its pilloried façade evokes my imagination, taking me back to the Pantheon in Rome. The cannons displayed on the porch only add more muscle to the already quite apparent strength of the Museum’s stone walls. No doubt the foundation of this building remains as strong as the foundation of Joseph Ellicott’s ultimate handiwork – that of Western New York itself. Well at least the half on the west side of the Genesee River. The east side half was already underway thanks to the work of several different civic architects. And that, my dear reader, is perhaps the best explanation as to when Greater Western New York first developed its split personality, an ailment that, thanks to the ongoing work of the U.S. Census, (see Chapter 11), continues to this day.

As often happens when considering this history and this issue in particular, my mind gets to wandering into the realm of “What-If.” The story of the Holland Land Purchase is no exception. What if that section of New York State west of Pre-Emption Line – Greater Western New York – had become an independent territory instead of a falling under the jurisdiction of New York? We’ve already (Chapter 10) discussed the likely name of this hypothetical territory and state it might eventually birth (“Ontario”). Would “Ontario Territory” have eventually become “Ontario State”? Given the requirements and timing of statehood qualifications at the time, Greater Western New York would have been eligible to become a state in the years on either side of the War of 1812. Because of the significance of its role in that war, it would have most certainly been invited to join the United States of America by the end of the war. And, upon entering the Union, which city would “Ontario State” have selected to be its capital.

The answer, without question, is Batavia.

If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to sign up for the newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out when the book is published this fall.

1McKelvey, Blake, “Historic Aspects of the Phelps and Gorham Treaty of July 4-8, 1788,” Rochester History, Vol. 1 No. 1, (January 1939), p.4,, p.6
3Ibid., p.7
4Ibid., pp.8-9
5Hilbert, Alfred G., “The Pre-Emption Line – Part II,” The Crooked Lake Review, November 1990, Alfred G., “The Pre-Emption Line – Part I,” The Crooked Lake Review, October 1990
8Milliken, Charles F., A History of Ontario County, New York and Its People, Volume 1, Lewis Historical Publishing Co., New York, 1911, p.333,, Jr, John and Franciska Safran, “Surveying the Holland Purchase, Part 1,” Professional Surveyor Magazine, May/June 1998,, Patrick R., The Life and Times of Joseph Ellicott, Holland Land Purchase Historical Society, Batavia, New York, 2002, p.3
11Hilbert, “The Pre-Emption Line – Part II”
12Weissend, p.6
13Ibid., p.12
14Kauffman, Bill, The History of the Holland Land Office Museum, Batavia and Genesee County New York, Holland Purchase Historical Society, Batavia, NY, pp.5-6
15Ibid., pp. 6-7
16Ibid, p.7
17Ibid, p.9
18Ibid, p.9

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