The First Settlers –Westward Ho!
by Beulah L. Morrell
The Sullivan expedition of 1779 to drive the redcoats and their red skinned allies from western New York was successful and the area was made safe from Indian attacks. Many soldiers from Massachusetts and Connecticut had taken part in the effort and they carried back to New England stories of the beauty and amazing fertility of this region. They told of corn 12 feet high, crops of squash, pumpkins, and beans grown by the Indians, and streams teaming with salmon, and forests full of game for food and firs.
After the war many new Englanders settled along the Mohawk River and some in Geneva and Canandaigua, but it was more than 20 years before our part of the wild West, as it was then called, became the home of these hardy folk.
In the year 1807, several families in New Marlboro, Mass. Came down with “Western Fever” and began preparations to go to New York. These people had no slaves to bring: their hopes laid in their strength of purpose and their own muscles. They carried with them farm tools, school books, and Bibles. Ezra Knapp was the most enthusiastic of the group. With his wife and six children, two wagons, three horses, and two oxen, he had hoped to leave in July, but some of the others who were going along were delayed, so it was August before the journey began.
With the Knapps were the families of Jason Mudge, John Hyde, Adonijah Church, the Hales, and the Sloanes. Some of the wagons had canvas covers, but most were open. Horses and oxen for used for power. Very little furniture was brought: dishes and cooking pots, beds and blankets, and guns. Most of their belongings were left behind for lack of space. They planned to reach their new homes before snowfall.
The road to Albany was well traveled. Spirits were high and the weather was fair. Medical supplies were purchased in Albany and the horses were shod for the long pull ahead. Children ran and romped all day and slept soundly in the wagons at night.
The first calamity came as they were about to leave Albany. Little eight-year-old Benny Sloane was kicked by a horse and was in the deep coma. The doctor said he must not be moved, so the Sloane family had no choice but to bid their friends goodbye into remain with her son.
The weather wise New Englanders had hoped to reach Whitestown (Utica) before the “line storms”, but on September 20 the rains came and they were still two days travel from this the last settlement on the route. It rained without stopping those two days and on the twenty-second of September it was a most bedraggled and miserable group of folks that came into Whitestown.
The 28th families they’re made room for the travelers. The women of the town soon had a good hot meal ready in the meeting house for all. It was the first hot food they had eaten in 72 hours because of the rain.
They stayed in Whitestown three days drying the blankets washing clothes mending harness and resting the horses. On September 26, they started on the last hundred miles of their journey, knowing well that it was the hardest part of the trip.
From Whitestown westward, there was nothing that could be called the road. A blazed trail with logs thrown across the marshy spots made it necessary for our travelers to cut brush entries and to move rocks and build the road as they proceeded. This was slow, hard work. Some of the men had to take time out for hunting for fresh meat.
Nights grew chilly and Mrs. Hale became ill. She had to ride in the wagon and needed much care. There was nothing to do except keep going.
A few trappers shacks along the way and a small Indian camp where Syracuse is now located were the only signs of human life. Wolves howled at night and bears were seen often. The children were kept close at hand and the women became increasingly worried.
After many weary days, they reached Oneida Lake. A map held by Mr. Knapp told them that they were near the journey’s end. They could not have come so far without the oxen. Those animals were slow, but their endurance was greater than the horses in rough going.
Finally the travelers came to the Hollow Tree Tavern, near what we know is Rose. Here a man maintained a store of sorts and sleeping quarters in what was first a mammoth hollow tree.
The end of October saw the Knapps establish a bark-roofed cabin three-quarters of a mile east of the Helm location on Sodus Bay. His eldest son, who lived east of Geneva, had taken an option on the land and had the cabin built. The Knapps took in Mrs. Hale who was still ill.
Other cabins were hastily erected for the rest of the people as temporary shelters against the coming cold months. The Church family soon settled where DeForest Fowler now lives, with a brother, Osgood Church, later buying across the road where Henners are now.
Jason Mudge built a sawmill on the creek that still bears his name. The sawmill later became a Gristmill and the Rice family bought it, thus the name, Rice’s Mills.
Dr. Zenas Hyde joined his brother John before the winter was over and soon built a tavern at Sloop Landing to accommodate travelers who were arriving in increasing numbers.
Mrs. Hale died on January 18 and was buried on the Knapp property. Mr. Hale moved east to what we now know as Wolcott village.
In 1808 several other families came here from Connecticut. Josiah Upson, the Chapins, Norman Sheldon and his six sons all arrived and began to tame the wilderness and carve out the homes which we see today. Some of their stories I have found to tell later
It was in Hartford County, Connecticut, in the year 1808 that “western fever” next struck. In that year a certain Josiah Upson died and when his estate was settled, his son Josiah decided to come to New York and live on the land left him by his father. Another family, friends of theirs, also had obtained a tract of New York land. This was the Norman Sheldon family.
The Upson and Sheldon men decided that they would travel during the late winter so as to be here in the spring in order to build cabins before bringing the women and children. Bus three Upson Brothers and Norman Sheldon and five of his six sons came by ox team and sleigh, arriving in March.
Josephine Yotter, a direct descendent of Josiah Upson, has his account book in which he states, “I raised my house July 7, 1808.” The family believed this referred to the house still standing and used by the Yotter family, but I think it was an earlier house.
The first road was built in Huron in 1810 and the Yotter house was a tavern, a stagecoach stop, and the first post office. The barn across the road was built in 1812 and men shingling it dropped their tools and left to go defend Sodus Point when that port was attacked by the British.
The Upsons also built a sawmill, run by a waterwheel, and had a tannery. Josiah was an excellent shoemaker. His book records making boots and shoes for Ezra Knapp, Zenas Hyde, and Mr. Hale, as well as nearly everyone else for miles around. The women must have woven cloth, as many yards of woolen cloth were listed among the sales.
Another of the Upson’s, Solomen, married and lived for a time in a frame house, part of which can still be seen as a portion of the barn on the north side of 104, near the cobblestone house owned by Doris Colvin, who is a great-great-great granddaughter of Solomen. The cobblestone house was built in 1847, with the stones brought from the lake. Construction took two years. The stones and mortar were carried up a ramp to the top of the house. The woodwork is of hand carved white wood.
Roger Sheldon’s family consisted of his wife, Elizabeth Marsh Sheldon, six sons and four daughters. Their first home was on the farm where Jay McQueen now lives. The older sons soon struck out on their own and cleared many acres of Huron land. One of the Sheldon farms was on the corner of 104 in the N. Huron Road. Another was what we now call the Elliott Qureau farm where the Suttons now live.
On the way from Connecticut, the Sheldons stopped overnight with relatives in the settlement of Schenectady, and while there were served some fine flavored pears. The children saved the seeds of this fruit which were planted and nurtured in the new home and became an important commercial crop of this area. They are called the Sheldon Pear. Some of the original trees were in existence 50 years ago, but I know of none now.
When the town of Port Bay (later Huron) separated from Wolcott in 1823, Norman Sheldon was selected the first supervisor. The first town meeting was held in the Upson Tavern.
It would be a real task to list all the descendants of these two families, but Adelaide Clapper, Edna Wilkinson, Ruth Douglas, and Helen Countrymen are just a few of the many.
The next years, 1812 to 1818, saw many families come to Huron, Rose, Butler, and Wolcott. Some of their stories I will give you later.
Robert York, of New Portland, Maine, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. As a bonus for his services he was given a tract of land by a government which had more land than money. This family left Maine for New York state on May 20, 1815, and arrived here October 20. The oxen and carts carried them the journey of nearly 800 miles. Benjamin York, the oldest son of Robert, with his wife, Martha Churchill York, and the brothers, John, Robert, and Thomas, made up the party.
Benjamin and Martha built a cabin on what we call the York Settlement Road. Here three of their six children were born. When this cabin burned a frame house was built. Around a central chimney five fireplaces were made, one having a built in oven. This house, although changed, is still in use as the home of the William Jewell family.
When the land was cleared, a fine grove of 12 acres of chestnut trees was left standing. Near this grove the family burial plot was laid out and later became the York Cemetery Incorporated. Land on the edge of the grove was given for a school and one of the York girls became its first teacher. Each succeeding generation found another York occupying the same position. After centralization, this school, as so many others, became a dwelling.
The York Farm had the first apple orchards in our area. Varieties we no longer know were growing there – Pound Sweets, Seek-No-Fathers, Jill Flowers, Bell Bonnes, and Russetts. A drying house eight by twelve feet was built. It had a hand peeler and a wood-burning heater. The fruit, when dried, was sold to a store in Sodus.
Chestnuts from the grove brought an annual income of $500 to $700. They were gathered on shares and the women had a “watch and weigh” shed where the figures from the nuts to be divided -half to the gatherers and half to the owners.
Honey was also one of the chief products from the farm.
The Yorks were said to produce the finest wool around. I believe that the women cared for the sheep because of the story told that the York girls, while guarding their sheep out on the hills, would sing and could be heard five miles away on a clear day.
The year 1816 was hard on these early settlers. It is referred to as “the year without a summer”, sense there was a frost in every month. Fish and game made up a large part of the diet. What corn there was had to be saved for seed. Turnips were the only thing that survived to make a crop. So many turnips for eaten that for the next four generations the children refused to touch one.
Much of the York story was given me by Beulah Jewel Himes, who is a direct descendent of this hardy family, as are the Seagers, the Kelley’s, the Durhams, and countless others.
About the author.
Beulah L. Morrell was a lifelong resident of the Town of Huron. Born July 20, 1902 on the family farm on Morrell Road in Huron, Beulah celebrated 100 years of life. She died September 7, 2002. She was a life-long member of the Huron Presbyterian Church. Beulah graduated from Wolcott High School in 1920, and then taught school. She later received a nursing degree. Beulah married Ralph J. Morrell in 1924, and worked with him running their fruit farm on Morrell Road. Beulah was active in local politics and served as Town of Huron Historian for many years.