Headline from The Castilian November 18, 1904
Caused the Murder of Dr. Alfred Silverheels the night of Sep.30.
BURIED IN POTATO FIELD
James Jemison Accused Of the Murder by His Wife and Daughter,
Is Still at Large, but Authorities are Making Every Effort to Find Him.
In November 1904, the Castile postmaster received a letter from Tommy Silverheels inquiring as to the whereabouts of his brother, Alfred. The last Tommy knew, Alfred had been living in the Castile area for several months. He was concerned that Alfred had met with foul play since no one had heard from him in weeks. The last information the Seneca man had from his brother was that he was living near the Glen Iris, William P. Letchworth’s home. The postmaster notified Wyoming County Sheriff Richardson about the missing man, who began an investigation. The missing person inquiry soon reached the desk of the Indian Commissioner, J. O. Spencer in Salamanca, New York.
A few weeks before, Tilden Jemison had made a strange report to the commissioner, accusing his father, James of Silverheels' murder. Although the commissioner had issued an arrest warrant for Jemison, he'd had no success in locating the fugitive, and he sent word to the sheriff about the situation.
The sheriff wasted no time in fetching Matilda, James Jemison’s wife, son Tilden, and daughter Laura from the Tonawanda Reservation. The trio confirmed the story of Silverheels’ demise. Richardson then took them to the small house near the dry bridge above the Glen Iris, along with two Seneca hunters to see if they could locate Silverheels’ remains.
They soon found the body of Alfred Silverheels in the garden buried among the potatoes. A stone boat had been dragged over the grave to help conceal it. Opening the shallow grave, they found Silverheels buried face down, strapped to what looked like bed slats, accompanied by a moldering loaf of bread at the man’s feet, a bag of tobacco, and some wood shavings (The bread, tobacco, and wood shavings were part of a traditional Seneca burial). Laura and Matilda directed law enforcement to the riverbank below the Glen Iris and there they found Silverheels' clothes scattered amongst Letchworth’s garbage. (Sorry—garbage was tossed down to the riverbank in the old days.) Dr. L. C. Broughton of Castile performed the autopsy, determining that the unfortunate Silverheels had been shot in the back, buckshot spraying through his heart and lungs, causing his immediate death.
Tilden, Laura’s half-brother, who lived with his mother on the reservation most of the time, recounted visiting his father and helping dig potatoes in the farmhouse’s garden plot on October 7. He said the Jemison family had taken Silverheels into the household earlier in the year as they camped along the Genesee River. They made baskets to sell, and there was no trouble between them. When the weather turned colder, the vacant farmhouse provided a warm and secure place to spend the winter. When Tilden asked where Silverheels was now, Jemison replied, “I’ve scart him so that he’s gone to another country.”
James Jemison readily told his son about the shooting and where he’d buried Silverheels. Laura and Matilda then shared they'd been forced to help Jemison with the burial. Tilden swore his father warned them, saying, “If you tell—three of you will be killed.” Tilden further stated he knew his father had sold a shotgun to a man named Ed Christian on October 10. After the sale of the gun, his father left for Canada while Tilden, Laura, and Matilda returned to the safety of the reservation.
A manhunt was initiated for Jemison in Canada with a $100 reward offered by the Wyoming County Sheriff for his capture. The Jemison family sat in the Wyoming County Jail as material witnesses. The sheriff took no chances on his witnesses disappearing as the law attempted to discover the truth. It didn’t take long to find Jemison who was hiding out in Caledonia, Ontario on a reservation. On November 22, 1904, a heavily armed posse of provincial officers took Jemison into custody without incident, surprising him at the farmhouse where he was staying.
The newspapers reported Jemison was a large man, a towering 6’ 3” and 250 pounds. That was quite an exaggeration since the state prison log records his height at 5’ 9 3/4” and 187 pounds. However, Canadian authorities took no chances, training their guns on the suspect when he opened the door. He was manacled and hauled away to a Canadian cell to await extradition to the United States, which didn’t take long.
Wyoming County District Attorney J.N. Knight promptly received the desired murder indictment, and the trial was docketed for January 1905. The highly publicized trial captured the attention of the media and public alike. Crowds filled the courthouse each day to hear the scandalous story. The court provided a Seneca translator for Jemison, which added to the exotic atmosphere of the trial for the onlookers.
Testimony soon brought to light that Albert Silverheels, a man in his fifties, had been carrying on an intimate relationship with Laura, who was only sixteen. Her father had demanded that Silverheels marry the girl legally, and the bad blood between the men grew after Silverheels refused. Jemison also became suspicious of Silverheels as he observed his interactions with his wife and daughter. Mr. Jemison believed the good “doctor” was flagrantly cuckolding him. Anger and jealousy continued to grow during September 1904.
On September 30, after an especially ugly day of Jemison drinking and fighting with Matilda about her lack of morals and cooking skills, Silverheels apparently inserted himself into the situation. When Silverheels went to the kitchen to check on Matilda, Jemison took his shotgun and blasted him in the back.
The jury found Jemison guilty of second-degree manslaughter and he was sentenced to ten years at Auburn Prison. The district attorney was disappointed by the verdict, hoping for a first-degree murder conviction. Surprisingly, upon reflection the judge and many others felt the sentence was too harsh, and a successful petition was presented a couple of years later which reduced James Jemison’s sentence to five years.
In April 1910 at age 48, Jemison was released on parole and returned to Castile. He went to work for Albert Preston, who lived near the farmhouse where the crime occurred. Jemison had certainly improved himself while incarcerated. He learned to read and write while at Auburn, and he’d also become a shoemaker. He disappears from the records in 1910, the federal census being the last record I’ve found, which places him as a hired man with the Prestons. No further mention of his children, their mother, or Matilda, Jemison's second or third wife was found.
At the time of the murder, it was reported that James Jemison was a descendant of Mary Jemison, which from my research is entirely possible. On a personal note, because I’ve been fascinated by this case, my husband and I took a hike deep into the woods near the dry bridge a couple of years ago. We found the remains of the farmhouse’s foundation, which is almost completely swallowed up in the undergrowth—fading away with time.
The Wyoming County Times
The Western New Yorker
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
Buffalo Evening News
1905 New York Census
1910 U.S. Census
New York Auburn Prison Records
Below are snapshots of the Auburn Prison Log when Jemison was admitted. He was prisoner 28235.
Many of us are exploring family trees to find our origins and how our ancestors found their way to the United States. Investigating my husband’s paternal grandmother’s family brought some interesting stories to light in the history of Portageville, that tiny hamlet along the Genesee River in the Town of Genesee Falls. His great-grandfather, Edward Quested was part of its early history.
First, I’ll offer a little background on the origins of Portageville and the Town of Portage, now Genesee Falls. Originally, an old Indian trail ran from Wiscoy to Mt. Morris, winding through present-day Portageville. It was a well-traveled trail—good hunting and fishing all along the way. There were sawmills in the Portage area in the early 1800s, situated along the river, and a band of squatters resided nearby before the land was officially on the market in 1816. The area was then in the Town of Nunda, Allegany County. The Town of Portage was incorporated in 1827 and then, by an act of the New York State Legislature in 1846, (after the formation of Wyoming County in 1841), the township became part of Wyoming County.
The village was first known as Schuyler to honor General Philip Schuyler. The esteemed man fought in the French and Indian Wars, becoming a general in the Revolutionary War. The name was changed to Portage in 1829 and then incorporated in 1866 as Portageville. The village was unincorporated in 1874—its dream of becoming a popular destination along the Genesee already vaporizing with the waning business on the Genesee Valley Canal. It was a village known for its churches: Methodist Episcopal organized in 1825; a Congregational Church in 1827; First Baptist Church in 1838; the Universalist Church in 1841, and a Roman Catholic Church was established in 1848. It was also known for its taverns. There was a general store, blacksmith, a doctor, mills, hotel, and other businesses to serve the needs of the early settlers who, principally came from eastern New York State and the British Isles.
It was in July 1842 that London tailor, Thomas Quested (27 years-old) and his wife, Mary Ann (nee Read), along with their two-year-old daughter, sailed for America on the packet ship, Columbus. They arrived in New York Harbor in August. Columbus was a packet ship that regularly sailed between Liverpool, England and New York. Thomas, although skilled with needle and thread, headed for the frontier of Western New York to try his hand at farming. The Quested family first appears in the 1850 census as residents of Portage with three new additions to the family. The three children, Anna, Margaret Marian, and Edward were born in Wyoming County between 1845 and 1849.
The Genesee Valley Canal was fully operational at that time, and there were great hopes that Portage would become a prosperous town full of successful businesses and a growing population. Into this optimistic time in Portage, the Quested family put down roots.
Edward found work as a twelve-year-old on the Genesee Valley Canal by driving the mules which pulled the barges along the canal. He earned about twenty-five cents a day for his work. His father struggled to realize his goal to farm and wouldn't do so until 1870 when Edward was twenty-one and beginning to shape his own career. He must have been taught by his father, Thomas to keep good records because Edward maintained a work journal, which we discovered among some family papers. It’s proved to be a treasure, shedding light on daily life in the 1870s. I’ve included some of the pages in the slideshow below, along with some photos, and other items of interest.
Much of the notebook is a log of his work—dates and descriptions of the jobs and wages. Wages were typically paid by the day which was an average of 10 hours and the work week was usually six days. Sundays were days of rest and for church attendance. Work was also seasonal and one had to be industrious to stay employed. Wintertime meant unemployment and good money management skills were essential in the lean times.
In 1870, he began jobbing around; his journal records board bills in May of that year in South Warsaw, Castile, Swain, and Canaseraga. June and July were the same with a stop in Attica as well, so it’s most likely he was working on the railroad during those summer months, staying at homes that took in railroad workers. From the account in Edward’s notebook, it appears he also fit in work on the canal in May of 1870 on the dredge. The dredge was most likely a crane with a bucket operated by a steam engine. The canals had to be regularly dredged to keep sediment, rocks, and other debris from clogging up the waterways and damaging boats.
In November of 1870, the diary indicates he was making cider and his father, Thomas was one of his customers. Thomas had given Edward 81 bushels of apples to press. Edward also listed work for a McCready, setting poles, sharpening poles, sawing logs, and “grubing hops” which amounted to 5 ½ days of work.
During the 1870s, Edward became more regularly employed for McConnell Pitkin & Co. of Rochester. Robert Y. McConnell, who was a well-known contractor, also owned an interest in the Portageville bluestone quarry. Bluestone was transported via the canal, and McConnell-Pitkin was responsible to dredge the quarry’s section of the waterway. The Portageville area was especially challenging because of a slide area and perennial flooding. From documents in Edward’s files, it seems he became a competent engineer on the equipment. Apparently, he left McConnell’s employ in December 1876 and received a glowing letter of recommendation from the company. He was an “engineer having charge of a 60 horse-power engine and boiler in which capacity we have found him faithful, sober, trustworthy, and competent.” The “sober” part was actually very high praise as drunkenness on the job was a huge problem for the canal, railroad and other seasonal occupations in this time period.
While Edward was a hard worker, he didn’t neglect his social life. Several tickets to dances and parties were saved. Many of the socials were in Portageville, but some were in Wiscoy (where he most likely met his future wife, Sarah Granger), and one later elegant party at Cuba. The Wiscoy Hotel was the place to be with dances held on Wednesdays and Thursdays. In those days, Wiscoy was a lively village which boasted a mill, a foundry that produced farm implements such as plows, the hotel, general store, blacksmith shops, a Methodist church, a cheese factory, and a sawmill.
Club membership was trending and it was expected at the time for young men to join secret societies of which the Freemasons were most popular. Edward became a Mason when he turned 21. In those days, finding employment and making connections with the right people was greatly enhanced if one belonged to the Freemasons. He joined in the era known as the Golden Age of Fraternalism which was from 1870 to 1920. During that time it was estimated that 40% of the U.S. population belonged to at least one fraternal organization—Knights of Columbus, Elks, Moose, the Grange, Masons, etc.
On June 1, 1875 he bought a colt which he pastured at a John Gleeson’s through the summer. This might have been like buying his first car. He paid a Mr. Gleeson $4.00 on August 8 for pasturing the horse and then on August 29 another $2.75. His note says he brought the colt home at that time.
The shopping lists found in his journal are some of the most interesting, giving us a glimpse of his personal life and what things cost way back when. He shopped locally, keeping an account at Beardsley's General Store in Portageville. I've used his original spelling with some translation.
Shopping list for December 18, 1874
White lead .14
Castor oil .08
1 “rapper” (wrapper/robe) .50
1 pair slippers .63
1 lamp chimley .12
1 doz. buttons .30
¼ lb. tea .25
1 yd. lining .16
½ gal. oil .10
½ gal. oil .10
12 shirt buttons .12
1 seain (sewing) silk .06
1 paper tabbacco .10
1 ½ lb. chise (cheese) .27
1 card .15
2 violin strings .55
2 oz. caster oil .10
¼ tea .25
1 paper tobacco .10
1 pair rubbers 1.00
December 10, 1875
1 pair mittens .50
1 bottle hair oil .25
1 bottle sasaprilla 1.00
1 necktie .35
1 pair overshoes 1.75
1 pair suspenders .38
3 cigars .15
2 violin strings .50
1 box collars .30
1 pair slippers .50
1 pocket book .30
1 lb. shot .12
¼ lb. powder .15
1 whip .50
The purchases likely included Christmas gifts—slippers and the robe. Maybe he enjoyed an occasional cigar and probably made his own cigarettes. Edward was a fiddle player and evidence has been found in the newspapers that he played at dances and other social events. The whip purchase was probably for that colt he’d brought home in August which was likely broken to pull a buggy.
Edward remained a bachelor until 1886 when he married Sarah Granger from Wiscoy on January 29th. She was 23 and Edward was 36. Edward already owned property having purchased a house and lot on Pike Street in Portageville from John and Nellie Dunn for $300 in 1880. On September 20, 1888 the couple was blessed with the arrival of a daughter, Nina Mae, my husband’s grandmother. (She would marry Charles Wallace in 1907.) A son, Howard Wayne was born to Edward and Sarah on June 4, 1892.
Edward became interested in politics and the first mention of him in the political arena was found in 1891 when he was elected Inspector 1st District. He was elected as a town assessor after his term as election inspector and served in that position for many years, winning multiple elections.
In October of 1919, the newspaper reported that Edward and Sarah had had their house wired for electricity along with a few other families in Portageville. An invoice in the amount of $22 for the home’s upgrade was found in a musty accordion file that held his records. Modernization was creeping into Portageville.
The Quested family was totally invested in their little hamlet. Edward and Sarah raised their family in Portageville, living in the house on Pike Street until Sarah’s death in 1930. He and his family were members of the Universalist Church for many years and Edward served as a trustee, sexton, and deacon there. His career followed the ups and downs of the economy of Portageville, first with the Genesee Valley Canal and after its demise, with the railroad.
Edward’s life was one of hard work and community involvement. He was a dedicated family man who cared for not only his wife and children, but his widowed mother until her death in 1896. As assessor, he would have known William Pryor Letchworth since the Glen Iris and surrounding properties are in the town of Genesee Falls. He was active as a Freemason for 67 years. In 1937, he passed away at his daughter’s home in Castile at the age of 87. Edward lived during the time of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and the Great Depression. Turbulent and challenging times were normal for this first-generation American—just like today.
References: Wallace Family Archive, History of Wyoming County 1841-1880
One of the Genesee Valley’s most colorful and perhaps despicable inhabitants was Ebenezer “Indian” Allan. Born September 17, 1752 somewhere in New Jersey, Allan had likely moved to Pennsylvania by the time of the Revolutionary War in 1777. He was a British sympathizer (Tory) and enlisted in a loyalist regiment commanded by Major John Butler.
The Six Nations Confederacy which was made up of the Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Tuscarora tribes also gave their allegiance to England as war began. With the promise of whisky and other goods for every settler scalp they presented to the British, the tenuous peace on the frontiers of the colonies was demolished. It was with these Six Nations raiding parties that Ebenezer was embedded. Allan gained notoriety for his vicious, sadistic attacks against civilians during the war, caring neither for women or children who were burned out of their homes and slaughtered for coup throughout Pennsylvania and New York. With most men off to fight, isolated families and small towns were easy prey. As you can imagine, Allan earned an ignominious reputation among the “rebels” as the British called Americans.
When the British army realized that their defeat was imminent, and an exit plan was necessary in late 1782, Lieutenant Allan found himself unceremoniously discharged from the military, losing the promise of a land grant along with his walking papers. He left Pennsylvania, traveling to the Genesee Valley in New York where he met Mary Jemison. She and her husband, Hiokatoo, along with their children were living in a cabin at Gardeau Flats.
From Mary’s account, it seems that Allan told her he’d come to live with the Indians and struck up a friendship with her son, Thomas. The men hunted together that winter and Allan bunked with the family while he tried to formulate a plan to make a living. As he considered his options, Ebenezer became enamored of a Nanticoke squaw, the wife of a white man, who lived on the Jemison property. While the husband went off to work, Allan made daily visits to the wife and soon she reciprocated Allan’s affections. She made him a stunning Indian-style cap of red that immediately caught the attention of her husband. Of course, jealousy and anger came into play. Before the men could do harm to each other, Mary’s husband, Hiokatoo took down his old tomahawk, instructing the offended husband to leave the house. Although it looked like Allan would woo the squaw from her husband, it wasn’t to be. The couple made up and left for Niagara in the spring.
It was that same spring Allan decided he would pay back the British for their injustice to him by assisting in brokering a peace between the Six Nations and the newly-formed United States. Although, the U.S. had a peace agreement with England, it hadn’t yet made a treaty with the chiefs, which was an advantage to the British who continued to plunder as they were able. It was a messy and broken process amidst the birthing of a nation. The most powerful chiefs were in Canada, safely away from the Americans. Joseph Brant, a chief of the Mohawks was one of those men. However, skirmishes and destruction continued in the frontier regions led by Indians and remaining British soldiers.
The shrewd Allan inserted himself in the negotiations by procuring a wampum belt through devious means and took it to a nearby U.S. military post, indicating that the Indians wanted peace. The commander immediately accepted the belt with elation. Mary Jemison tells the story that although Allan had stolen the belt from the Indians, they reluctantly honored Allen’s arrangement since they so highly regarded the wampum. With the first step completed, he then composed a letter to the U.S. government to speed the treaty process along. Here’s his letter, which he carried to Philadelphia to the Continental Congress in the summer of 1783.
12 August 1783
To His Excellency the President of Congress
On the 13th June last, Mr. Bull messenger from Congress to the five nation Indians was carried a Prisoner from Oswego to Niagara without being allowed to speak to the Indians. On the 20th of the same month, he found means to apply privately to me, and begged I would take charge of a letter and bring it Express to congress, which I agreed to do. He likewise desired me to make a just Report of the situation and disposition of the six nations Indians, after speaking with them, and informing them of the substance of Mr. Bull’s Instructions, and particularly the offer of Peace and Friendship from Congress; and their desire to meet the Indians at any Time or Place they should appoint to settle the terms of Peace and Friendship.
On my speaking to the principal Chiefs, they expressed great Satisfaction with the contents of Mr. Bull’s message and appointed to meet the Commissioners from Congress at Wia loosin the 27th of this present month, agreeable to the letter I have delivered to Gen. Lincoln.
Permit me gentlemen to inform you that the Indian nations are well disposed for Peace, but are ready for War, and will desolate the frontiers of Pennsylvania if the United States resolve to conquer their lands; yet as they have been the aggressors they will readily give up a Part of their country and engage to never more make war, nor join the enemies of the United States; or trespass over the Boundary that may be agreed upon.
It is my opinion that if Congress adopt this System and direct that an honest wise conduct be observed towards the Nations, it will save thousands of lives, and much money. I beg pardon for intruding my opinion, but a Sense of Duty impels me to take this Liberty, and I hope I will soon be dispatched back to the Nations and that Congress will send some Persons they have confidence in, to meet the Indians in their own towns, rather than on our Frontiers.
There remain in the Seneca country about 100 American prisoners, which prudent commissioners might have delivered up to them immediately. As many of these are Young People fast degenerating into Savages and forgetting their own language would it not be wise to draw them out of the Hand of the Indians without delay, and restore them to their Religion and to their country?
In everything I can do, be pleased to command me,
“Indian” Allan donned his British uniform, saddled a good horse and headed for Philadelphia with his missive. As he rode into the Wilkes-Barre area of Pennsylvania and the fort there, he was stopped in the woods by none other than Major Moses Van Campen. Van Campen was an American soldier of some renown having fought brilliantly against the British throughout Pennsylvania and New York. He was well known by the Six Nations tribes and had earned their respect.
Once Van Campen found out who he was talking to, his first inclination was to arrest him and incarcerate him at the fort. The man had terrorized the countryside all during the war and Allan was deeply loathed by the citizens of the area. After Allan explained his mission, which was confirmed by the letter he carried, Van Campen organized a few soldiers to help Allan on his way to Philadelphia. The major knew the settlers would lynch Allan in a minute if they found out who he was, and the peace treaty was of more importance than bringing the Tory to justice.
Allan delivered his letter and returned to the Genesee Valley, specifically Allen’s Creek (now Mt. Morris) where he built a small house and “married” the sister of Seneca chief, Captain Bull. Her English name was Sally. Their domestic bliss was short lived.
The Indians had taken a burn about the wampum and Allan’s deceptive ways during his absence, and a small party from Niagara came looking for him along with a British man named Nettles. Allan hid out in the woods for months with Mary Jemison’s help, but eventually he was arrested and taken to Fort Niagara for trial. He managed to escape, returning to Mary’s home on the Gardeau Flats.
Ebenezer was captured and once again dragged off to Fort Niagara for trial in December 1783. His crime was meddling in the peace treaty process. Imprisoned for ten months, his jail time was split between Fort Niagara and Montreal. He was acquitted, and upon his release returned to the Genesee Valley where he built a saw mill in the Gibsonville area. From there he moved up the river to what is now Scottsville and then Rochester, New York. He built a grist mill and saw mill at the three-falls area in 1789, but sold the property after a couple of years because the population was sparse and he couldn’t make a profit.
By now he had another “wife,” a young white woman, Lucy Chapman. She’d been left with Allan by her father who had no idea Ebenezer had Sally at home. Imagine Lucy’s surprise at this arrangement. A short while later he obtained another Seneca woman, whose husband was elderly. Ebenezer went for a walk by the river with the old man and shoved him in the water. Despite the sly, attempted murder by Allan, the victim didn’t drown, but survived for a few days before succumbing to the assault. With the husband out of the way Allan took the woman for himself, and then “married” another white woman, Milly Gregory after her.
Ebenezer Allan was never satisfied with his lot, as his polygamy and business affairs prove. He wrangled for several years over land titles in New York without success, so he turned his attention northward. He maintained that the British still owed him 2,000 acres for his military service, deciding to force the issue in Upper Canada. In May 1794, he petitioned the Canadian government for land and was granted his 2,000 acres which was located in Delaware Township near the Thames River in Ontario. He continued his wily ways, initiating lawsuits against neighbors for perceived injustices, and business associates sued him for fraud. He was charged with counterfeiting, assault, and all manner of crimes, but seemed to avoid any long-term prison sentences. He had several children by his various wives, and Sally’s daughters lived on the Tonawanda Reservation in the mid-1800s according to a Jemison descendant.
Ebenezer became an American sympathizer during the War of 1812, stirring up trouble in Ontario. This led to his arrest and imprisonment by authorities at Niagara-on-the-Lake. He was released in early 1813, but died on April 13th that year. He left all his wives destitute, except for Milly, who inherited the entire estate. Violent, cruel, inconstant husband, entrepreneur, a founding citizen of Rochester, NY, clever, and bad tempered all describe Ebenezer Allen, a man of the Genesee Valley frontier.
A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison by James E. Seaver
Genesee Echoes by Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
The White Woman and Her Valley by Arch Merrill
U.S. Dept. of State, Page 433, Vol. 1, No. 78 Letters from 1776 to 1789
Dictionary of Canadian Biography
Turpin and Osgood Historical Records compiled on Ebenezer “Indian” Allan
Wheatland Historical Association Records
The Life and Times of Major Moses Van Campen by J. Niles Hubbard
Rochester’s Romantic Rogue, The Life and Times of Ebenezer Allan by Donovan Shilling, Crooked Lake Review
St. Helena was another ghost town along the Genesee River that saw its heyday in the 19th century. Located in the Town of Castile, St. Helena was part of Mary Jemison’s (White Woman of the Genesee) land that was given to her by the Seneca Nation in 1797 after she refused the opportunity to go back to white society. Given almost 18,000 acres that stretched out alongside the Genesee, she called it the Gardeau Reservation. Sections were sold off in 1823 after complex arrangements were made through the Senecas and the U.S. government to allow Mary to complete the sale to Jellis Clute, Micah Brooks, and Henry Gibson.
The community of St. Helena was settled in 1826 as the forests were cleared, and the river was used to transport goods northward. Named after the island of Napoleon’s exile, the settlement was designed by an English engineer, who created three zones—residential, commercial, and industrial, a rather modern layout for the time. It was comprised of three streets: Main, Water, and Maiden Lane. In 1828, the New York State Legislature granted Rosel Curtis, John LeFoy, and Joshua Smith the right to build a dam on the river to power their mills. The men also had to construct a lock to allow river traffic to pass through. The town had mostly Baptists and Methodists at the time, who met on alternate Sundays at the schoolhouse until the Baptists built the Oak Hill Baptist Church in 1828. In 1835, a latticework bridge was constructed across the river, which afforded residents from Livingston and Wyoming counties easier access to both sides of the Genesee. Increased traffic through the village meant increased commerce, which was welcomed.
By the 1850s when the Genesee Valley Canal was in business, there were now several saw mills and a grist mill. It also boasted two general stores, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, woodworking shop, a cider mill, and schoolhouse. There were approximately 25 residences at that time. New York State dredged the river from St. Helena to York Landing to facilitate St. Helena and Gibsonville in using the canal to ship their goods of wheat, flour, logs, staves, tan bark, and whisky. The future looked bright for the river towns, but it quickly evaporated when the Civil War began. The first post office was established in 1854 and closed in June 1867. It briefly reopened in February 1897, but was shutdown on June 2, 1897. From then on the mail was delivered by the post office in Castile.
In 1865, the dam was flooded out and never replaced. Business dwindled over those years. Residents moved away and neglected homes rotted into the ground. The area was subject to great flooding in the springtime—the Genesee raging and sweeping away the bridge time after time. The last bridge, which was of iron was torn down in 1950. In the 1920s, Rochester Gas & Electric bought the village site and rented land out to the remaining family, the Streeters. Finally, they threw in the towel and left the lonely spot. In 1952, in anticipation of RG&E’s plans for a power dam, the cemetery residents were removed and reinterred at Grace Cemetery in Castile. Ninety-two bodies were moved, many of them children. Measles and whooping cough were dreaded childhood diseases, which quickly took the lives of many young children in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Here's one of the colorful stories about life by the river, which made the Buffalo papers.
Considerable excitement arose in St. Helena over Alva Clark shooting his wife on October 11, 1894. Apparently, the couple’s son had just returned from hunting, and asked his father to put away the shotgun, while he got a pail of water for his mother, who was doing laundry. As the dutiful son pumped the water outside, he heard a gunshot and ran back to the house. He found his mother with her shoulder blown away, her jugular vein and lung exposed with blood everywhere. The doctor and constable were immediately sent for from Castile. Dr. Harding, who attended the poor woman, stated the injury was fatal as he picked 17 pieces of bone from the gaping wound. Alva told authorities he was kidding around and said “what if I shot you?” to his spouse right before the blast. He hadn’t meant to really shoot her.
Despite the horrible injury, Mrs. Clark made a remarkable recovery and she exonerated her husband, stating it was truly an accident. We’ll never know for sure what Alva Clark’s intentions were that day, but no doubt there was talk about the incident for years afterward. As an interesting footnote, Alva died in April, 1896--no cause of death given, and Belle Clark remarried a Piper from St. Helena in 1899. Her youngest son, Otto Clark owned the two photos of the school, which are in the slideshow below.
Today, there’s nothing left of St. Helena, but the area is accessible in Letchworth State Park on Trail 13. This is only a snapshot of St. Helena’s short, but storied history. If you’d like to dig further, I recommend Mrs. Anderson’s books below, along with Arch Merrill’s book.
Resources: The White Woman and Her Valley by Arch Merrill
Genesee Echoes by Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
St. Helena, Ghost Town of the Genesee 1797-1954 by Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
Buffalo Courier, October 12, 1894, October 27, 1894
With the Erie Canal’s opening in 1825 and its success in moving goods and people across New York State, canal enthusiasm ran high. Western New York residents, with the support of the press lobbied for another canal to complement the Erie Canal. It would start in Rochester and extend to Olean, New York near the Pennsylvania border. The dreamers envisioned a canal system that would eventually link to the Mississippi River, enabling a steady flow of products throughout the young United States. The rich produce of Western New York, along with timber from New York and Ohio, and coal from Pennsylvania needed transportation to urban markets. A canal along the Genesee River seemed to provide the needed solution.
The Genesee River was designated as a public waterway in 1818, but it was a fickle one, becoming too shallow for boats especially in the summer—and there was the problem of the falls in the Portage area. Rafts and shallow-draft boats could navigate between Rochester to Geneseo or Mt. Morris, but the springtime was the only reliable time for transportation. Citizens further south were unhappy that they had no way to find markets for the abundant produce that was grown in the Genesee Valley, along with furs, potash, and timber. They began lobbying for a canal as early as 1823.
Businessmen in several western counties organized, urging the legislature to at least explore the idea. By 1830, the state approved a survey of the proposed 124-mile canal, but neglected to fund the project sufficiently. The survey project was finally fully funded in 1834, when a group called the Canal Congress initiated a barrage of petitions that buried the state senate in paper. Engineer Frederick Mills was contracted to perform the survey work and gave his estimate of $2 million dollars for the project. Political wrangling commenced in the state legislature, until at last in 1840, the massive project was underway. Elisha Johnson, from Rochester, New York was hired on as the canal’s chief engineer.
The biggest challenges facing Mr. Johnson were working around the Middle Falls and dealing with a section of high ground in Oakland. Men and shovels dug through the issues of the Oakland area, but Mr. Johnson failed in his first attempt with the Middle Falls. He hoped a tunnel could be bored through the shale mountain to carve out the canal. This ended badly. The shale proved unstable and there were deadly cave-ins during that experiment. In the end, crews went around the mountain and not through it. Despite the challenges and difficulties of terrain, the canal opened in 1841 through to Dansville, and by 1856 it successfully reached Olean. Instead of the estimated $2 million price tag, the cost had risen to $6 million.
Businesses sprang up in the canal towns all along the way to the Southern Tier. There was great anticipation that the Genesee Valley Canal would grow the economy of these rough places, and prosperity would reach everyone. The canal carried both passengers and freight. People were eager to travel, with plenty of entertainment at every stop. Preachers took advantage of the crowds to preach the Gospel and warn against liquor, while owners of public houses selling liquor urged passengers to come in for drink or two of whisky or ale. A bugler on the boat announced its arrival at a stop and purveyors of food were quick to meet hungry passengers at the dock. A ticket from Rochester to Olean would cost you $4.27, and there were tariffs on transporting goods.
The boatmen were a rough and ready lot. The boats which plied the Genesee Valley Canal were said to have been well built, clean and attractively painted. They were round at the bow and square at the stern, about 80 feet long and 14 feet wide, with a cabin at the rear for living quarters and one at the other end for the crew and horses. The boats could carry up to 90 tons and often transported 50 to 80 thousand board feet of lumber or as much as 50 cords of wood. (A Personal Look at the Genesee Valley Canal)
Travel on a passenger packet boat wasn’t exactly elegant or comfortable, but many preferred it to their only other option which was the stagecoach. Bathroom facilities were primitive and unhygienic, sleeping arrangements were makeshift berths, and the speed of the boat was quite leisurely. All drank water from a community cup and men spat their chewing tobacco on the floor, avoiding the cuspidor for some reason. Horses and mules pulled the boats up and down the two-way canal, providing employment for young boys.
Edward Quested from Portageville was one of those boys. He is my husband’s great-grandfather. Edward, who was around 11-years-old in 1860, secured a job as a mule driver of a stone barge for the bluestone quarry. This is where his future grandson, Robert Wallace (my husband's father) would work in the next century. According to Bob’s recollections in an article for the Historical Wyoming, Edward received about twenty-five cents a day driving mules on the towpath of the Genesee Valley Canal as they towed barges from the quarry. The locks of the canal were constructed of bluestone and the waterway ran in proximity to the stone-finishing mills on the Genesee River.
During the 1870s, Edward was still working on the canal. He was regularly employed by McConnell Pitkin & Co. of Rochester. Robert Y. McConnell, who was a well-known contractor, also owned an interest in the Portageville bluestone quarry. Bluestone was transported via the Genesee Valley Canal and McConnell Pitkin was mostly likely responsible to dredge the quarry’s section of the waterway. The Portageville area was especially challenging because of a slide area and flooding.
From an account in Edward’s journal, it appears he began working on the canal in May of 1870 on the dredge. The dredge most likely was a crane with a bucket operated by a steam engine. Canals had to be dredged regularly to keep sediment, rocks, and other debris from clogging up the waterways and damaging boats. From documents in Edward’s files, it seems he became a competent engineer on the equipment. Apparently, he left McConnell’s employ in December 1876, and received a glowing letter of recommendation from the company. He was an “engineer having charge of a 60 horse-power engine and boiler in which capacity we have found him faithful, sober, trustworthy, and competent.” The “sober” part was actually very high praise as drunkenness on the job was a huge problem for the canal, railroad and other seasonal occupations in this time period. (You'll find photos of these documents in the slideshow below.)
Edward was working for McConnell again in May 1877 and received a letter from Robert Y. McConnell which had instructions for him to move a derrick to a new location near one of the docks. He also had authority to charge materials to McConnell at Beardsley’s General Store in Portageville. He seemed to be the company’s “man of business” there since the company was headquartered in Rochester.
The rise of the Erie railroad in the 1870s brought about the abandonment of the canal in September 1878. The expense of maintaining the canal was prohibitive, besides trains were much faster and more comfortable for passengers. The railroads were open year around, which wasn’t possible for the canal. The canal also brought health issues. Malaria was a problem—stagnant water and mosquitos are a bad combination. Although residents along the canal fought vigorously to keep the canal open, the state was done. Within a few years, the towpath became the bed for the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad. Later it was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad, then Rochester Gas & Electric became the owner. Today it is the Genesee Valley Greenway, a recreational trail following the old towpath. The canal was by no means a failure, but served its purpose in its time. Thanks to the diligent work of the Friends of the Genesee Valley Greenway, today it provides an excellent outdoor experience for residents and visitors alike.
I hope your appetite has been whetted to learn more about the canal. This blog has merely touched on a bit of its history. There are many online and print resources for you to explore its colorful story.
Resources and further reading:
Rochester History – The Genesee Valley Canal by Jim Warlick
A Personal Look at the Genesee Valley Canal by Ronald Taylor (Allegany County Historical Society)
Remembering the Genesee Valley Canal by Richard F. Palmer (Allegany County Historical Society)
Friends of The Genesee Valley Greenway
Genesee Echoes by Mildred Lee Hill Anderson
Citizens Argue to Keep Canal Open, Allegany County Democrat, January 19, 1877
Edward Quested’s Journal and Personal Papers (Wallace Archive)
We live in the era of extreme sports and it seems there are plenty of daredevils who push right on past the boundaries of good sense, sometimes to their peril. But did you know that the 20th and 21st centuries don’t have the corner on risk-takers? A young man who became a legend for his jumping exploits rose to a meteoric fame and in the same fashion ended his career in 1829 at the Genesee River.
Sam Patch was born around 1799 in South Reading, Massachusetts. His father, Greenleaf Patch was a farmer. Besides Sam, the Patches had two other sons and two daughters. Sam’s father died when he was a young boy, and his mother moved the family to Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It was there Sam found employment in the cotton mills to help support the family. Many boys of his young age worked in the cotton spinning mills, leaving schooling for others. A favorite pastime after work was swimming in the river near the mills, and the boys took every opportunity to enjoy the water. The bridge that spanned the deep Blackstone River seemed to beg for someone to jump from it into the water below. Sam was quick to take on the dare to plunge from the top rail of the bridge into the river. He was immediately successful and soon began looking for higher places to leap from. Several of his friends along with some men decided that jumping from one of the mill roofs into the river would be their next conquest. For whatever reason, jumping was a popular entertainment at the time. The mill roofs provided a drop of 100 feet, and surprisingly the entire crew jumped safely from the great height. Eventually the glow of jumping wore off when no new challenges presented themselves.
Despite his dangerous hobby, Sam escaped injury, grew up and went into business with a mill owner for a period of time in Pawtucket. However, his partner whose last name was Kennedy wasn’t an honest fellow and helped himself to the profits before leaving town. Now in dire financial straits, Sam had to change his plans. He sold the mill to pay off the accumulated debts and left for Patterson, New Jersey to try his luck in another mill. It was there he regaled his new friends with tales of his jumping into the Blackstone. Not convinced that Sam was such a talented leaper, he had to prove himself, jumping from a bridge into the Passaic River. This led to more jumps and soon Sam found himself on a new career path as a daredevil entertainer who could command a nice admission price. In 1827 he jumped from bowsprits and yardarms of ships, drawing large crowds. In no time he’d become a celebrity and took to it like a duck to water (pun intended). Sam was a talented self-promoter, always on the prowl for new venues to exhibit his jumping prowess.
In 1829, he was invited to Niagara Falls to participate in a magnificent patriotic event scheduled for October 6. A dangerous rock shelving was to be blasted away to improve the safety of tourists admiring the falls. An old ship was also going to be sent plunging over the falls for a spectacular wreck at the bottom the chasm, and the promoters hoped Sam would jump the falls, providing a full day of entertainment. Sam agreed, although the thought of playing second fiddle to an explosion and shipwreck didn’t sit well with him. The event was widely publicized with vendors vying for space to sell liquor and other provisions for the crowd. Canadians and Americans were anxious to witness the extravaganza.
The more Sam thought about sharing the day with two other exhibitions, the more reluctant he became. In true celebrity style, he arrived too late on the 6th to perform, but he promised the throng he would jump the following day. Eager spectators gathered on October 7th to watch Sam climb a 40-foot ladder on Goat Island to a platform for jump of 85 feet. Dressed in white, his arms stiff at his sides, Sam leapt from the platform, dropping like an arrow into the churning Niagara. Boats waited below to rescue him, and most expected it to be a recovery mission. No one could survive such a jump—or so they thought. While the sailors searched the foaming waters for a body, Sam was already on the shore singing merrily, waving to the crowds. Sensing that there was more money to be made from the citizens on both sides of the river, he immediately promised another jump on October 17. This he also did successfully much to the delight of his fans. At some point during his visit to Buffalo, he purchased a pet bear, deciding that the animal would be an asset to the act. Sam decided he would leap first and then the bear would jump (that is be pushed off a platform by his owner) to keep the interest of the people.
Folks in Rochester heard about Sam’s incredible feats and invited him to jump the Genesee Falls (the High Falls) to spice up the entertainment realm there. Sam welcomed the challenge, and on November 6, 1829 before a crowd of an estimated 10,000, Sam took the plunge, quickly finding the shore amid thunderous applause. It was now the bear’s turn, and Sam coaxed the bear to the platform, unceremoniously pushing him into the water. Fortunately, the animal was unfazed, easily swimming to shore unharmed.
Once again, Mr. Patch saw an opportunity for some more coin in his pocket and scheduled another jump, advertised as his last for November 13th. He wanted this last jump in Rochester to be more spectacular and so the platform height was increased another 25 feet, making the leap around 125 feet to the water below. Sam needed to build his resume as he wished to jump from London Bridge. Crowds swelled for the big day as Sam took a slug of brandy before climbing to the platform. Dressed in his usual white clothing he greeted the onlookers, assumed his straight-arrow posture, jumping from the wooden structure. A spectator wrote this description:
The staging was elevated twenty-five feet—He sprung fearlessly from it and descended about one-third of the distance as handsomely as he ever did. He then began evidently to droop, his arms were extended; his legs separated; and in this condition he struck the water and sunk forever! It was a fearful leap and fearfully it has terminated. The prevailing opinion is he became lifeless ere he reached the water.
As the horrified masses watched and waited, Sam didn’t reappear. After a few minutes, they left the river. Entertainment had turned into tragedy before their eyes. While searchers looked desperately for the body, newspapers began reporting the sad results. Without concrete evidence of Patch’s death though, rumors abounded throughout the winter that he was still alive and was “sighted” in different cities over the next few months. Some were convinced it had all been a publicity stunt. However, in March 1830, his body was discovered in the ice at the mouth of the Genesee River. Although the remains weren’t exactly identifiable, the clothing was, including the black sash that he tied around his waist for performances. Now certain of the body’s identity, Sam was buried in an unmarked grave in the Charlotte Cemetery, near where he was found. It wouldn’t be until the mid-twentieth century that a group of students raised money to place a stone on the grave.
Sam Patch was immortalized in children’s books, poetry, and in song for his daring feats as America’s first professional daredevil throughout the 19th century. Although his career was incredibly short, his exploits have lived on for more than 180 years.
Buffalo Patriot and Commercial Advertiser, September 8, 1829
Larned Weekly Chronoscope, June 13, 1890
The Evening Post, October 21, 1829
Buffalo Republican, October 1829
The Onondaga Standard, March 30, 1830
Rochester Public Library
Two deaths in the village of Castile in the fall of 1913 were connected to the Erie Railroad. The first was a murder in September, and the other was ruled an accident a month later. Both incidents involved members of the track gang who maintained and repaired the railroad tracks running through the south end of the village. The crime and the accident were also alcohol related. The tragic accidental death occurred late at night. One of the gang, after drinking heavily, wandered down the tracks in the dark and was hit by an oncoming train. His horrified coworkers found him the next day. The murder, however, spoke of the violence brewing under the surface of these railroad men.
Railroad crews were composed of men from disparate backgrounds, including many immigrants who needed an immediate job once they landed in the U. S. The crews were a transient lot, strangers thrown together to live for weeks in a railroad car set up as a bunkroom. Losing employment or seeking to supplement the family income often steered men to the railroad for a few weeks or months. The work was physically grueling as you can imagine--dealing with timbers, steel, and the tools to maintain railroad tracks. Drinking and fighting were commonplace in the rough groups that traveled the rails hoping to make a living.
In September of 1913, an Erie Railroad track gang was at the Castile Depot to perform repairs in the area. The bunkroom car was parked on a siding near the station. Several men, who weren’t working Saturday, September 20th, decided to visit Portageville to do some drinking. This included Daniel Reardon, a 50-year-old butcher from New York City and 37-year-old Maurets DeHaas, who was known as Morris Haas, along with several others. The men quickly spent their pay on whisky at the O’Donnell saloon, except for Reardon.
The group returned to Castile later in the afternoon, but DeHaas fumed over Reardon’s refusal to either lend him money or buy more whisky. DeHaas’ reasoning for such anger is unclear. Reardon went to his bunk to nap and DeHaas quickly followed him, evidently to do the same. But DeHaas reappeared a few minutes later, hanging about the depot as the rest of the men filed in to sleep it off.
The railroad agent, James A. Cleveland, and Silas L. Strivings, a respected Castile resident, watched the man walk toward the depot. Once inside, DeHaas excitedly explained that one of the men had committed suicide in the bunk car. The smell of alcohol was evident on DeHaas, and the men were skeptical of his story at first. Finally, Cleveland asked Strivings to accompany him to investigate since the worker was so agitated. They stepped into the dimly lit car, proceeding to the bunk that DeHaas indicated. The scene wasn’t pretty.
Reardon was without a doubt quite dead, his skull split open by two massive wounds. Blood and brain matter was spattered on the wall and bed. Cleveland and Strivings must have been aghast at the gory scene, trying to understand what had happened. It was clear no suicide had taken place, and Cleveland gave the alarm for the men to help him restrain DeHaas.
DeHaas resisted and shouted out that they’d receive the same treatment as Reardon. With the man in custody and five others in the car rousted from their alcohol-induced slumbers, the station agent summoned Sheriff George P. Bauer, District Attorney Michael L. Coleman, and the coroner, L. Humphrey to the scene to investigate. Daniel Reardon’s empty purse was soon discovered outside the door of the boxcar. DeHaas was consequently searched and three dollars found in his pocket. His coworkers eagerly told the Law that the man had no money on the return trip from Portageville. The three dollars must belong to Reardon, who was the only one with any money left.
DeHaas cooled his heels in the Castile lockup, awaiting transport to the county jail while the body and the car were further examined. The bloody ax was located on a bench at the end of the boxcar opposite from the Reardon’s bunk. After the coroner sent the body along to the undertaker’s, the sheriff and district attorney took the other five men to jail on suspicion of murder until they sorted out the facts of the incident. After the post mortem, Daniel Reardon’s remains were transported back to his wife in New York City.
The grand jury took little time to provide an indictment the following week, charging the railroad worker with first-degree murder. DeHaas pled not guilty at the arraignment, and M. S. Smallwood of Warsaw was the assigned defense counsel. The trial was set for November and Merlin Smallwood, Esq. scrambled to prepare a defense. Smallwood claimed he had a significant language barrier with his client, who said he was from Holland and spoke only Dutch. DeHaas’ English seemed rudimentary at best to the attorney. He also maintained his innocence and Smallwood believed his volatile client. Another member of the railroad crew was guilty, DeHaas assured his counsel, who mounted a vigorous defense for his client.
Rev. Imhof, a local pastor who spoke German, interpreted for DeHaas during the proceedings. After a string of witnesses testified to DeHaas’ violent temper and his threats upon capture, the outcome looked bleak for the defense. The defendant took the stand at the end to tell his side of the story. DeHaas offered a long tale about coming to America and leaving two brothers in Europe. He testified that he’d been a good guy, serving in Holland’s army for three years, and afterwards was a cook on a ship that ran between Rotterdam and Hoboken for five years. His life story wasn’t corroborated by anyone, which didn’t help his case, plus every coworker testified the Dutchman was guilty of murder.
Folks in Castile knew of the man who’d showed up in the spring of 1913, claiming he’d walked from New York City to Castile in six days. DeHaas had called himself Haas, working briefly in the area before disappearing, only to return using a different name a few months later. His third appearance was as part of Erie Railroad gang. DeHaas was composed in his manner on the stand, speaking in broken English. He declared he hadn’t killed Daniel Reardon and was innocent of the charge.
After a weeklong trial, the jury convicted DeHaas of second-degree murder, and the judge sentenced him to serve 20 years to life at Auburn State Prison. The day after the trial, DeHaas finally broke down and confessed to Imhof in excellent English that he’d killed Reardon in a drunken rage. This startling information angered his long-suffering attorney when he learned of the confession. If he’d known the entire truth, Smallwood told reporters, he would have asked for the reduced charge of manslaughter. It was too late and Maurets DeHaas could expect to live out his days in prison.
There’s a bit of a twist in this seemingly predictable outcome, however. Here’s the rest of the story about Mr. DeHaas. On December 18, 1919, the state transferred the prisoner from Auburn to Sing Sing State Prison in Ossining, New York. Five years later, on December 12, 1924, Mauretts’ sentence was suddenly commuted. He was a free man. What caused this generosity? For some unknown reason the New York State Prison system was anxious to rid themselves of Maurets DeHaas. The governor was agreeable to the commutation if DeHaas was deported and on the next ship to Holland. He was to stay in prison until passage was arranged. Escorted to the dock, DeHaas boarded a ship for home and was never heard from again. One wonders how Maurets DeHaas fared back in his homeland and if he was restored to his family. That remains a mystery.
Wyoming County Times, 20 September 1913
Democrat & Chronicle, 22 November 1913
The Buffalo Times, 20, 21 & 25 November 1913
1920 Federal Census for Sing Sing Prison
Sing Sing Receiving Blotter for DeHaas, 18 December 1919
New York State Commutation of Sentence, 12 December 1924
Democrat & Chronicle, 21 December 1924
The attorneys who tried the case of the People vs. Robert Brunt a/k/a Robert Van Brunt were no legal lightweights. The prosecutor was Eugene Myron Bartlett, Wyoming County’s young district attorney. He’d taken office around March 1886. For the defense, former Wyoming County DA, Isaac Samuel Johnson received the assignment to represent the defendant, Robert Van Brunt. General Linus W. Thayer served as co-counsel to the defense, and we’ll tell his story in another post.
I. Sam Johnson was born October 28, 1840 in Centerfield, Ontario County, New York. He was a son of Hiram and Jane Slade Johnson. Sam received his education at Warsaw Academy and the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary. He studied law with General Thayer, Wyoming County judges, H. L. Comstock and Byron Healy.
Johnson joined the Grand Army of the Republic on the 20th of August 1862 at Warsaw. He mustered in as a first sergeant in September and served for three years until his discharge for disability because of illness on January 5, 1864. Sam rose to the rank of first lieutenant during his time of service. In May 1864, he was admitted to the New York State Bar, and the following year he married Mary McFarland of Ohio.
A partnership with Myron Bartlett started his practice of law, then in 1866 he moved to Arcade, New York, to partner with A. J. Knight, who would become one of the county’s district attorneys later on. In 1876, Sam returned to Warsaw for good. Johnson was a skilled lawyer, elected as Wyoming County District Attorney in 1877. He served in that position through 1885. Johnson was a popular speaker at events and took the podium at many local celebrations, especially for veterans. Politically, Sam was savvy, and many looked to him for advice in that difficult arena. Johnson successfully ran and served as a NYS Assemblyman for Wyoming County for two terms and was an outspoken advocate for tax reform. Johnson continued his successful law practice until his untimely death attributed to “heart neuralgia” September 25, 1906. He is buried in the Warsaw Cemetery.
Eugene M. Bartlett was born March 19, 1855 to Myron and Cordelia McFarland Bartlett of Warsaw. He was educated at Geneseo Academy and Cornell University. Admitted to the NYS Bar in 1880, he immediately went into partnership with his father, who was an esteemed attorney. The partnership continued until 1896. Eugene became the district attorney in 1886, when I. Sam Johnson left the position. His first capital case was prosecuting Robert Van Brunt for the murder of Will Roy of Castile, New York in February 1887.
Myron often was second chair for his son in more complex trials, as was the case for Van Brunt. This created conflict with the board of supervisors and the county leaders complained loudly about Myron’s exorbitant fees charged to the county. He billed the county $500 for the Van Brunt matter, but it did include two appeals. Bartlett’s conviction rate was also in dispute—Van Brunt being his only felony conviction. The supervisors didn’t feel they were getting their money’s worth from the DA’s office. This may have been a factor in Eugene’s decision not to run for the office again in 1889.
Van Brunt’s conviction of first-degree murder in 1887 took both Johnson and Bartlett before the state’s highest courts twice--the NYS Supreme Court and the NYS Court of Appeals. The men battled from the onset of the trial in February 1887 to March 1888. The case tested the mettle of the lawyers, but in the end Bartlett prevailed and Van Brunt was executed for his crime.
In May 1892, Bartlett and Johnson faced off over a utility dispute in the Village of Warsaw. The electric company, represented by Bartlett, attempted to obtain exclusive rights over the gas company for lighting. Johnson represented the village in the matter. The messy dilemma ended with Johnson defeating the electric company’s bid to take over. This was after the discovery that some electric company executives were lining their pockets in the scheme.
In 1895 Eugene married Grace Sheldon of Hornell and they had one daughter Margaret. In 1896 the family moved to Buffalo, where Eugene formed the law practice of Bartlett and Roberts. E. M. Bartlett had a distinguished career in Buffalo and he would have another notorious capital case.
He represented Guiseppe and Rosina Barone in 1898a , a husband and wife accused of murdering and dismembering, Fillipe Forestino. The unfortunate Forestino was stuffed in a trunk and tossed in the Blackwell Canal, which is now City Ship Canal in Buffalo. The Barones, already clients of Bartlett, retained him to defend them at the lengthy trial. It was revealed that Mrs. Barone and Forestino were enjoying extra-curricular activities. Guiseppe took exception to the affair, his fiery jealousy leading to Forestino's demise. Rosina was a willing participant in the crime and was sent to prison, while Guiseppe was condemned to die in the electric chair. Bartlett successfully argued before the Appeals Court for a new trial for Guiseppe because of procedural errors in the first. Barone was convicted of manslaughter the second time around, serving eight years in Auburn. His wife served nine. The couple had nothing to do with one another after their respective releases from prison. They were also estranged from their children.
Bartlett was a skilled orator in the courtroom, making frequent appearances in the appellate court. He was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, active in the Republican Party, the Masons, and the Buffalo Historical Society. Eugene was especially proud of his heritage, tracing his ancestry back to one of the drafters and signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The Bartlett’s daughter, Margaret, passed away in 1920, leaving a husband and young son. At the time of Margaret’s death, Eugene suffered several health issues. Poor health followed him until his death in March 1922. His funeral was held in Buffalo, and he was buried in Warsaw Cemetery.
Resources: Wyoming County Historian
Civil War Muster Record for Johnson
Obituary for Johnson, Democrat & Chronicle, September 26, 1906
Obituary for Bartlett, Western New Yorker, March 1922
Jury May Disagree, The Buffalo Express, May 13, 1900
Barone Tells How He Slew Forestino, Buffalo Evening News, October 15, 1898
One of the “vanished villages” along the Genesee River is Gibsonville. The long-ago thriving town was located in the Town of Leicester in Livingston County. Its former boundaries are within Letchworth State Park now, and a historical marker shows its location.
The frontier village had its beginnings with the building of a sawmill erected in 1792 on Silver Creek by the infamous Indian “Ebenezer” Allen—we can save his story for another day. With the commencement of the sawmill, settlers began constructing homes and businesses in the area, which included Henry Gibson of Canandaigua--hence Gibsonville. Amos Austin and Josiah Wilson, joined Gibson in taming the wilderness of the Genesee Valley, starting businesses. The river afforded excellent transportation of goods up and down the long valley, and those early settlers believed the new town would become a city. It was a prime spot to make a home and a living.
In 1796, a two-story inn was built, and it quickly became a social hub for dances and parties. Mildred Anderson wrote about the hostelry in her book, Genesee Echoes. It was a well-made building constructed from solid oak, sheathed with two-inch planks, and sided with pine timber. The bar room was where men conducted business transactions and had a beer at the same time. Named the Jane Grey House, it was visited by Mary Jemison, Red Jacket, and many famous personages of the time who attended various functions there. Soon a paper mill, grist mill, rug factory, and a woolen mill added to the commercial prosperity, along with a post office and school. Early settler, Oliver Taplan came to town and opened a cooper’s shop to supply barrels, and John Anderson started a blacksmith business. Mr. Powers, who owned the paper mill, did a brisk business with his product. At the height of operation, the paper mill produced 3,000 pounds of paper a day, and a team of oxen hauled it from the valley to be sold to distributors in towns and cities of the region. Trapping was another profitable venture, and a steady stream of trappers came through Gibsonville seeking to transport their goods to Rochester.
Reportedly, an acre of land valued at fifty-cents an acre increased to $170 per acre during this economic upswing. At the height of its population, there were around 200 residents. Mrs. Anderson also mentions some interesting remnants of stories that included robbery and murder in the rough-and-tumble days of the early 1800s. A rich Frenchman and a peddler of lace and notions met their doom there. There was even a ghost or two involved afterward. No doubt, it was a dangerous place with villains and upstanding folks alike creating a new town.
The opening of the Genesee Valley Canal tolled the death knell for the village as river traffic slowed significantly. Although the canal itself was short lived, the years of its operation brought many Gibsonville businesses to a halt in between 1840-1878. The grist mill was eventually converted to a paper mill, which continued operations until it burned in 1894.
A handful of people lived in Gibsonville into the 20th century, but they eventually abandoned it as Rochester Gas & Electric bought up land in anticipation of building a dam. Most of those who stayed into the 1920s traced their lineage back to the pioneers who came in the late 1700s.
The tiny town was briefly revived with the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. Barracks were constructed at the town site, housing some of the men who built the beautiful stone walls, cabins, roads, and much more that we enjoy in the park today. Not only did the men labor in construction, but classes were given in mechanical drawing, engineering, cooking, typesetting, shorthand, bookkeeping, and many other subjects. Well-qualified men, who diligently sought to improve the lot of these young men, provided the training. The camp even produced its own newspaper at one time, and it also boasted a gymnasium and auditorium, which gave the workers a recreational outlet. The village was once again booming in a different manner during the Great Depression.
After the CCC left, the buildings became barracks for women between the ages of 18 and 35 in 1944. These young women worked at various canning factories in the area 40-48 hours per week. The requirement was a stay of two weeks to work at a factory for the war effort. They were called “Gibson Girls.” This was to be the last hurrah for the feisty pioneer village. After WW II ended, the camp was torn down and the last house in Gibsonville was razed in 1954. Today, you can still explore the area on Trail 19 in Letchworth State Park.
Genesee Echoes, Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
New College is Budding Forth, The Perry Herald, 5 February 1935
Sleepy Historic Hamlets, Buffalo Courier-Express, 12 April 1936
Knowing Perry, The Perry Herald, 18 November 1954
Today’s Gibson Girl is a Real Worker, The Perry Herald, 14 June 1944
One of the most influential and successful businessmen in Castile, NY, between 1861 and 1908 was Willis Frederick Graves. Born on January 14, 1831, in the Town of Eagle, Willis was the second child of Ralph Graves, who had relocated from Vermont in 1819.
From the start, Willis proved himself an industrious worker on the family farm. He rapidly discovered the value of saving his money and the importance of an education. After exhausting the resources of the school library in Arcade, NY, he turned to private education. He earned enough money to attend Arcade
Seminary to be trained as a schoolteacher.
In 1849, he began teaching school near Arcade, working on the farm or selling books for supplemental income during school vacations. He soon moved up through the ranks to serve as principal at several different union schools in the region, including Sandusky, Pike, Centerville, Portageville, Attica, and Arcade. In 1854 he attended Normal School in Albany to complete his education. He also married Jennie Colton of Arcade that same year. While in Albany, he was employed at a piano factory, which eventually led him to the initiation of his musical instrument business at the beginning of the Civil War.
While teaching at Portageville in 1855, he ordered a piano from Albany, which was transported in the final leg of its journey on the Genesee Valley Canal. He later sold the instrument, which may have been the light bulb moment for him to alter his career path from education to retail.
W. F. Graves proved to be a gifted salesman, able to sell pianos and organs easily at a considerable profit throughout the state. He left education altogether in the early 1860s, selling a farm for capital needed to establish his musical instrument business in Castile. He was proud of the extensive floor space in his store to show off his wares, which enticed buyers from all around the area. As his reputation and fortune grew, piano and organ manufacturers visited his business, vying for contracts with him to sell their products in his establishment. Before long, he enjoyed customers in almost every state in the Union, acquiring the nickname “Piano King.”
Graves was a man recognized for his integrity. Willis was also a willing lender for mortgages and other debt instruments. He worked tirelessly to improve the business climate in Castile. He was extremely involved in village affairs, frequently lecturing about best business practices to his colleagues. Never satisfied with his success, Graves became a real-estate broker, amassing many properties in his portfolio. He owned farms throughout Wyoming County, the Wiscoy Hotel in Wiscoy, and several properties within the village of Castile. He was the ideal entrepreneur with well-diversified investments.
W. F. Graves was one of those larger-than-life people with a dynamic personality. Physically, he was a strapping tall man, reportedly weighing 245 pounds. He enjoyed robust health throughout his life and Castilians said he could move a piano by himself if necessary. His wife, Jennie bore him one child who died in infancy and the couple remained childless after this heartbreaking loss. Although rumored to possess a frail constitution, Jennie was an important contributor to his business.
Willis’ involvement in the Robert Van Brunt murder trial and the Roy family in 1887 did stain his reputation during that time. He publicly denounced both Maggie and Eva Roy—mother and daughter over their perceived immoral conduct in connection with the murder of Will Roy, Eva’s half-brother. Eva sued him originally for $30,000 and Maggie sued for $5,000 in February, 1887, only days after the conclusion of the trial. The case was resolved in September, 1887 for a measly $500. The judge threw out several of Eva’s causes of action, which quickly reduced the amount. The women may have achieved some satisfaction in their “win,” but for Graves, it was probably no more than a nuisance suit.
W. F. Graves enjoyed prosperity and fame until his death on the streets of Warsaw, NY on October 30, 1908. Graves suffered a stroke that claimed his life within minutes. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $212,000, which in current valuation would be over $5.6 million dollars. A large, well-attended funeral was held at the Presbyterian Church in Castile, and he was buried in the Graves’ family plot, Arcade, NY.
Wyoming County History 1841-1880, F. W. Beers & Co.
The Daily News, February 26, 1887
Buffalo Evening News, September 9, 1887
Buffalo Weekly Express, September 29, 1887
Wyoming County Times, December 13, 1906
The Castilian, November 8, 1908
The Nunda News, April 24, 1909