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
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
If you've visited Letchworth State Park or are from Wyoming County, NY you're probably familiar with Mary Jemison a/k/a The White Woman of the Genesee. Hers is a fascinating story spanning the years before the Revolutionary War into the early 1800s. Mary's life is a Western New York legend, a rich part of the pre-Revolutionary War history of the beautiful Genesee River valley.
A daughter of Thomas and Jane Jemison, Mary drew her first breath on board the sailing ship William and Mary in the fall of 1743. Her parents, of Scotch-Irish heritage were Protestant settlers in Adams County, near Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
On April 5, 1758, Indians and Frenchmen descended on the frontier neighborhood, killing many and dragging off captives. Mary, her parents and siblings, several neighbors along with their children were among those captured. The settlers were forced to march many miles through woods and swamps. Their fate was almost certain death, but the second night on the march, Mary was given a pair of moccasins to replace her shoes. A young boy was also given a pair of moccasins that same night. Mary's mother believed her daughter would be spared because of this gesture, which proved to be right. Mary had to endure the sight of her parents' scalps hung to dry after that night.
Mary was adopted by two Seneca sisters who taught her the language and customs of their tribe. They gave her a new name--Dehgewanus, which meant Two Falling Voices. Jane Jemison's parting words to her daughter were to never forget the prayers she'd been taught and her own language. She never did forget, but Mary was wise enough to understand that her life was changed forever and quickly immersed herself in the ways of the Seneca. She married a Delaware warrior and bore two children. Her firstborn, a girl lived only a couple of days and then a son was born, whom she named Thomas after her father. Mary moved with the Seneca sisters and eventually took up residence in Little Beard's Town or present day Cuylerville, NY. Sheninjee, her husband went off to fight and never returned the summer of 1760. Many months later she learned he had died from illness in Ohio.
Around 1763, Mary married Hiakatoo, a well-known Seneca chief. He was much older than Mary--over 60 years old at the time and she was only 24. Six children were born to them, two sons and four daughters: John, Jesse, Jane, Nancy, Betsey, and Polly. She remembered her family in the naming of the children after those murdered in the raid during the French and Indian War.
Hiakatoo was powerful and a fierce chief. Reported to be over six feet tall, he provided protection and security for his tiny wife. They were married for over 40 years and by her account it was a happy marriage. Her children, although her greatest joy, were also a source of great sadness. Her son, John killed his two brothers in separate alcohol-induced fights. Thomas was murdered in 1811 and Jesse in 1812. The men were in their fifties at that time. John was eventually killed in a drunken brawl at Squawkie Hill Reservation. A link to the map is here.
Mary never went back to the white culture, although she was given opportunities over the years. Her adopted people, the Senecas were her family. However, she never referred to herself as Indian and all of her children were given English names. She became a highly respected woman among both the Senecas and settlers. In 1797, the Council of Big Tree was convened on the banks of the Genesee River, near present day Geneseo, NY. Land had been promised to Dehgewanus (Mary) and now that the Seneca Nation was in negotiations to relinquish over a half million acres of land to a land speculator, Robert Morris, it was time for Mary to select her land. A huge tract of land was eventually given to her - 17, 297 acres, an area six miles wide, 4 3/4 miles long on both sides of the Genesee.
Red Jacket, one of the Seneca chiefs, fought against Mary with great eloquence. However, Red Jacket lost the argument and Dehgewanus' claim was approved. Cabins were built for her children and herself on the Gardeau Flats. Her good friend and adviser, Thomas Clute helped her manage the tract of land and leases for many years.
In 1823, James Seaver interviewed Mary at the home of Mrs. Jennet Whaley in the Town of Castile. Seaver recorded that even at 80, Mary walked without assistance and she still had a peaches-and-cream complexion. Seaver's book, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison is a classic in Western New York history.
I highly recommend reading his book if you want to learn more about this fascinating woman. Seaver's formal style of writing may be a challenge, but his in-depth interview with the elderly Mary is riveting. Arch Merrill, a well-known WNY journalist in the 1940s and 1950s wrote several books about the history of the Genesee Valley and his easy-to-read style may suit you better. Merrill's book, The White Woman and Her Valley is also recommended.
Mary Jemison died at around age 90 on September 9, 1833 and was buried on the Buffalo Creek Reservation in Buffalo, NY. William Pryor Letchworth, who owned what is now Letchworth State Park, and which was part of Jemison's land, created a memorial to her in the park. In 1870, he had the Seneca Council House located in Caneadea, NY moved to his property and in 1874 received permission to move Jemison's remains to be re-interred near the Council House. A bronze statute of a young Mary was also erected in September, 1910 to honor the memory of this courageous woman.
Her life will always be one for the books. As Arch Merrill said in The White Woman and Her Valley,
"No frontier girl was ever forced to lead a stranger life. Mary Jemison's years were full of toil and woe. Yet she never lost her sunny smile, her fortitude or her abiding generosity."
Resources: History of Wyoming County 1841-1880, F. W. Beers & Co.
A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, James E. Seaver, 1824
The White Woman and Her Valley, Arch Merrill, 1955
Helpful Links: http://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/jem.html
Ebook Link to Seaver's book