On February 23, 2021, we celebrated the Bicentennial of the founding of Monroe County. Named for President James Monroe, the county was carved out of land taken from both Ontario and Genesee Counties; it became a new county on February 23, 1821, by decree of the New York State Legislature.
After the Revolutionary War, a treaty of 1783 established the Great Lakes as the northwestern border of the United States. This treaty was referred to as “The Thirteen Council Fires” by Native Americans who were attempting to peacefully co-exist with the new Americans. Unscrupulous speculators often attempted to swindle the natives by tricking them into surrendering their land. Meanwhile, George Washington had sent General Sullivan into western New York to forcibly remove the Seneca by burning their crops and destroying their villages.
Land speculators Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham purchased over six million acres in western NY from Massachusetts in 1788. The land extended all the way from Lake Ontario at the north to the Pennsylvania state line on the south. Phelps also negotiated a treaty with the Seneca, who had originally refused to sell any land west of the Genesee River. Phelps “convinced” the native Americas to part with an area 12 miles wide by 28 miles long for the construction of a mill on the west side of the Genesee. This area became known as the “mill seat tract” and was the site of the first mill built by Ebenezer “Indian” Allan in 1789 (the mill site was just west of today’s Court Street Bridge).
When Phelps and Gorham were unable to pay their debts, their unsold lots were sold to Robert Morris of Philadelphia in 1790. Morris was a financier who quickly turned over the sale of a million acres of Genesee land the very next year to Sir William Johnstone Pulteney. Due to a NY State law that said that a foreigner could not pass title to any New York property, Charles Williamson became Pulteney’s land agent and he held the legal title to the Genesee lands. He opened a land office in Bath, Steuben County.
The settlements on the east side of the Genesee became the Town of Northfield created in 1796. This land was originally a part of Ontario County with the county seat at Canandaigua. It later was known as “Boyle.” The towns split off from Northfield were: Penfield (1810), Perinton (1812), Pittsford and Brighton (1814), Henrietta (1818), Irondequoit (1839) and Webster (1840). Mendon was taken from Bloomfield in 1812 and Rush was taken from Avon in 1818.
Settlements on the west side of the Genesee River were part of the Town of Northampton created in 1797. Originally a part of Genesee County, the county seat was at Batavia. Towns split off from Northhampton were: Parma and Riga (1808), Gates (1808*), Sweden (1813), Ogden (1817), Clarkson (1819), and Greece and Chili (1822). (The reason for the asterisk after Gates 1808 is due the fact that the petition was presented to Albany in 1808, but it took four years to pass in the legislature and an additional year to take effect!) Wheatland was originally called “Inverness” when created in 1821 and Hamlin was originally called “Union” when formed in 1852 before being renamed in 1861. The county seat of Northampton was at Batavia.
In March of 1801, Abel Rowe built a cabin in Batavia and Joseph Ellicott moved his Holland Land Company office into Rowe’s cabin. Abel Rowe soon became a pioneer settler of Gates (later the Town of Greece) and marries the daughter of William Hincher of Charlotte in 1804. Their son Asa would become the famous nurseryman of Ridge Road in Greece.
In 1805, Pulteney land agent, James Wadsworth (1768-1844), offered land for sale in a letter written at Geneseo in 1805. (see at right- New Lands for Sale)
At first, there were very few permanent settlers in our area. Pioneers included Orringh Stone, Daniel Penfield, Glover Perrin, and William Hincher who built log cabin in 1792 on the bluff where the Charlotte Genesee Lighthouse now stands. The “Genesee Fever” pretty much wiped out the settlers at King’s Landing where Gideon King and Zaddock Granger had bought 6000 acres in 1796. The earliest settlers of the Town of Greece are buried at the Hanford Landing and the Charlotte Village Cemeteries.
The 1971 Monroe County Sesquicentennial booklet, Preface to Tomorrow, referred to our area as: “a God-forsaken place, inhabited by muskrats, visited only by straggling trappers, and through which neither man nor beast could gallop without fear of starvation, or fever or ague.” Nevertheless, in 1803, Charles Carroll, William Fitzhugh, and Nathaniel Rochester contracted to buy the “Genesee Fall mill tract” property (100 acres) from Sir William Pulteney, through his attorney Robert Troup.
But it was the area’s waterways that were key to the early growth of Monroe County. The arrival of the Erie Canal was a huge boon to the local economy by providing a cheap and efficient way to get bountiful crops to market. The waterfalls of the Genesee River provided power to its flour mills, mills that shipped over 200,000 barrels of flour in 1826, the very next year after the Erie Canal opened. Schooners and steamers at the busy port at Charlotte brought in lumber from Canada and exported finished wood from its sawmills and flour from its gristmills.
Early settlers planted fruit orchards and grain fields of wheat and barley. Wheat was ground into flour and the excess was turned into whiskey. An early census of western New York noted that there were more distilleries than gristmills.
The population of Rochesterville was less than 5000 people when it became an incorporated village in 1817. That number grew to over 12,000 residents when it received its charter as a city in 1834 and annexed another 4000 acres of land obtained from the surrounding towns of Gates, Greece, Brighton, and Irondequoit.
Both Genesee and Ontario Counties fought the establishment of Monroe County and it took four more trip to Albany to persuade state legislators. But the locals grew tired to long and arduous journey to either Batavia or Canandaigua to record land transactions. Monroe County was approved by the NYS Legislature on February 23, 1821.
Today, the County of Monroe has a total of 19 towns. The current Monroe County Office Building is on the same spot that the first courthouse building of 1829 occupied. After two hundred years, most of the farmland is now gone, but Monroe County can trace its roots back to the farming pioneers who came to the area after the Revolutionary War.