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County History

Early Days and Early Settlers (local history series, pt1)

Transcribed by Crist Middaugh

The New Patriot, October 6-12, 1993

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Early days and early settlers in Allegany County

The first white settlers came in the winter, established their early settlements at Belfast and Caneadea.

First of a series

By Harriet Balcom Davis

Local History Series First Photo 1 of 1

In September, 1991 it was my husband’s and my privilege to spend the month in Allegany County. As were renewed acquaintances with people whose we had not seen in many years and drove along the highways that had one time been so familiar, memories kept coming back one following the other, likes waves upon a sea shore. So many things about the early years my father had told me; stories that had been handed down to him from one generation to the next from his great grandfathers who had been early pioneers.

I turned to historic sources as well as family ones to learn more about the county’s history.

Originally what is now Allegany County was not even a part of New York State but was part of Massachusetts. Financiers bought up vast tracts of land which when sold and resold became known as the Morris Reserve, The Pultney Estate, The Church Tract and a great acreage owned by the Holland Land Company.

The land was covered with forests. The only roads were foot paths twelve to fifteen inches wide made by the feet of the Seneca Indians as they traveled from one of their villages to antoher. In the late 1700’s the villages were in the reservation that was set aside for them along the Genesee River. The Caneadea Reservation, the largest on the Genesee was about two miles wide and eight miles long. The Indian Village on the East side of the river at Caneadea consisted of a council house and more than twenty buildings. This council house has been preserved over the years at Letchworth State Park.

The Genesee River turned and twisted back upon itself creating-tree covered islands in the midst. The air was clean, scented by the pine trees. There was silence unbroken only by the song of birds, the chattering of squirrel, the snapping of a twig under the foot of a bear, the occasional growl or bark of an animal defending its territory, the howling of wolves at night and the wind rustling the leaves of the trees.

Families came by oxen team, by foot, or horseback through the unbroken wilderness blazing a trail as they came. Nights they camped out in the forests and were awakened by the eerie sounds of nocturnal animals.

The most common route from the eastern states was from Albany, through Utica, on to Canandaigua, Genesea, Mt. Morris and then along the Genesee River south. Almond was the site of the first log house in 1796 and the Van Campens who settled there came from the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania. They came North and West through Hornellsville clearing a path through the tree covered Almond hills. By 1801 the tract of land owned by Philip Church was settled at Belvidere. The first settlements along the Genesee were in Caneadea and Belfast in 1802 and 1803.

For the most part the early settlers came in the winter. They needed to be located as early in the spring as possible and it was easier to pull an oxen sled over the snow than a wagon through the forested land.

The pioneers carried their belongings by oxen sled or by a “drag”. The “drag” was made by splitting the butt end of a sapling about six feet. The split ends were then spread about four feet and a block pinned across on which they lay the load. The forward part formed the tongue; the split ends dragged on the ground.

Building and Furnishing a Home

The sound of the axe sticking against the trunks of trees filled the air. Trees must be felled, a space cleared for a dwelling. The first log cabins of the earl settlers were very primitive buildings. After the trees were felled to make an open space in the forest the walls were laid up of logs still covered with bark.

The dimensions of a cabin were usually not over 12 x 12, or 12 x 15 feet. The outside cracks between the logs were filled with mud. The floor, more than likely, was only earth until time permitted the labor necessary to split slabs from logs and smooth them with an adz (an axe like tool with a curved blade at right angles to the handle).

The windows and doors were small; covered with blankets, skins or boards at first. If one were fortunate enough to have paper it was oiled with the marrow of a deer’s leg and used at the window. One could not see out through it, but it did permit light to enter. The chimney might be built on the outside of mud and sticks. Some, taking more time, made a stone fireplace inside, which would take logs of wood eight feet long. An opening was left in the roof for the smoke to escape.

Oven were built of stone outside the cabin. A fire was built inside the oven and when stones had become sufficiently heated the coals were swept out and the bread placed in the oven to bake. Sometimes the bread was placed on a cabbage leave to protect it from the oven.

The furnishings of the cabin were as primitive as the outside. Chairs were blocks sawed to the proper height from the end of a log. A bed was made by boring holes in one of the logs of a well about eighteen inches from the ground. Poles about four feel long were driven into the board holes; the other end of the poles were supported by blocks of wood similar to those used for the chairs. Pine branches were placed on the holes and these were covered with quilts. The table was constructed in the same manner as the bed. The table top was a flat piece split from a log and hewn as smooth as possible.

Cooking utensils consisted of a long handled frying pan or a spider. A spider was a pan with a long handle and short legs. There would have been a cast-iron bake kettle, and one or two pans. Knives, spoons, and forks of tinned-iron; cups, saucers and a few plates completed the tableware. The dishes were all a “blue-edged” variety. The cooking stove was the fireplace.

Clearing the Land and Providing Food

Once a shelter was built the next step was to clear the land of trees and brush. Beech and maple trees were burned. Nearly all the settlers used the ashes to make potash called “black salts” and pearl ash which could be sold for cash. This money made the first payments on the land before crops could be raised. The potash was made by leaching the wood ashes. The potassium carbonate thus obtained was used in making glass, gun powder and soft soap. The pearl ash was very white and used for saleratus which we know as baking powder.

Pine trees were of little value and were used for early furniture. How many things have changed over the years. The furniture stores now show expensive furniture of pine.

The first years were indeed filled with hardships, especially winters. Before the land was cleared and crops raised even the livestock they had brought with them had to forage as best they could from the leaves and plants of the forest. With bears and wolves the natural inhabitants of the land is a wonder any of the domesticated animals lived.

Provision for the early settlers came from the land. The forests were full of wild animals: bear, deer, squirrel raccoon, rabbits, turkeys, grouse. Every stream was filled with fish and the brown speckled trout seemed to be waiting for the hook and line to be dropped into the water.

Every man was a hunter and fisherman to provide for his family. Boys were taught early to hunt and trap. Satisfied hunger was dependent upon their skill and ability. Wild berries, fruits and nuts were available for picking. The fruits and berries were dried to used during the winter.

Next week: Samp, grist mills, and pioneer religion

Editor’s Note: The writer, an Allegany County native, now lives in Arizona

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