Ontario, The Mother County

Native American leaders are pictured holding the ceremonial wampum belt November 11, 2021 on the exact site of the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty between the Iroquois and the United States.Left to right: Tim McKie a member of the Tuscarora Council; Chief Roger Hill of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation; Chief Sam George of the Cayuga Nation; Peter Jemison, member of the Seneca Nation and retired first Historic Site Manager of Ganondagan; Brennan Ferguson representing the Tuscaroras.
by Ray Levato

Ontario County has a rich history dating back to a time even before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue – when this was the land of the Senecas. Established in 1789, the county originally encompassed all of western New York, from the Pennsylvania border north to Lake Ontario, and from Seneca Lake west to Lake Erie.

Ontario County was so large it was considered a “mother county,” from which a dozen other western New York counties owe their creation. “Ontario County is known as the Mother of Western New York Counties because every county west of Seneca Lake was broken off one way or another from Ontario County,” longtime Ontario County Historian Preston Pierce explains.

For example, Steuben County was split off from Ontario County in 1796. Genesee County was split off in 1802. The others followed as new counties were created from these very large ones.

Among the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Senecas were the “Keepers of the Western Door.” They were forced by treaty to cede most of their ancestral land after fighting on the losing side with the British in the Revolutionary War.

A key date in the history of this area was the Treaty of Hartford in 1786, when New York and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts settled their competing claims to the land that is now New York State. The Seneca territory should have been considered a part of New York State, but the “pre-emptive” right to purchase the land from the Senecas went to Massachusetts.

Two year later, in 1788, Massachusetts agreed to sell its pre-emptive rights to six-million acres of Seneca land to Massachusetts land speculators Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham for $1,000,000. This became known as the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.

Settlers soon began arriving from Pennsylvania and New England, attracted in part because of the fertile land. However, due to financial difficulties of the original investors, much of the acquired land west of the Genesee River ended up being sold to Declaration of Independence signer and American Revolution financier Robert Morris. Morris in turn sold most of that land to the Holland Land Company (the historic land office stone building still stands in Batavia).

Of particular note in this “musical chairs” of land transactions, Geneva was originally incorrectly surveyed just outside the land purchase, and therefore Canandaigua became the county seat. 

Another important treaty is the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty (also known as the Pickering Treaty). It required the Seneca Nation to give up lands in Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to Peter Jemison, Historic Site Manager of Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor. “We were guaranteed the land from the Genesee River on the East to the southern shore of Lake Ontario on the North to the Niagara River and southern shore of Lake Erie on the west all the way to Presque Isle, Pennsylvania,” he explains. “Then using the border between Pennsylvania and New York, you have our southern border. The settlers were given access to our water ways within that territory.”

Jemison says another treaty in 1797 forced the Senecas to cede nearly all of their lands except for 10 reservations. “There were subsequent illegal land grabs obtained by the liberal use of whiskey at Geneseo to obtain the Treaty of Big Tree. And always there is a failure to pay what was promised in monetary terms,” he says.

The Canandaigua Treaty is observed every year in a ceremony on November 11, on the exact spot in front of the Ontario County courthouse where sachems and war chiefs of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy met with Timothy Pickering and other representatives of president George Washington 228 years ago.

Admittedly, this is just scratching the surface of this area’s history. But there is a place where you can experience this narrative in person.

The guardian of the centuries of Native American and European history, and the many notable achievements here, is the Ontario County Historical Society in Canandaigua. “One of our most important functions has been and continues to be the act of housing and caring for artifacts from around the county,” says Cody Grabhorn, the society’s executive director. “We have a diverse collection, including an Abraham Lincoln life mask, The Canandaigua Treaty and other Native American artifacts, the collection of Phelps papers, Peggy Stewart’s photograph collection and an extensive collection of clothing, to name a few.”

The OCHS collection currently holds over 12,000 objects, 30,000 photographic images, 30,000 archival items and 5,000 books and periodicals. But the stately building on North Main Street, designed in 1914 by noted architect Claude Bragdon as a museum, is running out of space. Grabhorn says the historical society is planning to build an addition to the existing 13,000-square foot building, which would allow them to display more of the collections and “have a great facility to care for them.”

History can excite the mind. The stories and artifacts from those who came before can inspire us. They can also create memories that last a lifetime.

John Winthrop, a retired broadcasting executive living in California, grew up in Canandaigua and has fond memories of visiting the Wood Library and its Native American collection, which at the time was housed in the historical museum. “The treasures it held, especially for a small boy, were nothing short of astounding,” Winthrop says. “There were treaties on deerskin, perfect arrowheads by the bushel, tomahawks and spears, robes, beads and feathered headdresses, plus maps, paintings and drawings everywhere. I loved the place and all it contained, and we visited it often.”

The Wood Library moved out of the museum to its present home in Canandaigua in 1972. The historical society museum does not currently have a permanent Native American exhibit.

Curator Wilma Townsend says, “Like many other museums, our many artifacts are safely stored in environmentally controlled, secured storage areas. We would love to have more artifacts on display, and will be able to do so once an addition is built.”

One such example I found fascinating is a large grinding stone, pre-1500, that was used to grind grains and seeds, but it is not currently on display.

Executive director Grabhorn says a goal of the expansion is to open the collection to space in the original building now utilized by museum staff.

The museum welcomes about 4,000 visitors every year. People might someday be able to access the collections online, but Grabhorn says that is tied to future funding. A capital campaign is in the works.

Ray Levato is a retired news reporter/anchor at WHEC-TV Ch. 10 in Rochester. 

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