Settlement of Western New York

Military Tract in Wayne CountyThe Treaty of Paris of 1783, at the close of the Revolution recognized the independence of the United States from England. England agreed on the Mississippi River as the western boundary of the territory of the new nation.

Before actual settlement of Western New York could take place, two areas of conflict had to be resolved. The first involved conflicting claims of ownership by Massachusetts and New York. While this dispute continued, purchasers could not obtain valid land titles, and settlers could not move into the area. Each state claimed rights to the territory through charters granted to the Massachusetts Colony and the Colony of New York by English kings. It was not until 1786, when an agreement between the states was reached. It was called the Treaty of Hartford. The Treaty of Hartford stated that:

  • A survey would be undertaken to determine the Pre-Emption Line, which would begin at the 82nd milestone on the New York-Pennsylvania boundary line and run due north to Lake Ontario
  • Massachusetts would have the right to buy from the Indians and resell all territory west of the Pre-Emption
  • New York State would govern territory west of the Pre-Emption Line
  • New York State would own all territory east of the Pre-Emption Line

In 1788, with the Treaty of Hartford and survey complete, Massachusetts agreed to sell the whole tract (about 6,000,000 acres) to Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham. Phelps and Gorham were to pay $300,000 in Massachusetts currency (about $.03 an acre in today's currency). This still left the second obstacle to westward settlement to be solved - the Indian rights to this same territory which Massachusetts and New York now claimed. Phelps and Gorham were to deal directly with the Indians and settle the land claims to the whole area. Phelps and Gorham met with representatives of the Six Nations at Buffalo Creek in July 1788 and secured from the Indians approximately 2,600,000 acres for which they paid $5,000 and a perpetual annuity of $500. In general, this was the territory between the Pre-Emption Line and the Genesee River and included what are now the counties of Ontario, Steuben and Yates, and portions of Monroe, Livingston, Wayne, Alleghany and Schuyler. It is this tract which is referred to as the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.

All did not go well for Phelps and Gorham in their land speculation. Sales of property were slower than had been anticipated, and financial problems developed quickly. The market value of the Massachusetts securities in which Phelps and Gorham had agreed to make their payments had risen considerably. Massachusetts granted the purchasers an extension of time to make their first payment, but they were still unable to raise the money. To relieve themselves of part of their obligations, they turned back to Massachusetts approximately two-thirds of their purchase, which had not been freed form Indian claims. In 1790, they were forced to dispose of the remaining unsold land within the tract to Robert Morris. This was 1,250,000 acres, and Morris paid between eleven and twelve cents per acre. In 1791, Morris, through his agent in Europe, resold the tract to an association of English capitalists of which Sir William Pultney was a leading member. When Morris sold the property to the Pultney Estate, he agreed to have the Pre-Emption Line resurveyed. The "New Pre-Emption Line" ended at the center of Sodus Bay, while the "old" line had ended three miles west of the Bay. The wedge-shaped section lying between the two lines was called the "gore".

New York State also had to settle Indian claims in its territory to the east of the Pre-Emption Line in order to fulfill promises made to Revolutionary War soldiers. Promises of land grants had been a key to recruitment throughout the war. In 1788 and 1789, Indian title to approximately 1,500,000 acres, lying to the east of the Pre-Emption Line was settled and became the Military Tract. Included in this territory are the present counties of Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Cortland and parts of Oswego, Wayne, Schuyler and Tompkins.

This area was surveyed by Simeon DeWitt and divided into townships six miles square, each subdivided into 600 acre homesteads. Distribution of this land began early in 1791. The Military Tract consisted of 27 townships, most given classical names such as Cato, Galen, Scipio and Aurelius. In present day Wayne County, the towns of Galen and Savannah made up the military township of Galen. Parts of Wolcott and Butler were included in the military township of Sterling.