CAMBRIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY MEETINGS
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Cambria Historical Society
Newspaper Article on Cambria Museum
The Underground Railroad in Pekin
With all of the events surrounding the War of 1812 Bicentennial, let us not forget the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the role that Pekin played in the anti-slavery movement during the latter half of the 19th century. more...
The Evolution of Niagara County
by Vernette Genter
former Town of Cambria Historian
CAMBRIA - The 193rd anniversary of the designation of both Niagara County and the Town of Cambria, located in the unsettled western portion of 1808 New York State, was observed on March 11, 2001.
New York State had become, on July 26, 1788, the 11th of the 13 original states to ratify the United States Constitution, and although the eastern area was well established, Western New York was a vast, uncharted wilderness, known, of course, for the great Falls at Niagara, and for Fort Niagara, over which so much conflict had swirled for so many years, and where the French, English and American Flags had flown.
The French had built the “castle” at the Fort about 1726, and had also begun the portage around the cataracts to reach the upper Niagara River.
The earliest known occupants of the Niagara Region of Western New York were the Neuter Indians, who occupied this area in the early 1600's. A peaceful nation, they lived in villages on both sides of the Niagara River and as far east as the territory of present day Orleans County. In 1651, however, nearly the entire Neuter population was exterminated by the Senecas who then claimed the Neuters’ lands as their own.
Peter A. Porter, who wrote a “Brief History of Old Fort Niagara” and several other works on the history of the Niagara Frontier, gives this account of the varying ownership of the territory:
“The Neuter Nation to 1651; Indian Ownership (Seneca and Iroquois) 1651-1669; Indian Ownership, predominant French influence 1669-1725; Indian ownership, French occupation 1725-1759; Indian ownership, English occupation 1759-1783; American ownership, English occupation 1783-1796”.
During the period of 1772 until 1789, the Western New York area with varying border lines to the east, was known as “Six Nations Indian Country, Kingsland, German Flats and Whitestown”.
The district of West Genesee began to function as a separate unit in 1791, and became the Town of Northampton in 1797. It was officially formed April 7, 1801.
On March 30, 1802, Genesee County was formed and the area of the present Niagara County was included in the Town of Batavia in March, 1803.
Then, on March 11, 1808, Niagara County came into being, composed of and within the boundaries of our present day counties of Erie and Niagara. What is now Erie County contained two towns, Clarence and Willink.
The northern part of the county, in the exact dimensions of present day Niagara County, was named CAMBRIA.
Thus, the history of Niagara County and the Town of Cambria are synonymous, and although they were created on the same day, neither of them is presently contained within their original boundaries.
About 1799, lands in this territory of Western New York were opened for sale. A group of Amsterdam citizens purchased three and one-half million acres of it, and the area came to be known as the Holland Land Purchase.
Joseph Ellicott was commissioned to survey the land, lay it out in plots to be offered for sale at $2.75 per acre, to settlers who would be willing to come here to make their homes.
The first of these early pioneers was Philip Beach, who carried the mail on horseback during the late 1790's from Canandaigua to Batavia and then on to Fort Niagara.
His route was an Indian trail, known for many years as the Old Niagara Road, and was the only access to this part of Western New York.
A portion of his route in the Town of Lockport is still known as Old Niagara Road, and as it crosses the Towns of Cambria and Lewiston, it is the Ridge Road, Million Dollar Highway, the Honeymoon Trail or Route 104.
During his journeys with the mail, Beach often rested along the banks of the East Branch of 12-Mile Creek. The virgin forests afforded an endless supply of building materials to construct cabins, and the land was rich and fertile.
Beach considered the area an excellent homesite, so, in 1801, he returned to Rutland County, Vermont for his family, and they settled along the banks of the creek on what is now Ridge Road, and built a log cabin for their home.
About 1806, Beach sold his cabin and land to Joseph Hewitt, and located to the east on the Sparrow Sage farm for a time before moving again a little further east.
He has been joined soon after his own arrival to this area, by his brothers, Aaron, Jesse and John, who had been living in Scottsville, near Rochester, since they left Vermont. The Beaches were among Cambria’s first settlers, and their descendants are still local residents.
As for the log cabin by the creek, it was destined to become the first seat of government in the present Niagara County.
On March 11, 1808, the New York State Legislature enacted a law stating that “a portion of the County of Genesee, bounded on the east by the meridian line, to the north by Lake Ontario, to the west by the middle of the Niagara River, and to the south by the Cattaraugus Creek”, be made into a county named “Niagara”.
That port of the county lying north of the mainstream of the Tonawanda Creek was to be made into a town called “Cambria”. The two towns in the southern part of the county were named “Clarence” and “Willink”. “Cambria”, or “Cimbri”, is the medieval name of Wales.
Thus, what is now Niagara County was once the Town of Cambria, and the present Erie County was a part of the original Niagara County.
The first town meeting of the Town of Cambria was held on April 5, 1808, at the log cabin home of Joseph Hewitt, and he was elected the first Supervisor.
One of the premier pieces of legislation at that early meeting was the establishment of a bounty of $5.00 to be paid to anyone who could produce the skin and ears of a wolf.
The dense forests in this area were populated not only by wolves, who preyed on the settlers’ livestock, but with bears and rattlesnakes as well.
The Gray Wolf, or Canis Lupus, is now extinct in most of the contiguous United States, but they have come to life again in Cambria as the Town’s logo, and can be found on the red recycling boxes used by Town residents, and on the Town stationery.
The first Town meeting and election in Cambria marked the inception of the New England Town Meeting System in Niagara County. Town meetings from then on were held once a year on the first Tuesday of April. They were all-day affairs, preceded by party caucuses held a day or more in advance. By the use of this system, Town affairs were kept separate from county, state and national concerns.
On the meeting day, the presiding officers, three Justices of the Peace, and the Town Clerk, officially opened the polls at 9 a.m. Reports of the Supervisor, the Commissioner of Highways and the Overseer of the Poor were read and other business conducted. The bulk of Town affairs concerned the improvement of the highways and the repair and construction of bridges. Pools were closed at sunset and votes were counted to determine the winners of the poses. The chosen officers served for one year.
At the first Town meeting in 1808, officers elected were the Supervisor, Town Clerk, three Commissioners of Highways, three Assessors, a Collector, two Overseers of the Poor, four Constables, and two Pound Masters, one for the eastern district of Orangeport and one for the western district of Lewiston.
Also chosen were 16 Overseers of the Highways whose duty it was to inspect the fences of the property owners to be sure they were the required height of five and one-half feet.
Public officers in those early years of Niagara County served in many capacities. Even though they lived in all corners of what is now the county, settlers were not numerous, and all of them seemed willing to perform whatever duties were needed, possibly as Supervisor one year, Overseer of the Poor the next, and perhaps, a few years later, the Supervisor once again.
Soon after the 1808 election, Joseph Hewitt traded his property on the Ridge Road with William Howell, who had settled on the Mountain Road above Lewiston.
Taking advantage of the swift moving 12-Mile Creek on his property, Howell felled many of the trees in the virgin forests surrounding him, and built a sawmill powered by the rushing water.
He sawed the logs into planks, and in 1808, built the first clapboard house in Cambria. The Greek Revival style home still stands and has been converted to a two-family home, but was then Howell’s tavern, a popular resting spot for travelers.
The once rushing stream beside the house is now reduced to a trickle except for a short time in the spring when the spring thaws return it to a semblance of its former size.
Other settlers, hearing of the fine conditions for settlement in the new community of Cambria, left their homes in Rutland County, Vermont and other eastern locations, and came to this Town over the next few years.
Many of them settled along the Niagara Road (Ridge Road), cleared the wilderness and created their farms, and others continued to the west and settled along the Ridge in Lewiston.
Joseph Forsyth and his wife, Mary Ganson Forsyth, came to Cambria in 1805, and in 1806 opened a tavern in a log house at the east end of the Niagara Road. John replaced the cabin with a clapboard house in 1809 and operated the tavern there. He died in 1812, leaving his wife and four small children alone to face the dangers not only in the country, but of war as well.
The War of 1812
The War of 1812 broke out just as Cambria’s few settlers were getting established, clearing the wilderness, building their homes and planting their crops. Small businesses were opening at the Lewiston trading post and at Schlosser, now Niagara Falls, as well.
Most of these early settlers fled their new home for the safety of their former locations in Vermont, Canandaigua, or other settlements to the east.
Fighting became fierce between the British and American forces - - on the land, on Niagara River, and on Lakes Erie and Ontario. The Western New York area was the only spot in the United States that saw continuous fighting throughout the War of 1812.
American forces burned the Canadian village of Newark, now known as Niagara-On-The-Lake. In retaliation, a troop of British soldiers and hostile Indians captured Fort Niagara on December 19, 1813, then destroyed the settlements of Buffalo (then Manchester), Schlosser or Niagara Falls, Lewiston, Youngstown, and all of the settlements along the lake shore to the east, and burned every building and home on the Niagara Frontier.
They advanced east along the Niagara Road from Lewiston, burning every home and killing any settler who had been unable to escape.
No one was spared until the marauders reached the vicinity of the intersection of what are now Baer and Church Roads, where residents had stored a supply of ammunition in a log schoolhouse.
With the help of the friendly Tuscaroras from the Reservation, the settlers were able to repulse the raiders and send them scurrying back to Lewiston. As a result, Howell’s Tavern, east of the schoolhouse, was spared as was the Forsyth Tavern.
Mrs. Forsyth had continued to operate the tavern after her husband’s death, and it was here that Ezra Warren, a soldier and native of Vermont, was stationed during the war to arrest deserters.
After his discharge, he returned to Vermont, but unable to forget the widow Forsyth, he returned to Cambria to marry her. He became a prominent citizen of the area and proprietor of the tavern. Warrens Corners is named for him. The former tavern has been, for many years, the home of the Floyd Yousey family.
Mrs. Forsyth Warren rests in the family cemetery located on a knoll behind the house, between her two husbands and surrounded by the graves of their family members.
Another early lot tavern along the Niagara Road was operated by John Gould in 1809. He sold the property in 1811 and moved to Cambria Center where he became a prominent citizen.
William Molyneaux purchased the property and the tavern in 1812, and from then on, the area came to be known as Molyneaux Corners. The cabin also became the first post office in Cambria and William was the first postmaster.
In 1826, he built a fine hotel at the intersection of the Ridge and North Ridge Roads, and a brick Greek Revival style home on the south side of the ridge.
The Molyneaux Hotel was operated by William until his death in November, 1830, and by his sons until 1864. It then progressed through several other owners until it burned in 1923.
Subsequent post offices were opened at several other sites in Cambria, including one in a small house at the rear of the Burt Lafler General Store on North Ridge Road. His son, Huey Lafler and his wife, Florence, were the proprietors of the store for many years until their retirement in 1965, ending the store’s 75 years of service to the North Ridge community. Some years later, the building was torn down.
From a list printed in 1867, we have learned that five post offices were in operation in Cambria at that time. In addition to the North Ridge facility, others were operated at Cambria Center, Hickory Corners, Pekin and Warrens Corners. Today, post offices are plentiful in some of Niagara County’s towns, but in Cambria, none remains, and residents must rely on the Lockport, Sanborn or Ransomville postal departments to deliver their mail.
The division of the Town of Cambria began on June 1, 1812, when the eastern half of the Town was named Hartland. The remainder was divided into thirds, the northern portion called Porter, the southern part Schlosser (later Niagara), and Cambria was sandwiched between.
The first Town meeting in Hartland was held April 7, 1812, and Ephraim Waldo was elected the first Supervisor.
Schlosser held their meeting the same day, at the home of Jesse Field, and elected Silas Hopkins as their Supervisor.
Although Porter was formed June 1, 1812, it was April 11, 1815 before the residents got around to holding an election. Dexter Sprague was named Supervisor.
On April 5, 1817, Hartland was divided in half and the southern portion became Royalton. A year later, on April 7, 1818, they held their meeting at the home of Almond H. Millard, who was chosen as their first Supervisor.
Another division of the Town of Cambria, on February 27, 1818, resulted in the formation of Lewiston to the west. The first meeting there was held at the home of Sparrow Sage, who had moved west on the Ridge Road and resided at the north end of the Indian Hill Road. Rufus Spalding was elected the first Supervisor.
Porter was halved on April 10, 1818, and the eastern half became Wilson. This Town was organized at the home of David Porter on April 6, 1819, and Rueben Wilson, the first settler of this area named for him, was elected its first Supervisor.
On April 2, 1821, the seven Towns became a separate county, taking the name of Niagara. The county seat at Buffalo continued to serve the new Erie County, and it became necessary to find a new location for the Niagara County seat.
Lewiston, and the bustling community of Molyneaux Corners in Cambria, were among the contenders, but both were outdistanced in July, 1822, when the fast growing Village of Lockport, a result of the construction of the Erie Canal, was chosen as the Niagara County seat.
Continued divisions of the seven Towns resulted in the formation of Somerset on February 8, 1823 from the northern part of Hartland. Residents organized on April 1, 1823 at the home of Silas Mead.
The Town of Lockport was formed from Royalton and Cambria on February 2, 1824. The organizational meeting took place on April 1st of that year at the home of Michael Mann, and Daniel Washburn was elected Supervisor.
The Town of Newfane was made up of portions of Somerset, Hartland and Wilson on March 20, 1824, and at their organizational meeting held on April 6, at the home of James Van Horn, James Wisner, who had been the first Supervisor of Somerset until that area became a part of Newfane, was now elected as the first Supervisor of Newfane.
In 1816, the Town of Schlosser was named the Town of Niagara, and on April 16, 1827, Niagara was divided to form the Town of Pendleton to the east. At the organizational meeting held at the home of S.P. Clark, Lyman E. Thayer was named the first Supervisor.
Another division of the Town of Niagara was made on May 20, 1836 to form the Town of Wheatfield. The first meeting, held June 6 at the schoolhouse near the home of Seth Roberts, resulted in the election of N.M. Ward as Supervisor.
So, by 1836, the Town of Cambria had diminished to its present boundaries, the heart of Niagara County, surrounded by the 11 Towns taken from its original confines. The peaceful truck gardens, fruit orchards, grape vineyards, grain fields and dairy farms give no hint of the hardships of frontier living and the terrors of an uncivilized war endured by its earliest settlers who came to the wilderness to make their homes.