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Breaking Apart: The Road to 1861


The first generation succeeding the white settlement of western New York was plagued  with speculation concerning the British presence on the Niagara frontier and worry about whether they would again incite the much-feared Senecas to recoup their ancestral homeland. The War of 1812 settled that question for good. By the 1850s Yates County was the center of the young America's greatest grain-growing region, its prosperous economy boosted by the opening of the Erie Canal and new access to the world's markets. The rich soil that lay deep in the beautiful valleys had fostered generations of native Americans, and was enriching new thousands of immigrants ... of more than one race and religion.


The very name of Yates County's seat indicates that its settlers came there from different directions. Under the self-confidence continuously proclaimed nationally and in the local papers, the County's people were far from unanimous on the great questions of the day. 

One well-documented episode illustrates the undertow of passions that occasionally broke through the good-times surface: It occurred in about 1830, when a pair of slave-catchers came up from Virginia pursuing seven runaways who had made it as far as Eddytown, then the chief settlement in the southern part of the county, now the hamlet of Lakemont in the town of Starkey. 

Three of the fugitives were at Zenas Kelsey's farm, helping to get in the harvest, and a fourth was employed at Carmichael's Red Mill, at the south edge of Dundee. Local residents told the slave-catchers where these men could be found, and they were quickly rounded up. The action was observed by others, who knew that it was not unknown for free blacks to be kidnapped and sold into slavery; federal law stripped fugitive slaves of their rights under the Constitution, even that of due process. Men angry at their neighbors' betrayal of the fugitives gathered in the road to denounce people they had grown up with, whose defense was observance of the obnoxious law. Weapons were drawn, an incipient riot ensued, and the Southerners finally agreed, under considerable duress and perhaps realizing they had no choice, to stay the night and allow an investigation to be made. 

The challenge to the fugitives' arrest was led by Isaac Lanning, an influential Eddytown resident. While the slave-catchers were distracted, Lanning lent his fastest mare to his neighbor's son John Royce, with instructions to ride to Silas Spink's farm in Milo, where he knew the remaining three fugitives were working. Young Royce rode slowly and boldly away under the slave-catchers' noses, and as soon as he was out of sight he sped across country to Spink's farm northwest of Himrod. He found the runaways there and advised them to flee without delay to Penn Yan, where Henry Bradley would conceal them and help to spirit them out of the country. 

Meanwhile about 200 people had gathered at the tavern in Eddytown, angrily arguing both sides of the question. The next day a local justice found the slave-catchers' papers to be in order and they took the four fugitives they had in custody back South with them. They actually filed a lawsuit against Silas Spink for harboring the three men who got away, but it was never tried. 

Robert P. Bush of Branchport wrote many years after the Civil War settled the question for good: "I remember that a collection was taken up in the Presbyterian Church to furnish Sharps rifles to Northern emigrants to Kansas. My father was a station agent on the underground railroad, the depot was our horse barn, and I was the engineer and conductor. The train was a load of hay on which or rather in which the passengers were hidden. The next station was the cabin of the Rev. Mr. Logan in Geneva, the destination, Canada." 

The New Englanders in the County tended to favor the abolitionist, or at least anti-slavery, side of the question. Disagreement ran so deep that three of Penn Yan's religious congregations split. Abolitionist Presbyterians under the leadership of Ovid Minor started a Congregationalist Church and build a house of worship at the corner of Main and Chapel Streets. The new building was set back from Main Street, with trees planted in front. The trees were vandalized and the editor of the local paper received death threats when he remonstrated. The Methodist Episcopal Church also split, with the seceding group meeting for a time in the upper room of Levi Hoyt's tavern across Chapel Street from the Congregational Church. They then built their own church, the Wesleyan Meeting House at the corner of Main and Court Streets, a structure that still stands, the oldest building in Penn Yan built as a religious structure. The local Episcopal congregation managed to hang together until just before the country itself tore apart in 1861. The antislavery group began a new brick church on the corner of Main and Clinton Streets that became the home of the whole congregation after the dreadful fact of Civil War reconciled them. 

Nearly all of the County's small black population lived in Penn Yan. Some were descendants of slaves brought in to the area during the early settlement and freed when New York outlawed slavery; others were people who had escaped the South themselves. William Maxfield was a canal-boatman, escaped from slavery himself, who hid fugitives in huge casks on the dock in plain sight of their pursuers. John Thomas, another former runaway, ran an Underground Railroad station from his little house on Jackson Street. S. S. Hutchins was a frail elderly black man who openly kept a home for fugitives. In the years before the war these men literally risked their own freedom in a largely successful attempt to help their people. 

The Republican party was formed on the national level in 1855 and found many instant adherents locally. The county gave a majority of its votes to the party's first presidential candidate (John C. Fremont) in 1856. In Branchport, celebrating Republicans fired a cannon stationed on the hill next to the Presbyterian Church and then adjourned to a congratulatory banquet. Some michievous boys limbered up the gun, attached its caisson and started it down the steep hill. It got rolling too fast for them, narrowly missed the church, sped down the road through the hamlet and at last foundered in the nearby swamp. The local Democrats were also celebrating, since their candidate, John Buchanon, had actually won the national election. They rang the Universal Church bells, drew out the Republicans who had not already turned out to rescue the cannon, and a fierce general fist fight ensued. 

Over the course of the previous decade or so a great many Irish immigrants had entered the County. Not only were they foreign, they were Roman Catholic; and even furthermore they saw no reason not to enjoy a drink of whiskey on occasion. They were as a group regarded as illiterate drunken near-criminals, and no doubt reciprocated the natives' negative feelings wholeheartedly. Almost to a man, those who had become citizens voted Democratic. Their patriotism was questioned along with their morality and their personal habits. 

The fact remains that they enlisted with great enthusiasm when Lincoln called for volunteers after the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861. The County's collection of naturalization papers contains the original discharge papers of Irish soldiers who submitted them as declarations of their intent to become citizens. 

These soldiers were among the nearly 2000 men who went into the Army from Yates County. The first were sent off on May 9, calling themselves the Keuka Rifles, a company of the 33rd NY. As the train pulled out, the band played "The Girl I Left Behind Me."  No doubt most people present thought the war would end quickly. Of the hundred or so men in this company, 24 were wounded during their two-years service, 5 were killed in action and 7 others died. And they were only the first of many. 

Their motives were no doubt as complicated as the nation itself: the two Penn Yan papers were at opposite ends of the political spectrum and would have pretty well represented local sentiment. The Democrats, heavily Irish, saw the country that had harbored them disintegrating over an issue that could largely be painted as one of class warfare, rich plantation owners pitted against free labor. The Republicans, many of them Abolitionist reformers from a long new England tradition, saw a chance to strike back at the Slave Power. The boys and men who went to war must have held every possible variation and mixture of these much-discussed opinions. Some, without doubt, had no opinion at all but were swept up in the general enthusiasm and simply wanted to stay with their friends. The vast army assembling at the nation's capital was as checkered with differences as each little local company; it was the way the country was.