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
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.