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 THE PRE-EMPTION LINE: The survey that started it all


The drawing of the Pre-emption Line in 1788 lies at the very beginnings of western New York's post-Revolutionary settlement. Its history is complicated, but displays elements of all the competing interests that saw and coveted the vast new lands just then opening up. 

The story goes back to the 17th century and the Stuart kings of England. Charles I granted lands to Massachusetts Bay that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific; his son Charles II, when creating a new colony for his brother James, the Duke of York, granted similar lands to New York. The conflicting grants not only proved the two monarchs' poor knowledge of North American geography, but created problems when the new states began trying to rationalize their boundaries after the Revolution. 

Until 1783 and independence, all of what is now western New York was the home of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois confederacy. The Senecas had remained loyal to the crown, and their title had to be cleared. The British were still a strong presence on the Niagara frontier, and some of them were not above conspiring with the Indians to further their own interests. 

The conflicting claims of Massachusetts and New York were settled in 1787 by the Treaty of Hartford, and the following summer a team of surveyors set out to draw the eastern boundary of the new lands. Since Massachusetts had retained the pre-emption rights, that is to say the right to make a treaty with the Senecas, the boundary of the pre-emption lands was naturally called the Pre-emption Line. Everything west of it would be under the sovereignty of New York, once the Indians' title was pre-empted. 

The line was supposed to run due north from a point on the Pennsylvania border to the shore of Lake Ontario. The surveyors cut their way through the primeval forest, marking trees along the way so later another set of lines could be run west and then a grid of townships formed. They used a marine compass to take their bearings, and anyone who looks at a modern map can see that they strayed to the west. Discussion has continued to this day as to whether the line was drawn in the wrong place by accident or on purpose; but the fact is that the entire territory of the pre-emption lands, some 6 million acres, was laid out from this line. 

The Pre-emption Line was resurveyed in 1794, but by that time much of the land had already been sold. The triangular area between the two lines is known as the Gore, and it contained in 1790 (when the first federal census was taken) settlements at modern Geneva, City Hill and Watkins Glen that were left uncounted, apparently because the Ontario County man on the west went no farther than the line which marked his eastern boundary; and the Montgomery County man on the east knew that the line itself was in the wrong place and didn't feel like crossing all that wilderness to catch the few hundred inhabitants in between. 

Because of what amounted to a conspiracy between a group of Hudson Valley speculators and the British and Canadians at Fort Niagara, the syndicate that was trying to make a deal with the Senecas was forced to cede several townships in advance, plus the title to all the land in the Gore was clouded. Settlers were in some cases made to pay for their improvements several times over, a great deal of ill will was occasioned, and the maps of the towns in the first range west of the Pre-emption Line forever complicated.