Historian's Office





Pennsylvanians and Yankees

Certainly the question asked most about Yates County's seat is how Penn Yan came by its unique and eccentric name. As far as is known, the first written mention was in 1809 when a traveler known to posterity only by his initials "T. C." wrote in his diary: "Wednesday, May 9th. Rain. In the afternoon to Rice's (eleven and a half miles) at Snell's town, nicknamed Pen Yang, from its being originally settled by Pennamites and Yankees in about equal proportions. This is a poor place and a very middling tavern." 

T. C. was several years behind the times in mentioning Snell's town, a name for the town of Benton that had been abandoned by 1805. But the tiny settlement's nickname, one that supplanted such other complimentary and uncomplimentary nomenclature as "Unionville," "Morristown," and "Pandemonium," very definitely stuck, even though the post office established there in 1801 was still called "Jerusalem" for a number of years yet to come. 

The first legal white inhabitants of Penn Yan (that is to say, those other than various fugitives from justice sheltered by the Indians; a group interesting in its own right) were apparently the sons-in-law of Benton settler George Wheeler, who owned Lot 37 in its entirety and split it into quarters in January 1792. The northeast and southwest quarters went to James Scofield, and the northwest and southeast quarters to Robert Chissom, the husbands respectively of Wheeler's daughters Margaret and Susannah. The Scofields lived for a time west of Sucker Brook near the modern Lakeview Cemetery, and the Wheelers in a house on the north side of a road between the settlement of the Universal Friend's people near Seneca Lake and the land office at the Ontario County seat of Canandaigua. 

Chissom opened a tavern on his property and would no doubt have become one of the growing settlement's leaders if not for his untimely death in 1806. He sold half his land -- one of the quarters his father-in-law had given him -- in 1794 to Lewis Birdsall, who built a sawmill on the outlet of the Crooked Lake, as Keuka was then called. Birdsall in turn sold the property to David Wagener, one of the Friends, a man who had been a prosperous farmer in Pennsylvania and meant to be just as prosperous in his new home. 

Wagener built a gristmill across the outlet from the sawmill, a building that stood until 1913 and whose stone foundations may still be seen beside the water's edge in the shadow of the Main Street bridge. This mill was one of at least four 18th-century gristmills built on the outlet, but since it was the farthest upstream Wagener was in a good position to control the flow of water to the others. The inexhaustible reservoir of the Crooked Lake provided the one ingredient sorely lacking in much of rest of the country: a good perennial millstream. 

Settlements sprang up around Chissom's tavern and then Ezra Rice's, and around the Wagener mills at the opposite ends of what became known eventually as Main Street. Wagener himself died in 1799 at the young age of 47, but his two sons inherited the mills. The elder, Abraham, is generally regarded as the "father" of Penn Yan. He was certainly the village's first leading businessman and was instrumental in its becoming the county seat in 1823. 

Robert Chissom's eldest daughter Catharine was born in 1793, the first white child born within the village's present limits. She gave an interview many decades later recounting how the village's name was chosen. 

She said that "a number of citizens met under a large pine tree near the foot of Main Street to agree upon a name for the village. They had a runlet of whiskey with them; they bored a hole in the tree, drove in a peg and after taking a drink round, hung up the runlet. Then business commenced." Several names were discussed and dismissed. Finally a local character named Philemon Baldwin, whose chief claim to fame otherwise was his fondness for puns, rose and said, "Gentlemen, if we cannot untie this knot we must cut it," and proposed the name Penn Yan, because the place was equally settled by Pennsylvanians and by Yankees from New England. Catharine Chissom Crane's narrative continues, "The proposition took immediately and the name was unanimously adopted. The runlet was handed down, and then as a matter of course all present partook...." 

It's clear from other descriptions of the place early in the 19th century that Penn Yan was even for the times an exceptionally rough place. Moonshine was distilled and consumed everywhere on the frontier in quantities that seem staggering today in light of the thin population, but this particular corner of the emerging New York countryside was over and over again described in particularly unflattering terms. As late as 1824, after the first Court House stood proudly on its site, the compiler of the New York gazetteer, Horatio Spafford Gates, remarked, "If any sound moralist has doubts of the fatal influence of 'whiskey-mills,' small grain distilleries, on the morals and habits of the people, he would do well to spend a few days in this section of the country." 

What's interesting is that Penn Yan is the seat of the first county in the state to go "dry," and where temperance, abolition and women's rights (among other radical ideas) found an early and strong foothold. Some of this may have been the teachings of the Universal Friend lingering on long after her death; and some perhaps rising from the same fertile ground that kindled the fervors associated with the Burnt-Over District. In any case, the contradiction raises a question or two that could yield some intriguing answers.