Tri-Counties Genealogy & History by Joyce M. Tice
Tri-County Communities
Chemung County NY

This Plaque in Horsehead at Hanover Square Commemorates 
the event that gave Horseheads its name

Article: Horseheads
Township: Town of Horseheads, Chemung County NY
Article by HHelen Mac Dougall Samson (1909-1995) 1974
Sent in by Walt Samson
Photographer - Joyce M. Tice - May 1999
Retyped by Debbie Hansen
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The title of the village and the town of Horseheads seems to be the only time in history that man’s ancient helper, the pack horse has been so honored. The contribution of the services of horses to the advance of civilization has been praised but it remained for the soldiers of General Sullivan’s Indian chasing soldiers to set in motion events that would lead to the actual naming of the locality, "Horseheads." It seems to be a name that is unique in the whole world and a postmark collector’s prize.

The story of General Sullivan’s expedition against the Indians is an often told story. In brief, it goes this way. In 1779, General Washington was concerned because the Indians were raiding remote settlements and as allies of the British were supplying them with much needed corn and other food from their gardens and orchards. He decided to end the trouble once and for all and planned on a three headed attack against the nations of New York State. One division under the Irishman from Boston, headed for northern Pennsylvania and southern New York with its aim set for the Indian towns of the Chemung valley and the lake country.

After a battle along the river under the hill where Sullivan’s monument commemorates the event, they built a fort at the juncture of the river and Newtown Creek and proceeded toward Catherine’s Town and the longhouse villages. The swamp proved a worse enemy than the red man but they were successful in breaking up the tribes and in cutting the orchards along the lake.

On the return trip, they found themselves with too many horses and the supplies were used up as were the poor horses after that journey through the mud and the steep hills. Near the present spot in Horseheads called Hanover Square (no one knows why) they decided to mercifully dispose of some of these horses. Some accounts say they killed 30 and other stories give 300 as the number. There must have been many as children of later settlers were said to have played games with the old skulls. The remaining Indians using the old trail that passed through the area had set up skulls along the trail for some reason known only to the Indians.

The place where the horses were killed came to be known as the place of the horses’ heads and then Horse Heads and finally Horseheads. The old spelling persisted for many years and is sometimes seen today on letters from abroad.

In 1830, the skulls were still to be seen. A soldier of the Revolution, William Mapes came to Big Flats on or about that date and told an interviewer his version of the incident.

Captain Mapes said that he had been present when the pack horses were killed; and also at the same time he had seen a broken cannon partly buried in the soft soil at the site. As far as anyone knows, no evidence of this cannon has been found. Tales have been told, too, of cannon lost by the army in the swamp near Watkins Glen and one was supposed to have fallen into the river near Waverly at the place still called "Cannon Hole." Sullivan was known to have had a few small cannons with him and used them to frighten rather than to kill the enemy.

Captain Mapes, and the title may have been an honorary one, lived to be 103 years of age. His discharge was given him directly from the hand of Washington and was written by him. However, Mr. Mapes, who was certainly a drum major in the army although he may not have been a captain, led an exciting life after he came back to settle in Big Flats. He figured prominently in election campaigns, especially in the "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too" election of 1840. He gathered his fellow veterans together and the old soldiers provided the enthusiasm and noise at meetings held around the county in the prevalent country "stands" or hotels. Captain Mapes presided and told his stories of the Indians he had killed and the surrender of Cornwallis, which he had witnessed. Perhaps, he included a mention of the "place of the Horses’ heads" which he also knew about.

Some years ago, an excavation turned a great number of ancient skulls not far from the center of town. Wishful thinking made them resemble very old horse remains and it was hoped that the famous skulls were still around. However, research revealed that a slaughter house had once stood on the spot and the heads resembled those of goats. The village was not always called Horseheads. It was incorporated as Fairport in 1837 because of the location on the Chemung Canal. People agitated for a return of the old name and it was restored in 1845. In 1885, the name was again changed. This time it was North Elmira but again, public indignation forced another change only a year later and the Village of Horseheads it has remained ever since.