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Chemung County NY
The Preemption Line

Plaque placed by Chemung County D.A.R.
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Photo by Joyce M. Tice 1999
Part Two of Preemption Line Articles


Complied by: Isabel Ridall
728 Robinson St.
Elmira, NY 14904
Date: November 1994
Unveiling of Massachusetts Pre-emption
Line Marker
Chemung and Corning, N.S.D.A.R.
November 17, 1933
Singing "America"
Led by Mrs. G. W. Cheney
Miss Edith Tuller Riggs,
Chaplain Chemung Chapter
Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag
Mrs. Orval T. Butler,
Regent Chemung Chapter
Address of Welcome
Mrs. James O. Sebring,
Regent Corning Chapter
Mrs. William Henry Clapp,
New York State Vice Regent
History of the Pre-emption Line Marker
Miss Clara Steele
Chairman Historical Research and
National Old Trail Roads Committees
Margaret Starr, Corning
Larry R. Bickford, Elmira
Singing—"America, the Beautiful"  

A Brief History of
"The Preemption Line"
"The Preemption Road"

Member Chemung County Historical Society

Those of us who live in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State often hear reference to "The preemption Road" or "The Preemption Line." However, it is surprising how few actually know the meaning of the term Preemption 1 or the location of the Road or Line—and of those who do, few have more than a hazy or incorrect idea as to their historic importance.

It is the purpose of this brief sketch to try and aid those interested in local history to better understand the meaning of these terms and to stimulate their desire to learn more about the early history of this beautiful section where we have our homes.

In the early days of American Colonization the Kings of England were very liberal in awarding their faithful followers with large grants of land.

As a result the Colonies of Massachusetts 2 and New York 3 had Charters under which they could both claim not only all Central and Western New York, but a strip of land running thru to the Pacific Ocean, or at least to the Mississippi. About the close of the Revolution, however, both Massachusetts and New York claimed the territory west of a line drawn south from the western extremity of Lake Ontario, to the Pennsylvania State border—this being the present Western boundary of Chautauqua County.

The two States met at Hartford in December 1786 to harmonize their claims. It was then and there agreed that Massachusetts would yield all claim to the land in New York east of a line to be drawn from the 82 Mile Stone 4 on the northern Pennsylvania state line, north along a transit Meridian to a point on Lake Ontario near Sodus Bay.

Also, that west of that line New York should have the political jurisdiction and sovereignty while Massachusetts should have the title, or fee-simple, of the land, subject to the Indian right of occupancy. 5 That is to say, the Indians could hold the land as long as they pleased, but were only allowed to sell to the State of Massachusetts or her assigns. The title, thus encumbered, was called "the preemption right", literally the right of first purchasing. It is for this reason that this line, running from the 82nd Mile Stone north across the sate to lake Ontario, a distance of about 85 miles, became known as the "Preemption Line."

In 1788 Massachusetts sold all her land in New York, west of this "Preemption Line", about 6,000,000 acres, to Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, acting on behalf of themselves and others, for one million dollars, in three equal annual installments, the purchasers being at liberty to pay in consolidated Securities of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, then worth about 20 cents on the dollar….the sale being subject of course to the Indian right of occupancy which the purchasers would have to satisfy.

Phelps arranged a meeting with the Indians at Niagara on July 5, 1788. It was then agreed that the Indians would sell their interest in the land bounded on the East by "The Preemption Line" and in the West by a line running roughly North and South thru Avon along the Genesee to the mouth of the Caneseraga and then South to the Pennsylvania border. This comprised about 2,600,000 acres and became known as "The Phelps and Gorham Purchase". The Indians settled for a sum equivalent to about ½ cent an acre.

Meanwhile the adoption of the Federal Constitution had caused a great rise in Massachusetts securities, so that Phelps and Gorham were unable to make payments they had agreed on. After much negotiating, Massachusetts released them from their contract to all the land except that to which they had extinguished the Indian title, to wit "The Phelps and Gorham Purchase" 2,600,000 acres. To that the State gave them a deed in full.

However, in order to pay for this reduced acreage Messrs. Phelps and Gorham were obliged to sell to Robert Morris6 some 1,267,569 acres of their 2,600,000 acres, adjacent to the Preemption Line for 12 ½ cent an acre.

On April 11, 1792 Robert Morris in turn, arranged for his London agents to sell this tract to a group of English capitalists, headed by Sir William Pultney for 25 cents an acre. Sir William promptly sent over Captain Charles Williamson as manager of this vast estate—the villages of Pultney, Pultneyville, Phelps, Gorham and Williamson are named after the participants of this transaction.

Robert Morris at the time of this sale and upon the insistence of captain Williamson caused a new survey of the Preemption Line to be made in 1792, a suspicion having arisen that all was not right.

It was found upon completing this survey (1792) that the original 1786 line had deviated from its true course, starting from the 82nd mile stone on the Pennsylvania border and running northward to the shore of Lake Ontario by some 2 miles to the West of where it should have reached the Lake. Whether it was due to direct fraud, faulty instruments or just too much hard liquor, we will probably never be quite certain.

With the original 1786 line of "False Line" running West of Geneva and the "True" or 1792 line to the east of Geneva it left a long narrow strip of land called "The Gore" of some 85,896 acres in between the surveys. This created quite a problem, as much of the land contained therein had already been sold by New York to individuals, thereby causing some confusion in conflicting land titles. The State of New York, however settled with Williamson by giving him other lands at the ratio of 3 or 6 acres for each acre in dispute.

After completing this deal, Robert Morris next contracted to buy from Massachusetts the balance of her original 6,000,000 acres still in hand, amounting to some 3,400,000 acres—in five tracts. The first of these tracts Morris in turn sold out in small parcels and the remaining four to several Americans who held them in trust for certain Holland Capitalists. This sale became known as "The Holland Purchase."

However, this sale was subject to Indian claims which Robert Morris was obliged to extinguish. It was not until 1797 that this could be accomplished. In September of that year a council was held at Geneseo at which time Morris settled with the Indians and gained title to all the remaining lands in New York west of "The Phelps and Gorham Purchase", except eleven reservations of various sizes which they retained. Morris thus acquired about 3,300,000 acres for which he paid the Indian ten thousand dollars or less that 1/3 of a cent an acre—it was said at the time that "The Indians must have wanted whiskey very badly."

In 1801 plots of "the Holland Purchase" were being offered at $2.75 per acre with 10%. Even at that price sales were slow as many who wished to buy had no money—their sole possessions being an ax and a gun. Shortly thereafter we note that tracks in "The Phelps and Gorham Purchase" were moving at $4 per acre.

This in brief is the story of "The Preemption Line" and what happened to the land in New York State once claimed by both Massachusetts and New York.

"The Preemption Road": The territory that we have just discussed was a vast wilderness in 1792 and one of the first things that had to be done was to build roads in order to pen up the land for settlement. As a road had already been considered along the original or "False Preemption Line", Captain Williamson gave orders to proceed with its construction. The fact that the road and line ran almost along the exact Meridian of Washington is probably what started the story that it was the original intention to continue the road direct to Washington, D.C. The writer, however, could find no direct proof that would indicate whether or not this was every seriously considered.

Today we can travel by auto on several sections of this old road along the first Preemption Line. The part that is in the best condition crosses Route 5 and 20 just about 1 mile west of Geneva, at the corner where stands the Lafayette Tree and Lafayette Inn. There is a road sign and a State Historical Marker at this crossing. This 18 mile pave section has a 12 mile straight away but near Bellona it curves to the West, for some unknown reason, leaving the old line for about 6 miles and reaches Route 54 just east of Penn Yan. Another straight 12 mile stretch of good gravel road can also be located crossing Route 14A just west of Dundee at the Diven Farm. It is marked with a state sign. This section crosses the Mud Lake Road out of Watkins Glen. There is no evidence that the Road ever ran very far south of this point and absolutely no indication on available maps to show that it ever reached the Pennsylvania line or Lake Ontario,

How to Locate the False and the True Preemption Lines

To locate the first "Preemption Line" take any good auto map of New York State that shows County Lines and draw a line North from the point where the Steuben and Chemung County lines meets the Pennsylvania State border (this is at the so-called 82nd mile stone previously mentioned) thru Oak Corners, near Geneva to the shore of Lake Ontario. This will give you the so-called "False Preemption Line" as projected in 1786.

To locate the second "Preemption Line", draw a line starting at the same point on the Pennsylvania border, north to Lake Ontario along the Steuben, Chemung County line and the eastern border of Ontario County. This will give you the so-called "True Preemption Line" as surveyed in 1792, the correctness of which has never been disputed.

At the writing, one of the original makers for the 1792 Survey still stands west of Big Flats, where the Steuben, Chemung County Line crosses old Route 17. The Corning Historical Society has placed a boulder there with the bronze plaque.{Note: This is shown in photo at top of page). 82nd Mile Stone is still standing North of Millerton, Pa. on the Pennsylvania State Line.


  1. "Preemption: Act or right of purchasing before others"—Webster.
  2. Charles I 1628 Charter to Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  3. Charles II 1664 Royal Patent to his brother James, Duke of York.
  4. 82nd mile stone was on the North Pennsylvania State line 82 miles West of the Delaware River
  5. "No provision whatever was made in the treaty of peace for the Indian Allies of Gt. Britain (1783)" "The U.S. however treated them with moderation and even recognized them as owners of all land over which they had ranged before the Revolution"
  6. Robert Morris was a signer of the Declaration of Independence

Clark Wilcox—Chemung County Historian
Maps in the files of the Chemung County Historical Society
History of Yates County—S. C. Cleveland—1873
Centennial History Erie Co.—C. Johnson—1876
History of Ontario Co.—G. S. Conover—1883

Early map (about 1788) showing the new township of Chemung, the forerunner of Chemung County. It was then part of Tioga County. Land was sold to settlers at 18 pence an acre. Indian title to the land was cleared in 1791…Note the original "false" Preemption Line.

Click Here for Larger Image


Teeter, Harpending, Fox and Swartwood
Lowell H. Teeter
Asbury H. Hapending
521-529 Robinson Building
Mandeville, Buck, Teter and Harpending
De Forest E. Fox
Elmira, NY
Joseph C. Buck
Zip 14902
David L. Teeter
Arlington R. Gleckner    
M. Joseph Danaher    
H. Peter Harpending    
October 25, 1967

Mrs. Kathryn B. Marshall, Secretary
Chemung County Historical Society, Inc.
304 William Street
Elmira, New York 14901

Dear Mrs. Marshall:

This is in appreciation of your note on behalf of the Historical Society relative to the paper on the "History of Pre-emption Line and Road".

I am not sure whether the copy has on it the identity of the author. My sister, Mrs. June Kelly, post office address R. R. 1, Rock Stream, N.Y., prepared this and I would not want to take credit for what she has done. This letter can be attached to the paper or a notation made giving Mrs. Kelly the credit due her. We are proud of the job she did.

Sincerely yours,

(signed by A.H. Harpending)


(Handwritten in top right hand corner – June Kelly – 2/13/1957)
Note from Joyce M. Tice - This is June HARPENDING Kelly, stepdaughter and close friend of my Aunt Freda MILLER Harpending
Photo shows June Harpending, author of the following article, second from left with her sister Sally and Gerald and Bob Miller. They were brothers of their stepmother Freda Miller "Harpending" and uncles of Joyce M.Tice


It was 116 years after Columbus discovered America before the Europeans made a permanent stand in America. The advent of Champlain, the founding of Quebec, from which events we date French colonization in America, was in 1608. One year previous, in 1607, an English expedition had entered the Chesapeake Bay and founded Jamestown, the oldest English settlement in America. In 1609, Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the employ of the East India Co. of Holland, entered the bay of the river that bears his name, and sailed up the river as far as Albany. In 1621, a permanent Dutch colonization commenced at New York and Albany, and a year previous to this, 1620, the first English colonist commenced the permanent occupancy of New England at Plymouth, Western New York, from the arrival of Champlain until 1759—for almost a century and a half—formed a portion of French Canada. This was surrendered to England in 1760. From the end of French domain in New York, to the close of the Revolution, constituted a period of 24 years. Little of historical interest had occurred previous to the Revolution. Settlements made the advance of but a day’s walk and occupancy in any form, west of the lower valley of the Mohawk, was but the fortresses of Oswego and Niagara, and small English trading establishments that had succeeded those of the French.

At the time of the Revolutionary War, the young braves of the Indians on the frontier, influenced by the British, began to fall upon outlying settlements, and render other aid to the British, until the wrath of the colonial government could not longer be suppressed. Gen. John Sullivan was then ordered to invade the Seneca country and destroy every form of property and food, utterly devastating the Indian lands. Sullivan’s expedition, in the year of 1779, has been described many times and varying estimates of its value given. That it was a decisive campaign there can be no doubt. It proved the power of American arms over the Iroquois Confederacy; it warned the British that the "provincials" were able to cope with military problems, and it put an end to border depredations by the Senecas.

A detachment of 400 riflemen of the Sullivan expedition was sent from Kanandesaga, or as now called, Geneva, to the Kashong Creek where they destroyed a large Indian village. This is the only recorded vestige of war that ever occurred on the soil of Yates County. Sullivan’s expedition revealed the Genesee Country to the white man and displayed it as a paradise of fertility and productiveness. It opened up a vast domain of highly desirable land, and Sullivan’s men never forgot it, but, when the war was over, clamored to return that they might build homes and rear mills and towns.

In the Treaty of Peace of 1783, which ended the Revolutionary War, England, forgetful of her obligations to the Six Nations, most of whom had served her faithfully, as the devastated frontier settlements fully attested, made no provisions for her Allies, the Indians, but left them to the mercy or discretion of those against whom they had carried on a long and sanguinary warfare. Though Washington had directed the campaign of Sullivan, he was moved with pity for these deluded people, so grievously deceived by British agents of low caliber. To measure out what they still should hold, and to bring about terms of peace, the Treaty of Fort Stanwix was consummated in 1784. It was the first treaty with an Indian tribe made by the United States of America. Though it took from them large slices of their western territory and fixed a western boundary, the Seneca’s and their allies signed the treaty.

The men of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and eastern New York State, who had made up the army of Sullivan’s March, had carried back home absorbing stories of the land of promise they had penetrated and alluring visions of what might be their part in its development. But for years following there was no one of whom they could legally buy the newly discovered lands.

As early as 1628, Charles I of England had granted to the colony of Massachusetts Bay a charter that covered all territory roughly between 40 and 44 degrees, extending from the Atlantic Ocean clear across the continent and including, of course, the whole of Western New York. In 1664 Charles II of England granted to his brother, James, Duke of York, large possessions, which, with additions made later, covered the country from the Connecticut River westward to the Pacific. These overlapping and conflicting grants were in existence following the recognition of the independence of the United States and were continued between the commonwealths of New York and Massachusetts.

At the Hartford convention in 1786, the commissioners of the two states, New York and Massachusetts, while confirming New York’s sovereignty over its territory, ceded to Massachusetts title to the land in the state lying west of the meridian line extending north from the 82nd mile stone on the Pennsylvania boundary through Seneca Lake to Lake Ontario. The 82nd milestone was on the North Pennsylvania State line, 82 miles west of the Delaware River, the eastern boundary of the state of Pennsylvania. Thus Massachusetts was granted the preemptive*(see below) right of securing releases of the soil from the Indians.

The remoteness of these lands deemed it expedient that Massachusetts sell them to replenish her treasury, and in 1787 she began casting about for a sale of her territory; but at this juncture there appeared an element of disturbance that not only threatened trouble for Massachusetts’ interest, but threatened to disrupt the very institutions of the state of New York. This disturbance was caused by the unlawful operations of the New York Genesee Company and its auxiliary association, the Niagara Genesee Company. The New York Genesee Company was comprised of wealthy persons, most of whom resided in the Hudson River region, and who became members of the association purely for purposes of speculation. Most prominent of whom were John Livingston, Major Peter Schuyler, Dr. Caleb Benton and Ezekial Gilbert. The membership of the Niagara Genesee Company was comprised chiefly of residents of Canada with a certain few from this state; but almost without exception, those who composed the latter company were persons who had in some manner become acquainted with the Indians and who were able to influence them almost at will.

The constitution of the State of New York forbade the purchase of the fee of lands, also termed releases of the soil, from the Indians by individuals; that *"Preemption" --Act or right of purchasing before others, the right being to the State alone, and this right was ceded to Massachusetts. The object of the New York Genesee Company was the acquisition of lands from the Indians, not by purchase, but by obtaining leases of the lands for long period of years. Through the influence of the Niagara Genesee Company there was executed a lease with the chiefs of the Six Nations of Indians at Kandesaga in 1787 on all of their lands situate in the State of New York. The consideration was the annual sum of 2,000 Spanish milled dollars and a promise of a bonus of $20,000.

Governor Clinton, when informed of this scheme to deprive Massachusetts of its landed possessions in westerly New York, took immediate steps to inform the Indians of the fact that they had been duped, and the Legislature, at its next session, declared the so-called leases to be in effect purchases and, therefore, entirely illegal, and empowered the governor to use force if necessary to prevent consummation of the plot.

There were many who were eager to purchase these lands from Massachusetts, among whom were Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham. Each of these men at first acted to purchase 1,000,000 acres of the tract independently, but later an association of purchasers was formed and in 1788 proposed to buy from the state the preemption tract or at least 1,000,000 acres of it at the price offered by Gorham, one and sixpence currency per acre. While the question relative to the sale of land was pending, and prior to the April meeting of the legislature, other competitors were appearing, anxious to make purchases on the preemption tract. But all parties united with the Phelps and Gorham association that there may be no strife nor any clash of interest over the purchase of the tract. Therefore, Phelps and Gorham Proposed to the state of Massachusetts to buy all the tract ceded to her by New York State, about 6,000,000 acres, at the agreed price of ? 300,000 payable in Massachusetts paper currency, which, at that time was greatly depreciated in value.

Nathaniel Gorham was a citizen of Massachusetts, and had taken an active part in public events preceding the Revolution. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress and was made president of that body in 1786. He was an influential member of the convention that framed the national constitution and exerted great influence in securing its ratification by Massachusetts. His interests in the Genesee Country were represented by his son, Nathaniel Gorham, Jr., who settled in Canandaigua in 1789, and acted as the agent of his father in the immediate management of the company’s business. Nathaniel Gorham, Sr., died in Massachusetts in 1796.

Oliver Phelps was a native of Connecticut. He served in the commissary department of the colonial army, and settling in Massachusetts at the close of the Revolution, held several offices in the government. He moved to Canandaigua in 1802, and, although disappointed n the failure of the land enterprise to yield the expected returns, he had a large part in the development of the region. He served as first judge of Ontario County from the date of its organization, and he represented the western district of the state in the Ninth Congress. Oliver Phelps, while providing supplies for Washington’s army, had been brought into touch with Robert Morris, to whom belongs the credit for financing the Revolutionary War, and, at the same time, became acquainted with Major Adam Hoops, who had served as an aid to General Sullivan in his expedition against the Indians. The information Mr. Phelps gained from acquaintance with an officer who had visited the Genesee Country inspired him with the conviction that fortunes were waiting for those who would adventure in Genesee lands. In a few years after the settlement of the Genesee Country was fairly under way, Phelps was regarded as one of the most successful and wealthy of all the many founders of new settlements of that period. In1795, he regarded himself as worth a million dollars. However a later land venture with the Georgia Land Co. soon obliged him to execute mortgages, and I believe the state of his finances was considerably reversed. He died at Canandaigua in 1809 at the age of 60 years.

Phelps and Gorham, following the collapse of the scheme of the New York Genesee Company, in order to secure their good will and cooperation in negotiating releases from the Indians, gave the Company certain limited grants of lands and other favors of comparatively small value. The five townships deeded by Phelps and Gorham to Dr. Caleb Benton, who was a member of the above mentioned Company, three of which Barrington, Milo and Benton, are now embraced in Yates County, were also ceded as part of this compromise.

The shareholders in the Phelps and Gorham Company, had appointed General Israel Chapin as their representative to explore the country, Oliver Phelps to be general agent with authority to secure releases from the Indians, Nathaniel Gorham to negotiate with the New York authorities for running the east boundary line, or the Preemption Line, and William Walker to act as the local agent of sales.

Oliver Phelps found himself charged with a more difficult and doubtful undertaking than he at first anticipated. He found the lessees, that is the New York Genesee Company, in constructive if not in actual possession, and he found, too, that all his endeavors at negotiations with the Indians must prove fruitless, as the lessee company exercised a controlling influence over the natives and all others upon whom he had relied for assistance in obtaining the title from the Indians. Realizing that a compromise of some sort must be made, he visited the principal lessees at Hudson and the lessees agreed to call a council of the Indians at Kanandesaga, make a surrender of their lease, and take a deed of cession from the sachems and authorized agents of the tribes, the grantees in the deed to be Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, for themselves and their associates. On arriving at Kanandesaga, Mr. Phelps learned that another and more important gathering under the auspices of one of the outlawed land companies was being held at Buffalo Creek. He at once proceeded to the point and, by promises of a share in the land to be acquired, secured the aid of representative of the companies in negotiating a treaty.

The treaty conveyed to the Phelps and Gorham Company not all the territory which New York had ceded, but all that the Indians would let them have, estimated at 2,600,000 acres. For this tract the purchasers agreed to pay $5,000 and an annuity of $500 forever.

The lands ceded by the Indians at the Buffalo Creek council and afterwards known as the Phelps and Gorham Purchase, compromised the tract described as follows: "bounded on the east by "The Preemption Line" and in the west by a line running roughly North and South thru Avon along the Genesee River to the mouth of the Caneseraga and then South to the Pennsylvania border.

Immediately after the treaty with the Indians, Mr. Phelps set Colonel Hugh Maxwell at work to run the so-called preemption line, which was to define the eastern boundary of the purchase. As the Lessee Company expected to have the land that might lie between the Military Tract and the Massachusetts Lands, they took a lively interest in this survey. So two surveyors were employed; the above mentioned by Phelps and Gorham and another one on the part of the lessees, a Mr. Jenkins. These surveyors started from a point on the Pennsylvania line and proceeded together until the provisions were nearly exhausted. When within about twenty miles of Geneva, and a few miles below Hopetown, near to the creek by which the Seneca Lake receives the waters of the Crooked Lake, one of the surveyors, Maxwell, went to Geneva for supplies. Jenkins, meanwhile, continued surveying the line; and it was while he was thus alone that a slight jog occurred in the line, the prolongation of which northward, through Geneva, on the east side of the boundary; that side whereon it was most agreeable to Jenkins it should continue. Maxwell returned and resumed the survey when within about ten miles of Geneva, and unconscious of the deviation which had occurred in his absence, he aided in running the boundary so that it passed somewhat westward of Geneva, where a small settlement of whites had been established and where Mr. Phelps had planned to locate his headquarters. As a consequence of this error, Agent Walker received instructions from Mr. Phelps that we was to make "Ye Outlet of Kennadaigua Lake" his headquarters, and accordingly was laid the foundation of what the purchasers planned to make the metropolis of western New York.

The ruling spirits of the lessee company were very anxious to retain and control Geneva, which they considered to be a very desirable acquisition, because at the time, Geneva, or Kanandesaga, was a village some importance, and was the chief seat of operations in the whole Genesee Country. Thus this erroneous survey served to throw the coveted district without the Massachusetts tract and to bring within the territory claimed by the lessees under their contract or lease with the Indians. This fraud was not discovered until some years afterwards, and not until the territory had been surveyed into townships and sold to diverse purchasers.

Soon after the surveying of the Preemption Line, the whole purchase was surveyed into Ranges and townships, under the charge of Hugh Maxwell, who began the work in 1788 and completed it in 1789. the Ranges were 6 miles wide running north and south, and the Townships six miles square, there being seven long ranges, each six miles in width and extending from Pennsylvania to Lake Ontario. There were also 2 or 3 short ranges at the northwest corner of the tract. The ranges were numbered from one upward, beginning with No. 1 of the eastern side, the boundary there being the old preemption line; and each range was divided into townships six miles square, numbered in each range from one at the Pennsylvania line to 14 at Lake Ontario.

In 1789, Phelps and Gorham found themselves to be in a substantially embarrassed financial condition. The expenses incurred in surveying the tract, making payments to the Indians, and satisfying the demands of persons who assisted in bringing about a peaceful settlement of difficulties, had been enormous. They had, by this time, succeeded in disposing of about half of their vast estate, but the purchasers were in the main persons who held shares or stocks in the association, and who had accepted town grants or deeds in exchange for their interests in the company.

The payment to be made to Massachusetts for the tract was now due. The adoption of the Federal Constitution had caused a great rise in Massachusetts securities, so that Phelps and Gorham were unable to make payment as they had agreed. After much negotiating, Massachusetts released them from their contract to all land except that to which they had extinguished the Indian title. In 1790 Phelps and Gorham sold to Robert Morris of Philadelphia, all the lands they had purchased under the preemption right except such townships as had already been sold, of which there were about fifty. The consideration was $75,000, for about 1,200,000 acres adjacent to the preemption line.

Mr. Morris had no sooner become fully possessed of his new purchase than he proceeded to investigate its character and condition, and he soon discovered that a gross fraud had been practiced in running the east line. He then engaged Adam Hoopes to explore the country and re-survey the east boundary line to determine the accuracy of the original line. But before anything had been done in this matter, Mr. Morris’s agent in England sold the tract to a party of English capitalists of which Sir William Pultney was a member. The negotiations were had with Charles Williamson, who acted in the capacity of agent for the English capitalists and received the deeds in his won name, which the actual purchasers, being aliens, could not hold. The consideration paid Mr. Morris about $170,000. Mr. Morris’s ownership was quite brief, but he more than doubled his money.

Mr. Morris had agreed with his grantees that he would cause to be made an accurate survey of the preemption line, and therefore in 1792 Major Hoopes was directed to proceed with the survey, assisted by Andrew, Joseph and Benjamin Ellicott. This party of competent and trustworthy surveyors commenced at precisely the same point as had the previous surveyors, at the 82nd mile stone in Pennsylvania line, but the new men at once discovered that the original line began bearing to the westward at the very outset, and so continued with occasional variations until Sodus Bay was reached. The greatest variation was over 2 miles, at a point 81 miles from the place of beginning. Throughout the towns that now form a part of Yates County, the line was shown to be from one and one half to two and one half miles farther west than it should have been.

The discovery worked to the great disadvantage of the State which had sold and granted to various individuals all the lands lying between the old preemption line and Seneca Lake, and many of the purchasers and grantees under these sales were in possession. It was therefore the State’s duty to clear the titles. In many cases Mr. Williamson confirmed the State’ titles and received compensation therefore from the State by grants of lands in other localities from the public lands, while in other instances the governor appeased the claimants by grants of public lands, but generally was compelled to give from 3 to 6 acres for each one possessed by the person found to be on the preemption tract.

The new preemption line touched the waters of Seneca Lake at a point about 2 miles north of the village of Dresden, and continued in the lake the remainder of its length. The result of the survey showed Geneva to be wholly within the Massachusetts district and therefore a part of the Phelps and Gorham purchase. The strip of land lying between the 2 preemption lines has always been called "The Gore", and the "False" and "New" preemption lines form the west and east boundaries of the village of Dundee.

In 1790 a national census was taken. A return of the Deputy Marshall of New York shows that there were 1477 residents for the whole region of Seneca Lake, then known as the Genesee Country and compromised in Ontario County. 388 people resided then in what is now Yates County. The Friends Settlement had a population of 260 and was at that time much the largest and most important community west of Seneca Lake, and even west of Fort Stanwix and the Susquehanna River.

Land Development in Western New York Prior to 1800
by: A. G. Hilbert – 1963

Having established the Pre-emption Line, Massachusetts, 2 years later, sold this right to a company formed by Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham for 300,000 pounds (about 1 million dollars) payable in three equal installments. Payments were to be made in Massachusetts Securities at face value. This was quite a deal as these securities had a market value of 20 cents on the dollar at the time.

At a meeting with the Indians at Niagara the Phelps-Gorham interests persuaded the Indians to sell all the land west of the Pre-emption line to a line running approximately north and south in the vicinity of Avon and Mt. Morris (2,600,000 acres) for $5000.00 plus $500.00 per year forever. This actually turned out to be about ½ cent per acre.

In the meantime however, the adoption of the Federal Constitution had guaranteed the face value of the Massachusetts Securities so the Phelps-Gorham Company could not meet its obligations. After much legal and financial maneuvering Massachusetts finally gave to the Company a clear title to the lands already purchased but retained the right to the un-purchased western lands. In order to pay for this clear title the Phelps-Gorham Company sold for 12 ½ cents per acre almost half or 1,200,000 acres adjacent to the Pre-emption Line to Robert Morris one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He in turn in 1792 sold this land to some English Capitalists headed by sir William Pultney for 26 ½ cents per acre. At the time of this sale a suspicion arose that the original line had not been correctly surveyed so both parties agreed to a re-survey. This second survey proved that the original line was in error. It was about 2 degrees west of true north and had created a controversial "Gore" which at Geneva was about 2 ½ miles wide. In all it covered an area of almost 140 square miles, an area of about 1/3 the size of Chemung County. This created quite a legal problem as much of this land had in good faith already been granted to former soldiers as part of the Military Tract by the State of New York. Morris having sold off this piece contracted for the pre-emption rights of the remaining 3,400,000 acres of Massachusetts land and in 1897 was able to buy for about 1/3 cent per acre all but 100,000 acres which were allocated as Indian reservations. It was said at the time "The Indians must have wanted whiskey very badly". Morris then resold this land to some Dutch capitalists, the sale then becoming known as the "Holland Purchase".

Land in the Holland Purchase was resold for $2.75 per acre (10% down) while the land in the Phelps-Gorham purchase was priced as high as $4.00. Land however moved slowly and most purchasers had little beyond an axe and a gun.

One would judge by the foregoing prices that tremendous fortunes were made in this land speculation but as in the stock market Dame Fortune does not smile on all. Robert Morris and Pultney groups were convinced by their manager Charles Williamson to resell their land by the "Hothouse Development System". This consisted of planning and building complete settlements including roads and essential buildings such as stores, taverns and mills. Bath, Geneva, Lyons, Canandaigua and Sodus Point were examples of this system.

The lack of hard cash however eventually caused the bankruptcy of Robert Morris. His company in 10 years spent over one million dollars and collected only $146,000. Other speculators such as Wadsworth and Gooler more readily sold their lands for down payments of as low as 5% with long term financing. They did not follow the Hothouse System and having in general more desirable land soon amassed their well known fortunes.

Just prior to the establishment of the first line in 1787, a group of Canadian who had fought with the Indians against the Colonials conjured a scheme to get the western lands for themselves. Known as the Leasee Company headed by a Mr. John Livingston and Col. John Butler, they obtained from the Seneca’s a 999 year lease to all their remaining lands (except reservations) for the sum of $20,000, plus $2,000 per year. They knew that the New York State Law prohibited the sale of Indian Lands to individuals but hoped to induce the legislature into granting them the title by legalizing the lease. This was refused by the state so they tried another scheme. They secured from the Seneca Indians an agreement to grant the title of all their lands to the west to New York State if New York State would in turn pay to Col. Butler and Company all their expenses and grant them title to ½ of the land. By this bold scheme they hoped to get between 4 and 5 million acres for little or nothing. This offer too, was rejected by the Sate.

The establishment of the Pre-emption Line destroyed the hopes of this group to the western lands and New York State destroyed the balance by making the eastern area into the so-called Military Tract.

Few of the colonials who fought for us in our War of Independence received hard cash for their efforts. Most were paid off in worthless dollars called Continentals but all were promised a bounty of land. New York State had set aside 1 ½ million acres east of the Pre-emption Line for this purpose. The soldiers who had followed Gen. Sullivan through our part of the state soon forgot the horror and sudden death part of frontier life and remembered only the rolling forested hills, the fertile valleys and the scenic beauties of our Finger Lakes and the Genesee country. Many flocked to this area to settle and even buy up the claims of those who did not care to come.

Land was apportioned by rank, a common soldier received 500 acres, a captain 1200 acres, a Major 200 acres and on up to 5500 acres for Major General. Townships of 94 plots set up and the land was distributed by lot.

Many who arrived in the area to the north of us found their allotments complicated not only by squatters but by honest settlers who had purchased land from the unscrupulous Canadian "Leasee" company or by the fact that their allotments were within the disputed "Gore". Bitter personal and legal fights resulted and it wasn’t until 1797 when the State set up a court of Land Commissioners that most of these problems were resolved.

The Pre-Emption Line – Fraud, Error or Hard Liquor
Historical Talk of Central New York
Alfred G. Hilbert
New York State Electric and Gas Corporation
Speakers Club

Elmira, N.Y.
June 1965

The Pre-Emption Line – Fraud, Error, or Hard Liquor

As Supervisor of Property Records for the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation, I work with records that show many locations with fascinating names—names that suggest a story in their origin. Along with such road names as Sing, Sing Road, Skunk Ranch Road, Power House Road and Forty Dollar Road, I became interested in the Pre-Emption Road. First I looked up the work in the dictionary. "Pre-Emption"—"Act or Right of purchasing before others." This definition still did not satisfy my curiosity; so I investigated further and soon found myself involved in an early phase of our local history for geographically the Pre-emption Road followed the Pre-emption line—a line due north from the Pennsylvania border near Millerton which marked the boundary between New York and the western land rights of Massachusetts.

Not long ago our County Clerk was asked by a school group to give a talk on the history of Chemung County. During the course of his talk he mentioned the Pre-Emption Line, its location and its connection with Massachusetts. After the talk a teacher hurried up to him, thanked him profusely and said, "You have helped eliminate the skeleton in our family closet". One of my ancestors, an early settler in the area just east of Penn Yan had in his diary such entries as I "I arose early this morning and took a walk to Massachusetts before breakfast" and "Today I cut wood in Massachusetts". We all thought he must have been crazy!

Were I to ask you where you live, you would all probably answer New York State. But will you, like the school teacher, think me as crazy as her ancestor, if I now tell you that but for the constant changes in history, it might have been Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New France, New Netherlands or even an unnamed state? To show how this is possible let me go back to the early settlement days of our colonies.

After some superficial exploration of our eastern coastline by daring mariners of the time, several European monarchs made simultaneous and overlapping claims to the new lands. They made generous land grants to favored individuals or merchant groups for the settlement and development of these territories. Their grants were always specifically defined as to north and south boundaries but very gauge when it came to western limits. Let us bear in mind we today live just north of the 42nd parallel which happens to be the present New York-Pennsylvania border.

In 1604 Henry of Navarre, King of France, granted to a favorite, all the lands north of the 40th parallel (approximately Philadelphia) and called it New France. Two years later James I of England granted to the Plymouth Company, this same area which he called North Virginia. Thus our locality was already claimed by both England and France. In 1621 the Dutch entered the picture by settling along the Connecticut and Hudson rivers, also claiming the lands to the west. Later Charles I divided North Virginia by granting the territory north of the 42nd parallel to the Massachusetts Bay Colony’ and the area between the 41st and 42nd parallel to the Duke of Warwick both grants extending westward to the "South Sea".

In 1662 Charles II created the Connecticut Colony which took in the Warwick grant and westward for 3000 miles. Then he really "muddied the waters" by granting to his brother the Duke of York all the land between the Connecticut and Delaware Rivers and westward, completely ignoring the fact that this area was already included in the Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut grants and had been settled by the Dutch many years before. The Dutch claims, we know, were liquidated by war and treaty, but the other claims remained unsettled in spite of vigorous protests by Massachusetts and Connecticut.

In 1681 our respected ancestor, William Penn, was granted a specific tract of land west of the Delaware River for 5° of longitude, but extending northward to the 43rd parallel (about Syracuse). This grant infringed again not only on the claims of Massachusetts and Connecticut but on those of New York. This conflict existed for over 90 years, until in 1774 Pennsylvania re-drew its northern line to its present location on the 42nd parallel, leaving our area now claimed only by New York and Massachusetts.

After the war, in 1786, a special convention to settle these claims was held in Hartford, Connecticut. The constitution of New York State forbade the sale of Indian lands to individuals. Sales could be only made to state (Pre-emption). In return for clarification of the eastern boundary of New York, Massachusetts was granted the Pre-emption right to approximately 6 million acres of land in western New York. This meant that New York would eventually have the political jurisdiction and sovereignty over the area, but Massachusetts was to have the right to the first purchase of land from the Indians. In other words, the Indians could hold the land as long as they pleased but could sell it only to Massachusetts or to people designated by Massachusetts. As soon as Massachusetts either bought or resold the land or sold their right of purchase, the land was to become a part of New York.

The boundary marking of this area became known as the Pre-Emption Line. The eastern line was to run due north from milestone 82 on the New York-Pennsylvania border to Lake Ontario. This approximates our present county Line between Chemung and Steuben Counties, extended northward to Lake Ontario. The western line to be 1 mile east of the Niagara River.

My story might have ended here except for one thing—there were two Pre-Emption lines in the central part of the state.

Having established this theoretical line, Massachusetts sold its pre-emption rights to a company formed by two merchants, Oliver Phelps and Nathanial Gorham, for 300,000 pounds (about 1 million dollars) payable in three equal yearly installments in Massachusetts Securities, these securities at the time being worth about 20 cents on the dollar. Phelps and Gorham then purchased from the Indians 2,600,000 acres west of the Pre-Emption Line for a sum equivalent to about ½ cent per acre and prepared to resell it to individuals. New York in the meantime, allocated a large tract east of the line as the "Military Tract" in which grants were made as bonus payments to soldiers of the Revolution. The original Pre-Emption Line was surveyed 1788-89 and land speculation began.

Before the three payments of the Phelps-Gorham contract came due, the Massachusetts Securities were guaranteed at full face value by the Continental Congress and the Phelps-Gorham Company could not meet its obligations. They were forced to sell about ½ of their land to Robert Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and also to relinquish their pre-emption rights to the un-purchased lands.

In the course of this sale it was suspected that the original Pre-exemption Line was in error so a resurvey was started in 1792. This second survey established the fact that the first line was deflected about 2° west of north creating a controversial portion of land which became known as "The Gore" enclosing an area of approximately 140 square miles or about 1/3 the area of present Chemung County. It also managed to place the entire present city of Geneva into New York State instead of Massachusetts. For the benefit of gentlemen in the audience not familiar with the work "Gore" it is a dressmaking tern for a wedge or pie shaped piece of material. This "gore" with its conflicting land grants and sales is a subject all in itself.

We must now leave the political aspects of this situation and study some of the individual actions. Many of the soldiers who had campaigned with General Sullivan to drive the hostile Indians out of this area, had fallen under the spell of the beauty of the Finger Lake area and the wealth of its forests and fertile valleys. They were therefore, very pleased to accept the soldier bonus grants in the New York "Military Tract" and also the opportunity to purchase lands in the Genesee country to the west.

But, several Hudson Valley politicians and the very Canadian renegades who Sullivan drove out also coveted this land. However, being unable by law to buy the land they obtained leases to all these same western lands from their former allies, the Seneca’s. Known as the Leasee Company, they established a post at Geneva and hoped by political maneuvering to have their leases legalized by New York State. They also had plans to create a new state which they would own and control completely. But the plans of these schemers, including Joseph Brant and Col. Butler, were frustrated by Governor Clinton and the Pre-Emption Line agreement. It made their leases valueless. Also, for services rendered in the treaty with Cayugas and on the assumption that the Pre-Emption Line lay entirely to the west of Seneca Lake, the Trading firm of Reed and Ryckman obtained a land grant from New York as follows: "Form a tree on the bank of Seneca Lake, westward to the Pre-Emption Line and southward along the lake shore until it contained 16,000 acres". This company contacted the Phelps-Gorham Company and offered to provide a surveyor to help establish the original line. Curiously enough the "Leasee Company" also offered to help finance this second surveyor. The original line was surveyed by the time-honored method of compass and plane table and as we now know was not an accurate, or even a true line.

For the second or True Line a pair of professional surveyors, Joseph and Ben Ellicott were hired, they having just finished a survey of the then new District of Columbia. A new fangled surveying instrument recently designed in Germany and built by Ben Ellicott was used. It was called a transit and was essentially the same as our present day instrument.

Again starting at Milestone 82 on the New York-Pennsylvania border (near Millerton, Pa) a crew of axe man worked ahead of the surveyors clearing a line of sight 30 feet wide. When the shore of Seneca Lake was reached just north of Dresden, night signals and flares were used to re-establish the line at the north end of the lake. Checks and double checks were made to insure the accuracy of this second line, which has never been questioned.

Several stories have sprung up about the Pre-Emption Lines.

    1. The Pre-Emption Line is a line drawn due north from Washington, D.C. This is incorrect as The District of Columbia was still in the planning stage at this time. It was pure chance, however, that the meridian of Washington almost coincides with the original or false line. It actually falls 4 miles west of the 2nd or true line.
    2. The Pre-Emption Roads were designed as a projected road to Washington. This is a variation of the first story. There are a number of segments of Pre-Emption Roads both on the False and True Lines, but no evidence of any plan to connect them. No evidences exists of a line or road south of the New York Pennsylvania bord3er. The best known stretch is the 18 mile paved road south from Oaks corners, near Phelps, along the western edge of the present City of Geneva and southward to Bellona, where it veers westward towards Penn Yan. Another 12 mile stretch is a gravel road north from the Mud Lake Road (Watkins-Tyrone Road) passing to the west of Dundee. Both of these roads are on the false line. North of Geneva there are vestiges of roads on both the True and False but most are of a secondary nature. Actually these roads were built along the lines to open up the territory for development.
    3. There was a fraud connected with the survey of the Original Line. In this story, we find many accusations, some facts that indicate fraud, but no specific proof against any person or persons. The original surveyors were Maxwell, representing the Phelps-Gorham interests and Jenkins 1 representing the New York interest. Phelps and Gorham expected to make Geneva their headquarters as it was already established as a trading post and was the chief seat for the entire Genesee country. They assumed Geneva was within their purchase tract, but when they arrived they found themselves unwelcome as it was already an outpost of the "Leasee Company". They were told they were wrong about its location; so rather than argue they continued onward to establish their base at Canadaigua. The survey of the line started July 25, 1788. On August 7th when the survey had reached the Keuka outlet Maxwell came to Geneva for supplies. Here he was detained "against his will" until the 11th before returning. Every historian has strongly hinted that the fraud occurred during this period and even Phelps reported that he suspected fraud at the time but because of the press of other business he did not investigate. Here the facts are confusing and contradictory: