Madison County, NY

Local History in Northern Sullivan

By Evalena Hubbard (1875-1948)

In the year 1619, a year before the voyage of the Mayflower, Thomas Spencer and his son Thomas came from England to the Maine coast bringing among other effects a very strong water-wheel. They built a saw-mill and went to England fully expecting to return in the spring with a party of settlers. However, it was not until 1640 that they returned, and then it was not to Maine, but to Fort Fenwick at the mouth of the Connecticut River.

The next year they sailed up the Maine coast bringing the water wheel with them and placed it in their saw mill at Fort Fenwick. A record written in 1840 states, “It is evident that the Spencers have been a very peaceful and law-abiding people for from 1640 -1840, a period of 200 years, not one of the descendants of the three brothers (Thomas, Samuel Joshua) who came from England was ever convicted of any crime." Samuel, a grandson of Thomas who served in the French and Indian War 1740-1765, came up Oneida Lake to Fort Brewerton. He was delighted with the almost tropical vegetation on the south shore of the lake and east of what is not called Dutchman’s Island. The stems of scoke-berry plants were as large as a man’s arm and all other plants grew in proportion. Upon his return home he made preparations to emigrate here with a number of families, but small pox soon claimed him a victim. Then came the long Revolutionary War that lasted 8 years. 

Soon after this came a party of state surveyors one of whom was Matthew Marvin Sr. of Norfolk, Conn. He was one of Washington’s barefoot soldiers at Valley Forge. These men surveyed the former large counties through the center of New York State, and also the few tracts of land that had been purchased by individuals - i.e. Gerrit Smith, Sidney Breese, and others.  Many of the early settlers purchased their land from these men. In 1791 Montgomery County was divided into Tioga, Otsego, and Herkimer. With Herkimer Co. lay our own Madison. In 1794 Onondaga was formed from Herkimer also Oneida in 1798. In 1806 Madison was divided from Chenango, and named in honor of President Madison.

Sullivan Township was formed from Cazenovia in 1803. The town was named in honor of General John Sullivan who made this section famous for his march into the Iroquois Country. He treated the Indians with such fairness and discretion that the early history of this county was not written in blood as in some other places in the state.

The state road that traverses the south shore of the lake was laid out in 1810-1811 by the authority of the Land Office Dept. in Albany. It was a section of the main road from Albany through the state, and when laid out was nothing more than a dense wilderness on its route. For years this road along the lake was but a mere trail or footpath.

Deacon Reuben Bushnell and brother Stephen came with their families from Greene County in 1806 and located on adjoining farms. Stephen lived on what is now known as the Blair farm. Later they moved their widowed sister and her small children (John, Richard, Eliza, Orville, Calvin, and Clarissa Chapman) near them to what is known as the Lot Ward Place.

(Note: Bushnell family records state that the brothers came to the area in 1811. According to census records Reuben was a resident of Greene Co. in 1810, and Stephen was not dismissed from the church in Durham, Greene Co. until 1810. The History of Greene Co states that the brothers had adjoining farms, and that Stephen lived on the former Blair farm there. In 1816 they settled their windowed sister Clarissa Chapman and her children on land that they owned which later became the property of Lot Ward. SBW)

The brothers worked together. One summer after putting their wheat in shocks as they had no barns built, they would find in the morning that the bundles had been scattered about and the heads of some wheat eater. One night, armed with an old flint-lock musket and a pitch-fork much heavier than those used today, they hid among the stacks of wheat. Hearing bundles thrown about they rushed forward on a prearranged single. The musket failed to fire, but with the fork they manage to kill a large black bear.

Mr. Reuben Bushnell Jr. purchased land in this district and came here to live in 1828. He worked for Alanson Ingham cutting wood for 31 per day. He used to walk to Albany to pay for his place.

Ephraim Tuttle, who married Deacon Bushnell’s daughter Sylvia, bought land here adjoining the farm of Reuben Bushnell Jr. known as the Tuttle farm. His daughter, now Mrs. Putman, and her cousin J. A. Bushnell when children used to play on the lake upon rafts of their own construction while their mothers did the family washing on the shore.

In 1814 because of the wonderful stories of the fertility of the soil often repeated in his family as told by his great grandfather, Reuben Spencer sold his line of freight vessels which he sailed between the Connecticut River and the West Indians, and with his wife and four children came to Northern Sullivan bringing oxen, rafts to be used to cross streams, rude lumber wagon, mud boat, all necessary tools, house furnishing, chickens and two splendid red Durham cows. When you hear of the fine old native stock of today did you ever think of its origin? There were no cows in this country until the spring of 1621. Then, only for choice Durham and Ayrshire cows could passage be afforded, and our stock in this section were all from that source. With Mr. Spencer came Zina Bushnell who lived across the road from him in Saybrook. Mr. Wm. Williams of Brandon, Conn. also came with him. Mr. Bushnell purchased a farm on the east side of the bay. As early as 1818 he erected a brick house which was the first one in Northern Sullivan. The brick was made by him on his own farm. This was the era of log houses as sawed lumber was hard to procure

The early settlers carried the grain on horse-back to be ground to Bridgeport which at that time was called Chittenning Rifts for there was a settlement there are early as 1802. The first settler there was Roselle Barnes. He built the first frame house there having previously opened a tavern in a log one.

Few people know that the stream at that point was a great place to take salmon at that time. It was not uncommon to take them from the nets weighing from 12 to 25 pounds. Before any dams were built they could be taken as far upstream as Chittenango Falls which is 20 miles above the outlet. Schooners of 200 tons were built and launched for the lake trade at Bridgeport previously to the building of the canal. Barrels were also made there, taken down Chittenango Creek through Oneida Lake and Three River Point and thence to Salina where they exchanged for salt.

Wolves were very troublesome. They killed a great many sheep and calves until a law was passed providing a bounty of $40 per head for each wolf killed. Deer pastured with

the cows, sometimes coming home with them at night and returning to the woods in the morning with them.

There were Indians everywhere. Fleets of as many as 30 canoes were often seen crossing the lake laden with Indians. To really appreciate the task of the early pioneer settlers who colonized central New York one should read J.F. Cooper’s Leather Stocking Tales which give such fine accounts of the old trails and Indian settlement etc. from the Mohawk Valley though Lake Techiroque, now Lake Oneida, by canoe to Ft. Brewerton and Ft. Oswego. This was the old trail to the Ohio Valley

The number of Indians steadily decreased, but in 1860 there was still quite a settlement of them on the bank of Douglass Ditch. Groups of them were often seen passing along the road from house to house offering to exchange ax halves or baskets for provisions. One old couple, known as Uncle Jacob and Aunt Sally, had a hut on the South side of the Hayes farm and used to attend the meeting in the old school house where they sang and enjoyed themselves immensely. They finally moved to Green Bay, Michigan. After some year Aunt Sally returned begging help as Uncle Jacob was dead. The people gave generously and she went away happy. About a year later Uncle Jacob came back visiting.

About 1820 John Eastwood Sr. who was a son-in–law of Matthew Marvin, the surveyor, purchased a farm and built the first frame house on this road. It is now owned by Scott Roberts. Soon after he became heir to his father’s estate and title in England, but refused to return preferring to let the estate go to a younger brother. However, after that he always called his wife “Lady Marguerite." He did not approve of the way that England treated us and would not return to a county that he felt he could not be loyal to. To the present time there has never been a house in this vicinity as beautifully furnished as theirs was. Their china he brought from France, the ivory from India, teak wood from China, mahogany from San Domingo for he had traveled extensively. After the death of his father in 1828, Daniel Marvin came with his mother, purchased a farm and built the second frame house on the road. He paid for his place by working out, when he could spare the time from clearing his own place for 25 cents per day. A day’s work was counted from sunrise to sunset. He became the peacemaker for his community. Often people came to him to settle their disputes, and many lawsuits were prevented. He was very fair-minded and would listen patiently to all each party had to say. Then kindly but firmly pointed out the wrong, giving reasons why and both parted feeling that they had a kind but just friend. His mother was Mary Cole from Plymouth, MA. It is her family who owned all the land surrounding Plymouth Rock since early Colonial times. I believe it is still in their possession.

His wife was a member of the Monroe family. This is a digression from local history, but just now so many people are asking concerning the Monroe Doctrine you may be interested to know that President Monroe, who was a cousin of her father, was so great a man that he could ask counsel of others. He wrote letters to his relatives and acquaintances all over the country whose opinions he respected concerning his subject. She remarked in recent years that if the correspondence between President Monroe and her father, some of which she had read, had been preserved it would be very valuable. His last letter arrived after her father had died of which he had not heard. The principle is that “No European country has any right to colonize America.” The reason for it was this --- Nine years after our second war with England in 1823, he had just recognized the South American Republics as such, and his question was how to assist them by protecting them from further European colonization. At that time it was given (in the message) solely for their benefit. It had no reference to anything except – colonization. The Monroes were a very patriotic family, one of the fired the first shot in the Revolution, and another was the first man to die.

Seth Marvin brought the place which he afterward sold to Hiram Filkins, who later sold it to Newton Palmer Sr. He moved to the beautiful Fox River country in Illinois where he became wealthy. His son James, who some may remember as a boy when he lived here, became one of the most noted bee-keepers in the U.S.A. People from many states went to visit his apery to get information on the subject.

About 1825 Matthew Marvin Jr. came and lived with his sister Mrs. Eastwood and taught school. In those days men were required to train as soldiers at certain periods, as the second war with England was so recently over and they didn’t know how soon they would be needed to again defend their country. Matthew Jr. was a captain and his commission from the state and his sword he carried are still in the possession of his family. His education was excellent for those days. One could hardly ask him the meaning of a word that he did not know, and if by per-chance he did not know it, he did not rest until it was added to his vocabulary. He had a great love for Botany and as the years went by he came to know the name, habit and often the value of every tree and plant in this section. Not a bird flew here that he did not know the name, call or song of. For many years his home was with his brother Daniel.

Only twenty-five miles from Yarmouth, England stands St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, built more than 1000 years ago. After the Norman Conquest it became the Church of the Vere-de-Veres. The last one of the family, a daughter, married a Marvin and with the estate it came into the Marvin name. Here all the Marvin records down to date are kept--both the English and American branches. The remains of the English Marvins are sealed in the marble sides of the building.  It was repaired a few years ago (about 6 years ago), and all the family in this country were notified that all that desired could send contributions. A few years ago when bombs were dropping, this was one of the places that people went for shelter.  It is claimed that this building has never been locked, but has been open to all times to protect any unfortunate person.

Mr. Paul Gifford built a log house on the west side of the farm where Mr. Prescott now resides. On the bank near the lake shore stood the old well known Sycamore tree commonly called the “butter ball." It was the largest tree in this section being eight feet in diameter. Around it the Indians used to meet for their celebrations. The Tuscarores of South Carolina, the Delawares, and various other tribes as far as the Ohio Valley.

Mr. Henry Gifford, a son of Paul Gifford, left MA in 1824 and came here in 1828 as anyone may see who views the old boulder on the Gifford Corner where he carved the date. He lived in the Southern part of the county and also in Canastota. He was a master ship builder at the age of 18 years. He proved a very valuable addition to the community as he built many houses here including his own Queen Ann House and the one where we are tonight.

Directly opposite Paul Gifford’s house lived Daniel Haskins, another N.E. family, who married one of Paul Gifford’s daughters. They had eight daughters, only one of whom remained here. Caroline married Franklin Parker whose people came from N.E. also. She lived on Smith Ridge all her life.

Elias Benedict owned the Alfred Allen farm in the old days and Otis Pratt sold his farm to Leonard Clark. An English family named Chasmer lived in this district. The daughter married Luther Bushnell and the son, George married Elizabeth Petrie. They had a home near and remained socially one of us. The James Powell family were also residents for many years.

Three of Reuben Spencer’s daughters, Mercy, Mary and Harriet married Hiram Hubbard, David Sherwood, and Asaph Rich who were among the early settlers, and each one secured a section of the garden ground, which had seemed so desirable to their ancestor in 1755.

Martin Hubbard, who was born in Egremont, MA, came with his wife and family to Northern Sullivan from Bridgewater, NY in 1826. They lived four years on what is now Grant Wilson’s shore. His wife died there so he with his two younger children, Hiram and Laura, moved to this neighborhood in 1829. The older children had gone west.

Martin’s father was a Lieutenant in the Revolution and his father kept as guests, one winter, Generals Washington, Epahroditus Champion, and other officers in the old Hatfield House at Hatfield, Mass. Gen. Champion married one of Martin’s aunts, Lucretia, before spring and their names that Champion scratched on one of the windowpanes, may still be seen there. Martin himself, although only ten years old, went on short sallies.

In 1849 Hiram Hubbard, with his wife, made the journey to Saybrook, Conn. to visit relatives in a fine new lumber wagon with a span of horses. As a souvenir of the trip she brought a piece of the old rose bush which had grown there 150 years. It was brought from England by her ancestors in 1635. When her son, L.C.H, was married this bush was presented to his wife who has cared for it for forty years. It is still doing well although it never spreads from the root.

In 1833 the first saw mill was built in this vicinity on the small stream called Spencer’s Creek This enterprise was accomplished by the joint efforts of Zina Bushnell, Jacob H. Spencer, Merritt Kelsey and Reuben Spencer who provided the water-wheel of his fathers, which he had brought with him from Conn. The water power proved insufficient although it was operated for five years and supplied considerable much needed lumber. The water wheel remained in good condition and Reuben’s son William R. told me that although it was still in good condition he split and burned it, which he afterward regretted very much as soon after he would have liked to present it to the Mad. Christ. Soc.

A tannery was also built on the same stream by Wm. Williams further upstream back of the Sherwood buildings.

Cooper shops were numerous. The barrels were drawn to Salina where they were exchanged for salt.

There was a hub and a comb factory on the same stream owned and operated by Alanson Ingham also of Saybrook.

Mr. Ingham’s last wife was Mrs. Nancy Holton. Her father, David Pangburn who was a soldier in the War of 1812 was of English descent. He built the first frame house in Ft. Plain, N.Y. Her mother’s people were New Englanders. They also furnished soldiers in the Revolution. Her first husband was George Holton, a teacher, whose people were from New Jersey. They are recorded as a long lived, honorable race. They were blue-blooded people as were nearly all early settlers here. His mother was quite a noted astronomer. A woman who was an astronomer was very remarkable at that time. It required knowledge of mathematics which was not supposed to be necessary for your ladies. Mrs. Ingham gave her only son, Byron Holton, to her country in the Civil War. After her husband’s death she resided with her daughter Mrs. J.A. Bushnell for many years. Mr. Ingham first purchased the Tuttle farm and Ephraim Tuttle owned the Ingham farm.  They exchanged farms because Mr. Ingham wanted the water power for factories. After he secured it he wanted to rename this locality New Saybrook. At the time what is now known as Lakeport was called Bullhead Bay. The mail was brought weekly from Oneida to Messenger’s and a carrier went from Lakeport to Messengers after it.

John Dygert (Daggert) who was born in Danube NY in 1798, came with his wife, Miss Lydia Silver of Guilderland, to live West of Bridgeport about the year 1829. His father was a soldier in the Revolution. Mrs. Dygert’s ancestors also fought in that great war. She spent the later years of her life in this district with her daughter Mrs. H.H. Gifford (Manny). When some of us were little children we used to visit her and she would tell us of the old war, the early settlers, and of the terrible Indian massacres.

In another township, in those early days, was a home from several representatives came to live in this locality. Jacob Monroe Gillette of New Canon, N.Y. came in 1809 to the Town of Fenner where he purchased a farm.  He was a wealthy man for those days. He ordered a pair of dapple-gray horses from France and as there were no daily papers to announce the arrival of the ships, no telegram to summon him, he was obliged to wait in New York for some time to wait for their arrival. He rode one and led the other from NYC to Fenner. The horses proved to be all that was desired and from that stock came may of the stock raised in that part of the county of which they were justly proud. He had to draw his grain to Albany to find a market for it but often he purchased supplies for his family which cost more than the price of the load.

On one such trip he brought home fourteen silk dresses for his wife and daughters. In 1822 he built the third frame house in the township, with marble mantles, and marble instead of brick floors in front of the fireplaces. It is still an excellent building. He died of measles in 1823 at the age of 48. His wife was Abigail Remington of Rhode Island. The inventors of the Remington typewriter were her nephews.

In 1825 Simeon Hayes, who was born in Chittenango, married their daughter, Luana. They lived on what is called the point on the lake shore near the island for some time. In 1829 they resided in her old home as he worked the farm and their second child, Philinda, was born there. Afterward they came to live on what is now known as the Hayes farm. They built the house and became prominent factors in the neighborhood. When his barns were built they were first used to hold church meetings in the summer. He served as class-leader and could be counted on to approve every good work. Mrs. Hayes’ sister Phebe Parsons, came after her husband’s death to live with them. Mrs. Filkins was also a sister, as well as, Mrs. Marvin and Miss Lucinda Gillette who lived in her home for many years.

In a country as colonized as this one is nearly every settlement has more or less romance connected with this early history. Madison County is rich in such romance. And have we not the mystery of Dutchman’s Island? Also the French refugee who gave the name to Frenchman Island? That is a long story and a pretty one. But that is not all.

Anyone who is familiar with Russian history and its part in the final overthrow of the Polish government will remember the many brave ones who, rather than come under the yoke of the Russians, left homes, property and everything they held dear to find homes in a new country. There were only two classes of people there - the peasants and the royal born. The serfs became apathetic and largely remained where they were, but to those of royal birth the Russian yoke became unbearable and many came to settle here in this country.

Several years ago I met and visited with a very pleasant young lady whose home was on 5th Ave in N.Y.C. She told of her people, of their royal origin of which she was justly proud, of their position in the Metropolis, and in the eastern states. She concluded by saying that the family was a small one and of one branch who came upstate and was lost sight of. She had often inquired about them, but had never found trace of them. I was very glad to give her the record she needed for her genealogical work. For were they not familiar figures here? Men respected as faithful workers - Jacob Jacobs and his son, Charles.

P. W. Leete who once owned Dutchman’s Island was frequently called here to survey land and soon he became a familiar figure on the street. He was a fine mathematician and his decisions, I am told, were never reversed. At Albany he was recorded as the most accurate surveyor of his time. He was also an inventor and enjoyed showing his Magic- Lantern pictures in the school houses by the light of his own invention.

No local history would be complete without the mention of Joseph Sterling, the old Dutchman as was familiarly called. Mr. Sterling came from New Hartford and bought the farm on the North side of the road, now owned by Mr. Wallace Billington. His family was of the old Scotch Sterlings. Farming, however, was not to his taste so he sold his land and his life here after was one long visit. People who were used to his visits were not surprised to see him come downstairs to breakfast though they had not seen him for weeks. Neighbors were they alarmed if he went out without a hat and did not return. He delighted in telling stories or repeating sermons. Occasionally he could be persuaded to assist someone a few days about the farm work, but was always in haste to visit someone at a distant point. People were always glad to entertain him as he had often just returned from some relative, and could tell all the news as he used to say which was better than a letter from their friends.  The old Dutchmen lived alone on the Island for many years though his wife and son visited him one summer and the son remained several months. It was supposed that he was a political exile as it was not family trouble which caused his isolation.  People who knew him well never believed he could have been guilty of any crime. They were educated and fine appearing people. He could speak little English but was a very quiet inoffensive man with his little dog he would come along the road two or three times a week with fish that he would exchange for money or provisions. He also made splint baskets of a peculiar shape unlike any made by the Indians. He was found in the lake by some fisherman who took the body and the little dog to shore where at the inquest it was decided that it was not a case of drowning but that he was placed there after death by someone who had robbed him as no money was found among his possessions.

The great marsh south of Oneida Lake which was four or five miles wide extended across the whole of Sullivan and nearly across Lenox. The Canasaraga wasted its waters over 1000 acres of this swamp and over the vlaie. At certain seasons of the year the water stood four feet deep. This was the Canasaraga Lake of the old maps. Although higher than Oneida Lake the intervening ridge of about one mile prevented drainage and thousands of acres were useless. There were those who invested money in this land and in the course of years a plan was developed for its recovery. Zebulon Douglass, who was a Colonel of the 75th Regt in 1812 and a resident of Quality Hill took the work in hand with others and with state appropriations an artificial channel for the Canasaraga was cut through to the lake. It was called Douglass Ditch. It was hoped that the new deep channel would prove sufficient for draining the great marsh and the expectations were in part realized.

When the project of building a road across the Vlaie was broached many inhabitants of the township opposed it because the taxes of the town would be increased. There was a merchant at Bridgeport who was the leader and speaker against this impractical scheme in which the appropriations would be thrown away. He denounced the plan and its leaders on all occasions and frequently declared in public that “He would not live longer then the time that it would take to see the first wagon cross the Vlaie." Prominent men in Chittenango, Robert Riddell, John I. Walrath, Edward Sims, David Riddell, Jirius French, Thomas French, and others took hold of the work and in the winter when the Vlaie was passable they explored and selected their route. The next summer a part of these men and their wives crossed it in a procession of wagons. The party encountered many mishaps - wagons upset, bridging sloughs etc. while the women walked or rode and so they crossed the Vlaie with horses and wagons all safe reaching the lake road at last and arrived at Bridgeport. After a dinner they called on the said merchant and advised him to prepare for his own funeral as the time he had so often named, to close his earthly existence had arrived. This joke was fully appreciated here at that time and adventure had much to do in gaining the sum asked of the town ($2,500) to be paid in installments of $500 yearly. To this was added private subscriptions amounting to $3000 more. So the road was laid through which gave access to the reclaimed land of the swamp In 1848 it was improved by planking having then become a apart of the DeRuyter, Cazenovia, and Oneida Lake Plank Road. It was followed by the present stone road.

The following are some of the men that served in the Civil War: John Wesley Spencer, John Brezee, Augustus Brezee, Harley Brezee, Thomas pbell (Campbell?), Theodore Campbell, Charles Gray, George Warner, O. H. Messenger, Lyman Kellog, Wesley Farrington, George McNeal, William Fox, Addison Funds, Adam Helwich, Charles Fox, John Fox, Addison Cole, George Carpenter, Matthew Scheiple, James K. Fox, Philetus Fox, Duane Bushnell, Samuel Ingham, Edwin Hubbard, Albert Adkins, Bradford Butler, Henry Snyder, Hale Moore, Warren Wright, William Hart, John Hart, Lewis Hart, Aleck Wilsey, John Shetler, Lorenzo Lower, Harvey Rector, William Plank, Richard Sartwell, Paul Gifford, Nathan Mecker, Henry Moore, Charles Fairchilds, William Fairchilds, William Draper, and David Draper.

It was a great day for the locality when, after being drilled for some time at Hamilton, the 157th Regt. came to Canastota, where dinner was served and farewells exchanged after which they left for the front.

The first school in this district was held in Mr. Henry Gifford’s new barn one summer. There was no school-house at Lakeport for some time but the children came to the school in this district which was built about 1840 as near as we can learn. Before that time what were called in the east “Dame Schools," were in private homes. When Mr. Ephraim Tuttle first came here, his wife taught such a school in her home. This school building was erected in the summer of 1868. Miss Minnie A. Barnes of Whitelaw was the first teacher. The old school building was dedicated as a place of worship and meetings were held Sunday afternoons once in two weeks regularly for two years. The Pastor resided in Messingers where he gave a morning service. The alternate Sunday afternoon he preached in the next school-house west of us. When the time for a quarterly meeting arrived work was laid aside on Saturday and people for miles around went to the afternoon service and often visited friends with whom they remained all night to be present for the Sunday service. They nearly all came from the same old Puritan stock. They were all more or less related, their tastes were similar and their social life was in many respects ideal. Quilting, corn huskings, and apple paring bees were common. If one man was ill his neighbors all assisted in keeping his work along with the season. For many of the years the clothing was of homespun which the women spun and some wove linen to wear in summer, and flannel and fulled cloth in the winter. After the flannel was woven at home it was taken to Bridgeport where there was a carding machine and a fulling machine where the cloth was dyed, fulled and pressed after which the tailoress came to the house and made the suits for the men and boys of the family.

The pioneers who came prior to 1850 were the ones who cleared the land, organized the schools and churches, endured the hardships, and made our path smooth. They were people of deeds rather than words. It is fitting that we should gather their names, speak of their deeds and hold them in grateful remembrance.

Lakeport, NY, circa 1938-41.


Donated to the Town of Sullivan by Ruth Newton, and transcribed with permission of Carol Greene, Town of Sullivan Historian,
by Sandra B. Wilsey, August 5, 2010


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