The land where your homes have been built, your cars are parked, your ATMs are located, where this church is built, once belonged to the Seneca Indians, part of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Early interactions with western Europeans cost the entire Iroquois Confederacy dearly. French fur traders were followed by Jesuit missionaries who wanted to civilize and convert the Native Americans to Christianity. Armed soldiers from Europe were sent to drive them from their lands.
In 1779, during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington sent General John Sullivan to stop raids by the Iroquois. Sullivan and his troops destroyed nearly 60 Native American villages and western New York became safer for pioneer settlers. Permanent settlement began in West-town or the West Woods of Pittsford in 1806.
What was this land like? Heavily forested with hardwood trees and a variety of pine trees, this area was called West-town or the West Woods of Pittsford. Why did pioneers come here? The farms in New England were becoming less productive. Remember modern farming methods such as crop rotation or even using manure as fertilizer did not happen until much later. Farmers or their sons looked to western New York as the new frontier. Frequently, the head of the family would come first to clear a portion of land and build a log cabin for shelter. As more families came, the men were able to help each other build the cabins. These were very basic structures with one or two rooms, a large stone fireplace and chimney. Sometimes a loft was built for sleeping quarters for the children. Clay was used to seal spaces between the logs and wax paper may have covered the windows.
Quite often the head of the household would return home in the fall and bring his family to the West Woods once the ground had frozen. It was easier for the wagons to travel over frozen ground than through the mud of spring or summer rains. It was also easier to cross a creek that was frozen.
Once a shelter was built, the land was cleared for growing crops, usually a grain. How long did it take to clear an acre of land? If someone was handy with an axe – a week to ten days. Pioneer farmers were at the mercy of “mother nature” just like the farmers of today. In addition to wondering if there would be enough rain for the crops to grow, the farmers were pestered by large numbers of black squirrels who could destroy an entire field of corn. Bears and their cubs would come at night and also feast on the corn.
During the day pigs and cows were allowed to forage for themselves. They were brought to the barns at night because wolf packs roamed the area.
Another challenge for the pioneers was “Genesee fever” which resembled a very severe stomach flu from which many did not recover.
When the United States declared war with England in 1812, men from the town trained for fighting on land which is located today between East Henrietta Road and Valiant Drive. When James McNall the third was drafted into the war, his father went in his place. He said, “that since whoever went would never come back, it would be better to spare the younger man.” Mr. McNall served for two years on the Niagara frontier, part of the time as Captain. Killed near Fort Erie, his burial place is unknown. His son, James served in the war by transporting tents and military baggage from Avon to Buffalo. He lived to be 88 years old.
This interaction between Native Americans and early West-town settlers is included in Eleanor Kalsbeck’s book Henrietta Heritage.
Mrs. Martin Roberts was alone overnight while her husband traveled to Canandaigua on horseback. Here is the story. At nightfall, when she was preparing the family meal, three “husky Indians” entered the cabin. They handed Mrs. Roberts their rifles which she propped against the wall. Indicating that they were hungry, Mrs. Roberts fed them the meal she had prepared for herself and her children. After the meal the Indians stretched out on the floor and fell asleep. Seven year old Martin III was so frightened that he crawled under the bed. Mrs. Roberts spent a sleepless night because she had fed the Indians all the food she had and didn’t know what to feed them in the morning. The Indians woke early, took their rifles and left.
1816, the year this church was organized, was a very difficult year for the pioneer farmers. It has been referred to as the ”year of winter”. In April, 1815 British traders and explorers recorded the explosive eruption of Mount Tambora on an island in present day Indonesia. Volcanic ash was thrown into the upper atmosphere. The following year normal weather patterns were disrupted. In the October 6, 1816 edition of the Albany Advertiser, the following was reported, The weather during the past summer has been generally considered as very uncommon not only in this country, but as it would seem from newspaper accounts, in Europe also. Here it has been dry, and cold. We do not recollect the time when the drought has been so extensive, and general, not when there has been so cold a summer. There have been hard frosts in every summer month, a fact we that we have never known before.
In addition to the challenges I have already mentioned, the pioneers also needed to pay for their land. The following event was told by Mr. Jacob Fargo who came here in 1808:
One spring, when money was scarce and payments became due, some of the neighbors got together to see what could be done. On consultation it was found that amongst them they had money enough to make the payments, with a dollar over! It was arranged that Mr. Fargo should take the money to Geneseo, make the payments
and use the extra dollar for his expenses. So one morning Mr. Fargo started early for Geneseo on foot, with the money in his pocket, taking his lunch and eating it along the way. He arrived in Geneseo about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Unaccustomed to a large town and not thinking it prudent to keep so much money overnight, he went immediately to Mr. Wadsworth’s office to make his payments. In counting the money, the clerk threw out a counterfeit dollar bill. Since he no longer had the extra dollar for overnight lodging and food, he thought his best course was to start getting home as fast as possible. Walking all night, stopping in Avon for a bowl of bread and milk he arrived home about daylight the next morning.
A neighbor suggested to Mr. Fargo that he could have asked Mr. Wadsworth for a place to sleep for the night. Mr. Fargo responded that he had never begged and did not intend to begin then.
There were other challenges for the pioneers to overcome. By working together and helping each other, they became permanent residents of the town we now call Henrietta.
Written by Martina Thompson, Town of Henrietta Historian, in January, 2016, drawing on the following resources:
Henrietta Heritage by Eleanor Kalsbeck, pub. 1977
History of Monroe County New York by Prof W. H. McIntosh, pub. 1877
History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase by O. Turner, pub. 1851