By Mary Fox
The pioneers who settled in Ellicottville, as in all of Western New York, came from varied backgrounds but shared a common characteristic – the determination to sacrifice all they had to face an unknown they believed would make their way of life better. This belief fired them to set out upon a difficult journey without adequate shelter, food, transportation or roads.
Alone or in small groups with only their family and friends, they had the courage to become independent and self-sufficient through untold hardships.
They struggled to the new land through dense forests, over steep mountains, following valleys, rivers and trails made by the Native American Indians and marked by earlier pioneers. They endured sickness, accidents, exhaustion, hunger and forces of nature.
Whole families walked beside the ox-drawn wagons packed with only the bare necessities needed to begin a new life in the wilderness. They camped under the shelter of pine trees within the howls of wolves and coyotes and the sight of bears and ate the game from the forests.
Events leading up to the great westward migration
About 3.7 million acres of land from Lake Erie to the Genesee River was purchased in 1792 by a group of Dutch bankers known as the Holland Land Company. It was a totally undeveloped wilderness of dense forests inhabited by wild animals and crisscrossed with Indian trails.
At the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797, an agreement was made with the Native American Indians whereas the Indian lands (3.7 million acres) were ceded by the Iroquois Six Nations to the Holland Land Company. In return, the Indians received $100,000, thereby extinguishing their title to the land. About 200,000 acres, divided up into 10 separate reservations, were reserved for the Seneca Indians.
In 1798, Joseph Ellicott and his brother Benjamin, along with 130 men, surveyed the purchase for the next three years. Traverse lines divided the territory six miles in width from north to south. These ranges were broken up by lines crossing east to west dividing the ranges into 6-mile-square townships. Each township was further divided into sections one and a half miles square. Sections were then divided up into lots of 360 acres.
In 1801, the first land that opened up for settlement by the Holland Land Company was in the northern and central parts of Western New York. What would become Cattaraugus County was not opened up for settlement until 1813 as Joseph Ellicott, chief surveyor and resident agent, held out no great hope for a settlement boom in the wild and isolated tracts.
Where they came from
For four generations following the landing of the Mayflower in 1642, the bulk of inhabitants in what would become, 134 years later, the United States of America, lived in New England, New Amsterdam (New York City ) and Philadelphia.
The first settlers to Western New York came predominantly from New England where the population had grown rapidly, with families often having 12 or more children. The main occupation was farming but, it had become more and more difficult for farmers to make a living from the land. Craftsmen were overabundant and anxious to take their trade to help develop the wilderness. They were tired of the taxes, exorbitant land leases and the difficult life that gave them little hope for the future.
Young men and women had been encouraged by soldiers returning from the war of the Revolution with tales of lush fields, abundant rivers and streams, unending forests wild with game, where they could own their land, be free from political oppression and social inequality, where they could practice religious freedom and be free to live their lives as they chose.
The pioneer settlers set in motion a path to the future bringing us, 200 years later, to where and who we are today.
We are fortunate to have in Ellicottville descendents of some of these first settlers who are able to tell their story and preserve the inheritance these great pioneers left us.
If you would like to hear more about Ellicottville’s history, join us on the second Tuesday of each month through October at 7:30 p.m. at the Ellicottville Memorial Library and hear some of Ellicottville’s descendents of these early pioneers tell their stories.