9.22.2013,11:08 AM
A Man of Two Countries (Mount Morris, NY)
The Man of Two Countries

I did not know until browsing a book while drinking coffee at a cafe that nearby to where I sat was the birthplace of a famous naturalist and explorer. Since I am fascinated by history, I decided to investigate this a little more. As it turned out, this town has birthed several historical figures. The first influential figure was not born there, nor lived there, but his (and his son's) history is important to not only the town, but the entire Western New York.

On the edge of the Genesee River and Letchworth State Park sits a small community: Mount Morris. Like most towns, it has had several names. Because the original settlement sits on a hill, that geographical attribute has been a running influence on all it's names: Allen's Hill, Richmond Hill, and later, Mount Morris. So where does the 'Morris' derive from?

Let's start near the beginning. I add this simply because it is in contrast to historical time in the Western US. However, the historical twists and turns are a running pattern throughout the history of this entire country. As I mentioned previously, this land was home to the Seneca Nation, and the edges of the gorge cut by the river was popular for hunting and camping for many of the Iroquois Confederacy nations. But it was the favorite and sacred land especially of the Senecas.

During the 1700's, when Europeans began pressuring the native people for acquisition of native land, the Senecas, like all the Iroquois nations, were forced west. Not without a fight. But that's another story. (I hightly recommend watching the series, 'We Shall Remain'. The first episode provides a background for history of this area.)Regardless, as the Native peoples were forced west, the Europeans and their descendents swarmed behind them building settlements.

Around the time of the American Revolution, settlers began scattering into the countryside to organize and build small tight communities: villages. And this location was prime because of access to all the resources required to make a living and provide: water, trees, good soil, etc.

During 1784 the locals gave their village a name. Which, as usual in the timeline of communities, changed several times. I've discovered a pattern in that the individual that owns the most land, or the most money, usually bestows the first name, or changes thereafter, until a stronger collective says, "Hey, we want this name instead of your name!" In this case, a local named Ebenezer "Indian" Allen (who was given hundreds of acres of the original territory holdings) chose both early names (Allen and Richmond). Of course, a later figure influenced the name that remains today.

In 1835, the village and township was incorporated and named after the then current dominant figure: English-born Robert Morris, who financed the American Revolution, signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. Wow, an active fella he was. Historical accounts claim he was the most influential man next to George Washington, although that bit of information seems to have dwindled through the centuries.

Morris made his fortune in shipping and trading. His company was active in slave trading until it was politically unfashionable, where then he denounced slavery and jumped on the anti-slave bandwagon in the northeast. He also made his money in acquiring vast tracts of land in Pennsylvania and New York. He was for a time the richest man in America. And died broke.

He had feet in both sides of the British colony, but put more weight on his American independence foot during the Tea Party, which leveled a heavy tax on tea shipped to the rapidly growing North American colonies. Since Morris had many 'tea ships', this did not sit well with him. He began smuggling weapons from France, along with information on British Navy doings, to the fledgling Continental Congress. Yet Morris also voted against the Congress' move for independence.

In 1791, the state of Massachusetts, which held vast territories in Western NY, sold 3,750,000 acres west of the Genesee River to Morris for $333,333.33 (who wonders how that figure originated? Over beers?). Morris quickly divided and sold parcels to companies, other states, and even other countries (such as Holland). However, he kept 500,000 acres (a 12 mile-wide strip along the east side of the lands, from the Pennsylvania border to Lake Ontario). This later became known as The Morris Reserve. Major trading routes were established along this strip, and contained some of the best hunting and meeting grounds for the Native peoples, who did not relinquish their rights without fights (this is where Morris' son, Thomas, made his history).

The lands around Mount Morris were sold to settlers. According to one source, "It was suggested that these lands were sold at unfairly low prices to friends of the Morris estate, in an attempt to create something akin to an oligarchical rule by landowners in the area." Meanwhile, much of the settled area west of the Genesee River was called the Town of Leicester in the late 1700's. As small satellite settlements were established, they broke off from Leicester and acquired their own names and identity. Mount Morris was one of them. Robert Morris died in 1806, in Philadelphia, after successive financial failures, prison confinement, and ill health. But his legacy continues on here.

In 1794 General William Augustus Mills settled on the land bordering the gorge of the Genesee River and built a log cabin for he and his wife. As his family and land holdings grew, he became influential with the local Seneca native people (whom called Mills 'Big Kettle'). Mills founded and named the town of Mount Morris to honor Robert Morris in 1818 (later being incorporated in 1835). Acquiring 1,000 acres in and around the town, he served as the first justice of the peace and as town supervisor for 20 years. He had a brick mansion built, which still stands on Main Street and serves as a museum and houses the local historical commission. (seen in the background in photo below)

Today the town is a brimming attraction for tourists and locals that live near and visit Letchworth State Park and the nearby Finger Lakes. Several of the original buildings remain, having been restored to host shops and cafes. I found a delightful indoor/outdoor cafe that served delicious soup and coffee. And a neat little antique shop that is also an outlet for local artists. I fell in love with this enormous carved wolf, which would have found its way to Texas had I the funds to buy it.

A few decades after the town and village were founded the man that wrote the American Pledge of Allegiance (1855) was born. Just a year before the small town was incorporated, another historical figure was born that was highly influenced by his first years growing up on the edges of the Genesee River gorge and nearby lakes: John Wesley Powell.

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posted by Macrobe
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