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Historical Context: Macomb's Purchase

F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta


In 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, the British drew a proclamation line to keep European settlers and Native Americans apart. The main purpose of the Proclamation Act was to save the British government the cost of a large military presence to enforce the peace. In New York, the line ran generally southwest from Fort Ticonderoga to the state border near what is now Elmira. Most of the Genesee and Finger Lakes regions were on the Iroquois side of the line. The Proclamation Line of 1763 existed for two decades, until the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, when Britain’s defeat nullified the line. Vast lands were thereby opened for westward expansion and agricultural settlement.

Western New York was no exception. Millions of acres between central New York’s Unadilla River and the Niagara frontier suddenly were opened to speculators and settlers. Speculators bought the land, usually in large tracts and often on borrowed money, for resale in smaller parcels to actual settlers. 

The area north of the Mohawk Valley and Oneida Lake also opened for settlement. The Adirondack Mountains covered much of the eastern part of that region, making it only marginally suitable for agriculture. However, the land along the eastern shore of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River was level and potentially good for farming. (The exception was the Tug Hill Plateau, a rugged upland area between the Lake Ontario plain and the fertile Black River Valley.)

In the late 1700s, a speculator named Alexander Macomb purchased roughly four million acres in northern New York. Macomb’s Purchase was primarily north and west of the Adirondacks. Macomb went broke; he could not get rid of the land fast enough to cover the loans he had taken to finance the purchase. His creditors took possession of Macomb’s Purchase and appointed William Constable, an Irish immigrant living in New York City, as their agent. Constable used his European contacts to assist him in selling off the immense parcel. Noblemen and others in France fleeing the guillotine of the French Revolution sought refuge in what became Jefferson County. They named their purchase Castorland. It is said that Joseph Bonaparte, the deposed king of Spain and brother of Napoleon, acquired land in the former Macomb’s Purchase. Constable was so successful in disposing of much of the parcel that he was able to build an estate in Constableville in the Black River Valley; the estate is now open to visitors. 

One document, translated from German, illustrates an attempt by Hezekiah B. Pierpont, Constable’s son-in-law and partner, to bring settlers from Germany and Switzerland to the vicinity of Turin, New York. As was often the case, the document contains some exaggerations and omissions. For example, it claims that the German and Swiss settlement at Turin was 20 miles from the Erie Canal at Rome; the distance to Turin is actually closer to 25 miles, almost two hours farther away at a walking pace. At the time, the closer a settlement was to the Erie Canal, the less costly it was for its residents to ship their produce. Prospective buyers were also told that “ the climate is perfectly healthy during all seasons.” They were not told that the area probably receives more snow than any place east of the Rocky Mountains, or that subzero winter temperatures are more the rule than the exception. The promoter described the land as “high and pleasant,” having “no steep hills, no torn land.” The land certainly is high, but since it is on the edge of the Tug Hill Plateau, it is quite rugged. Claims that the region was developing “into one of the country’s best cattle and dairy districts” were accurate for the Black River Valley; unfortunately, the valley is east of the advertised tract. To his credit, Pierpont claimed that he did not want “to sell land to the immigrants until they have looked at the settlement themselves” and wisely cautioned settlers to have enough resources to carry them through the first year.

In his travel instructions to prospective buyers, Pierpont admitted that it could be as far as “ 24 miles” from the Erie Canal at Rome to Turin. Before the widespread existence of railroads in New York State, transportation over land was extremely slow and expensive. It was possible that the initial 240 miles of the journey by boat from New York City to Rome might have been easier to accomplish than the final 24 miles overland to Turin.