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Historical Context: The Yankee Invasion

Kathleen Smith Kutolowski, SUNY Brockport

In the 1820s, broadsides advertising “farms and lots of land” appeared regularly in the Genesee region north and south of the Erie Canal. Such broadsides sought buyers eager to reap not only wheat, but also the benefits of the low-cost shipping the canal promised. In many cases, however, such advertisements also meant that the farms’ previous tenants had failed. 

These farms, now being sold as improved  - that is, with houses, barns, and cleared fields - had been settled as “raw lands.” Between 1790 and 1820, the Genesee wilderness had drawn waves of emigrants. Mostly they came from overcrowded New England, where half the male population was under 16 years of age. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island alone yielded some 800,000 residents wrestling in the beckoning lands of central and western New York. BY 1820, this “Yankee Invasion” made New York State number one in population,

A laggard colony despite its strategic location and natural waterways, New York ranked only seventh in population in 1790, in the first census of the fledgling United States. Before the Revolutionary War, the manorial land system of the Hudson Valley was unattractive to would-be pioneers. The Iroquois Indian Confederacy  skillfully played off British and French interests to retain the lands west of Albany. Defeat of the French in 1763 and the British in 1783 doomed the Iroquois, and thus opened the rich interior of New York to American settlers. There, fertile soil, vast stands of valuable timber, abundant water, a relatively benign climate (particularly temperate near the many lakes), and numerous water-power sites all appealed to Yankee farmers, artisans and young professionals. Many of these surplus Yankees had struggled with thin, stony soil and short growing season endangered by killing frosts. In addition, post Revolutionary New England suffered from high taxes and runaway inflation. 

Land speculators played a crucial role in opening the Genesee region. They had bought large tracts wholesale and campaigned actively in New England to resell them. Men like Oliver Phelps, Charles Williamson, James Wadsworth, and Joseph Ellicott not only flooded the backcountry with handbills but also held “Genesee Meetings” in taverns. There they described the attractions of their holdings and often displayed their bounty: tall stalks of grain, fat ears of corn, large apples and pears. Terms of sale were generous, with little or no down payment and many years to pay the full amount. Some speculators even offered to trade their fresh Genesee lands for worn-out New England farms, giving full market value for the latter. This was actually a clever marketing strategy. Although the speculator took a loss on the initial exchange, he received an overall gain once the settlement of a few families raised the value of the surrounding acres. In addition, after the first settlers moved in, otherwise hesitant emigrants felt safer to head for this far-off territory. 

Speculators like Phelps and Ellicott also plowed money into the economic and social infrastructure of their tracts. By subsidizing roads and mills, stores and taverns, schools, and courthouses, they enhanced the attractiveness of their lands and guaranteed a critical mass of population at carefully selected places, such as Canandaigua and Batavia. From there, of course, the population would fan out into the hinterlands. 

The land proved as fruitful as promised, but one barrier to successful pioneering remained. Although natural waterways abounded, New York’s interior streams and rivers mostly ran the wrong way (north and south). The cost of moving goods, even prime Genesee wheat, to Montreal, Canada; Baltimore, Maryland; or New York City exceeded the market value of the goods several times over. Thus, only the Erie Canal, New York’s bold experiment in public works, rescued the population of the interior from a near-subsistence economy. Successful market farming arrived with the canal’s radically lower shipping costs, and the Genesee region entered a sustained boom period. 

But why sell improved Genesee lands, such as the fine farms listed in the 1823 broadside from Charles Seymour? Especially farms only two miles from the canal, now opened for shipping from Rochester east? Typical of failed pioneers, many of the earliest Genesee settlers had never actually owned their land. Arriving with little or no capital to purchase land outright, they had gone into debt by contracting with agents such as Seymour for their farms. Clearing, fencing, and constructing buildings, along with yearly taxes, had likely taken all of their meager proceeds from early crops. Once hopeful emigrants often found themselves unable to pay anything on the principal - and sometimes not even on the interest - of their land contracts. Then, with land values rising in the wake of the canal’s opening, investors holding the contracts (in this case, the State of Connecticut) began to repossess and resell the farms. At that point, the failed dreams of one generation gave way to the high hopes of a new generation of settlers, eager to put their plows to the land and ship Genesee wheat along New York’s new artificial river.