The Pre-Emption Line, Part 3

July 20th, 2022

By John Marks, Curator of Collections

In June’s blog Oliver Phelps had just secured the rights to 2.6 million acres west of Seneca Lake from the Haudenosaunee. He still had to have the Pre-Emption Line and townships surveyed before he could sell any land. He hired Colonel Hugh Maxwell (1733 – 1799), from Heath, Massachusetts for the job.

Maxwell, a Revolutionary War hero, had survey education and experience, impeccable credentials, and an unblemished reputation. This was important for such a large territory that already had some controversy. He left home in May 1788, joined up with Phelps and some other men, and arrived in Geneva (still named Kanadesaga at that point) on June 2.

As mentioned in last month’s blog , Phelps had to wait until July to negotiate land rights with the Haudenosaunee. Maxwell and his assistants left Geneva June 10 to run a trial survey of the Pre-Emption Line. They rowed up Seneca Lake to Catherine’s Town (now Montour Falls) then walked to the Pennsylvania line.

String-bound booklet that Colonel Hugh Maxwell used for his Pre-Emption field notes.

Excerpt from Colonel Hugh Maxwell’s Pre-Emption Line field notes

Historic Geneva has Maxwell’s original field notes of the trial and official surveys of Pre-Emption Line. They include the townships he surveyed, and expense vouchers to pay for labor, food, and the like.  Maxwell used a 4” x 6”, string-bound booklet for his notes. Considering how things are often discarded when passed down from one generation to the next, it’s miraculous we have this in our collection.

In addition to accurate measurements, early surveyors reported on what they saw. One of Maxwell’s notes, near the Pennsylvania line, stated:

The soil pritty good loam.  Then three quarters of a mile and two tally over a pritty high mountain; the timber oak, hickory, chestnut and pine to a small brook, but enough to run a sawmill – and a very good place for one.

This information helped Phelps promote the land to potential buyers.

Maxwell wrote about the timber, topography, soil, and water, but he didn’t mention allowing for the compass pointing to magnetic north. Compensating two degrees-40 minutes was necessary to run a line true north. His June trial survey veered west from the start. He arrived back in Geneva almost 4 miles west of the village. Everyone had expected the line to go through Seneca Lake, but there is no record of challenging Maxwell’s work. When Phelps went to the negotiations with the Haudenosaunee in late June, he accepted that the Pre-emption Line was not where he thought it would be.

Drawing Of Pre Emption Line

The far-left line on this map is Maxwell’s line.

The official survey formally began on July 25, 1788. Again, the notes don’t mention allowing for the magnetic variance. The line wasn’t straight, but went more westward in spots.

Near present-day Dresden the line took an obvious turn west. It would already miss Geneva as it was headed, but some felt there was treachery to make sure the village wasn’t part of the Phelps & Gorham Purchase.

The survey party reached the Geneva area on August 7, 1788. As before, they were at the modern intersection of Pre-Emption Road and Hamilton Street. Maxwell had planned to take a short break and then resume the survey on August 8, but he stayed in Geneva until August 11. On August 9, he wrote his wife, “By disappointment which happened to me this morning, I have not gone to the woods to day…” We don’t know what happened, but the line from Geneva to Lake Ontario followed a more northerly course, as if on a meridian.

Drawing Of Pre Emption Line Near Dresden Ny

Drawing of Pre-Emption Line near Dresden, New York

Oliver Phelps was never happy with the Pre-Emption Line. On August 21, 1788 he wrote to his land agent “to make the most thorough and exact inquiry to find whether that place [Geneva] falls within our purchase.” A month later he wrote again, “I am still dissatisfied about our east line. I am sure it cannot be right.”

 How and when was the Pre-Emption Line controversy finally resolved? Come back in August for the final installment.

Additional Pre-Emption Line Blog Articles



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