Social History: Early Settlement




Sherman Fall

Photography by Thomas Whiteley




Like many of the frontier areas west of the Appalachian Mountains, the majority of New York State east of the Hudson and upstream from the Mohawk River Valley were generally considered wilderness territories and were often too remote for the development of any sizeable settlements. However in the few decades after the Revolutionary War, the region was soon surveyed, divided into land grants, and sold for the purpose of converting wilderness areas into tillable agricultural lands. The West Canada Creek Valley was no exception. In fact, early pre-war land grants were delineated on their western borders by West Canada Creek, and with the preponderance of waterfalls useful for the construction of saw and grist mills, West Canada Creek became an immediate center of settlement. Moreover, the presence of rich, fertile soils weathered from the underlying bedrock contributed significantly to the establishment of farms in the region.

Although much of the early settlement of the West Canada Valley saw the clear cutting of forests through the development of logging and potash industries, and the establishment of meager subsistence farming industries, by the turn of the century substantial areas along the valley were clear cut and more substantive dairy farms were the common industry in the region. As a result of the fairly prosperous early settlers, by the time John Sherman made his faithful trip to the Trenton Gorge in 1806, many communities had developed in the region on both sides of the Kuyahoora including the towns of Trenton, Remsen, and indeed Barneveld. Moreover, by 1822, when Sherman purchased the tract of land encompassing the lower end of Trenton Falls, the upland regions were transformed from the remote wilderness into fully tamed, and tilled crop and grazing lands. This fact was so true, that part of the reason Sherman made his purchase was arguably to preserve a portion of the untamed wilderness retreat that was Trenton Falls.

The following discussion, briefly summarizes some of the major societal developments in the vicinity of Trenton Falls, especially those that relate to the geology of the region. Much of the information contained herein is derived from several primary sources including the books published on Trenton Falls by John Sherman (1827), Charlotte Pitcher (1915), and more recently by M. Paul Keesler (1999). If the reader is so inclined a more detailed discussion of many aspects of the history of West Canada Valley is presented in the text entitled "Kuyahoora--Discovering West Canada Valley by the later author. >>Back to Top

Post Revolutionary War Era: Land Grants & Early Industry

Although the central New York region along the Mohawk and West Canada Valleys had been traveled by the Iroquois and early settlers, the region remained sparsely settled prior to the Revolutionary War. However, immediately following the American Revolution, a major exodus of "Yankee Farmers" from New England along with a new round of immigrants took advantage of land grant property sales and made the committment to settle the newly available frontier (Keesler, 1999). As such, many settlers took upon the immense chore of taming and settling within the West Canada Creek Valley. The first settlers to West Canada Creek recognized the upland areas in the vicinity of Trenton Falls as idealic for the establishment of farms. The well-drained fertile soils, although somewhat rocky, were preferred over the swampy and seasonally flooded regions within the valley bottom and further downstream toward the Mohawk. As such, by 1786, settlements had developed in the present day Town of Russia on the east side of Trenton Gorge and by the turn of the century, additional settlements were made on the west side of the gorge as well. As these regions were heavily wooded and fairly remote, the early years of settlement were difficult and farmers were forced to cut trees, build cabins, and plant crops in the shadows of still more trees. The engraving below provides an idea of what some of these early farmsteads may have looked during this time.




Early Wilderness Farm: Taming the Wilds

Engraving from: American Agriculturalist

November (1864)



Despite the difficulty and remoteness of the upper West Canada Valley near Trenton Falls, by the turn of the century many improvements had been made, additional acreage had been cleared, and more roadways were established enabling the transport of forestry, and agricultural products to markets. In fact, Keesler (1999) has stated that by 1825, most of New York's frontier regions had been purchased, including those in the West Canada Valley and were being cleared and cultivated by scores of immigrant farmers. Once roadways were established, the pace of deforestation was magnified by the development of the potash industry which not only provided an additional source of income for the immigrant farmers, but also fueled the incentive to clear lands for agricultural use. The illustration below, drawn by David Hamilton (Keesler, 1999) emphasizes the processes involved in the production of potash. However, most compelling is the comparison of this image with that from above. Although these scenes represent an artist's rendition of early industry in frontier America, the fact remains, that by the 1820's and scarely 40 years after the initial settlement of the region, much of West Canada Valley and indeed much of upstate New York had become substantially modified. >>Back to Top




Potash Industry in the early 1800's

Drawing by: David W. Hamilton

(from Keesler, 1999)


Post Revolutionary War Era: Farming and Quarrying

By the time John Sherman established his rural resort at Trenton Falls, much of the New York frontier had been settled, and saw the development of a variety of industries working in tandem with the flourishing agricultural industries. As much of the land had already been cleared of timber either for homestead construction or for the potash industry, some of the local farmers having subsisted in small, shoddily built log cabins required the construction of more substantial dwellings. Luckily for the farmers in the uplands near Trenton Falls, local bedrock exposures on many farms provided the opportunity to develop yet another cooperative industry. In many cases, these farmers opened small quarries to supply both building stone, and cement lime, with some additional quantities of agricultural lime also produced.

Although the quarrying was generally small in scale and done using simple prybars and rock sledges, many farmers produced enough quarried stone and limestone products that they could sell them locally. Unfortunately, the quality of these lime products, with their high shale content, prevented the development of larger-scale operations. However once the quarrying operations commenced, observant farmers immediately recognized the unique fossils from their quarried limestones, and unknowingly opened a new chapter in the development of their region. >>Back to Top



© 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College