Reflections on Big Spring: A History of Pittsford, NY and the Genesee River Valley

Reflections on Big Spring: A History of Pittsford, NY and the Genesee River Valley

by David McNellis
Reflections on Big Spring: A History of Pittsford, NY and the Genesee River Valley

Reflections on Big Spring: A History of Pittsford, NY and the Genesee River Valley

by David McNellis


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Reflections on Big Spring is a thoughtfully researched, highly readable celebration of the rich heritage of the Genesee River Valley, Pittsford, NY and the Big Spring that drew generations of Americans to the area. The Seneca Tribe who lived in the Genesee River Valley for five centuries were the fighting elite of the Iroquois Confederacy. The author chronicles the series of seminal decisions that led to the gradual displacement and ultimate downfall of these proud indigenous people. New Englanders immigrated to the great frontier of western New York State in the early 19th century seeking the well-publicized "agricultural el dorado". These pioneers were of hearty stock and by nature, strong-willed risk-takers. From both of these sturdy gene pools came generations of brave war heroes, inspirational politicians, compassionate humanitarians, civil rights leaders, creative inventors, and revolutionary entrepreneurs. Their influence has been substantial not just locally but throughout the state, the country and the world. Follow the lives of resident humanitarians Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony as their inspired civil rights efforts make history. Consider the courage displayed by lesser-known local heroes who farmed, taught school or ran stores during the day and became "conductors" on the area's Underground Railroad after dark. Oral histories of secret passages, tunnels, caverns and hidden rooms take readers on the "last 100 miles to freedom" ride. Seamlessly woven throughout the text are fascinating facts that define the uniqueness of the Genesee River Valley. While closely tied to its agricultural roots, the area is home to several of the world's most prestigious business enterprises and was the birthplace of a wide variety of revolutionary technologies, business strategies and labor-management practices. Discover how Genesee Valley residents shared amateur photography, xerography, the UPC label, self-service groceries, white hots and cream style mustard with the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781452043562
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 09/09/2010
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

Reflections on Big Spring

A History of Pittsford, NY and the Genesee River Valley
By David McNellis


Copyright © 2010 David McNellis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4520-4356-2

Chapter One

Pleasant Valley — It's the Water

"It's the Water" so proclaimed the ads for Genesee Beer in the 1960's. Madison Avenue contended that the pristine waters of Genesee Lake distinguished the local beer from the competing "imports" from the Midwest or New York City. It was, in fact, "the water", in its various states, that largely shaped the Genesee Valley.

In 40,000 BC, a west and, more substantive, east tributary of the mighty Genesee River flowed north 158 miles from its source near present day Genesee, Pennsylvania before emptying into the Ontario River; now Lake Ontario. The larger eastern branch followed a course that now forms the valleys of Conesus and Hemlock Lakes and the path of present day Irondequoit Creek before entering Irondequoit Bay and Lake Ontario.

Around 38,000 BC, the last of four glaciations crept across what is now North America. The surging headwaters of the eastern branch of the Genesee was no match for the crushing lobe of this last Wiscon-sonian glacier as it marched southward to a point just north of the current Pennsylvania state line. The river's flow was redirected southward into the present day Susquehanna River just south of present day Danville.

As the glacier continued moving south, the remaining branch of the Genesee was pushed westward and forced to cut a new path through limestone escarpments. Variations in density of the earth's crust created a series of three waterfalls as the Genesee River approached Lake Ontario. Present day Rochester, New York exists because of these waterfalls. Pioneer entrepreneurs harnessed the river's power at these points and built mills to process grains harvested from the surrounding fertile valley. Rochester became The Flour City!

Geologically, the area now containing the towns of Pittsford, Perinton, Penfield and Brighton is known as the Valley of the Irondequoit. The valley was not formed by Irondequoit Creek but rather by the glacier that pushed sand and gravel to the border of the valley. Irondequoit Creek is entirely within the boundaries of the former District of Northfield (Eastern Monroe County). Its headwaters are the spring fed ponds in Mendon Ponds Park. It flows thirty four miles, dropping 416 feet, before entering Irondequoit Bay.

Water's seminal impact on the area began with the glacier that sculpted the local topography. Its influence continued with the underground springs that fed Big Spring in what would become the Village of Pittsford. The spring's clear water became a natural meeting place for the local Seneca. A village, foot paths and transportation routes subsequently emerged.

Minor variations in pre-glacial weather patterns would have left the Genesee River's eastern tributary intact. With a bountiful water supply, there would have been no need for the local Seneca tribe to seek out Big Spring and establish a settlement there. A village, perhaps called Pittsford, would have been located on the river's bank somewhere along where Irondequoit Creek now meanders. Or ... perhaps Pittsford would have become the Flour City?

At the opposite end of North America, the Wiscon-sonian glacier was concurrently reshaping the earth's surface; an activity that would facilitate the migration of a broad range of Asian animal species including bison, camel, horse, mammoth, mastodon, opossum, sloth, weasel, wild dog and ... homo sapiens. Sea levels in the world's oceans receded in the range of 150-200 feet exposing heretofore submerged land masses. Where Alaska's Seward Peninsula had been separated from Siberia by fifty miles of Bering Sea, a land bridge emerged connecting the two continents. Hunters and hunted ventured across this isthmus in search of new territories to hunt, explore and reside. Sometime between 6500 and 8500 BC, the mammoth, mastodon, sloth and camels perished in the new environment.

Driven by their insatiable quest for adventure and discovery, the first North American bipedal primates migrated south from Alaska and Canada into what would become the Western United States. From there, they gradually moved eastward to the plains and Great Lakes areas and subsequently to the eastern part of the continent. Simultaneously, these first North American human explorers settled what would become the Southern U.S., Mexico, Central and South America.

The earliest white settlers were attracted to Pleasant Valley when they heard it described as an "agricultural el dorado". The prolific farmland resulted from combining the fecund soil with a dependable source of water supplied by river, creek, lake and precipitation.

Water in the form of Pleasant Valley's ubiquitous winter snow tested the will, character and ultimately the survival of the area's earliest inhabitants. The "winter of the deep snow" which struck western New York State in 1779-1780 was one significant element in the series of fateful events leading to the tragic downfall of the Iroquois Confederacy whose shelter and food stocks had been destroyed at the direction of General George Washington.

In the eighteenth century, the deep, fast moving water allowed for the harnessing of energy to fuel industrial development along the mighty Genesee and beside the smaller, but more manageable, Irondequoit Creek. In the early nineteenth century, the first waters flowed through the Erie Canal and significantly enhanced the area's economic prosperity by allowing the expansion of the market for locally produced commodities. Humid water-laden summer air contributed to the combustible atmosphere of the Rochester street dance that erupted into the first of a series of urban civil rights riots to rock America in the nineteen sixties.

Over the centuries, Pleasant Valley's characteristic heavy winter snows and excessively sultry summers played a role in altering the area's demographics. The harsh climate provided the impetus for some of the increasingly mobile residents to permanently flee for milder and drier climates.

It was the water.

Chapter Two

The Iroquois Confederacy

Between 3500 BC and 2000 BC, New York's indigenous people were of the Lamoka culture. These hunters and gatherers were drawn to the area from the upper Great Lakes area by the bountiful supply of fish and game. This ready supply of indigenous nourishment provided little incentive to clear the land, cultivate and grow food. The Lamoka culture was eventually absorbed by a succession of other hunter/ gatherers: the Frontenac, Laurentian l and Laurentian ll.

The first native people of New York to cultivate and grow substantial portions of their food were the Owascos. While they continued the centuries-long tradition of hunting and fishing, they were the first culture in the area to discover that the climate and soil were ideal for growing beans, squash and corn as well as their discretionary crops of tobacco and herbs. Anthropologists generally agree that their culture immediately preceded the Iroquois and date their presence in the area over three centuries beginning about 1000 AD.

Tribal pride deterred the Iroquois from subscribing to the anthropologic theory that they were descended from a succession of earlier native people who had emigrated from Asia. According to Iroquois legend, the Great Spirit released six families of indigenous people from below a mountain adjoining Oswego Falls. After traveling east to the "great ocean", the six families faced the afternoon sun and walked west. Immediately upon entering what would become Eastern New York State, the first of the families settled the area and became the Mohawk Nation. Next the Oneida, then the Onondaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora families likewise established home lands as they marched westward. Finally the Seneca made their home in the Valley of the Genesee and assumed their responsibilities as "Guardians of the Western Door".

The Seneca tribe has a proud legend of origin separate from the Iroquois Confederacy. According to their oral tradition, Seneca forefathers began their worldly existence in an ancient cave hidden in present day Clark's Gully adjoining Canandaigua Lake. The first Seneca emerged from the cave and appeared on the steep slope of South Hill that had been formed when the Great Spirit opened the earth to form the lake. This sacred site is on the lower southeast side of the lake just south of Bare Hill; twenty two miles from where the Seneca would eventually build their capital at Ganondagan (near Victor) and an additional ten miles from Big Spring. The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, was formed about 1575. It represented the successful consolidation of five native Indian nations residing in New York State into a single social, cultural and governmental entity. The original catalyst for joining forces was to quell intertribal skirmishes and end cannibalism. Within two hundred years, concerns regarding the encroaching white settlers provided added impetus to retain the strength created by the union

These five powerful independent nations dominated the area now containing the State of New York at least since 1300 AD and their ancestors for several thousand years prior. The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk people were ultimately convinced that a joining of nations would be to their mutual advantage by The Great Peacemaker; known by his native people as Deganawida. A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined the confederacy in 1715.

Collectively the Iroquois Confederacy had no peer north of Mexico. They were the best organized and most militarily astute. When attacked or threatened with violence, the Seneca Tribe was the first charged to take up the defense of the confederacy. While the Seneca was the largest single tribe at the time the confederacy was formed, they garnered particular respect and honor because of their unparalleled skills on the battlefield and their role as the primary fighting contingent of the Confederacy. In times of threatened hostility, it was the Seneca war chiefs (sachems) that were responsible for organizing and leading warriors from all nations into the conflict.

At any given time, they were expected to marshal fully one half of the confederacy's fighting force; as many as 10,000 warriors from the ranks of Seneca.

Deganawida (The Great Peacemaker) is credited with consolidating the tribes of Upstate New York to form the Iroquois Confederacy. He was often described as being originally from the Huron Nation. Others proclaim that he was Onondaga by birth but adopted and raised by the Mohawks. Many of his contemporaries believed he was born of a virgin.

The native people consider him a prophet. His prophecies included ... the "white serpent" (the white man) would befriend his Iroquois brothers and sisters and, after gaining their confidence, betray that trust. According to The Great Peacemaker, the "red serpent" would then rise up against the white man. Ultimately he predicted that a "black serpent" would intercede and destroy both the reds and whites. He preached that salvation was reserved for those who obeyed the one "Great Maker" and fostered peace among all. As his name suggested, The Great Peacemaker was a staunch advocate of harmony among all nations. He was highly influential in ending the practice of cannibalism among the Iroquois.

Deganawida's first disciple was the gifted Onondaga orator Hiawatha. After securing an agreement to join the fledgling confederacy from the Onondaga, he convinced Hiawatha to join him in preaching the benefits of peace and consolidation among the remaining, often hostile, nations of New York Indians.

Together they ventured to the Mohawk Nation. Deganawida was immediately rebuffed by the tribal elders. In order to garner attention and respect, he decided to perform a modest miracle. After climbing a tall tree at the edge of what is now known as Cohoes Falls on the Mohawk River, The Great Peacemaker ordered that the tree be chopped down, casting him over the raging falls. The bemused onlookers were certain that he had been pummeled to death on the rocks at the base of the falls or drowned. The next day, they found him warming at a riverside campfire. Word of his great power spread rapidly and the Mohawk Nation immediately declared their intent to align with the emerging Iroquois Confederacy. With the help of Hiawatha, the remaining nations joined to form the dominant organized Native American Indian entity in the Northeast.

This Iroquois Confederacy, known as "People of the Longhouse", was an early representative democracy with a single chief representing his tribe. Each tribe could cast a single vote and decisions required a consensus. The women, who were the leaders of each clan within the nations of the Iroquois, selected male representatives to attend tribal council meetings and vote on behalf of the tribe. Each tribe could have as many representatives as they wished in attendance at tribal councils but when it came time to vote, it was strictly one vote per tribe. The confederacy created a constitution called the Gayanashagowa. Five hundred years hence, this constitution remains operational for the surviving Iroquois people. Many believe that the Iroquois constitution provided the model for the earliest drafts of the United States Constitution.

Because the histories of indigenous peoples were largely passed down in the oral tradition, there are considerable voids in our knowledge base. Such is the case in the naming of certain tribes of people based on their prevailing characteristics or practices. Prior to the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Seneca were known as the "People of the Great Hill". While earlier tribes preferred to build their villages near streams and springs, the Seneca's reputation as fierce warriors resulted in a propensity to build their villages in strong defensive positions; hence on the crest of "great hills". Many of these villages were protected with wooden palisades; some included watch towers. After joining the Iroquois Confederacy, they were alternately known as "People of the Longhouse".

The "People of the Longhouse" moniker had two derivations. First was the Iroquois proclivity to reside in such houses. Long was an understatement. In order to accommodate the twenty to thirty families of a clan they were designed to house, a typical longhouse measured eighty feet in length, 18 feet in width and had a roof that peaked at 18 feet. Straight trees were felled and erected vertically to form the walls. The tops of these trees were bent toward the center of the longhouse to form a sloped roof to shed water and snow. The roof was covered with overlapping bark layered like shingles. Smoke holes were incorporated at the roof peaks every fifteen feet along the longhouse's length. Openings in both ends accommodated egress and were covered with animal skins in cold months. With only the smoke holes emitting light, the longhouses were typically dimly lit.

Normally a single clan occupied a longhouse; its symbol engraved and painted red above each entry. Seneca clans included the bear, wolf, turtle, snipe and hawk. Within the longhouse, individual clan families were assigned small private spaces measuring approximately six feet by nine feet that were defined by curtains made from animal skins. Personal tools, weapons and clothes were stored under seats built into the exterior wall. Mats of corn husk covered with furs buffered the sleeping families from the frigid floor.

The second derivation of the "People of the Longhouse" was a symbolic reference to the fact that the original five nations of the confederacy lined up geographically in an east to west alignment. The eastern most Mohawk nation was called the Keeper of the Eastern Door while the western most Seneca were called the Keeper of the Western Door. The centrally located Onondaga nation was the Keeper of the Fire and hosted the Tribal Council in what was considered the capital of the federation. Collectively these three tribes were known as the Three Brothers.

Seneca Chiefs Cornplanter and Red Jacket were among the most accomplished and respected members of the Seneca Nation. Both were born in 1750, fought for the British in the Revolutionary War and served with the Americans in the War of 1812. Cornplanter's reputation was established as a brutal but effective warrior chief fighting the Colonists. Ironically, he was awarded his own tract of land (The Cornplanter Tract) for exemplary service in ultimately helping bring peace between the Colonists and his people.


Excerpted from Reflections on Big Spring by David McNellis Copyright © 2010 by David McNellis. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Pleasant Valley - It's the Water....................1
2. The Iroquois Confederacy....................4
3. Iroquois Entrepreneurs - Dining on the Enemy....................19
4. Choosing Sides in the White Man's Wars....................24
5. Seneca Capital in Pittsford?....................33
6. The White Man's Upstate New York....................37
7. Canandaigua Treaty of 1794....................46
8. The Fall of the Iroquois Confederacy....................51
9. Jesus Pays a Visit to Pleasant Valley....................55
10. Early Pittsford....................58
11. The Iroquois Renaissance....................71
12. Bringing Jesus to the Heathens....................78
13. The American War....................83
14. Red Jacket's Final Stand....................89
15. The Treaty of Buffalo Creek....................95
16. Northfield-Boyle-Smallwood to Pittsford....................97
17. "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd"....................106
18. The Erie Canal....................119
19. Pleasant Valley's Fred Baily?....................124
20. "Failure Is Impossible"....................127
21. From Agrarian Hub to the "Burbs"....................136
22. Temple of Fine Tailoring....................143
23. Birth of the Imaging Industry....................145
24. Flour City or Flower City....................172
25. What Happened to Big Spring?....................173
26. Pittsford Inn to Fortune 100....................183
27. Pittsford's Pickles, Mustard and Piccalilli....................186
28. "Hanging Around is an Old Custom"....................191
29. "Dry Writing" to Xerography....................203
30. It Takes a Village!....................218
31. The "Wake-Up Call"....................223
32. Imaging Re-invented for the 21st Century....................228
33. Pittsford "Another Fort Lauderdale!"....................240
34. Medals From the President....................245
35. The Iroquois Today....................251
36. Century Farms....................257
37. Reflections on Big Spring....................267
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