Early Settlers and Events at the Village of Little Falls

Source: "History of Herkimer County, N. Y."
F. W. Beers & Co., 1879

View of Little Falls, N.Y.

There were German inhabitants in nearly every direction around the present village before the Revolution, but only one habitable dwelling and a grist-mill within the present corporation limits. The grist-mill, destroyed during the Revolution, was erected by the Petrie family, and was located on the river near the bed of the old canal, and fed by Furnace creek and the river.

The dwelling house referred to was occupied by the miller and his assistants, and probably by persons employed at the carrying places.

Alexander Ellice, an English merchant and fur trader, acquired the title to the land at the falls, and to several other tracts of farming lands in this county and in various parts of the State. In his employ a Scotchman of the name of John Porteus came and established a trading-house here in the year 1790. William Alexander afterwards came as a clerk for Porteus, and married his daughter, and at his death succeeded him in business as a merchant and as a land agent for Ellice. The old Yellow House, as it was called then, the only dwelling within the present village limits, standing until a few years ago on the west side of Furnace creek, just above where it empties into the river, was the home and place of business of both Porteus and Alexander. It was a two-story double house, and for the last fifty years was occupied as a tenement-house until it was moved off by Hon. W. I. Skinner and converted into a barn on a site some twenty rods further west, where it now abides.

Besides those already mentioned there were among those who came to Little Falls between the years 1790 and 1800 and remained here permanently until death, Richard Phillips, Thomas Smith, Joel Lankton, Richard Winsor, William Carr, William Moralee, Washington Britton, Alpheus Parkhurst, John Drummond, Eben Britton and Josiah Skinner.

Among those who came to Little Falls soon after the close of the Revolution and settled on the Glen purchase was Colonel William Feeter, a native of the territory now embraced in Fulton county. It is recorded that his name, before it became anglicized, was written Veeder, or Vedder; and in 1786, when he was commissioned an ensign in the militia, it was written Father. In 1791, he was appointed a justice of the peace in Herkimer county under the name of William Veeder. His father was a native of Wittemberg, Germany. At the commencement of the war of the Revolution the family was settled in the neighborhood of Johnstown, and was so much under the influence of the Johnsons that all of them except William then quite a young man, followed the fortunes of Sir John and went with him to Canada.

The colonel clung with tenacity to the cause he espoused, and was foremost in the war against the invaders of the Mohawk valley. It is further recorded of him that on one occasion, in the year 1781, when a party of Indians and tories made a descent upon a settlement in the Palatine district, for the purpose of plunder and murder, he took an active part in punishing them. Colonel Willett ordered twenty-five volunteers, among them Colonel Feeter, to go in pursuit. They moved so rapidly that they came upon the enemy's burning camp-fires early next morning. Feeter and six other men were directed to keep the trail, and after a rapid pursuit of two miles in the woods, a party of Indians were discovered lying flat on the ground. When they saw Feeter approaching they arose and fired. The fire was returned with such telling effect that the entire gang of Indians and tories fled, leaving their accoutrements. They were pursued and three of their party killed.

When Colonel Feeter moved to Little Falls, he located on a farm that he cultivated with success for over fifty years. He raised a family of five sons and seven daughters, some of whom are still living. He died in the year 1844.

The Rev. Caleb Alexander, when on his missionary tour to the western parts of this State in 1801 by the direction of the Massachusetts Missionary Society, wrote concerning Little Falls as follows: "November, 1801.-- Monday, 23d, set out from Fairfield on my journey homewards. Cold weather. Rode south seven miles to the Little Falls with a view of taking a boat to fall down the river to Schenectady. Found the Mohawk covered with ice; then rode up the river seven miles to German Flats to take the stage. Finding that the stage did not run until to-morrow I crossed the Mohawk to Herkimer Court-house, two miles. Around the Little Falls the country is hilly and very rocky near the river. On the northern bank are seven locks and a canal for the conveyance of boats. Here is a village of forty houses, several merchant stores, mechanical shops and a new meeting-house of hexagonal construction. The people are principally English and they seldom have preaching. The place abounds in vice, especially profanity. Since my arrival on the river I have heard more cursing and swearing, horrid oaths and imprecations than in ten years past. They fell chiefly from the lips of boatmen. In some taverns were English and Dutch farmers drinking and swearing, and the English appeared to be the most abandoned. They regard not the presence of a clergyman, for the dominie drinks and swears as much as the common people."

Old CanalThe old canal and locks on the north side of the river were constructed between 1792 and 1795 by the Inland Lock Navigation Company. They were part of a system to connect the navigable waters of the Mohawk river with Oneida lake through Wood creek, and through the Oswego river with Lake Ontario. The canal here had five wooden locks. These were rebuilt of stone eight or nine years later. The State bought out the Inland Lock Navigation Company and used the old canal for a feeder of the Erie. It also constructed the basin on the line of the old canal between Ann and Second streets, and connected it with the Erie Canal by the aqueduct across the river. That part of the old canal east of the basin was abandoned. The remains of the lower locks are still to be seen, and form part of the mill canal to Waite's paper-mill.

To induce the State to build the basin where boats could lie to be loaded and unloaded a considerable sum was raised by individual subscription by the citizens. About one-half the cost was contributed in this way.

The Erie Canal was finally opened from Lake Erie to the Hudson river in 1825, but had been in use for two or three years before that for part of its extent as the work progressed. At Little Falls before its final completion it had a temporary terminus from the west near the first lock below the falls, at the foot of Moss Island. Until the canal period a part of the river ran on the south side of Moss Island, and this branch was adopted as part of the canal and the river turned wholly in the north channel. The same thing occurred at the enlargement of the canal in 1839 in regard to Seely Island, which up to that time divided the river into two channels. These natural beds between the islands and the south shore greatly facilitated the construction of the canal and gave it ample breadth and depth at those places.

The completion of the canal in 1825 was celebrated with imposing ceremonies. Hon. Augustus Beardsley represented Little Falls in the festivities of that occasion.

We have said that Alexander Ellice had become the proprietor of land about Little Falls [earlier article]. He was an Englishman and a merchant of London. At his death, about the year 1808, the property descended to his numerous children. Of these Edward Ellice was one. He bought in the shares of the rest of the family, and became and continued sole proprietor until 1831. He also continued the policy of his father, which was to retain the title in himself and derive an income from rents on leases, either in perpetuity or for long terms, with various restrictions according to old English practices. Up to 1825 there were some seventy or eighty lots let on these durable leases to fifteen or twenty individuals. These leases were in perpetuity, and for each lot sixty by one hundred and twenty feet $3 a year was the rent. In the earliest leases a clause was inserted prohibiting the establishment of stores for the sale of goods, that business being reserved as a perquisite for Ellice's agents. The water power was also under a restriction, and could not be had either by lease or purchase. The Ellice's owned a saw-mill and grist-mill which they leased at large rent, and they wanted no competitors. They, however, finally became more conciliatory and about the year 1820 they leased a site for a fulling-mill, and in 1824 one to Messrs. Sprague & Dann for a paper-mill. Of course the prosperity of the village was retarded by these restrictions. In 1825 some three or four dwelling sites in fee were sold; one to Sanders Lansing, one to Nathaniel S. Benton, and one to David Petrie. Occasionally afterwards other dwelling sites were sold. Most of the old lessees had several lots. The principal proprietors up to the year 1825 were Eben Britton, Thomas Gould, Thomas Smith, Robert Hinchman, Samuel Smith, Solomon Lockwood, the heirs of William Alexander and John Alexander, and those of John Protheroe and William Morrallee.

At this time the village had a population of between six and seven hundred. Catharine and First streets, now Main street, extending from Gould's (now Beattie's) brewery to Furnace creek; and Ann street, from the river northward to Main street and thence up past the "old pepperbox church," were the only streets occupied and improved so that a carriage could traverse them. Western avenue west of Furnace creek was not laid out or opened until several years later, and then this improvement was fought by the Ellice agents. It was finally accomplished under the decision of a court sustaining the village corporation ordinance for that purpose. The turnpike passed through Main street from the east to Ann street; thence down Ann street to and across the old canal; thence along where Mill street now is to the upper lock and across the stone bridge still standing there; afterwards, instead of turning down Ann street, it continued westward to Furnace creek; thence down and across the old canal past the old "Yellow House" to which allusion has been made.

This was the state of things until about the year 1828, except the few erections and improvements that had been made on Main and Ann streets and two or three dwellings on Garden street. Ann street north of Garden was a pasture, and all that part of the village east of Second street and south of the lots fronting on Main street, extending to the river, as well as that portion east of the Salisbury road, was a dreary wilderness thickly covered with white cedar undergrowth.

Besides the stage house mentioned was one kept by Samuel Smith in the western part of the village, and here the "Pioneer stage" had its headquarters.

The hand of improvement worked changes slowly but surely. In the issue of the People's Friend of June 19th, 1822, was the following on "Inland Navigation:"

"This has become a pleasant subject. The general liveliness which has prevailed on our streets since the commencement of the regular trips of the packets between this and Utica is really cheering. But the interest of the thing is by no means confined to these: an unaccountable number of other boats of various forms and dimensions continue to crowd both the river and Erie Canal. On the 16th, we are told, thirty boats were together on the river at the landing place half a mile above Little Falls, while a number more lay in the canal close by."

In 1831 Edward Ellice sold out his real estate, and in the course of a few years it came into the hands of Richard R. Ward and James Munroe, Esqs., of the city of New York, not, however, as joint owners. No sale of the water power in separate lots or privileges was made before Mr. Ward became the sole owner of all that portion of the original purchase of Mr. Ellice. When these were brought into market, General Bellinger, the principal owner of the water power on the south side of the river, supposing a first appropriation might not harmonize with his interests, also came into market, and mills, factories and foundries were soon in operation, giving life, vigor and animation to this circumscribed spot. In 1830 the whole population of the town was 2,539, and about 1,700 of that number were within the village limits. On the 1st day of June, 1855, the population of the village was 3,972.

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