Standing proudly on Main Street in Penn Yan is the anchor building of the Yates County History Center, the Oliver House Museum, one of three buildings comprising the YCHC. The Center, formerly Yates County Genealogical & Historical Society, is one of the oldest in NYS, has been actively collecting, preserving and interpreting history since 1860. Continue reading about us...

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Hezekiah Townsend

The Pioneer blacksmith of Yates County, whose ancestors came directly from Holland, was born at Fishkill in the State of New York.

His father and grandfather before him numbered with the hardy sons of Vulcan, and it being in accordance with his tastes, he adhered to the same profession. On attaining his majority he went to Pennsylvania where he settled about twelve miles below Athens in Bradford Co. on the Susquehanna River.

At this place he married Miss Hannah Shaw whose native place was near his own in Fishkill. Moved by a restless spirit of enterprise, and following the tide of emigration, which was then setting towards the New Jerusalem, he came to this county by the Indian Trail accompanied by his brother-in-law Benjamin Shaw. At that time there were but three log huts from Elmira to the head of the lake. At this point he secured the use of a log canoe by which his effects and family, (which consisted of a wife and one son, some 4 years old) were brought to Norris' Landing, which was about one mile south of the present site of Dresden. From that point, they came on to their forest home, where it was their's to carve a fortune and raise a name, amid all the trials and discouragement incident to a settlers life at that early day. The farm is at present owned and occupied by Allen Owens and lies in the town of Torrey. The site they chose lies within the present township of Torrey. Here Hezekiah established himself as a blacksmith, and the foundation for his anvil was the stump of a tree in his first clearing. The Friend's mill had been built about a year previously and he had been employed to do considerable finishing work to the structure.

Since food was scarce for the early settlers, clearing land and planting crops took the bulk of his time. His wife, Hannah, a true pioneering woman, helped with the clearing task by taking a torch and fagot to burn through and sever the huge trees into manageable lengths for logging. Night and day the Townsends kept their fires burning until a small lot was sufficiently cleared to begin "chopping" in some corn among the stumps.

While thus engaged in his first chopping, the larder was kept supplied with venison by means of his trusty rifle. Early in the morning he would waylay the deer as they came to browse the buds of the last fallen treetops, and on one occasion, he brought two at a single shot.

But friendly Indians, many of whose wigwams were on his place, helped him greatly to provisions, for they having frequent occasion to have their guns and locks repaired, and he being skillful at that, much game was brought to him in lieu of his services and by them he was held in high repute.

As time wore on, their stock of flour ran low, and their only source of supply being their former home, Mrs. Townsend, whose skill in horsemanship was not excelled by any woman of her day, resolved to go. Accordingly with her little boy, Elijah behind her, she set out on horseback on the expedition, which occupied two days, being a distance of 70 miles, on the Indian trail.

Both going and coming the Susquehanna had to be swam, and the "Narrows" to be crossed over, which was a perilous foot or bridle path below Athens where the mountains come boldly up to the river, and around this bluff with the river 100 feet below and so narrow in some places that to meet was impossible, and a single misstep would have been sure destruction. But the trip was accomplished and the needed supplies were brought, which kept the wolf from the door while with brave hearts and strong hands they continued to battle with the difficulties incident to their position which well might have appalled persons less resolute than themselves.

The first season being passed safely, which is always the most difficult for a new settler, and the necessaries of a home being provided for, the gradually increasing wants of the community which was rapidly filling up, made his trade a lucrative one. One department in which he particularly excelled was the making of traps.

The denizens of the forest were loath to give up their favorite haunts, and did not submit tamely to the encroachments of the white man on the contrary, the wolf, and the bear seemed to prowl around the home of the settler as though the growing swine and sheep were reared for their especial benefit. Mr. Townsend wrought one trap that weighed 22 lbs., and once on a time he set it to catch a bear that had been making inroads on a little piece of corn just opposite and below the site of the Farmer's Mill, now occupied by Jabez May, and just above where the Cascade Paper Mill was burned last year.

The trap required the united efforts of two men with handspikes to set it, and was placed one night beneath some hazel bushes in which a tempting hornet's nest was hung for bait. On visiting the spot in the morning, the trap was missing. The alarm was sounded and soon the whole neighborhood with dogs and guns were out in quest of the intruder.

It was nearly noon before he was discovered. He was found to be a bear of the largest dimensions. The trap, which was armed with spikes, had caught Bruin by the forepaw. The onset was made, and up and down Bruce's gully and the adjacent hillsides it was kept up vigorously. The bear when hotly pressed would raise himself upright and supporting the trap with both paws would sometimes go 20 to 30 rods at high speed. Again if any of the dogs approached sufficiently near, he was sure to close in with them, but was as soon forced to loosen his hold by a little Terrier that always was ready when opportunity offered to attack him in the rear. Probably he obtained his advantage by what military men might call flank, movement. By giving him no chance for rest however, he was finally captured before night, within 100 rods of where the chase began, and his carcass divided among his pursuers. My informant, Manchester Townsend, who was an eye witness, said that it was a very exciting affair; for although a very small boy and dressed in a pair of nankeen pants, he had ridden behind his father when he went to see the trap in the morning, and when night came, to his dismay, he found that for the most part, his new pants had been left on the bushes and briars during the chase.

The Indians were very familiar and friendly unless when in liquor, when they sometimes made rather troublesome visitors. On one occasion during Mr. Townsend's absence, an Indian came in and insisted on helping himself to the contents of the pantry to which objection were of course made by Mrs. Townsend. He became very boisterous and was making some desperate flourishes with his knife, when luckily, Mr. Townsend returned, and seizing a chair as though about to demolish him, compelled the intruder to give up his knife, and then bade him lie down by the fire. Having slept off the effect of the liquor, towards morning he left with as little noise as possible, and before the sun went down, came back with a nice piece of venison which he begged them to accept, making the best apology in his power, by saying, "sorry, sorry."

To show with what regard Mr. Townsend was held by the Indians, and how necessary they considered him to their welfare, one little circumstance that assumed quite a serious aspect is quite to the point. It was after he had begun living in a blockhouse and Dr. Dorman, (father to Joel Dorman who lived N.W. of Penn Yan), who was one of the first if not the first practicing physician in these parts, made his abode with him. An out-door cellar had been made against the end of the house in which were kept provisions etc., and from which articles were missing occasionally. At one time the Dr. hearing a disturbance thereabouts, with knife in hand rushed in to ascertain the cause, when he discovered a small dog belonging to the neighboring Indian, making his egress through an aperture which it was evident he did not pass as readily as when he came in. Now the Dr. had a keen sense of the ridiculous in his composition and suiting the action to the thought, just dismembered his caudal appendage, and the dog in his mutilated condition made his best time for home, where upon seeing it the indignation of the owner was raised to a high pitch. He rallied his clan who quickly assembled in war dress and war paint started for the home of the white man to have retaliation or redress for their wrong. The occupants of the block-house were made aware in some way of the storm that was brewing; and in the meanwhile he put themselves in the best possible condition for defense. Before the day was gone the Indians were seen coming with tomahawks uplifted and in single file and made a halt near the present bridge east of the house. The besieged ones awaited with fear the war whoop that should signal the charge. They had made every preparation and were determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible. It was evident, however that a good deal of indecision was manifested by some of the attacking party, and the jabbering among them was long and loud. They finally dispersed and were seen no more in their war costume. They saw probably that their chances were pretty sure of coming off second best, but a friendly Indian said that it was because Mr. Townsend had made himself so useful to them by means of his handicraft, that they couldn't spare him now.

As the forests continued to give way to the encroachments of the settler's ax, and the clearings to assume the magnitude of cultivated fields, the demand for his services was manifested in a different way. As they continued to assume the aggressive in invading the domain of the Red man, the primitive plow required the aid of the blacksmith to relay and to sharpen, and people from Bath from Bloomfield from Naples and Geneva and other distant points, came on foot with their plow irons on their backs and their lunch in their pockets, to get their needed repairs.

That Mr. Townsend was a man who merited the confidence of his neighbors is evident from the fact that he was given the Captaincy of the Militia and afterwards promoted to the rank of Major, and at the time of his death, for 20 years had held the office of Justice of the Peace at his own residence.

Only a week before his death, which was thought to have been brought on by having extracted a defective tooth, he united a couple in marriage, though so weak at the time that he was obliged to receive support while going through with the ceremony.

His death occurred in 1828 at the age of 60 years. His wife survived him almost 40 years and died at the extraordinary age of 101 years at the residence of her son, Manchester Townsend, in the township of Torrey, Yates Co, NY on March 19th, 1866.

Hanna and Hezehiah Townsend raised a family of seven children, four sons and three daughters, all of whom reached the age of maturity and all married except one. Their names were respectively Elijah, Phebe, Abigail, Manchester, Hezekiah, Deborah and Henry. Elijah married Sally Gore, daughter of Squire Gore of Bradford Co. Pa., where he followed the occupation of a farmer, raised a family of seven children and where he now resides at the age of nearly 80 years. The children were named Henry, Hezehiah, Hannah, Sarah, Emeline and Deborah.

Phebe married Jno. O. Cook of Starkey, where they raised a family of four children, Ezra D., Daniel, Hannah Maria and Caroline, and she died, her husband marrying a second time.

Abigail married Jacob B. Hall of Geneseo and had four children, one son John, and three daughters Sarah, Abigail and Emily. Manchester married Prudence Blackmar.

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