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The History of Ontario County

The County of Ontario is located 8 miles from Rochester in the heart of upstate New York. Ontario County includes 2 cities, 16 towns, 8 villages, 2 colleges, and 17 school districts. Our county seat was founded in 1789 within the historic City of Canandaigua. Today, a 21 member Board of Supervisors oversees the services provided to over 100,000 residents. 

Ontario, “the “Mother of Counties” in western New York, has been the stage upon which has been played much of the history of the Empire State.

Purchased from the Indians by Massachusetts speculators Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, “Old Ontario” was the scene of dramatic events long before the birth of George Washington. The Seneca Iroquois, the “Great Hill People,” lived in Ontario County hundreds of years before Columbus set sail. In the rolling hills between Victor and East Bloomfield they built their great “peace town,” Ganondagan. The site of that town is now the newest State Historical Site with trails and a visitors center interpreting the history and culture of the Iroquois people.

French missionaries came to Ontario County as early as the 1660’s. They abandoned their efforts shortly before the Marquis de Nonville brought a great French army to attack the Seneca villages in the Genesee Country.

During the American Revolution, Seneca warriors and Loyalist Rangers used villages at Canandaigua, Honeoye, Naples, and Geneva as staging areas for frontier raids. General John Sullivan, acting on Washington’s orders, retaliated for those raids by devastating the Indian towns in 1779. In later years many of Sullivan’s troopers returned to live in the fertile Finger Lakes Region.

In the years following the Revolution, Ontario County, then all the land west of Seneca Lake, was settled quickly. An attempt by Hudson Valley land barons to purchase the land was foiled by the State Legislature and in 1788 Phelps and Gorham bought the land between Seneca Lake and the Genesee River from the Indians. They also had to pay Massachusetts which had a tenuous legal claim to the area.  Land offices were set up in Canandaigua and Bath. The land was surveyed into townships, and the floodgates were opened to pioneers from New England, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Later, Charles Williamson, developer for the successors to Phelps and Gorham, set up land offices in Geneva and other locations.

Canandaigua became the frontier capital of western New York after a surveyor’s error placed Geneva east of the Massachusetts Pre-Emption Line. Canandaigua’s position of prominence made it an exciting place. In 1794 the United States government concluded one of its first treaties with the Indians there. The “Pickering Treaty” is still in force and is marked by observances each November 11. Politicians like Gideon Granger and John C. Spencer rose to national prominence. John Swift, Peter B. Porter, and Claudius Victor Boughton became regional heroes in the War of 1812 which raged close by.

Ontario County, in its early years, was also the cultural center of the area. Here the oldest continuously published newspaper west of the Hudson River is still printed. Early book sellers flourished in the county, and half a dozen private schools were established. The first female physician in the United States was educated at Geneva Medical College in the late 1840’s. Philanthropist William Wood began a portrait collection for the court house which is still growing. The earliest public library in the area was established at Geneva in 1797.

Before the Civil War, Ontario County was a hotbed for the social and political reforms of the day. The 1826 kidnapping of Batavia resident William Morgan from the county jail prompted the founding of the Anti-Masonic Party. While shortlived, that party is credited with holding the first national conventions for candidate selection. Several stations on the Underground Railroad were established in the county after 1850. The Court House was the scene of several hotly contested trials held under the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1872 a federal court, sitting in Canandaigua, found Susan B. Anthony guilty of violating a federal statute when she voted in Rochester. One of the first true mental hospitals in the state was set up in Canandaigua at Brigham Hall; cited now on the National Register of Historic Places. About the same time, Dr. Foster’s water cure at Clifton Springs began a regional rise to prominence. The old “San” still stands, another entry on the National Register, and the village enjoys an outstanding medical reputation.

During the Civil War parts of more than 12 regiments were raised in Ontario County. The 126th NY Volunteers, raised almost entirely in the county, accounted for three of the six Medals of Honor awarded to county men. A feature of the Court House is a two-story black marble monument to the men who died at places like Gettysburg and the wilderness. Oddly enough, Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s rival, once lived in Phelps and was educated at Canandaigua Academy.

The late 1800’s were a time of vital growth in Ontario County. The completion of the Lehigh Valley Railroad in 1892 capped a half century of transportation development. Once a rail hub linking Niagara Falls and Albany; Sodus and Corning; Buffalo and Baltimore; the county boasts, at Fishers, the second oldest railroad building in the United States.

The extensive lake boat systems are gone now; replaced by miles of good roads. An early beneficiary of the “good roads movement,” the Town of Canandaigua received national publicity for its efforts in 1894.

Industry and commerce have always been important in Ontario County. However, the interests of county business have changed with the times. Always an agricultural center, the county was early committed to the wine and grape industry as well as traditional dairy and grain interests. The first Agricultural Experiment Station in the state was established in Geneva in 1882.

Over the years, county manufacturers have risen to prominence for the production of many things. Ontario County products have included enamelware, farm machinery, office supplies, sporting goods, chemical products, ceramics, cereal and metal products. Later years have witnessed the introduction of “high tech” industries producing computer applications where once stood blacksmith shops, grist mills, and spoke factories.

The tourist industry has always been important to the county. Visitors from Europe arrived in the 1790’s; and the Marquis de Lafayette came in 1824. Dozens of passenger trains came and went each day half a century ago. Half a dozen steamboats once plied Canandaigua and Seneca Lakes. Now the place of the trains and boats has been taken by automobiles and tour buses visiting historic sites and resort hotels. Roseland Amusement Park, closed in 1985, achieved regional prominence for over 60 years. Now even larger crowds flock to the campus of Community College of the Finger Lakes; summer home of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and a stage for national talent.

The cultural pride of Ontario County is on display everywhere. From the new County Archive (open to visitors) to well-kept historic districts and eight professionally operated museums, visitors and residents alike can savor the heritage of “Old Ontario.”