[On Broadway, Daniel Breaker shines as Alexander Hamilton’s greatest rival, Aaron Burr. JOAN MARCUS / HAMILTON UPTOWN LLC]
Like the mighty Mississippi during flood season, our magisterial series The Presidential Visits Series in its entirety: James Monroe to Joseph Biden, has overflown its banks, now encompassing vice presidents, a king, a marquis, failed candidates and three presidential assassins. Today, we add the third Vice President, Aaron Burr, serving from 1801 to 1805 during President Thomas Jefferson’s first term.
Poor Aaron Burr.
By the early 1800s he’d been a Revolutionary War hero. A successful attorney in New York City. Attorney General of New York. A major power broker in the state legislature. US Senator (1791-1797). Vice President (1801 to 1805). And the only man to lose the presidency after being tied in the electoral college vote. Now remembered for little more than winning a duel and playing the villain in a Broadway musical about the guy he shot, he’s not remembered at all for his land speculations and his trip(s) to Western New York and his probable visit to the High Falls of the Genesee, a visit which made him the first Big Name in American History to reach what would become the City of Rochester. (1)
As the history book tells us, Burr’s presidential quest was short and unsweet. Running in 1796 for the Democratic-Republican presidential nomination and losing to Thomas Jefferson, who in turn lost the election to John Adams, Burr ran in 1800 as Jefferson’s vice presidential candidate, inadvertently ending up as an Almost President in an Electoral College vote tie with Tom. The first, and last, time such a tie would, or could, occur. With the election thrown into the House of Representatives, it took 36 ballots to elect Jefferson as our third president, leaving Burr to serve as his now less-than-enthusiastic VP.
But politics aside, in the years leading up to 1800, Burr’s attention, and the attention of many Americans from George Washington on down, had been focused on ways to make a buck by speculating on newly-opened lands on the American frontier. In New York’s case, that meant the territory from Seneca Lake west to the Niagara River.
Following the end of the Revolution and the opening to settlement of millions of acres of land in Western New York, lands stolen, I mean “purchased” from the Seneca Nation for the literal handful of trinkets, speculation in these lands commenced with Massachusettsans Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham (See The President Who Owned Rochester) – who initially grabbed the entire 6,000,000 acres west of Seneca Lake for a few cents an acre – being positive they’d make a fortune from the deal. What actually happened was that Genesee Fever, the dream of getting rich quick buying and selling Western New York lands, created a revolving door where huge tracts were bought, payments defaulted on, the land then being acquired by a new round of speculators who, equally confident that they could make a killing, ended up being financially killed themselves. (2)
In quick succession, ownership of multi-million acre chunks of real estate passed from Phelps and Gorham, to Thomas Morris, to the Holland Land Company (a consortium of Dutch banking houses), and on down the food chain with the major players attempting in turn to sell smaller parcels to private individuals and settlers associations. Making matters even more convoluted, New York law prohibited foreigners from owning land in the state, requiring the Holland Land Company and other foreign investors to use corporate slight-of-hand and American agents to hold title to their property.
Into this acreage of financial carnage rode Aaron Burr.
By the mid-1790s, the recently-widowed Burr, always in need of cash to support a lavish lifestyle for himself and his daughter Theodosia, had begun to invest heavily in frontier lands. In 1795 he’d purchased land in what is now the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge and had also contracted to buy 20,000 acres near Presque Isle, today’s Erie, Pennsylvania. And at about the same time he began to eye lands in the Genesee Country.
As far as can be determined, Burr twice visited Western New York. First in 1795, and again in 1798. But assembling a coherent picture of his visits is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle where most of the pieces are missing. The problem being that over the years many of Burr’s papers and letters have been lost. Most notably, several boxes of correspondence which his daughter was transporting when they, and she, were lost at sea near Cape Hatteras in 1813. So all we’re left with are the occasional letter, a newspaper clipping here and there, some scattered land records, and the collected recollections of a few early Genesee Country pioneers and their progeny. And while the 1798 date is carved in historical stone, we can’t discount the possibility that the 1795 date, in whole of part, has somehow been confused with the 1798 visit. (Recent discussions with town and county historians from Canandaigua to Buffalo have failed to uncover any source for the story of Burr’s 1795 sojourn other than Turner. (3)
The Niagara Road
While the dates of Burr’s travels to the Genesee Country may be debatable, his method of transportation and his route here aren’t. In the late 18th. Century anyone wanting to travel through Western New York did so at their own risk on horseback along a narrow, lonely, muddy, bridgeless, pot-hole strewn route, the Niagara Road. Connecting with roads running from Albany and the Mohawk Valley, the Niagara road meandered through the handful of small and scattered settlements of Geneva, Canandaigua, Avon (known then as Hartford), across the Genesee River via Berry’s ferry and traversing the unpopulated and vast wilderness to Niagara Falls and ultimately Fort Niagara on the northwest corner of the state. The trip from Albany to Niagara took about 10 to 14 days and, except for the occasional rustic tavern or far-more-rustic cabin where one could find a place to sleep and a meal, the journey required the traveler to carry their own trusty rifle for warding off wolves, and a bed roll, cooking pots and food for camping out at night with the wildlife and mosquitoes as companions.
“Being last fall in Ontario County…” — Burr 1798
The only account we have of Burr’s 1798 visit to Western New York is in his own hand. It’s straight-forward, succinct, and devoid of detail. As a favor to his future boss, Thomas Jefferson, Burr traveled to Ontario County to research land records and handle some lawsuits for one of Jefferson friends. It should be noted that at that time Ontario County comprised all of Western New York from Seneca Lake to the Niagara River, with the exception of Steuben County. Burr would undoubtedly have had to journey to Canandaigua, the governmental center for the vast territory. But how long he stayed there, where else he might have traveled in the Genesee Country, and what else we might have done, we have no clue.
All we have are the six words that begin his February 1799 letter to Jefferson, “Being last fall in Ontario County…”
The Road to the Falls — Burr 1795
To set the stage for a 1795 visit by Burr, we know from the Dec. 8, 1795 issue of the Albany Gazette that Burr, mounting an ultimately unsuccessful run for governor, “made unusually friendly visits in the Middle, Eastern and Western districts of the state…supposedly riding circuit in the four counties, acting as deputy prosecutor for the people”.
Most of Burr’s correspondence from 1795 has disappeared, leaving us to fall back on the reminiscences of Genesee Country pioneers contained in two books written in the mid-19th. Century by Lockport historian and author, Orsamus Turner.
Writing a half century after Burr’s involvement with Western New York, and long after most of the original generation of settlers had passed away, Turner roamed the area interviewing those few remaining pioneers and their descendants compiling their recollections, and unavoidably a number of confused dates and memories, third and fourth-hand stories, tall tales and urban (or should I say “rural”) legends. To muddy the factual waters further, Turner’s books contained many passages of similarly shaky material gleaned from local histories written by other authors.
For whatever reason, Turner never mentions the date 1798 in relation to Burr. But in two instances he does specifically link Burr to 1795.
Turner sheds no light on why Burr traveled to Western New York in 1795, though we can be fairly certain that looking over the prospects for land speculation played a major part in the trip. What Turner’s writings do give us is a short itinerary of Burr’s stops. Again with the caveat that some of theses stops might be echoes of 1798 rather than of 1795.
In no particular order, Turner tells us that Burr stayed at Mrs. Sanborn’s tavern in Canandaigua, for years the best, and best-known, hostelry in the seat of government, where at one time or another Mrs. Sanborn housed and fed almost every important “tourist” and official personage in early Western New York history.
But in one of the two specifically-dated passages, Turner tells us that in 1795 Burr visited Avon/Hartford and that, “Burr parted from his traveling companions at Avon, and went down and visited the falls of the Genesee, taking their height, and a landscape view of them.”
Unfortunately, Turner doesn’t tell us who those companions were or where they and Burr stayed in Avon, although the only game in town at the time was the Berry tavern. Run by the same entrepreneurial family who operated the only ferry across the Genesee.
On his return from the falls, Turner has Burr staying at Peter Schafer’s house in today’s Scottsville, and quotes Schafer as saying that Burr was of a “pleasant, sociable turn”.
In another passage, Turner writes that,” In 1795 Mr. Burr made a visit to this region, continuing his journey as far west as Niagara Falls. He was accompanied by his daughter Theodosia, and her then, or afterwards, husband, Mr. Allston”
Although Theodosia was a precocious child, she was only 12 at the time and raised in genteel luxury. So, marriage aside, it seems highly unlikely that Burr would have subjected her to the rigors of traveling through the wilderness. (4)
Supplementing Turner’s accounts is an article from the October 3, 1919 Democrat and Chronicle which states that in 1795 Burr stayed at Orringh Stone’s cabin, today’s Stone-Tolan House in Brighton. However, no source for the story is provided.But considering Burr’s 40 mile round trip ride from Avon, this would have been a logical stop, particularly given that many travelers to the High Falls also stopped by for a meal and some of Stone’s homebrewed hard cider. (See Royalty on the River: A King (and maybe a Second King and even an Emperor) Come to Rochester).
Burr’s 100,000 Acre Tract
At some point, Burr made a major move into, and planned a quick exit out of, Genesee Country real estate. Writing to land baron Oliver Phelps on November 23, 1796 Burr detailed the results of a survey that he’d had conducted in August of “my Genesee purchase”. Referring to the surveyors report, Burr expressed the view that, “His account is satisfactory and flattering to the utmost of my wishes – He represents the soil to be superior to anything he had before seen…that it is well-watered – the surface beautifully varied – without swamps or barrens.” (5) Concluding the letter, Burr gave Phelps full discretionary power to act as his agent to resell the land.
There’s clearly some confusion over when Burr actually acquired his “Genesee purchase”. Not until a week after his letter to Phelps did he take an option with agents of the Holland Land Company to buy 100,000 acres on Lake Ontario, west of the Genesee River, a tract approximately 6 miles east to west and 26 miles north to south, centered on the mouth of Oak Orchard Creek, at the cost of $1.50 an acre. Today that tract would cover almost 1/3 of the lake shore of Orleans County, south through most of the current town of Carlton, Gaines, Albion, Barre and into the Genesee County towns of Oakfield, Elba and Batavia. However, the still-extent records of the Holland Land Company provide scant reference to the transaction, the details of which seem to have disappeared, whether by shoddy bookkeeping or because the managers of the company wanted to downplay their dealings with Burr in light of a subsequent bribery scandal, remains a matter of conjecture. Perhaps the deal may have simply fallen through or Burr defaulted on his payments (he did end up turning over his 20,000 acres of Presque Isle property to the Hollanders.) In any event, by 1800 his Genesee purchase was back on the market.
As to that bribery issue, being a US senator and major influence peddler, Burr was able to push through the state legislature a long-term waiver exempting the Holland Land Company from the prohibition against foreign citizens and corporations directly-owning New York property. Accused of using bribery to gain the waiver’s approval (which he never denied) as well as to gain concessions on the purchase price of his Genesee lands plus a loan from the company (which he never repaid), Burr eventually challenged a fellow land speculator, John Baker Church, to a duel. The duel took place in September 1799. Church’s shot pierced Burr’s coat, at which point Church apologized and, honor satisfied, the duel was terminated. Five year’s later Burr would return to the same spot where, using the same pistols, he engaged in a far more notorious duel, this time with Church’s brother-in-law, former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
(1) Burr is also known, albeit to a very small degree, for his alleged project to attack Mexico and set up a separate country in the Southwest, a project which resulted in his 1807 arrest, trial and acquittal on charges of treason. Given his 1790s business dealings in Western New York, it’s interesting to read in Joshua Clark’s 1849 “Onondaga; or Reminisces of Earlier and Later Times” the claim that with those dealings, “Thus commenced the intercourse of Aaron Burr with the people of Western New York, many of whom were drawn into the great south-west expedition.”
(2) The underlying problem was that, when property was sold to settlers or group of settlers, long term payments periods had to be granted which, coupled with the unstable economy of the early United States and massive fluctuations in state currency values, meant that defaults on mortgage payments were almost more the rule than the exception. As a result Phelps and Gorham, Morris and the Holland Land Company in turn experienced a cash flow problem which severely impacted their ability to meet their own financial obligations.
(3) In 1957, a set of murals depicting the settlement of the area and many of the individuals involved was unveiled in the Brighton Town Hall. According to an article in the Democrat and Chronicle, Aaron Burr was included among the historic figures depicted.
Figuring that a photo of the mural would add to this article, I met with Brighton Town Historian Mary Jo Lanphear for a tour of the murals.
Neither of us could find anyone who looked remotely like Burr, nor did any of the historic event dates listed on the murals line up with either of Burr’s visits.
So it looks like poor Burr never made the cut after all.
(4) Theodosia’s tender age in 1795 notwithstanding, by 1801 she was riding down the Niagara Road, this time with an entourage of nine pack horses and several servants, on her way to Niagara Falls on a honeymoon junket with her new husband, Joseph Alston. A journey which allegedly began the tradition of newlyweds journeying to the falls for their honeymoon.
(5) It turned out that, given the way the property was survey, a significant percentage of the acreage was actually under the waters of Lake Ontario. When Burr discovered this in 1798 he was not amused.
THE WHOLE SERIES