The First Big Name – and (Almost) Third President – Comes to Rochester….Probably

The First Big Name – and (Almost) Third President – Comes to Rochester….Probably

[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.

by Michael J. Nighan

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)

Aaron Burr Jr. (February 6, 1756 – September 14, 1836)

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.

Election of 1800. Presidential election results map. Green denotes states won by Jefferson and burnt orange denotes states won by Adams. Numbers indicate the number of electoral votes cast by each state.

Genesee Fever

 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)

Early Western New York Land Divisions

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

Niagara Road 1796

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.

Burr’s 1799 Letter to Jefferson

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.”

View of the Genesee Falls, New York by William Winstanley (1793-1794). Originally purchased by George Washington for Mount Vernon

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.

Berry Tavern Site in Avon

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.

(left) Democrat and Chronicle, 03 Oct 1919 Old Indian Landmark in Council Rock [East] Avenue, Brighton; (right) David Kramer on the Rock [Photo: Rajesh Barnabas from On the electoral road with Rajesh Barnabas] Inscription: To the memory of the Nun·da-wa-o-no, the great Senecas, Keepers of the Western Door, this rock around which according to tradition they gathered for councils is dedicated by the Seneca Indian Council Rock Commission of Brighton, N. Y., and the Rochester Historical Society. Oct. 9, 1919. At the coming of the first white settlers to the Town of Brighton the rock stood under a great elm tree beside the old Indian trail leading from Canandaigua Lake to the present site of Rochester. Fifty yards to the northeast stands the Orringh Stone tavern, frequented by visitors to view the Falls of the Genesee.

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.

Approximate Location and Dimensions of the Burr Tract

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.

Alexander Hamilton made a small mark on the Rochester landscape. From 1922 – 1979, the Alexander Hamilton School # 31 was housed in the Alexander Hamilton Building on 208 North Goodman near the Village Gate. Today, 31 Lofts occupies the site. [Photo: David Kramer 5/26/21]


(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.

Democrat and Chronicle, Mar 09, 1957 see At the Brighton Town Hall 1957 mural with Sandra Frankel

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.

G. Lee Trimm’s (1912 – 1976) 1957 mural in the Brighton Town Hall from At the Brighton Town Hall 1957 mural with Sandra Frankel

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 Presidential Visits Series in its entirety: James Monroe to Joseph Biden

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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