As we began planning the upcoming Wayne County bicentennial celebration, we found some interesting documents.
In the 19th century, the New York state Legislature created 13 of our 15 Wayne County towns. The state law that created Ontario County in 1789 gave Ontario County Court the authority to divide up the newly formed county as it deemed necessary, meaning the court could create towns. Only Sodus and Palmyra were created by the court system. On April 11, 1823, Wayne County was established from portions of Ontario and Seneca counties.
All 13 towns that have been created by New York state laws have been using the date the legislation was passed as their “founding” dates. The problem is that in 11 cases, the law says that this event (founding) was to take place at a future date. In the meantime, those towns were still part of the town from which they were to be divided. In three cases, errors were made by someone misreading the legislation dates (Butler used Feb. 26, 1826, Rose used Feb. 5, 1826 and Wolcott used March 24, 1807). These errors occurred prior to 1867 as these dates appear in several early publications.
The accompanying chart gives a summary for these 13 towns and the laws that established them.
• Two towns had effective dates on the same date as the legislation date: Galen and Macedon
• Seven towns had effective dates within about three months of law being passed: Arcadia, Butler, Huron, Lyons, Rose, Savannah, Williamson
• Four towns had a delay of about a year: Marion, Ontario, Walworth and Wolcott
It is uncertain why some towns were established faster than others. Communication was slow in the early 1800s. In those days, a message could travel no faster than the person who carried it, so to get information back and forth between Wayne County and Albany would take a week or more.
The accompanying graphic representation by Huron Town Historian Rosa Fox shows the “genealogy” of Wayne County towns. On April 11, 1823, when Wayne County was established, the four “parent” towns had already split into eight. The order of formation was Sodus, Palmyra, Williamson, Ontario, Wolcott, Lyons, Galen and Macedon. The remaining seven would be formed within the next seven years.
Several local historians and town supervisors met Dec. 29, 2020 to review these recent findings. Digital copies of the legislation for the 13 towns were recently discovered by local historians. Early handwritten legislative records have been transcribed into books of New York State laws. Town historians are requesting copies of the original documents that are housed in the New York State Archives.
The discussions raised more questions than answers. One question was related to why early historians or writers used the date the law was passed as the founding date for our towns. One possible explanation is that there was competition then, as now, to be “first” or “best.” Perhaps some didn’t actually read the legislation. They learned that the legislation was passed on a certain date, and so that became THE date. Or perhaps our ancestors considered the act of passing the law more important than the implementation of the law.
Were the dates wrong? This research highlights the importance of using primary source documents to establish facts. The cold hard facts are that our towns did not legally exist until the effective date of the law. In the words of Paul Harvey, “Now you know the rest of the story.”
Bavis, Walworth town historian, is co-chair of the Wayne County Bicentennial and chairman of the Wayne Historians Organization.