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Friday, May 16, 2014

Settling Iroquois land--One town's history from Revolution to Civil War

Elmira, New York today is a mid-sized city set in the Southern Tier of the state along the Pennsylvania border. April 6 marked the 150th anniversary of Elmira's incorporation as a city during the Civil War in 1864, but its roots go down into history much deeper than that.

After the Revolutionary War and Sullivan's army had driven away many of the Iroquois who had settled the
land along the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers, some of the continental soldiers came back to the fertile valleys to homestead. The battle of Newtown, fought in 1779, had left an impression on the soldiers of farmland and orchards cultivated by the native Haudenosaunee. By 1783, Matthias Hollenbeck had built a trading post along the northeast bank of the Chemung River not far from the Newtown battlefield. That same year, white settlers arrived in "Newtown" and surrounding lands.

Revolutionary War drums at the Chemung Valley historical society

Colonel John Hendy, one of General Sullivan's officers, is the first white man reported to have built a log cabin in what is now West Elmira, where he lived out the rest of his days battling the seasons as a farmer. Just a year later in 1789, a drought caused severe local food shortages, and the land of plenty which had tempted the settlers there seemed to fall under a curse, as though the Iroquois blood cried out from the ground against them.

By 1790, the first streets had been laid in Newtown and nearby Dewittsburg and Wisnerburg. Several still stand today, including Main Street and Sullivan Street, which run north to south, and Water and Church Streets which run east to west. As the years passed, these small burgs would combine into one town.

A treaty was signed in Newtown/Elmira in 1791 with the Six Nations for the right of Europeans to settle safely. The Treaty of Painted Post ended warfare between settlers and the native tribes. Originally slated for the Iroquois settlement of Painted Post, the treaty 's signing location was pushed to Newtown due to localized flooding.

In 1800, the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania mail route added Newtown to its delivery, and the village's name unofficially changed to Elmira. The name is said to have come from the innskeeper Nathan Teall's daughter, Elmira Teall. It means "fair outlook". On April 6, 1808, the name change became official, and the outlying villages were annexed.

Progress in transportation

From the first days of mail delivery, it took a rider on horseback four days to reach Elmira from Wilkes-Barre. With the Berwick Turnpike linking Elmira to Wellsboro, PA in 1817, a road opened up the city's first stage coach service in 1819. A decade later, in 1830, Colonel Hendy and others began work on digging a canal that would link Elmira to the Erie Canal via the Finger Lakes. The Chemung Canal opened in 1833. Almost simultaneously, the first rails came through the city. 1832 brought the Elmira and Williamsport Railroad, linking Elmira to southern Pennsylvania and points even further south. Elmira became a transportation hub between canal and rail, complete in 1849 with the Erie railroad. 

This accessibility from points north, south, east, and west served Elmira when the War Between the States erupted in 1861. Elmira was chosen as one of three sites statewide in New York for a military recruiting rendezvous to muster and train troops. The town flourished with the influx of population and commerce until it became the city of Elmira later in the war. By then, one of the barracks for training troops had been converted to a prisoner of war camp detaining Confederates. 

This same rail line which sent troops south and prisoners north, also brought escaped slaves to Canada just prior to the war. A literal railroad to freedom transported hundreds of souls with the help of an escaped slave and resident of Elmira who worked at Erie station in the wee hours of the night.  

From its earliest days as a trading post after the Revolutionary War, to its dramatic role in Civil War history, Elmira has seen its share of history. With such an eyewitness to historic events, Elmira is a destination spot for the serious student of history.


  1. Thanks for sharing, this is very interesting.

  2. Elmira is close yet I know so little about it. Thanks for a great peek at its history!
    Where did you find that postal history information -that's really interesting.
    There's sure a lot of hilly land between Elmira and Wilkes-Barre!


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