History of the Chemung River Valley

History of the Chemung River Valley

The very first written historical account of the Chemung River Valley dates back to 1615 and was written by a young Frenchman by the name of Stephen Brule.  Brule was an emissary and translator for the French explorer Samuel Champlain and was sent into the region to enlist the aid of the Andaste people (who inhabited the region at the time) in a battle between the French and the Five Nations of the Iroquois.  Though the Five Nations would prevail in the battle and would eventually drive off the Andaste people, Brule’s descriptive account of the Andastes, their many villages and the countryside would be invaluable to historians and anthropologists for years to come.

Nearly one hundred and fifty years later, the Chemung River Valley had settlements all along its banks with several bands of Native American tribes including the Lenapes or Delawares, Tuteloes or Eastern Sioux, Mahicans or Mohegans, and the Shawnees.  Though the territory was not owned by any of these tribes, they were allowed to settle in the area by the Five Nations Confederacy and more specifically by the Cayugas and the Senecas.  During the French and Indian War (1755-1760) this region was off limits to any white settler or missionary, and any who were foolish enough to venture in were met with certain death.  The Senecas, Cayugas, and the Delaware mostly sided with the French, causing death and destruction in frontier raids for many of the English settlers and colonists throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey and along the Hudson River Valley.  Still later, during the days of the Revolutionary War, the Five Nations tried to remain neutral.  However, through a courtship with the English, including promises and treaties, not to mention lavish gifts heaped upon them, many of the Iroquois would side with the British.

The area of the Chemung River Valley was still vastly unseen by the White Man and though many of the Iroquois were technically at war this region was still relatively peaceful and serene.  Settlements of Native Americans doted the countryside as well as vast gardens, orchards and fields of maize.  Villages were comprised of well-built log cabins that would rival any that the early colonists could have constructed. Unfortunately, this peaceful picture would soon be devastated and lost forever.

Read about the Revolutionary War Battle of Newtown in 1779 and its results here.

With the Chemung Valley virtually uninhabited with Native Americans, settlers would pour into the verdant valley.  The first permanent settlements were made in Chemung region around 1786 at the point where the Newtown Creek emptied into the Chemung River.  It was called Newtown Point.  It had been previously occupied as an Iroquois village by the name of Canawcola which literally translates to “head on a pole”.

As the settlers pushed further into the territory, they set up villages and towns along the Newtown Creek and the Chemung River including the small villages of DeWittsburg and Wisnerburg.  One notable settlement five or six miles up from the mouth of the Newtown Creek took it’s name from pile of large bones the earliest settlers encountered along the creek.  These bones were the remains of as many as three hundred pack horses and mules from the Sullivan Clinton campaign of 1779.  The horses were worn out from the rigors of their travels and of battle and it was on the banks of the creek that Sullivan’s men humanely disposed of them.  The largest of the bones, the skulls, were arranged in rows by individuals who would discover them years later, and it has been said that these skulls were used as stepping stones along the trail near what is now Hanover Square.  The skulls were still visible as late as the 1830’5, but their legacy has endured the ravages of time in the prosperous village of Horseheads.

From the 1830’5 through the 1870’5, the regions biggest boon was the construction and trade brought to the area by the Chemung Canal.  The canal connected the Chemung River with Seneca Lake at Watkins Glen, thus facilitating trade, commerce and travel through much of the central regions of New York State.  Combined with the massive Erie Canal cutting across the state and connecting the Finger Lakes and Great Lakes into one expansive waterway, Elmira was thus connected with the world.

By the mid 1850’s, railroads had not only appeared in the area but were quickly making the canal systems obsolete.  Elmira was a central hub for the railways with tracks leading to Williamsport, Canandaigua, Niagara, New York City, Cortland and all points in between. The Chemung River Valley was quickly becoming a bustling area with Elmira seeing the greatest growth.  It was because of the railroads that Elmira was chosen by the United States government as one of the sites for the construction of a soldier’s training grounds.  Crucial for the encroaching War Between the States, this camp near Fosters Island in the Chemung River took in new recruits and sent out Union soldiers.  Towards the end of the war, it was decided that this military training ground would best be utilized to lessen the overcrowding in many of the Union’s prisoner of war camps in other areas of the nation With its 12 foot high wall surrounding it (actually constructed to keep the new Union recruits from escaping into town) Camp Elmira would soon be the bane of thousands of Confederate soldiers captured during the Civil War.  Of the nearly 11,000 men sent to the Elmira prison camp during its brief existence, nearly 3,000 would perish there.  With a death rate of one in four men, it surpassed the horrors of the infamous camp near Andersonville, Georgia which had an unheard of death rate of one in five.  However, perhaps because of the fact that Elmira did have wooden barracks and what was thought of as clean drinking water, Andersonville seems to make it into the history books as the worst prison of the era.

Of the 2,994 men who did die at the Elmira prison, 2,973 were carefully laid to rest on property owned by an escaped slave who settled in this area by the name of John Jones. He took it upon himself to carefully record the name, rank, home address and other pertinent information from most of the deceased.  Each body was placed in a coffin and laid side by side in long trenches cut into the earth.  Each soldier’s grave was marked with a wooden headboard bearing his name, rank and company he served with.

Shortly after the war, the Daughters of the Confederacy came north.  Their mission was to exhume any and all soldiers buried in “inhospitable Northern soil” and rebury them in the South.  They went to all the prisoner of war camps throughout the North and even to the Gettysburg battlefield and they did just that.  However, when the Daughters of the Confederacy arrived in Elmira, they saw the neat rows of carefully lettered headboards and they had heard of other acts of kindness shown by Jones and other Elmirans during the Confederates brief stay here.  It was then the Daughters of the Confederacy decision to leave their fallen war heroes rest in peace in Elmira.  Later still, the wooden headboards were replaced by the uniformed stones now seen at Woodlawn’s National Cemetery.  A keen eye will detect a slight difference between the stones marking the Confederate graves and those of the vast majority of graves.  The Confederate stones have a pointed top, unlike the rounded tops of their Union counterparts.  The legend goes that the Daughters of the Confederacy specifically requested the point “so that no damned Yankee will sit on their graves!”

Chemung County would be established just after the Civil War in 1867.  Though the area had long been established as a very forward thinking community with such notables as the Reverend Thomas K. Beecher and his radically advanced teachings of acceptance and tolerance, and the establishment of Elmira College built as a source of higher education for women in 1856 – the first in the nation – and of course the very view of the valley being the inspiration countless short stories and novels by America’s favorite author, Mark Twain, this area would continue its growth and notable contributions to the nation’s prosperity.

As early as 1897, Matthias Arnot had made drawings of what he would refer to as a “glider” and 13 years later, using Arnot’s drawing was transformed into a working prototype by Charles Teasdale of Elmira.  By 1939, the Schweizer Aircraft Corporation was building sailplanes and other aircraft helping to mark the area as “The Soaring Capital of America” as well as part of the “Cradle of Aviation” what with Glen Curtis’ “Junebug” – one of the first powered aircraft in the world, rightfully contesting the Wright Brothers’ claim of the first in flight.

By the 1940’s, America was on the door step of the Second World War and the Chemung Valley was there to provide as much assistance as it could muster. More than 10,000 men and women from the area were in military service with countless others providing the muscle to help the effort in defense-related production and manufacturing.  The Remington Rand Corporation was manufacturing the famous Norden bombsight that revolutionized the effectiveness of bombers.  The Eclipse Division in Elmira Heights produced millions of aircraft shells, fuses, cannons and fuel injectors for the newly designed high performance aircraft engine.  In Horseheads, the 700 acre “Holding Point”  was the last storage area for thousands of tanks, jeeps, cannons, searchlights and other war-related equipment on its way overseas.  And at Harris Hill, hundreds of men were trained for the dangerous missions involving gliders that would sweep silently, undetected, over the enemy depositing men and machines behind enemy lines and helping the Allied Forces achieve their victory.

The Chemung River Valley has nearly four decades of written history already and countless many more both before and in the future.  As we head into the new millennium, let us look back at all we have accomplished and look forward to what is yet to come.

Written by Craig O’Buckley
Chemung Valley Living History