Saints, Sinners and Reformers: The Burned-Over District Re-Visited

John H. Martin, 2005

Chapter 1: An Overview of the Burned-Over District

Few areas of the United States have seen the flowering of as many diverse enthusiasms and social and moral reforms as blossomed along the old Mohawk Trail and the early Erie Canal in New York State in the nineteenth century. As settlers poured into what had been the traditional lands of the Iroquois Nation, experiments of all kinds of a religious and of a social nature found a haven in these new lands. At one religious extreme were the celibate Shakers at Sodus Bay at Lake Ontario and then in Groveland in the valley to the east of the Genesee River, or the semi-celibate followers of Jemima Wilkinson, the purported re-incarnation of Christ in female form. At the other end of the social, religious, and moral scale was the creation of the Perfectionist Oneida Community where a form of free-love was established under the control of a Committee of Elders.

In between these extremes, the religious effervescences gave the name of "The Burned Over District" to western New York. Just as a forest fire can sweep all before it, the religious and reforming urges swept their way across the Ontario Plain between Albany and Lake Erie, changing the religious and social approaches to life. There was, for example, Charles Grandison Finney who led the emotional religious revivals, which affected town after town and village after village in the 1820s and 1830s. Next were the followers of Charles Miller who accepted his reading of the Bible to look forward to a day in October of 1843 when Jesus would re-appear and the End of Time would be at hand. Although time did not end in 1843, a new Adventist group of sects did develop from this prediction, and they continue to expect the imminent coming of the Day of Judgment in our own times.

Another aspect of the religious impulse made manifest was the advent of the Mormon faith when the semi-literate Joseph Smith was told by the angel Moroni to unearth the golden plaques buried on a hill outside of Palmyra, New York, plaques which he claimed he deciphered from the "Reformed Egyptian Alphabet" to create a new religion. On a more secular note, outside of Rochester two young girls announced that they could communicate with the dead through knockings on the tables or the walls or the floors of the room in which their séances were held, a discovery which would lead to the Spiritualist Movement, now centered in Lily Dale in western New York. A form of Perfectionism inspired various groups to become as perfect as their Father in Heaven. On one hand this lead to the religious conversions at church or camp meeting revivals, or, at another extreme, to John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida Community, who realized that he was free of sin and he and his disciples could never sin again, come what may, and thus they were free to enter into Complex Marriage where all in the Community were free to express their sexual love for one another.

The concept of a more perfect society also grew in part from the religious environment of the time, and many secular reforms were therefore to blossom as well. In Seneca Falls a handful of women began the Women's Rights movement to bring about changes in legal and social attitudes that would free women from the restrictions which bound their lives. It was the women, too, who were involved in the temperance movement which would lead in the 1920s to Prohibition, while other men and women were at the heart of the anti-slavery movement which flourished from the 1830s on.

What was the impulse, what were the conditions that led to such a growth in secular and religious reforms across the Ontario Plain? One must look back to the period just before and after the Revolutionary War to see the destruction of the Indians' way of life in western New York and then to the developments that followed. Before the American Revolution, land in western New York was not available to white settlers since it was primarily Indian territory. Then, in the mid-1700s, the Seneca had allied themselves at one point with the French in Canada during the French and English wars in America. With the loss of Canada to the French, the Seneca were the losers as well, and in an unusual form of statesmanship the English treated the Indians with a degree of generosity. Among the provisions of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (present day Rome, New York) in 1763, the Proclamation Act of that treaty drew a line across New York State from Fort Stanwix to Unadilla on the Susquehanna River in central New York, and the incursion to the west of this line into the lands of the Iroquois tribes was forbidden to white settlers by the rulers of the English colonies.

During the Revolutionary War, American soldiers had been involved in the battles against the Iroquois in central New York, and to their astonishment they discovered a rich, fertile land between Lake Ontario and the hills of Pennsylvania to the south, lands which would become available once the Indians had been pushed from western New York. These soldiers, and others in New England, were to hunger after the land in the west since it would provide them with new opportunities. New England land, through the past one hundred or more years of its history, had been settled, and the younger sons of New England families had a limited future as farmers since arable farm land no longer was available to newer generations. A similar situation existed in the Hudson River Valley where much of the land was held by a few wealthy families under the old Dutch patroon system, and the tenant farming arrangement was not satisfactory to many of a growing younger generation who wished to have land of their own.

With the end of the Revolution, the English Proclamation Act was declared void by the new American government, and thus western New York would soon be open to settlement by Americans desirous of owning their own land. The fact that the native Americans in this western area were to be forced from their villages and hunting grounds and deprived of their rights carried no weight with the land-hungry, would-be settlers. The Indians were to suffer, and Joseph Brant of the Mohawk tribe and Handsome Lake of the Seneca were two of the Indian leaders who had to face the destruction of their way of life.

For the land hungry there were legal problems to such settlement, however, and these first had to be resolved. The 1602 Royal Charter of James I of England had deeded "the lands to the west between latitude 42.1" and 44.15" to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and similar Royal grants were held by Connecticut. In addition, in the 1660s, after the Restoration of the English monarchy, Charles the II in 1684 had granted his brother, the Duke of York, the former Dutch provinces which would bear the Duke of York's name as the colony of New York. Given the lack of proper geographical knowledge in the early 1600s, as well as the politics of the Restoration, an overlapping of these grants was created. Thus there was a conflict of claims to the former Indian territories by three of the states of the new American nation once the American Revolution had ended.

New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut each laid claim to the former Indian lands under the conflicting terms of the grants from the Crown, and until this dispute was settled, no one could obtain a clear title to any land. Finally, at the Hartford Convention on December 15, 1786, a settlement was reached which satisfied all three contenders. It was agreed that New York would have legal jurisdiction over all the lands in the western portion of that state. However, a line, the Pre-emption Line, was drawn from the Pennsylvania border, just to the west of the future town of Elmira, at milestone 82, running due north to Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario. Ownership of the lands to the east of that line belonged to New York State, while the land to the west of the line to the Genesee River was pre-empted, that is, ownership of those lands belonged to the state of Massachusetts albeit legal jurisdiction over both territories remained under New York State sovereignty. Connecticut's claims in New York State were disallowed, but in 1808 the U.S. Congress granted 3,300,000 acres in the lands of the Western Reserve (Ohio) on the condition that Connecticut give up its former claims to the disputed territory "to the west" in New York State.

In a series of treaties between 1785 and 1789 the State of New York bought the Indian lands to the east of the Pre-emption Line for a minimal sum. (In the twentieth century the Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, and Oneida tribes have been suing New York State for the loss of the lands to New York in particular, lands which had been allotted to the tribes under the late 19th century treaties.) All three of the states were close to bankruptcy after the Revolutionary War, and each was faced with claims by war veterans for financial recompense for their wartime service. The solution was for the states to sell their lands for the needed cash. The New York lands, in what was called the "Military Tract," to the east of the Pre-emption line, were made available to New York war veterans, 600 acres being allotted for privates while generals could receive 6,600 acres. At the time, the New York State government had a learned scholar of the Greek and Latin classics in office, and as a result the former Military Tract still abounds in town names such as Homer, Ithaca, Ovid, Remus, Marathon, and Syracuse among other such reflections of the classical past.

Massachusetts sold its Pre-emption lands to the Phelps and Gorham combine for $1,000,000 payable over three years, and stipulated that they must settle with the Indians for title to the land. The Massachusetts legislature sent Samuel Kirtland and Elisha Lee to look after the interests of the Indians. Phelps and Gorham then proceeded to treaty with the Indian tribes to gain ownership, to have the Pre-emption Line surveyed, and to create units of six mile-square townships in the territory. The absence of any roads into this wilderness did slow the sales of the land to the anticipated eager buyers. When the Phelps and Gorham combine couldn't make their payments to Massachusetts, the unsold land reverted to the state, which then re-sold to Robert Morris, the Philadelphia financier whose fiscal wealth had backed the Continental Congress. Morris sent Benjamin Franklin's grandson as his agent to London try to sell the more than a million acres to British purchasers. Franklin contacted Patrick Colquhoun who put together a deal including himself, William Johnstone, then the wealthiest man in England, and William Hornby to purchase the land from Morris which they would then sell in smaller lots to other speculators and to settlers desiring their own farmland.

Thus available, cheap land was an incentive which led to the incursion of young farmers and their families into the lands along the ancient Indian Mohawk Trail into western New York. An infusion of young individuals flooded into upstate New York where they established new communities and a new social order. These young people, primarily from the Puritan heritage of New England, brought with them certain attitudes and mores, all of which would change as was required by circumstances on the frontier. A Protestant ethic was thus imported into the new lands, but this religious aspect would become modified under new conditions. There were the educated Presbyterian and Congregational clergy who carried the standards of old New England with them, while there were also the new, dissenting faiths of the Methodists and the Baptists which would bring a new flavor to western New York.

An educated ministry was not essential for Baptist believers, and thus the traditional Christian theology was simplified to create a more personalized religion which frequently had a highly emotional aspect to it. On the other hand, the Universalists and the descendents of the Jemima Wilkinson group brought a levy of reason, sometimes of skepticism, which offset the emotionalism of the revivalist movement which was to affect other Protestant groups in the 1820s and 1830s. Thus an influx of traditional beliefs, a leavening of an emotional and a perfectionist attitude, as well as a rational approach to secular matters, all led to experimental forms on the new frontier.

Out of this experimental milieu were to come reforms in religion, new religious sects, the development of the anti-slavery and temperance forces, and the beginning of the Women's Rights movement. Western New York was to become a cauldron of new ideas and attitudes between the 1790s and the century which followed, and saints, sinners, and reformers were to flourish across the plain to the south of Lake Ontario. Each of the movements centered around specific individuals who affected their time in specific ways, and thus Saints, Sinners, and Reformers is the story of these individuals and the changes they spawned in the "Burned-over District."

The story must perforce first look at what western New York State was like before settlement by the American colonists and European arrivals. Thus the first section of this story treats with the Indians who had resided in the land which they were to lose, and then the initial settlement of western New York by white men and women when first Phelps and Gorham, then the London Associates purchased the land between Lake Seneca and the Genesee River and sent Charles Williamson to create a civilization out of a wilderness of forests, streams, and lakes. The second section deals with the waves of enthusiasm which swept western New York between the 1820s and the Civil War, a time of hope, of fears, and of change which would affect the American spirit, even beyond western New York, after these times had passed.

© 2005, all rights reserved, John H. Martin. Accessed 11.25.07.