Office of the County Historian

Brief History of Wayne County, New York

Wayne County, originally included in lands of Ontario and Seneca Counties, became a separate county on April 11, 1823.

The county’s history actually begins long before 1823.

Little has been written about the early Indians who lived in and around Wayne County. When the first white pioneers arrived in 1789, it does not appear that there were any major Indian settlements in this area. Rather, the Indian made hunting and fishing trips into this region where bear, wolf, deer and a wide variety of fish could be found in large quantities. Sodus Bay was a favorite fishing spot and a well-worn trail extended from its shores to the head of Cayuga Lake, where the Indians had permanent homes.

Artifacts found throughout the county, and especially in the town of Savannah, indicate that Indians, at one time, did have permanent or seasonal camps in the area. In fact, as far back as 10,000 years ago, Indian hunters, following the retreating glacier, moved into the area to hunt such animals as mastodon and moose elk. Once agriculture was introduced into the Indian Society, permanent settlement moved to the south of Wayne County, into the area around the Finger Lakes.

The Indians had an appreciation of their natural surroundings, which has become part of our heritage in the names which they used: for example, Sodus, a shortened form of the Cayuga work meaning "silvery waters" and Ontario, meaning "pleasant lake".

The French fur traders and Jesuit missionaries also made occasional visits to this area. On the banks of the Clyde River, near the site of the present village of Clyde, a blockhouse once stood. The legends surrounding it are many. The most authentic seems to be the one recounted by an early resident who places its construction at about the time of the French and Indian War. It was built, according to his story, for the protection of the trappers and missionaries. It was two stories high with the second story projecting beyond the first on all four sides. There is no record that the blockhouse actually figured in combat. During the Revolutionary War, the Tories had possession of it and used it for a station for goods smuggled in from Canada by way of Sodus Bay. A group of renegades, trap-robbers and other criminals settled near the fort and carried on a lively and profitable smuggling business until it was broken up by the government near the end of the war. Nothing more was heard of this group, and it was not until 1789 that the first permanent settlement was established in the area.

In May of 1789, two bateaux (flat-bottomed boats) carrying Nicholas and William Stansell, John Featherly and their families--12 persons in all, landed on the banks of the Clyde River just south of the present village of Lyons and became our "first" settlers. That same year, pioneers took up land in Palmyra and Macedon. A steady stream of newcomers followed, and by the early 1800’s, there were settlements in almost every town of the county.

The early settlers of Wayne County found land covered with thick forests principally of hard woods, such as oak, hickory, beech, birch and maple, with some soft woods on the low lands. The cutting away of these forests was a tremendous task, but it gave the pioneers a source of cash income at a time when there was almost no other, through the manufacture of potash from the ashes of the burned logs. An ashery was one of the first business enterprises mentioned in the history of almost every settlement. Although the tillable land has long since been stripped of its forests, there is still a fair amount of logging done in the county.

The land of the county is level or slightly rolling, except for the drumlins, long ridges of hills extending north and south, created by the receding ice sheet. It has a general slope northward toward Lake Ontario. From the lake southward, there is a fairly uniform rise to what is known as "the Ridge". This is an elevation extending across Wayne County from east to west and continuing on even beyond the state boundary. The elevation of the ridge, from 150 to 188 feet; its situation with reference to the lake; and the soil had lead geologists to the conclusion that it constituted the southern shore of Lake Ontario in the far distant past.

The influence of the lake on the climate of the county is reflected in the concentration of orchards in the northern section. As a result, Wayne County ranks high in the production of sour cherries, apples and pears. The agriculture of the county is greatly diversified with the rich muck lands contribution to the production of vegetables.

Some of Wayne County’s early arrivals were veterans of the Revolution who came to take up claims in the Military Tract. This fact, along with the story of the blockhouse, furnished Wayne County with its major link to the War for Independence, although a segment of the troops engaged in the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign passed through, or very near to, the southern edge of the county.