James Wadsworth (of Geneseo)

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For other people named James Wadsworth, see James Wadsworth (disambiguation).

James Wadsworth (20 Apr 1768 Durham, Connecticut – 7 Jun 1844 Geneseo, New York) was an influential and prominent 18th and 19th century pioneer, educator, land speculator, agriculturalist, businessman, and community leader of the early Genesee Valley settlements in Western New York State. He was the patriarch of the prominent Genesee Valley Wadsworths.

Early life[edit]

James Wadsworth was born in 1768 in Durham, Middlesex County, Connecticut. He was the youngest of the three sons of John Noyes Wadsworth, Sr. by his second wife Esther Parsons. His uncle and namesake was James Wadsworth. James' other brothers were his eldest half brother John Noyes Wadsworth, Jr., by his father’s first marriage to Susan Camp, and his elder full brother Brigadier General, William Wadsworth. James and his brothers are scions of the prominent Wadsworth family of Connecticut, and being a descendent of one of the Founders of Hartford, Connecticut, William Wadsworth (1594–1675), who under the leadership of Pastor Thomas Hooker helped found that city in June 1636.

James Wadsworth was a graduate of Yale University in 1787 at the age of 19. After graduation he went north to Montreal, Quebec, Canada to teach for a year. While away his father John Wadsworth had died and left his sons a substantial inheritance, estimated to be nearly $15,000 a piece. James moved back to Connecticut to manage his inheritance. It was during this period James was approached by his relative, Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, about a business proposal.

The Genesee Valley[edit]

In the spring of 1789 James and his brother William Wadsworth were summoned to Hartford, Connecticut to the home of their father’s prominent and wealthy second cousin Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth of American Revolutionary War and Continental Congress fame. He was one of the richest men in Connecticut at the time. Colonel Wadsworth was interested in investing in and financially backing the efforts of Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, who in the previous year purchased more than 2,250,000 acres (9,100 km2) of land from the Iroquois Six Nations in Western New York State, and was known as the Phelps and Gorham Purchase. Jeremiah adjudged James as having "ambition," "clear mind," and a "tenacious will," and so wanted James and William to be Land Agents on his behalf and to personally move to this virgin territory to survey and improve the land while promoting its settlement as well as manage his 200,000-acre (810 km2) investment. In return James and William were offered 2,000 acres (8.1 km2) at his cost ($0.08 cents per acre) and reduced price for any further purchases, as well as a fee for the sale of Jeremiah’s land.

James Wadsworth and his brother accepted their relative’s proposal. The following spring, in May 1790, the 22-year-old James, his brother William, a black woman named Jenny, a relative named Gad Wadsworth, who was in charge of the chattel, and several “axe men” headed west to the Genesee Valley. After several difficult weeks of travel by rivers, streams and over land by Indian trails, they arrived on the banks of the Genesee River at a place the Seneca nation called Big Tree on June 9, 1790. They claimed the land and built a log cabin in a meadow near the east bank of the Genesee River about half a mile west of the present site of "The Homestead" at Geneseo, New York. Beyond the settlements near Fort Niagara, they were the first Europeans to establish a permanent settlement west of Seneca Lake.

The Wadsworth Brothers[edit]

The contrasting and complementary character of the two Wadsworth brothers is described in contemporary sources. Both men had an innate sense of honor and integrity, even to a fault as James was involved in two separate duels. James Wadsworth was a Yale graduate and a theorist, planner, colonist and lover of books while William Wadsworth (1765–1833) was more down-to-earth, a working farmer, militia officer and a "man with the common touch." The brothers had a successful arrangement between them. James was the more scholarly of the two, and had a shrewd mind for business and a talented negotiator, while William was a rugged hands-on type with a natural penchant for husbandry, agriculture and public duty. A highly successful team, James and William Wadsworth had an immediate impact on the small but rapidly growing settlement at Geneseo and were soon elected to the top local positions (William Wadsworth was Town supervisor for 21 years) and built around them an agricultural community based on enlightened principles of soil conservation, selective stock breeding, scientific agricultural methods, aesthetic preservation and public education.

Career and travels[edit]

After the first trees were felled and the log cabin was completed at Big Tree (later renamed Geneseo), James Wadsworth immediately began the work for which he was to excel. Starting in the spring of 1791 James traveled to New York City to begin advertising for the sale and settlement of Genesee Valley lands. He then traveled on to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He visited Massachusetts and went back to Connecticut frequently to encourage settlement by offering much in the way of incentives. In February 1796 James sailed to England to promote settlement, but the dismal economic state of affairs in England prevented any headway. So he proceeded “…to examine the state of agriculture and view the manufacturing towns.” While in Europe James went to the Netherlands and met with the proprietors of the Holland Land Company and secured a future deal with them for lands west of the Genesee - once the company had secured the Indian title to these lands. James returned to New York in December 1796, remaining in New York City soliciting settlers to the Genesee Valley. He returned to the Genesee Valley late the following summer escorting several settlers. When James returned he found his brother William had built a proper large cobblestone house for their occupancy – they having been living in that first small log cabin for over six years. On August 28, 1797 James and William Wadsworth were the host for the Treaty of Big Tree. This treaty effectively extinguished the Indian title to the land west of the Genesee River and created ten reservations for the Seneca in New York State.

He and his brother William then devoted their time to farming and to the acquisition and sale of land. By 1800 James and William had acquired 32,500 acres (132 km2), most of which was leased to tenant farmers with the option to buy.


James Wadsworth was a man who cherished education and learning throughout his life. James was heavily involved in starting a primary school in Geneseo and sought a young man to serve as the school master, the greater part of whose wages would be paid by himself. He was actively interested in the promotion of teacher training. In January 1829, he wrote former clerk, Philo Fuller, a State Assemblyman, to urge the passage of legislation to establish county high schools with well-educated teachers. James wrote to him: "To improve the common schools in this state, the employment of more able instructors is indispensable." He lobbied the State's superintendents of public instruction. In 1830, James was selected to represent Livingston County at a New York State Corresponding Committee at Utica, New York. He pressed two issues in particular: "Are Common Schools Worth the Money Paid?" And "Whether to Establish an Institute to Train Teachers." At another meeting in January 1831, he was elected Vice President of the Eighth Senatorial District to investigate the need for institutions for teacher training. On March 11, 1833, James invested $6,000 of his own capital toward what he hoped would be a start toward the funding of school libraries. James created a trust to compile, print and distribute to the trustees of each common school in New York State courses of popular lectures "adapted to the capacities of children" which could be "conveniently read in half an hour." The lectures were to be on six subjects: "On the Application of Science for the Arts," "On Agriculture and Horticulture," "On the Principles of Legislation," "On Political Economy," "On Astronomy and Chemistry," And "On the Intellectual, Moral and Religious Instruction of the Youth of this State by Means of Common Schools." He also underwrote the cost of publishing and distributing John Nicholson's "The Farmer's Assistant" and John O. Taylor's "The District School" in 1834. In 1838, New York Governor George W. Patterson writes, “In regard to the origin of the School District Library System of this state, I will say to you, that the whole credit belongs to the Honorable James Wadsworth, of Geneseo…" Patterson insisted that he had just performed his "duty" to obtain a bill permanently earmarking funds for school libraries, over what he considered violent objections. Rather, "the credit of all that has been done belongs to the praise-worthy efforts of Mr. Wadsworth." James Wadsworth wanted a library "open and free for the gratuitous use as well of the inhabitants of the County of Livingston." He wanted a new public library to be located in Geneseo. He privately funded the Geneseo Atheneum in 1842, which opened with books, scientific equipment and mineral specimens, which were to be available to all. He opened this library to promote "the moral and intellectual instruction of the young and the diffusion of science and literature." James's own books and specimens became the basis for it. This library/museum was later aptly renamed Wadsworth Library.


On James’ travels to Connecticut he met Naomi Walcott (10 Oct 1777 – 01 Mar 1831) of East Windsor, Connecticut and they were married on 01 Oct 1804. The couple immediately moved to James’ farm in Geneseo, New York and raised a family.


Harriet Wadsworth (13 Sep 1805 – 01 Jan 1833)

James Samuel Wadsworth, General (30 Oct 1807 – 8 May 1864)

William Walcott Wadsworth (07 Jul 1810 – 29 Jul 1852)

Cornelia Wadsworth (25 Dec 1812 – 28 Mar 1831)

Elizabeth Wadsworth (26 Jul 1815 – 08 Dec 1851) m. Sir Charles Augustus Murray


- “The Wadsworths of the Genesee”, by Alden Hatch, Goward-McCann, Inc., New York, 1959

- "History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase and Morris; Reserve:..." by O. Turner, 1851

- “Genealogical and Family History of Western New York: The Achievements of Her People in the Making of a Commonwealth and the Building of a Nation, Vol. 2” edited by William Richard Cutter, Lewis Publishing Co., New York, 1912

- “The Homestead, Nomination document” prepared by C. E. Brooke, National Register of Historic Places, N. Y. State Division for Historic Preservation, National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1974

External links[edit]

- “James Wadsworth, Educator” by Wayne Mahood, 2003 on-line article http://www.crookedlakereview.com/articles/101_135/129fall2003/129mahood.html