Division of Ontario County Into Towns

Tracing the Origins of the Towns of Ontario County

Preston E. Pierce, Ontario County Historian

The creation of the first towns of Ontario County (initially called “districts”) has never been clearly delineated.  The reason for that is that Ch. 11, Laws of 1789 (passed Jan. 27, 1789), the statute creating Ontario County, gave the judges of the Court of Sessions of the new county the authority to divide the county.  While many original towns of the county claim to have been in existence since 1789, the fact is that court actions to establish those towns began in 1790 and extend through the rest of that decade.  Petitions calling for the creation of towns are included in the court records held in the county archive (Dept. of Records, Archives, and Information Management Services, or RAIMS).  They are now posted in this website.

The authority of the Ontario County Court of Sessions to create towns was repealed by Ch. 89, Laws of 1799 (passed Apr. 3, 1799) and the state legislature took over the responsibility for subdividing counties after that.  Throughout the Nineteenth Century, specific statutes then erected the Towns of East and West Bloomfield; Victor; Manchester, Hopewell, South Bristol; and Canadice.   Several other statutes made changes in the defined boundaries of Towns.

In 1849, the legislature surrendered some of its exclusive power to erect new towns.  Ch. 194, Laws of 1849 (passed Apr. 3, 1849) empowered the Board of Supervisors to divide existing towns, or erect new ones, with specific and detailed requirements for doing so.  Subsequently, Ch. 18, Laws of 1871 (passed Feb. 2, 1871) made it somewhat easier for the Board of Supervisors to divide or erect towns.  It was under the provisions of Ch. 18, Laws of 1871 that the Ontario County Board of Supervisors voted to divide the Town of Seneca and erect the Town of Geneva.  That vote of the Board took place on Oct. 11, 1872 and took effect on Nov. 15, 1872.   The official record of that vote can be found in the minutes of the Ontario County Board of Supervisors, published in its Proceedings

A very useful book, put together by Gilbert Smith (a very competent researcher) in 1999, traces the origins of the towns of Ontario County (as originally defined) as nearly as the sources would allow then.   That book is available for use at RAIMS and on this site here.

Ch. 163, Laws of 1801 (passed Apr. 7, 1801), provided for the division of the state into counties and gave a physical description of the boundaries of each town then existing. Towns that subsequently became part of other counties are listed as part of Ontario County by that law.  The towns named included those created by the Ontario County Court of Sessions.  However, the fact of creation by the court is not mentioned.

There are several other considerations that can be important to researchers.  One of them is that the names of several towns have been changed.  Ch. 127, Laws of 1801 (passed Apr. 6, 1801) provided for quite a few name changes for Ontario County towns.  The reason for the statute was clearly stated in its preamble.   “Whereas considerable inconvenience results from several of the towns in this state having the same name:  For remedy whereof, be it enacted by the People of the State of New York, represented in Senate and Assembly, That from and after the first day of August next, the names of the following towns shall be changed…”

The legislature passed several other statutes over the years changing the names of individual towns.  For example, Ch. 149, Laws of 1806 (passed Apr. 1, 3 and 4, 1806) changed the name of the Town of Easton to the Town of Lincoln effective Jul. 1, 1806.   Subsequently, Ch. 146, Laws of 1807, (passed Apr. 6, 1807) changed the name of the Town of Lincoln to the Town of Gorham, effective Jul. 1, 1807.

A historical question that sometimes arises has to do with the actual date that a town (or other municipality) was created (erected is the legal term).  No definitive statement for legal interpretation has yet been found.   However, for historical purposes, researchers, municipal historians, and historical societies should consider several things.

It is most logical that the actual founding date of a town be considered the actual date that the founding statute is effective, when it has the authority to act, not the date the law announced the erection of a town. An analogy would be having a promotion announced giving the effective date of the promotion when the recipient gets the raise, the insignia, and the authority, not the date of the announcement. Where the statutes passed by the legislature specify no effective date, or state that the law takes effect immediately, or upon passage, there is no question.  For example, Ch. 62, Laws of 1838 (passed Mar. 8, 1838) divided the Town of Bristol and created the Town of South Bristol.   The last section of the law states that “This act shall take effect on the passage thereof.”

Prior to the ratification of the second state constitution, there was a Council of Revision in the government of New York State.  That council consisted of the Governor, the Chancellor, and the Justices of the state Supreme Court, or “any two of them."  No law passed by the legislature could become effective until it was passed by the Council of Revision.  A revolutionary reaction to previous royal power, it proved to be inefficient.  It was not abolished, however, until the new constitution was written in 1821.  For that reason, it can be argued that no law for the erection of a town (prior to 1821) was effective until it was passed by the Council of Revision.   Ch. 149, Laws of 1806, mentioned previously, specifically states the date that the Assembly approved the renaming of Easton to Lincoln (Apr. 1, 1806; the date that the state Senate approved (Apr. 3, 1806); and the date that the Council of Revision approved the statute (Apr. 4, 1806).

The New York State Archives holds a “Register of Town and City Creation Dates” that includes those municipalities erected between 1801 and 1825 but it gives only the year of establishment.  However, this series, number A4009, would be a good reference to consult.   Unfortunately, it does not seem to be available on the Internet.  

Finally, thinking about the creation (erection, or establishment) of towns, it may be important to clarify the reason for fixing on a specific date.  Is it important to commemorate the first settlement of the town, which may be prior to the erection of the town?  Is it important to commemorate the legal date the town came into being?  Is it important to commemorate the legal date the town was first organized with an effective government?  Most basic for a collection of towns during an anniversary, is it important to know which town was “first?”

Town petitions to the Ontario County Court of Sessions for the founding era prior to 1801, together with other court records, can be examined at the Ontario County Dept. of RAIMS.  Published books containing the Nineteenth Century Laws of New York (by year and legislative session) can be obtained in digital format from several sources on the Internet.