Early Surveys of Erie County

As mentioned in our previous blog, “History of Franklin Township,” most of the land in Northwestern Pennsylvania came under the control of the newly formed United States of America with the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. The following year, however, disputes of land claims within the colonies began, and a boundary dispute between New York and Pennsylvania erupted.

Pennsylvania argued for the northern border to be placed at the 43rd parallel, above current-day Buffalo, N.Y. However, Pennsylvania yielded to New York and accepted the 42nd parallel as the northern border. New York set the state’s western boundary on a line drawn south from the western extremity of Lake Ontario.  However, the disputes continued, and the two states had to agree whether the “western extremity of Lake Ontario” included Burlington Bay, known now as Hamilton Harbour, or began at the sandbar that naturally divided the bay from the lake. To determine this line, Andrew Ellicott of Pennsylvania and Frederick Saxton of New York were sent out to establish the boundary and the western edge of New York was set at 20 miles east of Presque Isle Peninsula. This, however, left an unclaimed area of land that came to be known as the Erie Triangle.

Survey of the Erie Triangle, by Andrew Ellicott, 1815.

With Pennsylvania without a freshwater port on the Great Lakes, the Federal government pressured New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to surrender any claim to the Erie Triangle. Thus in March 1792, Pennsylvania purchased the 202,187 acres of land along the south shore of Lake Erie for $151,640.25 from the United States. In April of the same year, the Erie Triangle and the remaining unwarranted land (north and west of the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers) from the Fort Stanwix Purchase were opened for settlement with the passage of the 1792 Land Law. The law stated the lands were to be sold only “to persons who will cultivate, improve and settle the same, or cause the same to be cultivated, improved and settled.” The law was an attempt to regulate public land sales to favor settlers over speculators; it established a 400–acre limit for purchasers, required purchasers to clear and erect a house within two years, and banned anyone but the state’s deputy surveyors from surveying the region.

A portion of the 1791 map of Pennsylvania made by John Adlum and John
Wallis showing the Erie Triangle and the remaining unwarranted land north and west of the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

During this same period, wealthy bankers and investors believed they could profit from land speculation and began buying large tracts of land through a loophole in the law. These investors included a group of prominent east coast entrepreneurs, who formed The Pennsylvania Population company, and a group of thirteen Dutch bankers and investors, who formed the Holland Land Company. At the time, however, foreign entities could not directly purchase land, so the latter worked through American agents to purchase these tracts of land. The 400-acre tracts would be registered under fictitious individuals, and these individuals would then yield their lands to the land companies for modest sums. In 1796, the Holland Land Company was offering 100 acres of each 400-acre tract to settlers in return for establishing the necessary improvements under the land law; the remaining 300 acres were offered at a moderate price and on long credits. The following map shows the extent of the Holland Land Company lands in Pennsylvania.

In the early 1790s, the Holland Land Company purchased a large tract of land just to the south of that Erie Triangle, known as “Reese’s District #1”, as shown on the following map. This is likely Thomas Rees, who in 1795 sold and surveyed tracts for the Pennsylvania Population Company.

Holland Land Company Map, Reese’s District No. 1

The large tract of land had been divided into 400-acre tracts, 1 mile by 5/8 mile in size. Each block was numbered, starting with block 1 in the northwest corner and continuing across that row, then down to the next row and back across that row. Each numbered block also had a fictitious name, as previously noted, assigned to it as the warrantee.

Early maps of Holland Land Co Reese’s District 1 show Elk Creek across the northern boundary, but roads had not yet been developed, and the system of streams south of Elk Creek is rudimentary at best, mostly incorrect in location and direction of flow. Access to these lands, south of the Erie Triangle, was difficult in the early 1800s as Elk Creek cuts a formidable gorge along the southern border of the Erie Triangle. As a result, it was not until the 1830s that settlers first began to clear homesteads.

As the area developed, Franklin Township was formed in 1844. It encompasses blocks 47 through 86, those 40 blocks comprising a total of 16,000 acres of land. The earliest map of Franklin Township known to exist is one created in 1855, as shown below. The blocks comprising Franklin Township are numbered on the map, using the same block sequence given to them decades earlier by the Holland Land Company. Howard Falls is found in block 53.

Map of Erie County, Pennsylvania From Actual Surveys by & under Supervision of J. Chace Jr. (Troy, NY: McLeran & Moore, Publishers, 1855)

Prominent on the 1854 map is the village of Stone Quarry. Later blogs will explore Thomas Rees, the development of Stone Quarry Village, and also how early settlers, including Henry and Levi Howard, likely acquired their homesteads from the successors of the Holland Land Company.

One final image – is it possible the earliest map of Falls Run is from the 1791 map of Pennsylvania made by John Adlum and John Wallis? Maybe we should also dig into their stories as well…

Google Maps overlay on the 1791 map of Pennsylvania made by John Adlum and John Wallis

D.D.Howard

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