The town of Brownville derives its name from its founder and first settler, Jacob Brown, who afterwards became major-general in the United States army.
The town was formed from Leyden, April 1, 1802, and originally embraced all that portion north of Black river from a line running from the northwest corner of champion, north forty-five degrees east to the southwesterly bounds of the county of St. Lawrence.
Prior to 1788 these lands were in possession of the Oneida Indians of the Iroquois Confederacy. In September of that year the Oneidas, by treaty, conveyed, for a consideration, the greater part of their land to the State. This treaty was confirmed by the United States in 1784.
The office of land-commissioners was created by the State in 1786, and authority given the commissioners to dispose of any inappropriate lands.
In 1791 Alexander Macomb bargained for a large tract of land embracing this section, and in 1792 employed Wm. Constable to sell lands in Europe. On the 12th of April, 1793, constable effected a sale of 210,000 acres of this land to Peter Chassanis, of Paris; and Chassanis appointed Rodolphe Tillier, of New York, to manage and sell this property.
Macomb’s tract No. 4 was surveyed in 1796 by C. C. Brodhead, assisted by Jonas Smith, Timothy Wheeler, Joshua Northrup, Elias Marvin, John Young, Isaac Le Fevre, Elijah Blake, Samuel Tupper, Eliakim Hammond, and Abraham B. Smede, each with a few men as assistants, and the whole having a general camp or rendezvous at Pillar Point, at a place called Peck’s cove, near where the Chassanis line crosses the bay.
When Chassanis first arranged for this tract of land, it was proposed to divide it into lots of fifty acres each, giving title and possession of one lot to each purchaser, and reserving for each purchaser another lot of fifty acres, of which he was not to come in possession until a future period. Provision was also made for two cities, one of which was to be located between Brownville and Dexter; six hundred acres to be set aside for this city, to be called the “city of Basle.”
The early history of the settlement of Brownville is closely interwoven with that of Jacob Brown, who, while teaching school in New York, formed the acquaintance of Tillier, and became interested in the Black River country.
Samuel Brown, the father of Jacob Brown, resided in Bucks county, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Delaware. He was a man of wealth, and Jacob, with an older brother, was being educated at an academy in Trenton, when his father lost his property by an unfortunate speculation, and Jacob was obliged to teach school and become the teacher of his younger brothers and sister. He was now a lad of sixteen. He afterwards taught a large school at Crosswicks, New Jersey, qualifying himself in the meantime for land-surveying, and, as land-surveyor he spent a year in the Miami country, Ohio, thus early developing those sterling qualities of energy and self-reliance that fitted him for pioneer life, as well as the arduous duties of his brilliant military career.
The Brown family were now casting about to retrieve their fortunes, and Jacob, as well as his father, had strong proclivities towards a home in Ohio, and, with that in view, had entered into some negotiations for a tract of land, now the site of the city of Cincinnati. These plans were not nurtured, and Jacob returned to New York in 1798, and took charge of a Quaker school, and while thus engaged, formed the acquaintance of Tillier, the agent of Chassanis, and the project of coming into the Black river country was discussed. Tillier accompanied him on a visit to his father’s house, and a written agreement was entered into by which Tillier agreed to defray all the expenses of a prospecting trip, whether he purchased or not.
In February, 1799, having closed his school in New York, he proceeded to the French settlement at the high Falls, finding his way from Utica by marked trees; here he remained to complete his plans, making several journeys to Utica, and bringing from thence supplies as would be needed in his projected trip.
In March, he launched his boat upon the swollen waters of Black river, and floated down to Long Falls (Carthage), and from thence, in company with two men by the name of Chambers and Samuel Ward, and a few hired men, he took the route of the “French road,” so called, which Tillier had caused to be opened at the expense of the French company, from the High Falls on Black river to Great Bend; thence nearly direct to Clayton or French creek. Traveling this road until he supposed they had gone far enough, he struck off towards the river, which he reached at the Basin, one and a half miles below the present village of Brownville. Here he heard the sound of a waterfall, and followed the river up till he came to a point whre a creek, swollen by the spring freshet, poured its torrent of waters into Black river. This creek did not then run in its present channel, but at a point near the present railroad bridge, it made an angle, and found a channel along the space between the present residences of Byron Cole and George Hunter, and thence down through “Scrabble Hollow” into the river. A straight channel was afterwards cut through the rocks to the river, as at the present day.
It was the intention of Jacob Brown to establish himself at the head of navigation, and believing this creek would afford water sufficient for mills and all manufacturing purposes, and the river below need but little improvement to make it navigable for boats, he determined to locate here, and thus began the settlement of Brownville.
He immediately set about clearing the land, and the first house north of Black river was built of logs, on the edge of the bank, where the hay-scales now stand.
In the mean time he sent on for his father’s family, who arrived on May 27, 1799, having found their way by the tedious navigation of the Mohawk, Oneida lake, and Lake Ontario, pitching their tent at night on the shore, and resuming their way by day. When the family arrived the log house had neither roof nor floor, door or window. It was built of pine logs, felled on the spot; a sail-cloth was taken from the boat and stretched across the upper timbers for a roof, and the openings for doors and windows were closed as well as possible by quilts and blankets. In this rude domicile, twenty feet square, were gathered the twenty person, male and female, old and young, who composed this little colony.
At this time there was not more than three families within forty-five miles, and nothing like a settlement for twenty-four miles,–all north of Black river being a dense wilderness. One may imagine-the-feelings of Jacob’s mother, when she said, on taking a survey of her new home, “Well, Jacob, thee has got us all here, but thee has not a board to make us a coffin, nor a spade to dig us a grave.” Tradition says the mother of Jacob Brown was not known to smile for six months after she came to this wilderness. About that time Jacob returned from New York with goods, and among other article brought a spade. His mother said, “Jacob, what will thee do with a spade, among these roots and stumps?” “Oh! Some of us may die” (alluding to the remark his mother had made on her first introduction into pioneer life), “and we shall want a spade;” at which reply, it is said, she smiled.
The Brown family at this time consisted of Samuel Brown and his wife, Christopher, Jacob, John (afterwards Judge Brown), Joseph, Mary (Mrs. Newland, of Fishkill), Benjamin, Samuel (Major Brown, of Brownville), Hannah (Mrs. B. Skinner), William (who was drowned in Lake Erie, while acting as aid to his brother, Major-General Brown, during the War of 1812), Abi (Mrs. Evans), and Joseph, General Brown, of Tecumseh, Michigan. With them had come George Brown, a relative, with his two sons, Henry, a lad of fourteen, and Thomas, then eight.
Of course there was no lumber for building purposes, but their necessities made them fertile in invention, and, as a substitute for planks for floors, they used long strips of bark, laid down closely, and taken up each day, carried into the open air, cleansed, and then re-laid.
Source: Durant, Samuel W. and Henry B. Peirce. History of Jefferson County, New York, With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of its Prominent Men and Pioneers. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co., 1878.