St Helena, ghost town of the Genesee, 1797-1954

St. Helena is now a name only. The pioneers of the valley have moved to the shade of the maples in Castile. Not many miles from the scene of their struggles with the early wilderness and the sometimes raging Genesee, the pioneers sleep on. Will the Genesee which they loved, and sometimes feared, close at last over the tiny town site or will it be allowed to grow again to a resemblance of its former state of wilderness? Never more will the hum of mill wheels fill the valley, for St. Helena is now the “Ghost Town of the Genesee.”

Dear Reader:

We present to yon the following information concerning the little village of St. Helena. It has been very difficult to amass even this much of the history because reliable records are scarce or nonexistent. Many people of the local area have been extremely helpful in loaning scrapbooks and other material which have yielded facts and dates. Old maps have been used as a source of proving ownership of property. We have used these to compile for you a record of this pioneer town, and to the pioneers and the descendants, thereof we dedicate our work.

Mildred Lee Anderson Marian Piper Willey

From wilderness to civilization—and then desolation. Such is the story of St. Helena. In the years following the Revolutionary War, this area was given to Mary Jemison, “The White Woman of the Genesee,” by the Indians at the council held at Big Tree, near Geneseo, N.Y., in 1797. The gift was made after Mary refused a chance to return to her own people, preferring to stay with her Indian children and family, which pleased the Indians very much. In her life story she stated that when she first saw her land on the Genesee River flats, about three hundred acres of it were open flats, which were supposed to have been cleared by a race of inhabitants who preceded the first Indian settlement in this part of the country. She said the Indians were confident that many parts of the country were settled and for many years occupied by people of whom their fathers had no tradition, as they never had seen them. Whence those people originated, and whither they went, she had never heard one of the oldest and wisest Indians pretend to guess.

The gift of land to Mary Jemison was known as the “Gardeau Reservation,” being six miles wide from east to west, and nearly four and three-fourths miles long from north to south, containing 17,927 acres of land. The Genesee River ran centrally through it. The land was fertile but Mary said it had lain idle so long that a heavy growth of weeds of all kinds covered the ground and it needed more labor than she and her daughters were able to give, so for many years she leased the land to white men to till on shares.

In 1816, Micah Brooks, Esq., of Bloomfield, Ontario County, and Jellis Clute, Esq., of Leicester, began negotiations for the purchase of a part of her land. Many obstacles presented themselves, among them the fact Mary was not a citizen of the United States, not legally able to convey lands without a special act of the legislature. (Mary Jemison was born to Thomas and jane Erwin Jemison on board the ship “Mary William,” bound for Philadelphia from Ireland, in the year 1742 or 1743.) Thus the assent of the chiefs of the Seneca nation had to be obtained and a commissioner appointed by the President of the United States. At last the arrangements were made and on September 3 or 4, 1823, a deed was given to Micah Brooks, Jellis Clute, and Henry B. Gibson, for all her lands except the Gardeau Tract, a plot of two square miles, which she reserved for herself and her family. This purchase released the land on which St. Helena was built. An old map of 1807, however, has the names of A. Parshall, Wm. Morse, and O. Spellman upon it. It is believed these were the names of shareholders. One portion had the sum of $58.30 marked on it which is believed to be the amount paid for it.

The first white man to settle in the Genesee Valley, in what is now Livingston County, was Ebenezer Allen, in 1782 at Mt. Morris. He was born in New Jersey. His wife was a Seneca squaw. He was better known as “Indian Allen,” and later built a sawmill at St. Helena. Mary Jemison in her life story said, “Allen commenced working my flats that spring (about 1782), and continued to labor there until after the peace, in 1783.”

Robert Whaley, of Castile, was known to have a sawmill on Wolf Creek as early as 1808, and in 1812 John and Jesse Jemison, and George Shongo, sons and son-in-law of Mary Jemison, worked for him. At this time there were only small clearings along the river, with here and there an isolated “squatter” who had to move on when the lands were sold.

In 1823, after the sale of the land was final, Henry B. Gibson, who came from Canandaigua, N.Y., settled on the farm now known as “Taborlea” on the Middle Reservation Road. He managed the land in the south portion of the Gardeau Reservation, Jellis Clute the north portion, and Micah Brooks the land east of the river.

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Source: Anderson, Mildred L. H, and Marian P. Willey. St. Helena, Ghost Town of the Genesee, 1797-1954. Castile, N.Y, 1954. Print.

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