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The WNY of Yesteryear: In 1860, exploring Rochester, Mormonism and the Ontario Female Seminary

Is the Rochester area part of Western New York?

The debate may not be settled today, but in 1860, author J.H. French used the term “Western New York” to refer to Rochester and its surrounding area in his comprehensive “Historical and Statistical Gazetteer of New York State.”

And for good reason – Rochester’s and Buffalo’s economic and cultural fortunes have been tied together for centuries, dating back to the decision to build the Erie Canal from Buffalo and through Rochester to the Hudson River.

In the book, French noted that the “immense water-power furnished by Genesee River gives to the city great advantages for manufacturing.” Describing Rochester’s early development, French wrote that the “war with Great Britain” had “seriously retarded the progress of settlement,” but that “settlements commenced throughout Western N.Y. with increased rapidity” at the close of the war, “and Rochester immediately felt the new impulse.”

“A large number of settlers came in, mills were built, and the place immediately became the commercial and manufacturing center of the fertile Genesee country,” French wrote. “The finishing of the Erie Canal gave a new impetus to the business of the place and served to greatly extend its manufacturing interests. Since that time the city has steadily and rapidly increased both in population and business, until it has arrived at a front rank among the inland cities of the State.”

In its description of the areas surrounding Rochester’s Monroe County, the book outlines a watershed moment in American religious history – the birth of Mormonism.

Though the Mormons eventually settled in Utah and are popularly associated with that state, the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, “resided for many years in Manchester,” a town in Ontario County, according to the book.

“His pretended discovery of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon was made on the 22d [sic] of September, 1827,” French wrote. “Brigham Young was also a long time a [sic] resident of Canandaigua; and the first Mormon society was formed at Fayette, in the adjoining co. of Seneca, in 1830.”

Young went on to become the leader of the faith and relocated his flock to Utah.

Canandaigua’s early history, according to the book, also includes the founding in 1825 of the Ontario Female Seminary. The Canandaigua-based Daily Messenger newspaper in 2015 called the seminary “one of the first women’s private schools in western New York.” It is older than Buffalo Seminary, which was founded in 1851. The Ontario Female Seminary closed in 1875.

The Ontario school’s “commodious” buildings were “pleasantly situated” upon a 7-acre property and housed 311 students as of 1857, according to French’s book. Its “collegiate” course of study included “religious, intellectual, physical, social and ornamental” instruction.

A drawing of the Ontario Female Seminary, from the 1860 book "Historical and Statistical Gazetteer of New York State."

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