Our Elmira Ancestors
The picture on the left is my great (x4) grandfather, Thomas Maxwell. He was born in Athens, Pennsylvania on February 16, 1792. At the age of four, Thomas moved with his parents to Newtown, New York where he was to spend the remainder of his life. This chapter tells the story of Thomas Maxwell and some of our other ancestors many of whom were among the earliest pioneers in the wilderness area that was to become the City of Elmira, New York.
Prior to the 1780s, this part of the country was nothing more than forest and a few Indian villages that were located along the flat banks of the Tioga River. The land was fertile and excellent for farming and the resident Indians were extensive farmers. As of yet the white settlers had not moved into the area although they were gradually populating the lands not far to the south in Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna River. The Tioga River (later renamed the Chemung River) flowed south into the Susquehanna River. The northwardly migration of the white settlers into Indian Territory did not go unnoticed by the Indians.
These Indians were primarily Seneca Indians recognized at the time as one of the fiercest of the tribes of the Iroquois Confederation. Their lands included most of Western New York from Lake Ontario to the north, Seneca Lake to the east, Lake Erie to the west and most of the land in Northeastern Pennsylvania that had not already been confiscated by the new white settlers. The Indians understandably hated the Americans. When war finally broke out in 1777 between the Americans and the British, most of the tribes of the Iroquois Confederations who previously had taken a position of neutrality, agreed to join forces with the British against the Americans. This decision ultimately proved disastrous for the tribes.
Beginning in early 1778, maraudering bands of Indians starting attacking settlements in the Mohawk and Susquehanna River Valleys, burning villages and killing and scalping settlers. By mid-year the Indians had joined forces with Loyalist and Tories under the command of British Colonel John Butler and they intensified their attacks beginning first in early July 1778 with the “Wyoming Massacre” in Pennsylvania where over 300 settlers were killed. This was followed again in November 1778 when Butler and his Indian allies murdered 50 settlers at the Cherry Valley Massacre. [The Wyoming Massacre is described in Chapter 8 of our family’s history.]
General George Washington realized that something needed to be done to stop these attacks. He also realized that the fertile lands occupied by the nations of the Iroquois Confederation in New York were the breadbasket of the British Army. Fortunately for the Continental Army, the British troops in the summer of 1779 were not active in the Northeast having chosen at that time to concentrate their military efforts in the south. This afforded General Washington the opportunity to divert a large portion of his northern troops to a campaign whose purpose was to drive the Indians from their lands. Because General John Sullivan was given the command by Washington of the largest body of soldiers (around 3,000), this offensive became known as the Sullivan Expedition.
In the late summer of 1779, General Sullivan marched his troops north along the Susquehanna River. In Athens, Pennsylvania where the Susquehanna River meets the Tioga River (Chemung River) Sullivan’s troops joined with General Clinton’s smaller army. The two combined armies of around 5,000 men then proceeded northwest along the Chemung until they reached an Indian village which was later to be called “New Town,” near the present City of Elmira. There on August 29, 1779, the Sullivan-Clinton army engaged in battle an army of Indians and Loyalist troops under the command of Col. John Butler. The battle lasted only a few hours and there were few casualties on both sides. In the end however, the Indians and the Loyalist forces turned and fled. Despite the fact that the Battle of Newtown was not a major battle in the Revolutionary War, it was nevertheless significant for it affectively ended the power of the Iroquois Confederation. After the battle Sullivan’s forces marched north and like General Sherman’s famous “March to the Sea” during the Civil War, Sullivan implemented a policy of the total destruction of the Indian villages and their fields, orchards, and granaries. The Battle of Newtown is still recognized each year in the City of Elmira with a reenactment held in August at the Newtown Battlefield State Park.
Once the area was cleared of Indians it was opened for settlement. This chapter in our family’s history covers three branches of our family that took advantage of the fertile and inexpensive land available in the area of Elmira, New York. These are the ancestors of my Grandmother Helen Spaulding Baker, who was born in Elmira. The first branch is the Wisner family. Clara Wisner married Henry Clinton Spaulding who is a subject of Chapter 4 in our family’s history. The second branch is the Sly family. One of the Sly’s daughters married the son of Henry Clinton Spaulding. The third branch is the Maxwell family. Thomas Maxwell’s daughter married a Sly. My father’s father’s side of the family were Harpendings, covered in Chapter 9, and Rappleyes, covered in Chapter 1.
Elmira Branch #1- The Wisner Family:
Hendrick Wisner (1698-1767) m. Mary Shaw
John Wisner (1718-1778) m. Anna Jayne
Henry Wisner (1742-1812) m. Susannah Goldsmith
John Wisner (1771-1811) m. Elizabeth Bertholf
Henry Wisner (1801-1862) m Maria Smith
Clara A Wisner (1822-1906) m. Henry Clinton Spaulding (1812-1902)
Hendrick Wisner, my great (x7) grandfather, was born in Switzerland in 1698. He immigrated with his parents, Johannes Wisner and Elizabeth Dumbaugh, in the year 1714 when Hendrick was 16. Hendrick met and married his wife Mary Shaw, reported to be from a New England family, in 1719 after he arrived in New York and after he had moved to Warwick, in Orange County, New York. Here their first son was born. Orange County is located in the Hudson River Valley, northwest of New York City. Mary and Hendrick had three children before her death in 1725 at the age of 26. Their first son John, our great (x5) grandfather, was born in 1718. Their second son Henry, one of our great uncles, was a New York delegate to the Continental Congress who approved the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, at least for our family’s pride, Henry had to leave before the formal signing of the Declaration on July 4th. Hendrick and his parents are said to be the first settlers in Orange County. It is also reported by one source that Hendrick Wisner was an “extensive landowner.” He died in the year 1767.
John Wisner, my great (x6) grandfather, was born in 1718. In the year 1740 he married Anna Jayne and together they had seven children all of whom were born between the years 1742 and 1755. We know little of John’s early life although it is likely that he was a prominent farmer probably as a result of inheritances from his father. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War in 1776, John, at age 58, was appointed a Captain in a regiment of the Orange County Militia. In September of that year, the regiment he commanded participated in a brief skirmish against the British on Montresor’s Island, part of New York’s Long Island. General Washington’s army was at this early state of the war battling to prevent the British from capturing New York City. Apparently John’s efforts on Long Island were not appreciated for he was court martialed in October of 1776. It is not clear what happened to John as a result of the court martial, however he was later killed in battle in December 1778.
John and Anna’s oldest son Henry, our great (x5) grandfather, was born on July 11, 1742 in Orange County. Henry Wisner married Susannah Goldsmith on January 1, 1764 in Orange County and together they had eleven children born between the years 1765 and 1784. Henry like his father John, enlisted in the army as a Captain on September 22, 1775 before the actual start of the Revolutionary War. He was 33 when he enlisted. He was promoted to a major in February of 1776 and in 1778 he was further promoted to a lieutenant colonel. As a result of his service in the war and probably in lieu of pay, Henry in the mid-1780s was issued 400 acres of land on the south side of the Chemung River in Newtown, NY (Elmira), one of several military lots granted to soldiers of the Revolution. Whether or not Henry ever lived on his land holdings in Elmira we do not know, but we do know that between 1788 and the early 1790’s both Henry and his son, Jeffrey acquired thousands of acres of land in the Elmira area including 4,000 acres in Big Flats, which he later subdivided and resold. This land he purchased for only 1 shilling and 6 pence per acre, well below the resale value. It appears that Henry had become a land speculator in the red hot Elmira real estate market and it no doubt made him a wealthy man.
It is interesting to compare the father and the son’s success in the military. Both men enlisted in the army at the rank of Captain. No doubt John due to his position in the community, his wealth, and his ability to raise a regiment, was made captain because he had sponsored the regiment. Henry, his son, although helped by his father’s position, was a born-leader and he advanced rapidly. Wealth and buying military rank did not automatically mean that one was a good military leader. John apparently was a failure as a commander whereas his young son was successful. As we learned in Chapter 5 about the Crimean War, the British custom of appointing officers from the ranks of nobility and wealth often led to failure in battle due to incompetent leadership. History reminds us that this problem continued to plague our own military leadership as late as the American Civil War. Henry died in 1812 at his home in Orange County. His wife Susannah died in 1841 at the age of 98. Between 1776 and 1782, Henry Wisner was a member of the New York State Legislature representing Duchess, Orange, and Ulster Counties.
John Wisner, our great (x4) grandfather, was born on January 13, 1771 in Orange County, New York, the fifth child of Henry and Susannah. He married Elizabeth Bertholf on May 16, 1790 and together they had eight children all of whom were born in Orange County. We know almost nothing about John and Elizabeth other than John was reported to be a farmer. He died in 1811 at the age of 40. Elizabeth died in 1843 outliving her husband by 32 years.
John Wisner’s sixth child was our great (x3) grandfather, Henry Wisner who was born at his parent’s home in Orange County on June 13, 1801. Henry married Maria Smith around 1821 and together they had four children, all of whom were born in Orange County. In 1834, Henry and his family moved to Elmira, New York. We assume that Henry moved to occupy land in Elmira that he had inherited from his grandfather and to seek the greater opportunities offered in this new rapidly growing community. In the 1850 US Census in Elmira, we learned that Henry and Maria were living next door to Henry Clinton Spaulding, my great (x3) grandfather, and his wife and Henry’s daughter, Clara Wisner. Henry Wisner’s real estate in the census was valued at $4,000, a large sum in 1850. We also learned from our history of the Spauldings in Chapter 4, that Henry Spaulding, their son-in-law was a prosperous lumberman. While Henry Wisner is listed as a farmer in the census, I think that it is safe to conclude that he was a well-to-do farmer. Henry and Maria are both buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York within a few feet of the graves of my Grandfather and Grandmother Baker.
Elmira Branch #2 – The Sly Family:
John Michael Sly (? -abt.1777) m. Unknown
Michael Sly (? -abt.1808)) m. Catherine (? –abt 1793)
John Sly (1764-1856) m. Mary Hammond (1774-1859)
Mathew McReynolds Sly (1815-1876) m. Susan Maxwell (1823-1848)
Mary Catherine Sly (1844-1917) m. Charles Henry Spaulding (1841-1875)
There is very little historical information available about John Michael Sly, our great (x6) grandfather. We know that his will was probated in Easton, Pennsylvania and that he had lived in Smithfield Township north of Easton in the present county of Monroe. His will was probated in 1777 which is likely the year he died. Smithfield Township lies along the Delaware River which today serves as the state border between Pennsylvania and the State of New Jersey. John Michael had at least three children, one of whom was our ancestor Michael Sly who was executor of his father’s will. Michael Sly’s children were all christened in the Smithfield Dutch Reformed Church leading to the speculation that the Slys were of Dutch or German ancestry. We know that many of the early settlers in northeastern Pennsylvania in the area of Wyoming County (Wilkes Barre, PA) had migrated from Connecticut and were mostly of Anglo-Saxon heritage. It is more likely however, that the Slys were not of English descent and their family had moved west from New Jersey or New York City where in the early 1700s the population was largely Dutch and German. It is suggested by one source that the name Sly may have been alternatively spelled Schley, Schleigh, Slye, Slie, Sligh, or Schlei all of which suggest a German or Dutch heritage. According to John Michael’s will he was a man of modest means. We do not know the name of his wife and it is entirely possible that she died at an early age.
Michael Sly, our great (x5) grandfather, was born in Smithfield Township, Pennsylvania around the year 1745. He married a girl named Catherine whose last name we do not know, in the year 1766 and together they had ten children including their first born child, our great (x4) grandfather, John Sly. All of Michael and Catherine’s children were born in Smithfield. On September 29, 1777, Michael enlisted in the County Militia. We could find no record that he participated in any of the battles in the American Revolution. After the war in 1788, Michael and his oldest son John traveled overland on horseback to explore the lands along the Chemung River near the present day city of Elmira. They had heard stories of the Indian-free, rich fertile farming land that was being made available for purchase at a low cost. When they arrived the stories proved to be accurate and they purchased 600 acres of land on the flat south bank of the Chemung River near the Village of New Town. In 1788, they were among the first settlers to arrive in the area. Michael then returned to Smithfield to bring the rest of his family back to their new home.
Most historians record that John Sly, our great (x4) grandfather, actually purchased the land and not his father. This does seem to make sense since John Sly owned the land when he died in 1856. On the other hand, one source reports that John’s brothers sold their portions of their inherited property back to John. This could not be confirmed. Oddly enough, I was unable to find any evidence that any of the Slys had purchased land as early as 1788. Whether John had the money to purchase the land in 1788 is doubtful. It is worth noting however, that in a listing of taxpayers in Newtown in 1794 the names John Sly, Michael Sly, and Adam Sly (Michael’s brother) all appeared. This would seem to imply that they each owned separate parcels purchased some time after 1788.
John Sly was only 24 years old when he arrived in New Town. In the historical records of Chemung County it is written that he arrived with his fifteen year old bride, Miss Polly Hammond. Their arrival is described as follows: “The bridal trip of this couple was accomplished on horseback, and on one horse at that. Mr. Sly bought 600 acres on the flats in Southport, opposite Elmira, for ten shillings an acre. From it he cut the timber and put up a log house for himself and his young wife.” Mary “Polly” Hammond, our great (x4) grandmother, was the daughter of Lebbeus Hammond and Lucy Tubbs. Their story is covered in Chapter 8 of our family’s history. We wrote in Chapter 8 that Lebbeus Hammond and his family relocated from Wyoming County to New Town in 1787, one year earlier than John Sly’s arrival. If this is true, the romantic notion of John and Polly arriving together on horseback in 1788 may be a fabrication. On the other hand, if the Hammond family actually arrived in 1788, it is possible that John Sly and his father had passed through Wyoming County on their trip west, John had fallen in love and married Polly, and together the Slys and the Hammonds traveled north to find new land in New York. This scenario is supported by land purchase records that show Lebbeus Hammond purchasing numerous parcels in late 1788. Is it possible that Lebbeus actually purchased the land and gave some of it to his new son-in-law as a wedding gift? Now that is a romantic notion.
In any case, John and Polly had thirteen children together, their youngest child being born when Polly was only 16. Our great (x3) grandfather, Mathew McReynolds Sly, their last child, was born in 1814. In 1795, John began construction of a new and much larger home for his family. The home was located at the intersection of Maple Avenue and Sly Street near the Madison Avenue Bridge at the present address of 300 Maple Avenue in Elmira. The house remained in the Sly family until 1952. In 1961, the old family homestead was torn down to make room for a new gas station. The Sly family home at 300 Maple Avenue was still standing when my father was born in 1916 at his parent’s home up the street at 826 Maple Avenue.
John Sly was to farm his land for his entire life. It apparently was a successful endeavor for it was reported that he was a wealthy man, very pious and generous to the poor. He was a member of the First Baptist Church in Elmira and one of the founding stockholders of the Chemung Canal Bank of Elmira. John died at his home on August 27, 1856. Polly survived her husband by only three years. They are buried together in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira near the graves of their children, the Spaulding family, and the graves of my grandparents.
There is one last historical note about John Sly that I hesitate to mention. John is listed by the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR file 4381) as having been a 2nd Lieutenant in the Pennsylvania Militia during the Revolution. If this is accurate and John enlisted with his father in 1777, he would have been only 13 years old. While that may have been possible in 1777 (and who am I to question the SAR), it is unrealistic to believe that he would have been a thirteen year old 2nd lieutenant. There are no references that he ever fired a gun in battle.
John Sly’s son, Mathew McReynolds Sly, our great (x3) grandfather was born on December 30, 1815 in his parents home on Maple Avenue in Southport (Newtown). He married Susan Maxwell who was born on December 15, 1842. Together they had two children including Mary Catherine Sly, our great (x2) grandmother, who was born on March 17, 1844. Susan died on October 4, 1848 at the age of 25 after giving birth to her second child and son, James Sly. In the 1860 US Census, Mathew is listed as living with his second wife, his 16 year old daughter, Mary Catherine, and his three servants and two laborers. The census indicated that Mathew was a farmer with real estate valued at $50,000. One source indicates that he was a co-owner of a stage coach line operating out of Elmira. Mathew died on November 15, 1876 at the age of 61 at his home at 300 Maple Avenue, the home that his father had built for his family in 1795. Mathew and Susan are both buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira. Their daughter Mary Catherine Sly married Charles Henry Spaulding on October 15, 1862. Charles Henry’s sisters were good friends of Samuel Clemens and his wife as we discovered in Chapter 4 of our family’s history.
Elmira Branch #3 – The Maxwell Family
Alexander Maxwell m. Jane McBrantney
Guy Maxwell (1770-1814) m. Neeltje Eleanor Vansteenberg (1770-1824)
Thomas Maxwell (1762-1864) m. Maria Purdy (1801-1846)
Susan Maxwell (1823-1848) m. Mathew McReynolds Sly
We know very little about Alexander Maxwell and his wife Jane McBrantney, my great (x6) grandparents. We know that they were both Scottish and that he was from Caerlaverock, Scotland and she was “an accomplished woman connected with the clan McPherson.” When I did a Google search to locate Caerlaverock, Scotland I found a reference to a Sir Eustace Maxwell of Caerlaverock who had fought along side William Wallace (Mel Gibson’s “Brave Heart”), Scotland’s great hero in their fight for independence from the English in the 1300’s. Is it possible that we are related to Sir Eustace? The adjacent photograph of Caerlaverock Castle, the old Maxwell homestead, is located near Dunfries, Scotland. Anyway, I believe that Alexander and Jane were married in late 1769. In June of 1770 they departed from Glasgow on a ship bound for America. Unfortunately, the ship was driven ashore during a storm and wreaked on Irish soil in the County Down. While stranded in Ireland their first son, Guy Maxwell, my great (x5) grandfather, was born on July 19, 1770. The family eventually made it to America in 1772 and settled in a community near Martinsburg, Virginia.
When Guy Maxwell was eighteen years old he met a Colonel Hollenback who was visiting his old home in Martinsburg. Colonel Hollenback was a Revolutionary War veteran turned entrepreneur who was opening stores in the settlements along the Susquehanna River. The Colonel took a liking to young Guy and hired him to run one of his new stores in Tioga Point (Athens), Pennsylvania. Guy relocated to Tioga Point in the year 1788. Apparently, he was highly competent for in 1791 he opened his own mercantile business and in the same year he was not only appointed to the position of Justice of the Peace, he also received a license to operate a tavern. Also in 1791, Guy married my great (x5) grandmother, Neeltje (“Nellie”) Eleanor van Steenberg. Nellie was of Dutch ancestry. Her great, great grandfather had emigrated from Holland in the 1640’s and the family had settled in the Kingston, New York area along the Hudson River. After the Revolutionary War, Nellie moved with her parents to Tioga Point. Guy and Nellie were to have six children including our great (x4) grandfather, Thomas Maxwell, who was born in Tioga Point (Athens) on February 16, 1792.
In August of 1796, the Maxwell family relocated to Newtown, New York, where they acquired land and built a home on the south side of the Chemung River, near the home of John Sly and his family. Guy engaged in a mercantile business in his new community. In 1798 he was appointed the principal Tioga (Chemung) County tax assessor in charge of internal revenue, a position that did not last long, as tax collection was “exceedingly obnoxious to the people of the county” and the position and tax collection was discontinued. In 1800, Guy was appointed sheriff of Tioga County, a position that he held for four years. Before Guy Maxwell died on February 14, 1814 at the age of only forty-three he was considered to be “a man of considerable property” owning at one point more than one-half of the property in the business part of the city. Nellie outlived her husband by only ten years.
Guy and Nellie’s son Thomas Maxwell married his second wife, Maria Purdy, our great (x4) grandmother, in 1819 when he was twenty-seven and she was just eighteen. Thomas’ first wife had died very young possibly due to complications at child birth when their daughter was born in 1818. Together Thomas and Maria were to have nine children including their third child, our great (x3) grandmother, Susan C. Maxwell who was born in 1823.
Thomas Maxwell whose picture appears at the beginning of this chapter has one of the best resumes of all of our ancestors that I have researched. During the War of 1812 he was appointed quartermaster of a Cavalry regiment. From 1819 to 1892 he was Clerk of Tioga County. In 1828 he was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives and served in the Twenty-first US Congress during Andrew Jackson’s first term as President. In 1834 he was appointed as Postmaster of Elmira. Between 1834 and 1836 Thomas was Editor of the Elmira Gazette. He was at one time, about 1841, vice-president of the New York and Erie Railroad Company. In 1845 he moved his family to Geneva, New York where he was admitted as an attorney, and was appointed deputy clerk of the New York State Supreme Court. Thomas Maxwell died in 1867 after being struck by a train of railroad cars on his way home. It was hardly a fitting end for such an illustrious career. In a Chemung County history article it is written: “The latter years of his life were spent in advocating the pension claims of soldiers [Revolutionary and 1812 war soldiers]. In many ways he was one of the foremost men of his county [Chemung], and his character and disposition were such as to draw closely to him those with whom he came in contact.” Thomas and Maria are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Thomas and Maria’s daughter Susan married Mathew McReynolds Sly on December 15, 1842.
This chapter has covered three families all of whom were ancestors of my Grandmother Baker, Helen Spaulding. Clara A. Wisner was my Grandmother’s great grandmother on her father’s father’s side. Susan Maxwell was my Grandmother’s great grandmother on her father’s mother’s side. Mary Catherine Sly was my grandmother’s grandmother on her father’s side.