Greater Oneonta
Historical Society

P.O. Box 814
Oneonta, NY 13820

Words and Pictures

Oneonta's Sesquicentennial, 1848-1998

by Ron Whalen

Nestled among the rolling hills of the Susquehanna River Valley, Oneonta looks to its future while fondly remembering its proud, historic past.

The tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy once inhabited this lush, green forest land teeming with fish and wildlife. They traversed its many streams, lakes, and rivers.

The Palatine-German-Dutch and Scotch-Irish settlers made their way here from the Mohawk River Valley during the Revolutionary War years, and cleared the land to start a new page in Oneonta's history with their farms and mills. Family names such as Vanderwercker, McDonald, Swart, Scramling, and many others brought a new life to what would be known first as McDonald's Mills, then Milfordville, and finally Oneonta, as we know it today.

The construction of new turnpikes, through what was once only small, narrow Indian trails in a frontier land, would open up new markets for local products, goods and services.

But it would be the coming of the iron horse- the railroad: the Albany and Susquehanna, the Delaware and Hudson, the Ulster and Delaware, and the New York Central among others- that would bring about the greatest and most lasting changes to this community. Immigrant families coming to Oneonta from all over eastern and western Europe would truly make this region a rich American melting pot of ethnic, social, cultural, and religious diversity and heritage.

"Early Days In Oneonta," by Alva Seybolt

The territory now occupied by Oneonta was part of Albany County, one of the ten original counties of New York Colony. After the French and Indian War it became part of Tryon County. In 1784 it was part of Montgomery County and finally in 1791 Otsego County. Between 1791 and 1801, the lands of Oneonta would be part of various towns including Unadilla, Suffrage, Otego, and Milford. Oneonta had its birth about 1817 when a post office was created here under the name of Milfordville. In 1830 the New York State Legislature "erected" the Town of Oneonta out of the Town of Milford and we then began to have a separate town government.

In this age of interstate highways, supersonic transport planes, the Internet, e-mail, and satellite dishes, it is difficult for us to picture the isolation in the 1830s of the area that later would become known as Oneonta, New York.

Alva Seybolt writes in his manuscript:

There were no railroads anywhere and telegraphs, telephones, and airplanes had not been dreamed of. There were no roads or highways worthy of the name. Our main roads were difficult, sometimes almost impassable because of old tree stumps, mud, rocks, and stones. Most of the traveling was by horseback.

The construction of the Charlotte Turnpike in 1834 opened the way through to Catskill on the Hudson River and to Gilbertsville in the Butternut Valley, which made it possible for farmers to reach a marketplace to sell their goods. This turnpike, poor as it was when compared with our modern roads, gave a great impetus to the growth and prosperity of this region.

Several charters were granted in the early and mid-1830's to create railroad systems in the area, but it would not be until August 29th of 1865 that the first railroad train would come steaming into Oneonta.

The growth of what would become the Village of Oneonta would be very slow- from about 250 in 1830 to 678 in 1860. However, public-spirited and forceful men like Eliakim R. Ford, Harvey Baker, Jacob Dietz, John Watkins, Jared Goodyear and others were employing their time, energy, skill, and money into making the Village of Oneonta a thriving, successful place in which to live and work.

On October 27, 1848, the Village of Oneonta was born by a court order signed by Otsego County Judge James Hyde, which permitted inhabitants to vote upon the question. The vote for incorporation as a village was passed by a vote of 66 for and 16 against. Oneonta was finally on the map.

When the village was first incorporated it was bounded on the east by the Walling farm (present day Walling Avenue and Otsego Street), on the west by the Scramling farm (present day Watkins Avenue and Church Street).

At the first election under the new charter of 1848, held December 2, 1848, only 28 persons voted. The following officers were elected: trustees: Eliakim R. Ford, William Fritts, Hezekiah Watkins, and Samuel Cooke; assessors: John Cutshaw, Elisha Shepherd, and Ephraim Hodge; clerk: William Olin; treasurer: Andrew Shaw, and Collis Huntington, street commissioner. Eliakim R. Ford was named president of the village by the trustees and reelected to that post in the next four yearly held elections.

Some of the first Village of Oneonta By-laws included:

  • Trustees are to visit all homes during the year and inspect for fire hazards. Owners must make necessary changes as ordered within one week or be fined $3.00 and the cost of the work.
  • For driving or leading animals on sidewalks. Fine 25 cents
  • No swine, horses, cattle, sheep, colts, or calves allowed at large. Fine $1.00
  • No horse racing or trotting matches on any street. Fine $5.00
  • Burning of rubbish on any street only from sunrise to 12 noon. Any other time fine of $1.00
  • On public days or occasions no person may leave carriages or wagons or other obstructions in the streets. Fine $3.00
  • No fireworks may be used without permission of majority of trustees. No "fireballs" allowed. Fine 50 cents.
  • No person shall exhibit "any natural or artificial curiosity or caravans of animals " or shows or exhibitions without permission of trustees. Fine $15.00
  • Fine for owners of land allowing them- $5.00. No trustee may accept a free ticket to any show.

Eliakim (E.R.) Ford was "one of Oneonta's leading citizens and one of the best known and most respected men in the valley," writes historian Ed Moore.

Mr. Ford was one of Oneonta's most prominent civic leaders and general store owners, as well as being a "gentlemen farmer," owning nearly a quarter of the land that made up Oneonta in the mid-1800's. His general store was located near Main and Dietz streets, while his majestic stone house occupied the site of the present Wilber Bank.

E.R.'s concern for the residents, his honesty and integrity, excellent business skills, and his endless enthusiasm for promoting Oneonta's growth and prosperity made him a natural leader for becoming Oneonta's first village president.

The "center of activity" during those early days of this area was the McDonald Tavern, located near the corner of Main and River streets. The tavern was owned and operated by the James McDonald family- one of the founding families of Oneonta. In 1817, this area's first post office was located at the tavern.

The tavern/inn's ownership would later pass on to John M. Watkins and his wife, Julia McDonald Watkins- daughter of Oneonta pioneer James McDonald. John Watkins would serve as supervisor of the Town of Oneonta- before Oneonta became a village- and would be a leading force behind the movement to incorporate Oneonta as a village.

Carleton Emmons Watkins, John and Julia's son, did not follow in his father's footsteps, but journeyed to California during the gold rush of 1849, to find his fame as the world's premier 19th-century landscape photographer of the early west.

Carelton Watkins would be only one of many native Oneonta's sons to find their fame and fortune in California. The prominent list also included Collis P. Huntington, Henry Huntington, and William Angel, just to name a few who would honor the name of Oneonta across America.

As Oneonta grew and prospered, so did its reputation, as stated in the feature article on Oneonta in "Grips Valley Gazette" out of Albany in December of 1896.

Professor Brander Matthews, in the article entitled "On the Poetry of Place Names," quotes Robert Louis Stevenson as follows:

When I heard that stream over which we passed was called the Susquehanna, the beauty of the name seemed part and parcel of the beauty of the land. As when Adam with divine fitness named the creatures, so this word Susquehanna was at once accepted by the fancy. That was the name, as no other could be, for that shining river and desirable valley.

Professor Matthews continues in his own words:

It is eminently appropriate that the fair city which sits by the "shining river," and is the pride of the "desirable valley" should also have a distinctive American name, Oneonta. When I climb our surrounding hills and look across, through autumn haze, or the clear air of spring, to the opposite mountain wall, I am glad that the city which nestles below me has a name which rhymes with the flow of brooks and the rustle of the wind among the leaves.

Oneonta is its name!

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