Friday, May 13, 2022

The First Election in the Village of Lockport

May 13th in the City of Lockport has a special meaning, even if most of us don’t realize it. On that date in 1829, the newly formed Village of Lockport held its first election for a Board of Trustees to oversee the operations of the new community. A group of those pioneers jostled for the right to be the first leaders of Lockport. Each played important roles in the evolution of an Erie Canal work camp into the modern City of Lockport.

What started out as the creation of a simple list of all the Village Board Presidents and Mayors of Lockport quickly evolved into something much, much more. They say that curiosity killed the cat, but in the instance of historians, it usually means days and days of rifling through old books and files, cross referencing, making connections between seemingly isolated events. Sometimes it’s more than days and days. It can stretch out into weeks, months, and sometimes years. Such is the case with this publication.

When I received an email in my capacity as the City of Lockport Historian requesting a list of the mayors of the city along with a question of why this list was not available on the city’s website, it seemed like a straightforward and easy task. While in the process of collecting the names that made up the leaders of Lockport, both as a village and a city, my curiosity got the better of me and I had to do a little digging for the rest of the story.

I think most Lockportians know that Joel McCollum was the first President of the Board of Supervisors in 1829. Some may even know of the other four men who made up the Board: James F. Mason, Joshua G. Driscoll, Levi E. Rounds, and Levi Taylor. Initially, I was going to do a quick write up of these five men who made up the first government of the fledgling village. Then I started thinking. And thinking generally equates to research, research, and more research. 

You have to keep in mind that, while we know the names of the men who made up this first Board, this was an election. There were people who ran against those pioneering politicians. While they may not seem as important to the historical narrative at first blush, shouldn’t the fact that they were part of that first class of possible leaders count for something? Who were the hopefuls, and did they end up running later (early terms were only for one year, every May) to earn a seat on the Board of Trustees? Was there a platform?

Of course, nothing is straightforward, especially when dealing with local history nearly two centuries old. Newspaper editions missing. Official minutes lost. In some cases, since they weren’t an official governing body until the New York State Legislature passed the law in May, any minutes of meetings where plans were being made don’t officially exist. I initially thought that the Town of Lockport town board minutes might have reference to the formation of the village. Unfortunately, it appears that either those records were destroyed in a fire (a common excuse), or lost in someone’s attic.

What we find about the very first election in Lockport comes not from Lockport, or even Niagara County papers, but rather from papers across New York State. The first reference in a newspaper, the Albany Argus, is dated May 19, 1829, a mere six days after the election on May 13th. It brings to light not only the election in the new village, but also hints at a larger political machination that dominated the landscape 1826-1840. That inaugural election would have ties to both the Morgan Affair and the Caroline Affair. To understand what was happening at the founding of the Village of Lockport, one must also explore both these events as well as the excitement of the anti-Masonic and Jacksonian divisions of the day.

From the Argus:

Lockport -- Niagara County -- Levi E. Rounds, Levi Taylor, James F. Mason, Joel McCollum, and Joshua G. Driscoll, trustees. John Jackson, James Mills, James McKane, Jr., Henry Adams and Edward Bissell, assessors. Volney Spalding, treasurer. H.W. Comstock, collector.

This village is in the midst of the anti-masonic excitement, and was among the first that was controlled by it. Of the result now, the Lockport Journal says:

On Tuesday last an election for charter officers was held in this village. In opposition to the republican ticket, the anti-masons nominated and supported an amalgamation ticket; and with the hope of disguising its true character, (as is customary with the federalists at the present day,) it was called the ‘Mechanic’s ticket.’ Even this maneuver did not ensure the success of their ticket, as was anticipated. That respectable class of citizens, called mechanics, could not be induced to lend their aid to measures fraught with such dangerous consequences as the overthrow of our republican form of government. The leading political anti-masons were very active in their support of the ticket on which depended their hopes of future success. But all to no purpose. The republican ticket succeeded by an average majority of about 100; thus ensuring what was before predicted, the downfall of political anti-masonry in this section of the country.

Anti-Masonic fervor was sweeping across the country, especially in Western New York from where William Morgan had been kidnapped and ultimately disappeared. The details surrounding this have been well detailed, still without an absolute solution, so it doesn’t need to be rehashed much more than a quick overview.

William Morgan, originally from Virginia, was a veteran of the War of 1812. Or at least that’s what he said. Much of Morgan’s claims could not be verified at the time and the passage of time makes that even more difficult. Sometime after the war, he arrived with his family in Batavia, whereupon he attempted to join the masonic lodges of that city after claiming he had been introduced into the secret society during a sojourn in Canada. He was rebuffed by the members of the lodges who “didn’t care for his character.” Whether it was a matter of retaliation or part of his original plan, he soon declared his intentions to write a tell-all book about Freemasonry. 

The Batavia masons were not happy with the thought of a publication and confronted Morgan and his financial benefactors. On September 11, 1826, Morgan was arrested for nonpayment of a loan and the theft of some clothing. Morgan’s landlord, David Miller, went to the Canandaigua jail to pay off the debt, but Morgan was immediately arrested again, this time for failure to satisfy a two dollar bar tab. Shortly after this second incarceration, Morgan was whisked away in a carriage to Fort Niagara. After this, the story gets muddy. Needless to say, Morgan was likely murdered and thrown in Lake Ontario or the Niagara River, or was given the chance to start afresh somewhere else, leaving everything behind. Both scenarios have plausible evidence to support, but nothing was ever settled regarding his fortunes or lack thereof. Several stories emerged about conspirators over the years and a body did wash up on shore in October 1827, but the wife of another missing man identified the clothing as belonging to her husband. The mystery remained.

The abduction of William Morgan

As a direct result of the allegedly underhanded dealing with Morgan by masonic members, a political movement was born. While there had been other anti-masonic movements in history, the fervor in New York was so heated that a whole new political party was born from it. The Anti-Masonic party became the first third party in the United States. 

The birth of the Anti-Masonic party began in February 1827 with meetings in Batavia, Bethany, and Stafford in Genesee County. Their initial intentions were to “withhold support from all such members of the Masonic fraternity.” Shortly thereafter, Rochester became the center of the movement. A couple of the early, influential leaders of the newly formed political party were from Niagara County -- Samuel Works of Lockport and Bates Cooke of Lewiston.

A deeper look into the formation of the Anti-Masonic party, especially in Western New York uncovers the idea that the first platforms of the party were less political and more a religious reaction to prosperous Masons joining leadership roles in both public and private situations. Anti-Masons had a “strong belief in social egalitarianism,” and were suspicious of the power that the Masons were collecting. It was felt that the powerful Masons were creating an elite social class and their secrecy had no place in government. 

So, who were the candidates who ran against the eventual winners? In another of a series of unfortunate events, the local newspapers for the week before the election as well as the days and week after, are all missing for the anti- masonic newspaper, the Niagara Courier. The editions of the Lockport Journal, the pro-mason paper, are completely missing for the entire year. The closest edition we have to the May 13th election that discusses the election dates from two weeks after the election. At that time, they were still breaking down the results, much to their own chagrin, and defending their status against the pro-Masonic ticket. From the May 28th edition of the Niagara Courier:

A writer under the editorial head of the Journal stated that the Anti-Masons had nominated a ticket under a disguise, and generally supported it; but that the republican ticket had beaten it by a majority of 100. These assertions we noticed as untruths, and such do we still consider them. The majority of the federalists we put at 25 over the mechanics; and such we still maintain it. How? Simply thus: there were five different tickets run, (as it may readily be spoosed when it is stated that there were 32 persons voted for as Trustees…So that in fact, their majority is less than we stated it in our last: for if the 82 votes given for Oliver Parsons were Anti-Masonic, so were the 22 for Lyman A. Spalding, total 104; and your regular republicans appear very near being in the rear.

It is obvious that two of the candidates who ran on the tickets were Lyman A. Spalding and Oliver Parsons. Parsons played a significant in Lockport’s Anti-Slavery Society, and was definitely an Anti-Mason. Spalding had a long, illustrious career in public service, and had a real beef with the powers in Albany who stifled his water rights petition. He was also a Quaker, tending to steer him away from the whims of the Albany Regency, this landing him in the burgeoning Anti-Masonic Party which was far more in tune with his religious beliefs.

Of the other candidates, there are some which make more sense than others. In breaking down the list of possible candidates, it helped to look at other publications over the ensuing handful of years and the victors in the 1830 election, when the Anti-Masonic newspapers declared unanimous victory over the prior year’s slate. Who emerged victorious in 1830 for a sweep by the Anti-Masons? Lyman A. Spalding, Oliver Parsons, Gillet Bacon, Otis Hathaway, and Theodore Stone. As the election was only a year later and all parties resided in Lockport for the inaugural election, it is a fairly safe deduction that these five men also ran the prior year. 

Theodore Stone probably has the most interesting history amongst that Board of Trustees outside of Spalding. He was among the youngest, barely twenty-two when the 1829 election took place. While today we may see that as too young and raw to be prepared for a life of political service, it was men who were this age who broke free from the safety of their parents to attempt to tame the wilds of the frontier. As the pioneers who cleared the forest for the community, it was men as young as Stone who would want a significant role in the evolution of the community. 

Theodore Stone also served as Undersheriff 1834-1836 before winning the election for Niagara County Sheriff in 1840. By this time, he had moved his political allegiance to the Whig Party after the dissolution of the Anti-Masonic party. His term as Sheriff was one of the most memorable ones of the century.  Not only did he oversee the only execution to take place in Niagara County, his watch also included the excitement of the Patriot’s War and the associated Caroline Affair. As Sheriff, he delivered Alexander McLeodto Utica to await trial. As part of that trial, Stone was expected to testify, but it appears he ignored several subpoenas to that effect. Shortly after his term as Sheriff, Stone moved to Illinois where he died at the relatively young age of 37 in 1845.

Gillet Bacon (no relation to this author) and his brother, James, were also ardent anti-masons. One, or both of them, ran for office in that inaugural election. Gillet is probably the more likely of the two if only one of them ran, but both were deep in the political fold of the day. Gillet arrived in Lockport in 1821, just as excavations for the Erie Canal began here. His brothers,Sylvester, Israel, and James joined him shortly afterwards. Gillet, a veteran of the War of 1812, was a leading early businessman in the fledgling village. He served two years as a village trustee, and later served as Superintendent of the Poor in 1833. He died in Lockport February 18, 1864. As for James, he was unsuccessful in landing a trustee position, and served as a deputy Sheriff in 1829 instead. He removed to Wisconsin in 1847.

Otis Hathaway made his mark across the early history of the Village of Lockport. He was the first person to use a surveyor to formally lay out his lots in the village, hiring Jesse Haines to help him lay out his land for sales to new residents. His uncles were the Comstocks, and he was also among the group of men who decided on the name for Lockport. He was instrumental in the formation of the village. However, his first attempt to serve the community as a member of the Board of Trustees fell short, he was successful in 1830, and served a single term on the board. He died in September 1847, and is buried at Cold Spring Cemetery.

Some of the other men who ran in that first election were: Elias Ransom, Jr, the first lawyer in Lockport; Henry Catlin, who served as Niagara County Clerk; William C. House, merchant; Asher Saxton, son of a Revolutionary War veteran and namesake of Saxton Street; John Phillips, who had been appointed Sheriff after Governor Clinton removed Eli Bruce from office over the Morgan Affair; Samuel Jennings, businessman and anti-Masonic firebrand; and George Boughton, a business partner of William House.

While Western New York and Lockport were going through the political wildfire of anti-Masonry, the opposition somehow pulled the upset in the 1829 election. Their victory would not last more than a year, however, and the predominating spirit of the new frontier soon put the fervent anti-Masons into power.

One thing to bear in mind is the age of the people who ran for this first election. Today, when we look back at this time, we picture Joel McCollum, old and grizzled. The truth of the matter is that McCollum was not quite 38 when elected as President of the Board of Trustees. In fact, all of that first board was under the age of 40. James Mason was the youngest at 33. Meanwhile, the men who ran against them were almost uniformly under the age of 45. Most were in their mid-30s, although Theodore Stone was a mere 22 when he ran in 1829, and 23 when he first won a seat on the Board of Trustees. One must have the vigor of youth when heading off to the frontier to build an entire community from the forests around them. It’s not surprising to discover their relative youthfulness, despite our notion that “forefathers” should be gray and wise.

Craig Bacon is the City of Lockport Historian and the Niagara County Deputy Historian. His office is located at 139 Niagara Street in Lockport.