First published Feb. 2, 1984:
If you were to look up William H. Seward in a reference book, you would find that he was governor of New York State from 1839 until 1843, that he was United States Senator from 1849 until 1861, and that he was Secretary of State in (President Abraham) Lincoln's cabinet.
You might even read that he negotiated the purchase of Alaska in 1867, which was promptly dubbed "Seward's Folly." Chances are you would find no mention of the fact that for a few short years when he was a young man he lived in our town and became a very important figure in our local history.
Courtesy of Patterson Library’s Sherman Collection
Picture of a picture of William H. Seward who is remembered as one of Westfield’s most important people.
In 1835 the Holland Land Company sold its remaining interests in Chautauqua County and the new owners raised the price on all lands with overdue payments and announced they would sell land to another party if payments were not made. The settlers felt this was very unfair and took things into their own hands.
The first History of Chautauqua County by Emory F. Warren, published in 1846, had this to say about what happened in Mayville, "On the 6th of February, a mass of people, mostly from the interior towns, assembled at Barnhart's Inn, about two miles easterly of Mayville, at four o'clock in the afternoon. They were armed with axes, crowbars, and such other implements as the nature of their enterprise would be likely to require.
"After a formal organization, and the choice of leaders, they proceeded to Mayville, where they arrived at eight o'clock in the evening. Their first movement was to surround the land office, and demolish that part which was built of wood. This was very readily accomplished. Their efforts were then directed to the strong stone vault, which contained a large amount of valuable books and papers, belonging to the Holland Company. Entrance to this was not so easily effected. After numerous and well directed efforts, the stone structure gave way, and the contents of the vault seized and carried to Barnhart's and there burned in the public highway; after which the assembly dispersed."
After the excitement died down a new agent was appointed. That man was William H. Seward, and he came to this area in the summer of 1936.
In a letter, Mr. Seward told of his trip to Westfield, "From Batavia to Buffalo is forty miles; from Buffalo to Fredonia, forty-five miles; from Fredonia to Westfield, fourteen miles. We took an extra stage to this place and passed over the great thoroughfare, within two to four miles of the lake-shore. Certainly my eye never rested upon a finer country. It is not altogether new, nor yet so highly improved as the region in which we live (Auburn, N.Y.). The ground is almost level, with a gentle slope toward the lake, which lay spread out before us, perfectly calm, and lost in the horizon, as it receded to the north. We found Westfield still more beautiful than Fredonia. The place is distant a mile and a half from Portland Harbor, and the broad surface of the water is within our sight from any part of the village We spent several hours here, and during that time drove down to the harbor, and heard all that was addressed to us in favor of locating the land office here."
William H. Seward decided in favor of locating the land office in Westfield and for a short time had his residence and office in Gale's Hotel which was the Westfield House located where the Grand Theatre now stands . The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1884. Mr. Seward soon wearied of living in the hotel and moved into the "McClurg Mansion" which he referred to as "my own hired house." He described the mansion, writing in a letter, "It stands in the centre of grounds of several acres, ornamented with trees and shrubbery. It has a double piazza in front of the centre or main building, and is two stories high. The arrangement of the rooms is this; in the centre hall, about 20 feet wide off this, in the rear an octagon parlor, which opens into the shrubbery of the garden. There are five spacious bedrooms above. There are cellars, out-houses, gardens, orchards, etc.; everything well-contrived. The flowers and the fruit hang around me in profusion, and the retirement of my dwelling invites me to it every hour that I have freedom."
During the winter of 1839-40, at William H. Seward's direction, the Farnsworth house on North Portage Street was remodeled, and B.J. Seward, brother of William H., resided there until 1841 when it was purchased by George W. Patterson who succeeded William H. Seward as agent at that time Mr. Seward had been elected governor of New York State.
We are familiar with the story of the lovely old house being moved from its North Portage location to its present spot high on a hill up Portage Road where it now bears the name of the William H. Seward Inn.
This is the story of the young lawyer who came to Westfield in 1836 to pour oil on troubled waters.