A Trip to the Forgotten Birthplace of American History's Richest Man


 EDITOR'S NOTE: The original story posted here was an early draft. This version offers more details at a few parts and clarifies a few things regarding the Catskill Turnpike and the Awagha Hotel. 

It was a balmy, snowless January, ten years on since my removal to central New York. A historical site that had been on my mind the whole time but remained unvisited would break the winter tedium. A short drive to Richford, New York, and I was on the former homestead of a fellow piece of Germantown driftwood, one Godfrey Lewis Rockefeller. Here along a strong-willed tributary of Owego Creek, well shrouded even in wintertime by a tight ring of enormous Norway spruce, lies the unmourned ruin of the birthplace of Godfrey's grandsons—John Davison Rockefeller, Sr. and William Avery Rockefeller, Jr., the co-founders of Standard Oil.  

Sources conflict as to where Godfrey L. Rockefeller was born, some saying Albany, New York, some saying Columbia County.  The confusion likely is the result of his birth in 1783, just three years before Columbia was sheared off from Albany County.  In all likelihood, he was born in his mother's native Germantown though Livingston is sometimes cited.  His parents, William Rockefeller of New Jersey, and Christina Rockefeller were third cousins.  Christina Rockefeller was a granddaughter of the German immigrants Diell Rockefeller and his wife Anna, authors of most ofthe Germantown Rockefellers.  Christina's parents, Simeon and Anna Rockefeller, lived in the house that still stands on County Route 8 near Old Saw Mill Road, marked by a historic sign.  

William and Christina's son, Godfrey L. Rockefeller, married the former Lucy Avery of Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Their early married life took them from there to Granger in far western New York, to Ancram, and Livingston.  The moves were apparently prompted by setbacks in Godfrey's various business ventures.  Along the way, they had ten children.  

What prompted them to move to Richford, Tioga County, sometime between 1832 and 1834?  There are three traditional explanations, one being that Godfrey was hoodwinked into trading his land in Livingston for supposedly better farmland in the still somewhat primitive Richford.  Another is that Godfrey wanted to move to Michigan but that Lucy would not go that far.  The third account is that Godfrey lost a title dispute to his land and the family had to go somewhere.  Some element of all three may be true but none of these factors in a family tie to Tioga County.  

Lucy Avery Rockefeller, Godfrey's wife, came from an accomplished family of old Massachusetts blood and they thought she had married below her station.  The connection seems to have eluded family and academic historians, but Lucy's first cousin once removed was a Revolutionary war veteran named Colonel David Pixley.  Pixley was an original investor in what is called the Boston Purchase and he was an early settler of Owego, New York, where he is buried.  

The Boston Purchase was a 230,400 acre parcel of land in modern Broome and Tioga Counties, the title rights being given by New York State to Massachusetts as part of the 1786 Treaty of Hartford.  The ancient Plymouth Plantation and Massachusetts Bay Colony royal charters theoretically extended to the Pacific Ocean.  So did New York's slightly less ancient royal charter dating to the English conquest of New Netherland in the 1660's.  The two states settled their competing claims resulting in New York having jurisdiction and Massachusetts receiving the right to acquire title to the Boston Purchase from the vanquished Iroquois.  Strapped for cash after the Revolution, Massachusetts sold this land claim to a group of investors which included Col. David Pixley.  Col. Pixley took part in the negotiations with Native Americans for title to the land.  

Richford was one of the towns in the Boston Purchase.  That a cousin of Lucy Rockefeller's mother was a substantial owner of land in Tioga County is the most logical explanation for why the Rockefellers ever even heard of Richford.  Another likely family tie to this region was the large number of Averys who settled in nearby Owego.  The handed down tales of Godfrey being gulled into sterile farmland in a distant locale seem rather uncharitable in hindsight.  

The piece of land that Godfrey and Lucy came into ownership of was just a few miles off of the Susquehanna-Bath Turnpike, more commonly known as the western extension of the Catskill Turnpike.  Canal fever only had limited effect on this part of the state, and thus the turnpikes were king until the railroads dethroned them in the 1850s. The road they ventured out on was officially known as the Susquehanna Turnpike, though it was also widely referred to as the Catskill Turnpike, especially the farther away one was from Catskill.  The western terminus of this road was Unadilla on the Susquehanna River where a connector road led a few miles to Bainbridge.  From Bainbridge where it received the Ulster and Delaware Turnpike, the Catskill Turnpike headed west through Whitney Point, Ithaca and on to Bath, following approximately the modern state routes 206 and 79.  

The difficulty of making this trek in a wagon is almost unimaginable now.  A reporter sent to cover the Anti-Rent Wars in 1845 wrote that he "would not be bribed to repeat the journey."   It took the Rockefellers two strenuous weeks to get to Richford from Columbia County, about 145 miles by car nowadays.  The last few miles were off turnpike and particularly difficult.  Godfrey, who may have had his heart set on settling in Michigan, is reputed to have climbed to the highest point on the property and resignedly said "this is as close as we shall ever get to Michigan."  

The land was no treat for anyone looking to scratch out a living by farming staple crops.  Enterprising Yankee and Hudson Valley settlers had been pouring into this part of New York for a few decades, but the land was still only a half-century removed from Iroquois control.  There were still plenty of trees to cut and stumps to pull by the time the Rockefellers arrived in the early 1830s.  This was particularly true of the hilly regions many miles from the Susquehanna River, such as Richford.  

What the settlers could not have known at the time was that the soil of the Allegheny Plateau is rather thin and acidic and thus of very limited agricultural value except in the low-lying flood plains.  Some of the hill farms in this region were gladly given back to nature even before the Civil War.  Mid-20th Century Binghamton newspaper columnist Tom Cawley wasn't kidding when he described the graybeards who founded Harpur College (now Binghamton University) as stumbling across "useless farmland" until they found a suitable site for the college.  In many cases the most exceptionally "useless" farmlands are now state forests.  The Godfrey and Lucy Rockefeller settlement is now part of Michigan Hill State Forest, named for Godfrey's grim pronouncement.  

Interestingly, by the 1855 New York State census, Godfrey and Lucy had several neighbors of Columbia County nativity, including families surnamed Houks, Decker, Boice, Griswold, Blakeman, Freer, and McIntyre.  A map from the same year shows no fewer than ten family homesteads on the stretch of Rockefeller road that is now state forest.  

A few years after the Rockefellers established themselves in their new home, their vagabond lothario of a son, William Avery Rockefeller, Sr. (born 1810), found his was to Richford.  "Big Bill" or "Devil Bill," as he was variously known, was a traveling salesman and his products were the quack medicines common in that age.  One of his supply chains was a "psychic bush" that grew behind his parents' Richford house.  

Big Bill built a house just a short distance west of his parents' house and for a time tried his hand at the more respectable lumber business.  On the creek near the site of his house, an earthen dam still partially stands, marking the location of his sawmill.  Big Bill became engaged to Nancy Brown from the nearby hamlet of Harford Mills, Cortland County.  He broke off the engagement when Eliza Davison of Moravia, New York, caught his eye.  Eliza's father, John Davison, was capable of providing a large dowry while Nancy Brown's father was not.  

Eliza Davison and William A. Rockefeller, Sr. were married in 1837 and they kept Nancy Brown under their roof as a housekeeper.  In the space of four years, Devil Bill sired five children, three girls and two boys, alternately by his wife and his housekeeper.  The two boys just so happened to grow up to become John D. Rockefeller Sr. and William Avery Rockefeller Jr., the former being the richest man in American history.  Eventually a couple of Eliza's brothers came down from Moravia and forced Devil Bill to send Nancy back home to her parents in Harford Mills along with her two daughters, Clorinda and Cornelia.  

The foundation of the house where this surge of reproduction occurred lies on Rockefeller Road, a dirt road to this day and proudly so.  Even in these dense woods, the din of chainsaws, ATVs, and an occasional shotgun blast are never far off.  Only a deteriorating historic sign dedicated in 1980 and decorated with a couple of bullet holes marks the site.  It is not easily seen from the road and it is probable that most motorists don't know the historic significance of what they drive past.  The site has no tourist amenities of any kind and maybe sees a handful of visitors a week in nice weather.  

Some backcountry ability is a must for any visitor wanting to explore the state forest.  There are no formal trails except a snowmobile trail well east of Bill and Eliza's house site.  Finding the site of Bill Rockefeller's sawmill is relatively easy but turned into an ordeal for this writer.  The historic sign indicates that the sawmill was a "half-mile" downstream from the house.  After walking a mile down the creek, repeatedly fording it to avoid steep bluffs on one side or the other and unsuccessfully inspecting a half dozen beaver dams for signs of human handiwork, I gave up and turned back.  When I was almost all the way back to the house site, there appeared the form of a unmistakably man made earthen dam.  It is maybe one tenth of a mile from the house site, the towering spruces still plainly visible.  On the way in, I had detoured away from the creek to avoid a thick tangle of wild rose and missed the dam.  The short but thorny bushwhack probably seemed like a half-mile to the author of the historical sign, and justifiably so.  

My next conquest was to the high point of the property nearest to Godfrey and Lucy Rockefeller's house.  This is where Godfrey is reputed to have made his Michigan pronouncement.  It required a short walk up Rockefeller Road turning south onto the snowmobile trail.  Following the trail almost until it reaches private property, I turned east and bushwhacked to the summit.  It is viewless, as it probably still was in the 1830s.  I think it is possible Godfrey walked up here at some point, but the chances that the family and their wagon full of possessions came up here at the conclusion of a two week trek on the Catskill Turnpike are remote.  

Daylight was running short so I had to postpone an attempt to track down the remains of Godfrey and Lucy's house and their "psychic bush."  Their house is also described as being a "half-mile" away from the historic sign.  This estimate appears to be correct almost to the inch according to the 1855 map of Tioga County.  

In the early 1840s, William and Eliza Rockefeller moved to her hometown of Moravia, Cayuga County.  Apparently this was at the behest of Eliza, who wanted to get her children away from the influence of the extended Rockefeller family.  Historian Ron Chernow has called Godfrey and his brood a "hard drinking hillbilly clan."  Rockefeller Road in Richford (the road in Moravia they lived on is also called Rockefeller Road) is still the perfect environment for such a clan.  It is a paradise for outdoorsmen of all kinds, especially hunters.  

William and Eliza and their growing family remained in Moravia until early 1850 when they returned to Tioga County, this time to a couple different houses on what is now State Route 17C in Owego.  One of the houses still stands, marked by a historic sign.  At that time, land so close to the Susquehanna would have been largely cleared of trees, providing the family a direct southward view from their house of picturesque Hiawatha Island.

The reason the family left Moravia was that Devil Bill was indicted for raping another family housekeeper, a woman by the name of Anne Vanderbeak.  There was never any prosecution and it may be that there was a gentleman's agreement for Devil Bill to leave Cayuga County in exchange for dropping the charges.  Not long after the family moved to Ohio in 1853, Devil Bill left Eliza and married another woman using an assumed name.  His alias was "Dr. William Levingston," the intentionally misspelled surname being a nod to his Columbia County roots.  He lived to be ninety five years old and is buried in Illinois under a gravestone adorned with his false name.  

Nancy Brown, who Devil Bill impregnated twice out of wedlock, moved back to her parents' home in Harford Mills and still lived there as late as 1855.  She was married to a man named Peter Burlingame and had at least two more children by him.  Clorinda Brown Rockefeller (born c. 1838), is commonly said to have died young but she is still alive at the age of 17, living with her grandparents, mother, stepfather and siblings according to the 1855 New York State census.  Marriage is as likely as death to be the reason why she fell off the paper trail.  Her sister, Cornelia Brown Rockefeller (born c. 1839), married a man named Oscar Sexton and had two children by him.  Their son, Ray Sexton, was a prominent businessman in Cortland, New York for several decades.  Cornelia died in 1908 and is buried in Cortland.  

The three years of early childhood and three years of adolescence that John D. Rockefeller Sr. spent in Tioga County are probably the least well known segments of his life to the general public.  Why the family wound up here is difficult to explain, though the presence of extended family is an under-examined factor.   A few artifacts of his life and his family remain, including the graves of his paternal grandparents in Harford Mills.  Lucy's headstone unfortunately is broken in half and Godfrey's is getting difficult to read.  It takes considerable effort to find and make sense of the sites and offers none of the glamour that a visit to other Rockefeller family-related historic sites provides.  No one farms the land of Michigan Hill anymore and forest has reclaimed its previous position.  The land is even more primeval than Godfrey and Lucy Rockefeller would have found it in the early 1830s.  


Thomas Shannon lives in Endwell, New York, with his wife, Mary, and two young daughters. He is a Germantown native and a graduate of Columbia-Greene Community College and Binghamton University. You can usually find him in the woods looking for old foundations. He can be reached by email at thomasshannon6591@gmail.com