History of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office 

 

COUNTY OF NIAGARA - EARLY HISTORY 

Niagara County, established on March 11, 1808, bears little resemblance to its original configuration. Located in the western part of New York State, Niagara County separated from Genesee County. The newly formed county took in what is currently Niagara and Erie Counties, bordered by Lake Ontario to the north, the Niagara River on the west and Cattaraugus Creek to the south. The County comprised the towns of Cambria, Clarence and Willink and had a population of about 1200 persons, most residing in the county seat, the Village of New Amsterdam (Buffalo).

 

On April 2, 1821, Niagara County separated from what became Erie County, retaining all lands north of Tonawanda Creek. By this time that area contained the original towns of Niagara, Lewiston, Porter, Wilson, Cambria, Hartland and Royalton. The county seat was first located in the Village of Lewiston, and the first court session of the newly divided county held at the school house in Lewiston in what is today known as Academy Park.

 

After the split, Erie County retained the county buildings such as the jail and courthouse. As a result, provisions had to be made for county buildings to be erected in Niagara County. The following are some excerpts from the original charter that divided the counties.

Prisoners were to be kept in gaol (In Erie County) until there shall be a sufficient gaol prepared in the County of Niagara... and whenever the said gaol shall be so far completed as in the opinion of said sheriff of said county, it will be safe to remove said prisoners that is then confined of the gaol of the County of Erie, or on the limits thereof, to said gaol in the County of Niagara, and such removal shall not be considered an escape... For the building of said Courthouse and Gaol 1,000 dollars a year would be raised from the Town Supervisors for 3 years over and above their ordinary fees.

This apparently was not enough because on February 6, 1824, Chapter XXXII of the New York State Constitution was passed for that year authorizing an additional 1,500 dollars to be raised from the town supervisors to complete the building of the courthouse and gaol.As early as 1821, county governments were subjected to state mandates although apparently not to the extent of today. An example of such influence can be seen in the selection of a location for the new courthouse and gaol. During the early years following the split of Niagara and Erie Counties there centered a great leaning toward the Village of Lewiston. Some local politicians demonstrated considerable interest in making Lewiston the county seat. Hopefully, they thought, Lewiston would become the sister city to Buffalo.

 

The state appointed three men to decide on the location for the new court and jail. These men were Erastus Root of Delaware County, William Britton of Cayuga County and Jesse Hawley of Monroe County. This committee was to look over various locales and when at least two of them agreed on a location that would be the site for the building and consequently the county seat. Shortly after these appointments, Britton died. Root wanted the county seat to be located in Lewiston and Hawley favored Lockport. Root was willing to compromise and agreed to Molyneaux Comers but Hawley would not concur. It is not known why but these men resigned the commission and on March 15, 1822, three others were appointed for this task. James McKown of Albany County, Abraham Kyser Jr. of Schoharie County and Junius H. Hatch of the City and County of New York made up the new site committee. By this time, with the Erie Canal running through the village, Lockport proved to be a logical choice for the county seat. The commission quickly reached a consensus. In July 1822, Lockport was chosen as the site of the new court and gaol. The commission selected a two-acre site deeded by Colonel William Bond. William Bond turned out to be the brother-in-law of Junius Hatch.

 

William Hotchkiss, Benjamin Barton and Robert Fleming, three influential men from the Lewiston area, were designated as superintendents to administer the building of a courthouse and gaol.

Early Pioneer Life in Niagara County

 

Before delving into actual stories about the sheriffs of Niagara County, it is important to depict life in early Niagara County. Transportation was extremely slow and roads were little more than wide paths cut through the wooded areas, supporting only foot, horse, and small carriage traffic. These roads tended to follow the "upper ground" in order to be self draining. Consequently, the roads tended to be winding. A good example of this was Ridge Road. Other roads in the county were maintained by incorporated companies who would clear, improve, and repair them. As a result, the companies had the right to charge tolls for their use. At different locations along these routes would be toll gates or houses. Toll Gate Hill in Lockport got its name from the toll gate once located on the hill. Many roads operated this way until the late 1800's. At this time New York State took over responsibilities of maintaining the highways.

 

The main occupation during the early years was farming. Farming, a difficult way of life, consisted mostly of maintenance farming or growing and maintaining livestock for one's individual survival. During the early years of the county, many of the men who held the office of sheriff were also farmers.

Within this period there would only be one or two deputy sheriffs for the entire county. With arduous transportation conditions and communication limitations it is not difficult to understand the many obstacles deputies faced to effectively perform their duties. The sheriff would depend on constables employed by the various towns to report to him and assist in county matters.

 

Lockport witnessed a great influx of Irish immigrants during the 1820's, employed primarily as laborers, for the construction of the Erie Canal. The digging of the canal largely influenced the tremendous growth of Lockport, but also was responsible for a number of problems that the village experienced. There were a number of civil disturbances, as well as a general increase in crime resulting from the presence of this transient population.

Reprinted with permission from the History of the Niagara County Sheriff's Office by Christopher J. Carlin.