Local History

Elkanah Watson (1758-1842)

A friend of Washington, John Adams, and Franklin, Elkanah Watson left his imprint on Cortland County, on New York State and on the young United States. Apprenticed at age 15 to John Brown, the Providence, R.I. merchant, he rapidly acquired increasing responsibilities within the firm before launching on his own business career. During the Revolutionary War, he was an emissary entrusted with important papers and negotiable securities to Washington and later to Benjamin Franklin in Paris. He gained wealth and experience in the counting houses and salons of France and England and meticulously recorded events and impressions of daily happening. As befitting a rising young man of affairs, he had his portrait painted by John Singleton Copley before returning to America.

For a while he lived in Albany, for this was the gateway to the West and here he could put to work his intellect and energies in the promotion of banks, canals and other river improvements. At age 50 he bought a farm at nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and stated his regret at having waited so long to embark on this rustic venture. Merino sheep captured his interest, and soon he was exhibiting his prize animals in the Pittsfield Square. The next year he invited his neighbors to do the same. Thus was born the seed of the county fair which attracted nationwide attention. New Yorkers asked for and got his help in establishing county agricultural societies throughout the state. He advocated scientific agriculture and a state school where young men could be trained in the latest methods.

While his endeavors were weighted on the public side, he did not entirely neglect his personal affairs. Land and waterways attracted him. He made a canoe trip to Cayuga Lake, and subsequently bought parcels of land in the newly opened Military Tract. Among these purchases was acreage along the Tioughnioga River just south of the intersection of its two branches.

Here he planned and sold lots for his model town of Port Watson, which appeared on early maps and for a time actually exceeded nearby Cortland Village in population. He also owned property in the present towns of Cincinnatus, Cuyler, Homer, Marathon, Preble, Scott, Solon, Taylor and Truxton.