Indian Town on Oak Hill

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961 Wilson Boulevard
Rochester, New York
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Indian Town

In primitive wilderness here was a large Algonkin village whose bark cabins and tilled fields covered nine acres.


By the University of Rochester — June, 2002

What was there

Once known as Oak Hill, the land that bulges out at a bend in the Genesee River is a part of a string of glacial drumlins, mounds of sediment left by retreating glaciers, that stretch across Mt. Hope Cemetery to the east and to Cobbs Hill.

The Algonkin (Algonquin) people were the predominant native peoples, consisting of numerous tribes, across the northeast coast of the Americas. They were primarily hunter/gatherers, who also cultivated some corn, beans, rice, and a variety of vegetables.

This bend in the Genesee was, until it was dammed downstream, a shallow series of rapids,  known as “the Rapids” to early Rochester residents. Just upstream from the rapids, near where Elmwood Bridge is now located, was a flat that enabled easy fording to the other side. The proximity to the river which wraps around the land here, slight elevation of the of the hill, and fertile land in the area made it a perfect fortress settlement. Early white settlers found pottery fragments, grinding stones, and other stone tools on the ground across the whole hill. An Indian trail began at the ford, south of the hill,  just before the rapids, and extended northeast, bisecting Oak Hill, then cut across what is now Mount Hope Cemetery and then connected with another trail leading east to “Indian Landing” at the base of Irondequoit Bay. About when the first Europeans arrived in the New World, the Iroquois Nation was newly formed and often waged war against nearby Algonquin tribes, driving them from the area.

During the American Revolution, Oak Hill, Loyalist commander Colonel John Butler, and his “Butler’s Rangers” regiment supposedly camped here until the encroaching Sullivan army drove them away in haste. An excerpt from “Aboriginal Occupation of the Lower Genesee Country” (1884) by George H. Harris reads:

In their anxiety to distance Sullivan’s soldiers, Butler’s men rid themselves of everything possible at this ford. Ammunition and arms were buried in the ground near the springs and concealed in hollow trees in the vicinity. In 1816 Mr. Boughton found ninety-six pounds of bullets in the bottom of a rotten stump, and several other discoveries of bullets, bars of lead, etc., have been made by various parties.

The first white permanent settler here was Daniel Harris, of Massachusettes, who built a house on the hill in 1816, and farmed the land. A factory, owned by Loder and Chapin was built in 1847 west of where the Strong Auditorium is now. It manufactured glue, sandpaper, foot oil, and curled hair. “Curled hair” was a product used for upholstery, and typically made from animal hair. Oak Hill belonged to the town of Brighton until the city of Rochester annexed it in 1874. At this time there were two farms on the hill, the south belonged to Simeon Lewisnorth, and the north to Epaphras Wolcott. Wolcott’s family ran the Wolcott Distillery, famous for its “Corn Hill” whiskey, distilled out of a building where the athletic field is now located.  The land directly along the Genesee River, which is now the Riverway Trail and Bausch & Lomb Riverside Park, was owned by the Rochester & Honeoye Railroad, and ownership bounced throughout several railroad companies over the years. In 1901, the two families’ farms were leased by the Oak Hill Country Club of Rochester and a golf course was built. An existing farmhouse was used as a clubhouse until years later when the club purchased the land and built a more suitable one (where the Eastman Quad is now located).

The University of Rochester created the largest academic development project in the history of the city when University President Rush Rhees announced plans to build the”River Campus on Oak Hill” on July 26, 1923 at an astonishing cost of $10 million. By 1929, the funds to build the campus were raised, the Country Club had sold the land to the University, and construction had begun. The River Campus was dedicated in 1930, but construction continued for the next several decades.

What is there now

University of Rochester River Campus and the Bausch & Lomb Riverside Park almost completely encompass site. The Genesee Riverway Trail runs along the Genesee River near this marker, which is located near the campus entrance off of Elmwood and Wilson. Development of the site of the old village, from farm to golf course to modern university, has eliminated all traces of the old Algonquin settlement.


More information

  • Frederick Law Olmstead, landscape expert, was a consultant on the River Campus design, as was famed architect, Charles A. Platt.
  • Although no formal archaeological study was ever performed, the land was almost completely terraformed several times. It was plowed numerous times for farming, then the Oak Hill golf course was built, and then the River Campus almost completely dug up the hill. No trace of a burial ground was ever found here.
  • The Oak Hill Country Club course when it was here
  • Oak Hill becomes River Campus (article)
  • River Campus map

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We would like to thank the following for helping us with this entry:
Matthew Conheady


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