As Johnstown celebrates its 250th anniversary, Fulton County is turning 170 - and Johnstown has been county seat of three different counties during its tenure.
In fact, it was because prominent resident Judge Daniel Cady, father of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, wanted to keep the county seat in Johnstown that Fulton County formed from the much larger Montgomery County.
Cady was a mover and shaker in Johnstown since the late 18th century. He served as an Assemblyman in the state, a U.S. Representative in Washington and on the state Supreme Court.
This portrait of Judge Daniel Cady is from “Celebrating Johnstown: A Community Looks Back on 250 Years, 1758-2008,” a book from The Leader-Herald.
When he discovered there were plans to shift the county seat - the main seat of power in any county - from Johnstown to Fonda in the then large Montgomery County, he would have none of it.
He first fought to keep the county seat where it was and when that failed, used his influence in 1838 to urge the state to partition Fulton County from Montgomery.
Former county historian William G. Loveday, Jr. wrote the introduction to the Fulton County 2008 Directory and gives a brief history of the county.
Fulton County started out as part of Tryon County in 1772, its boundaries extended as far north as the St. Lawrence River, as far south as the Pennsylvania border, and as far west as the territories of the Six Nations near Rome. Since the designation and area of Tryon was formed by the petition of Sir William Johnson to break up the huge Albany County, formed in 1683, the first county seat came to "Johnson Town," later shortened to Johnstown, Loveday said. The county was named for William Tryon, royal governor of New York at the time.
When the county was split in 1784 and the name changed due to the "now onerous British Name of Tryon," the county's name changed to honor Gen. Richard Montgomery, one of the first heroes of the Revolutionary War who was killed while attacking Quebec.
"The Montgomery County seat remained at Johnstown," Loveday wrote in his history. "And now the county stretched all the way west of the Great Lakes.
"As each new county came about, Albany said they had to have a court house and a jail," Loveday said Thursday. "Johnstown had both, so we were all set."
According to a history of the county written by former county historian Robert Morris Palmer, MD, in 1961: "Johnstown then became the county seat of a vast area. Ontario County, at that time a large tract of land, was cut from Montgomery in 1789 and from then on, the division of the state into counties proceeded rapidly. The last taken from Montgomery was Hamilton in 1816, and from then until 1836, Montgomery consisted of what is now that county and Fulton."
As the Erie Canal, opened in 1825, brought the center of population further south, the county seat was changed to Fonda in 1836, the year the Utica and Schenectady Railroad opened.
"People in the northern half were smarting over that," Loveday said.
The F.W. Beers' "History of Montgomery and Fulton Counties" states: "The formation of Fulton County was caused chiefly by the natural dissatisfaction felt by the northern part of Montgomery County upon the removal of the county courts and offices from their ancient capital to an upstart village, as it seemed to them, with no adequate claims to the honor."
A delegation led by Judge Daniel Cady - father of women's movement leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton - went to Albany to petition to have the huge county divided up between the north and south halves, Loveday said.
"Cady took the bull by the horns as the leader of the opposition," Loveday said.
The request was acted upon April 18, 1838 with the newly formed county named for Robert Fulton "of steamship and Erie Canal fame," Loveday said.
Fulton County Historian Peter Betz said it isn't known if Fulton ever visited the county named for him. Beside his fame as an inventor, Fulton had something else going for him. His wife was a Livingston and so was Cady's. Both fame and family connections were part of the mix that honored Fulton with a county named for him.
In an article from August 2007, Betz wrote that if people of the time had known more about the personal life of Fulton, the county fathers may not have wanted his name attached to the county.
Betz said Thursday that Fulton was a workaholic who wouldn't delegate authority to others and this finally killed him.
"His invention of the steamboat was really a series of design improvements," Betz wrote. "His best invention was always Robert Fulton."
Betz said Fulton was a great self-promoter whose personal life may have left much to be desired. He married a relative of Robert Livingston (a legislator and influential man of the time) who he "didn't much care for", and lived a number of years in Europe and America "as part of what we may politely refer to as a triangular relationship with a wealthy, middle-aged poet, Joel Barlow and Ruth, Joel's very attractive, younger wife."
The three called their relationship a "happy trinity" but when Fulton married Harriet Livingston and tried to turn it into a "quartet," the more conventional Livingston balked.
Betz wrote that Fulton worked himself to death promoting his steamship and died of pneumonia in 1815.
According to Beers' history, the newly established Fulton County had an area of 544 square miles and a population in 1875 of 30,155 with more than half of that number located in Johnstown.
A statement about the county court house made in 1878 is still true today:
" the oldest courthouse in the state, is still perfectly sound and well preserved, showing hardly a sign of its venerable age except in its quaint outlines, especially its low walls and steep roof."
Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at email@example.com.