The Fourth of July is not only the day we celebrate our national birthday, it is also the birthday of one of Chautauqua County’s most influential citizens from the 19th century, Reuben Eaton Fenton. Like most county natives who have gone on to prominence, Fenton came from a hard working, common family. He rose to become a United States Congressman, New York state governor and U.S. Senator, as well as a local bank president and respected financial authority.
Fenton was born July 4, 1819, just three years after our county’s first Independence Day celebration. The 1820 U.S. State Census lists 1,462 people living in the Town of Ellicott. At that time Ellicott included what is currently Ellicott, Poland, Kiantone, Carroll, part of Busti and the City of Jamestown. Just a few years earlier, in 1814, the same area had a population of 565. In 1876, at the Centennial celebration, the Hon. Abner Hazeltine reflected on the 1816 Fourth of July celebration. “During the succeeding winter and spring (of 1815) there was a considerable accession of new inhabitants, and we began to fancy that our little village was a place of importance.”
“There were then within the territory first incorporated as Jamestown, 13 families, all living in unfinished houses – which we should now regard as rude cabins – and a number of men without families,” he added.
Reuben Fenton was the youngest of five boys born to George W. and Elsie (Owen) Fenton. He was schooled at the local schoolhouse and was a natural leader. By the age of 17 he had attended one year at the College Hill Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio, and one term at Fredonia Academy, now the State University at Fredonia. He then entered into the study of law in the offices of the Waite Brothers of Jamestown.
Although Fenton was admitted to the New York State Bar, he withdrew to help his father and family out of financial difficulty. By the age of 32, Fenton had paid off all the family debts, amassed a “considerable” fortune of his own and had held the town of Carroll Supervisor position for eight years. His ability to work with a wide range of opinions and personalities is evident in that he served as Chairman of the Board for three of the eight years as the lone Democrat.
From there he was nominated to Congress and re-elected for four more terms, a total of 10 years in office. His first speech in Congress in February 1854 was in opposition of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. By the end of his Congressional career, he was the Chairman of the Finance Committee – one of the most powerful seats in the body. During this time he also took some time to help form the anti-slavery Republican Party in Chautauqua County. He served as the new party’s chairman at the first convention in Syracuse in 1855.
In 1864 he received the greatest complement and vote of confidence when President Lincoln picked Fenton as the candidate for governor of New York, “the most important state in the Union.” He took office Jan. 1, 1865. As governor, he supported the New York troops and was called upon by the War Department and the president a number of times during the last few months of the Civil War.
Following the Civil War, he was instrumental in building up the shattered economy of the state. Also as governor he was the Republican Party Chairman. It is said he was second only to Martin Van Buren in his ability to organize and administer the State Party and the Office of the Governor. He successfully brought conflicting elements together and prevented defections, shown by the success of the party at the polls during his two terms as governor. He established free public schools, tripled the number of Teacher Colleges, reformed Healthcare and passed legislation that established landmark American Public Health standards. Throughout his Congressional and gubernatorial career, he was known as “The Soldier’s Friend” for his support and care of the U. S. soldiers. He assisted them and their families in acquiring their pensions and other benefits. The last office of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veteran’s organization that took care of the Civil War soldiers, was located in the Fenton Mansion.
Following his success as governor, he was asked to run for state senator in 1869. He immediately began to address the federal debt, taxation, banking and currency issues. His speeches on monetary subjects were regarded as the clearest and ablest delivered at the time by any public servant. He also brought about the reorganization of the corrupt Custom Service in 1875. Being a man of strong convictions, he supported his friend Horace Greeley for president in 1872, which combined with his support of women’s rights proved to sever him from the Republican Party he had helped form. In 1875 he returned to Jamestown where he served as a director and the president of the Bank of Jamestown, which he had helped start earlier in his career. In 1878 he was asked to serve his country once again. He was the co-chairman of the U.S. Commission as a member of the International Monetary Conference in Paris, France. His financial abilities were still respected.
Fenton returned home to Jamestown and spent time with his family and friends. He was considered a great leader yet very approachable by the average citizen. He passed away in August 1885 at a Board of Directors meeting at the Bank of Jamestown. More than 10,000 mourners attended his funeral procession. He is buried with family in Lake View Cemetery in the Fenton mausoleum. A 1925 local newspaper survey stated he was the most known citizen from Chautauqua County even 40 years after his death. A true-sized statue of Fenton can be seen on the front lawn of the Fenton History Center.
The Fenton History Center is Jamestown’s historical society. This summer, the Fenton is focusing on an archaeological excavation on the Fenton property in hopes of finding out more about the governor, his family, their staff and life during the mid 1800s in Jamestown. Trustee Tom Greer, M.D., is managing the excavation and welcomes the community to visit or help out during digging days. The schedule can be found on the Fenton website, fentonhistorycenter.org.
Ultimately, the Fenton would like to publish the governor’s biography with emphasis on his ongoing legacy in Jamestown, Chautauqua County and New York state.
The Fenton is offering two children’s summer programs focusing on archaeology. The first is July 30 through Aug. 1, 10 a.m. to noon, for children entering first grade through third grade. The second is Aug. 12-16, 1-4 p.m., for children entering fourth through seventh grades. Call the center at 664-6256 or visit the website or Facebook page for more information.