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Onan Immigrants

The Immigrants

Right from the very beginning, both in time and this document, I have a problem explaining what happened because there is not enough information. Since we cannot find any family in the old country as a basis for family structure, we do not know how the immigrants were related. What I have constructed is based on analysis and assumption to a large degree.

The hope is that with this beginning and the additional information that becomes available with time we can some day answer questions relating to Scotland, Ireland, Scots Irish, Huguenot, Canada, etc.

From an analysis of census records  {RESE0226}  it appears there were 11 immigrant Onan men. Their relationship to one another is not at all clear because we have not found adequate records. It is likely there were cousins as well as siblings.

Name Birth Year Birth Place
Alexander 1755 Ireland / Scotland
James 1769 Ireland / Scotland
Samuel 1783 Ireland
James 1785 Ireland
Alexander 1790 Ireland
Samuel 1795 Ireland
Alexander 1805 Ireland / Scotland
John 1805 Ireland
James 1814 Ireland
John 1820 Ireland
Michael 1822 Ireland

A further look at census data for family structure  {RESE0227} shows that most all of the first generation families stayed in or near Dryden, Tompkins county NY.

  • The 1825 New York census of Dryden, Tompkins county lists 4 Onan families; Alexander, Alexander Jr., Charles, and James.
  • {CENS0050}
  • The 1830 United States census shows the families of Alexander and Samuel living together. James’ family at another location.

A researcher who was interested in our family was Raymond Austin Wheeler of Ithaca NY. In January 1943 he wrote my grandfather, D. W. Onan. Raymond was born Raymond Austin and adopted by a Wheeler family. My follow up telephone conversation with his son in the 1990’s told me that he had not kept his father’s family history information and did not know where it was. That is a real loss for us. I may be out there somewhere.

Raymond Wheeler said in a letter,

"I, too, am and Onan, as that was my mothers name before she married my father. I have been searching for Onan’s for some time but have been rather unsuccessful. My great-grandfather Samuel Onan, born 1784, settled (with perhaps a brother Alexander) in the town of Dryden, Tompkins co, NY probably sometime after 1800. Alexander bought his first piece of property there in 1813. This is the only known family of Onan’s in this section of America. I have been told that Samuel came from Ireland and stayed in Canada for a time and them came to this place." {RESE0091}

Raymond Wheeler gives another insight {RESE0085}. " I believe there were three brothers who came from Ireland [?] about the same time, because they settled in the same narrow valley of Ellis Hollow. These three are: James born 1769, Samuel born 1784, Alexander born ? Perhaps Charles was another brother. Raymond Wheeler said, "You see, Mariah Onan, my great-aunt and sister of my grand father Alexander married another Alexander, thereby making them related if they were not before. The first record of an Onan buying property is Alex[ander] in 1814."

Raymond Wheeler also tells us that Mariah and Alexander Jr. were brother and sister. This hints of some bachelor farmers, nieces, uncles and cousins; but no absolute knowledge of all the relationships.

The best comprehensive look is 1850 when we can put the census data together with Ray Wheeler’s comments and construct a picture of the Onan families in NY. 

1850 Dryden, Tompkins county, NY {CENS0041} {CENS0038}

Alexander 1805   Scotland*
Maria 1821 Wife, sister of Alex. 2nd NY
Elizabeth 1848 Daughter NY
James 1769 Father Scotland*
Alexander 2nd 1819   NY
Dolly 1825 Sister NY
Samuel D. 1833   NY
John J. 1825   NY
Elizabeth 1796 Mother NY
John 1805   Scotland*
Almyra 1813 Wife NY


1850 Ithaca, Tompkins county, NY

John 1820   Ireland


1850 Conquest, Cayuga county, NY {CENS0039}

Alexander 1790   Ireland
Polly 1800 Wife Orange co NY
Alexander Jr. 1827   Tompkins co NY
Gabrail 1830   Tompkins co NY
Jemima 1832   Tompkins co NY
Tobias 1836 Child? Cayuga co NY
Samuel 1837   NY


1850 Burton, Cattaraugus county NY

Warren 1818   PA
Margaret 1818 Wife Scotland
Alzora 1848   NY
Adelia 1850   NY


1850 Ischua, Cattaraugus county NY

James 1785   Ireland
Mary 1795 Wife DE
John A 1827   NY
Marcus 1831   NY

The listing of Alexander’s birth in Ireland and Polly [Cornelius] birth in Orange county has reinforced the belief the family was Irish or Scots-Irish. From DeWitte Historical Society Tompkins Co Publications 1944-51 we can read, "Irish Settlement. A lovely little valley nestling high among the Dryden hills, about four miles south of Willow Glen. In 1811 a small group of Irish and Scotch-Irish immigrants, some of whom had arrived in America in 1806, came from Orange, then from Delaware County [NY] , where they temporarily settled into the town of Dryden, where they founded the Irish Settlement." {RESE0153}

Alexander 1790; who with his wife, Polly Cornellius and children Alexander Jr 1827, Gabel 1830, Jemima 1832 Tobias 1836, and Samuel 1837, moved about 1833 to Conquest, Cayuga county NY and then in 1855 to Lowell, Kent county MI. {OBIT0018} A newspaper story written about his 92 year old grandson, Ray, in 1984; says that his grandfather was a "Scotsman from Ireland who married a Pennsylvania Dutch girl". {RESE0142}


Alexander Onan abt 1755 – abt 1835 RIN 579 {RESE0163}

Whether in fact he was the first Onan on American soil is not known, but he is the oldest of the line of Onans we count as ancestors. His wife’s name is unknown and the few references we have to him never mentioned a marital status. He last appears in the 1830 US census (not in 1835 NY) and we do not know where he is buried.

"….he came with his family, to America. He settled at Dryden, Tompkins county, New York, where he bought a large tract of land and engaged in extensive farming; he gave to each of his children a large farm. His children were – Samuel, Alexander, Charles, John, James, Elizabeth, Mary and Sarah." {BIOG0004}

Our Alexander settled in Dryden, NY about 1810, or at least before his son James received his citizenship in Philadelphia in 1816. As farming country this would have meant clearing the land and tilling. This is woody, hilly, rocky territory. In the "Centennial History of the Town of Dryden 1797-1897" by George E. Goodrich 1898, {RESE0004} the A. Onan farm is located just west of Varna, NY along Fall Creek, in section 61. Varna is about 5 miles east of Ithaca, NY. The exact date of the map is unknown. Similarly, an 1853 map shows the farms of A. and S.D. Onan, and A. Onan southeast of Varna; and an 1866 map shows the farm of A. Onan. {RESE0155}

Click here for a map of Tompkins county in 1868


cabintom.gif (6351 bytes)

Landscape, 1830


James Onan 1785-1855 RIN 316
Mary Collins 1795-1869 RIN 317
FGR 101

"…James and Mary (Collins) Onan , natives of Ireland and Wilmington, Delaware, respectively. …[He] was a boot and shoe manufacturer the first fifty years of his life, when he turned his attention to farming in Cattaraugus county, New York, where he died in 1858. The mother [Mary] died in 1868. They had a family of eight children, four of whom are now living - Charles, John, Marcus H. and … Warren; who was the eldest of the children. James … served for three years in the British navy, having been pressed into such service while on his way to America. He left home when he was twenty-one years old, purposing to seek a new home for his father's family. James … was pressed into the English army [??]. … James finally deserted the army at Rio Janeiro, going back into the mountains from where his ship lay anchored, and after hiding for three months took a ship for America, stopped at Key West, Florida, about a year, then joined his father in Tompkins county, New York, where he remained a short time, then went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he married, when as before stated, he engaged in boot and shoe manufacturing; he also lived some time at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, then moved to Tompkins county, New York." {BIOG0004}

* This story has some ambiguities but if we follow the thread and add from other sources, we can put some flesh on the bones.

Impressed service was common in the British Navy. Sailors from a ship needing a crew would be accompanied by an officer who would lead them to a town to scavenge anyone they could find from the streets and Public Houses. These impressed men would be taken by force back to the ship. That period around 1800 – 1806 saw the British nearing the end of a long war with Napoleon. It got constantly harder to find military men. Being forced into military service was common.

Rio de Janeiro was a friendly port for the British navy. They found food, timber, water and labor to refit and re-supply their ships. Rio was also a port of call for ships of other nations. If, as the story says, he deserted there, he could have been taken to Key West by a Spanish or American ship. At that point, however, he was a deserter and as a British subject would have been hanged if caught. So as a fugitive he started the long trip to his family in New York.

Key West was a Spanish outpost in what was called East Florida. It was, however, out of British hands and as an otherwise lawless frontier could be a refuge for a man on the run. Ship passage up the coast of the US could bring James close enough for an over land trip to visit his father.

Click here to see a map of the United States in 1803.

James went to Philadelphia to file a petition for citizenship in 1812. As a fugitive from British justice and their army trying to rearrange the New York border, it was prudent to become and American citizen to avoid any possibility of future arrest. The words of the petition are interesting. {RESE0162} In substance they say:

Petition of James Onan a native of Ireland on 18 August 1812 intention to become a citizen of the United States and renounce his allegiance to George III king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland his heirs and successors for ever. He was at that time a subject, and has resided within the United States Upwards of six years last past and within the state of Pennsylvania six years last past, and wishes to become a citizen.

Signed: James Onan

Further is James Onan’s sworn oath saying that he declares the content of the petition to be true; will support the Constitution of the United States, give up all titles to nobility and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state and sovereignty whatever, and particularly to the King of the United Kingdome of Great Britain and Ireland of whom I was before a subject.

Signed: James Onan
20th Sept. 1815

Click here to see James Onan's Oath of 1812.

James was married to Mary Collins, a native of Delaware in October 1816. An exhaustive study for Eloise (Mrs. Howard J.) Martin of Lansing MI in 1995 failed to find any information about Mary Collins family. {RESE0176}

The first two of their children are born in Pennsylvania; Warren in 1818 and Samuel in 1819. The remaining six children, beginning with Charles in 1821, were born in Lansing, Tompkins co, NY.

Click here to see the Family Group Record.

James had all his children baptized at one time at the First Presbyterian Church, Ludlowville, town of Lansing, Tompkins co NY on 13 July 1831. They were listed as Charles, Dorthea A., John A., Mary J., Sally, Samuel and Warren. Marcus, born in 1832, was baptized in that year. {BIRT0012}

The baptisms in First Presbyterian Church and Masonic symbol on his grave stone confirm that James was Protestant. This is an important fact to remember when researching ancestors!

I do not know the date or reason for the move to Cattaraugus county. Son Warren had established himself there, and maybe the opportunities looked better.

"The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, connecting Buffalo with New York, opened to emigrants a new region embraced in the state of Michigan, and in Northern Ohio and Northern Indiana by way of the canal and Lake Erie, …" {RESE0003}

The next references find James and Mary in Ischua, Cattaraugus co NY in 1850, with their children John A. and Marcus. The homestead is located between Fitch and Allegany on the 5 Mile Road, just north of the Gile Hollow Road. See map of town of Ischua in {RESE0078} This is hilly, wooded land. It is hard to find 10 acres flat and tillable. Today it has changed little, and is not a serious or prosperous farming community.

Click here to see a map of Ishcua.

Early settlers were described.

" The pioneers who came and cleared up their farms, built school-houses, highways and bridges, had a hard time without a doubt. They were hampered with poverty, had bad roads, or no roads at all, and no markets, for but little to sell. About the only commodity that sold for money was black salts, manufactured by leaching the ashes from the burned timber and boiling the lye until it became a solid substance. The hunters derived some income for killing wolves, which were and annoyance to the settlers and a terror to domestic animals. A bounty of sixty dollars per head was paid for wolf scalps, and some of the lucky Nimrods of the early days drove a thriving business in hunting them. The forests abounded with game; bears, deer, and land and water birds were here in profusion. The rivers and brooks were filled with speckled trout and other delicious fish. All of these have disappeared before the march of all-conquering civilization.

As food, clothing and shelter are imperative necessities in civilized life, the first care after the settlements of several towns of the county was the erection of grist-mills to reduce the farmers’ grain to meal, saw-mills to cut lumber, and wool carding and cloth-dressing mills to furnish clothing. The wool-carding and cloth-dressing establishments took the farmers’ wool, prepared it for spinning, then received it from the hands of the busy house-wives, after thy had woven it into flannel, and fulled, dyed and pressed it into completed ‘homespun’.

It is true, the early settlers had the hardships of pioneer life, but they were not without enjoyment. While they worked hard and lived plain, the demands of society were few. All were poor alike, and no caste existed. They were often called together at ‘raisings and bees,’ when the entire neighborhood in a circuit of several miles, including both sexes, was all there. When the ladies of the day assembled at their quiltings they deemed it absolutely necessary to partake of their ‘toddy’ at every roll of the quilt. All went well until after the third rolling, when their tongues were usually swifter than their needles, and they resolved the meeting into a committee of the whole for the good of the neighborhood. On one of the occasions a good old lady was so much interested in the meeting that she unconsciously depart for home with her bonnet hindside before. In those early days spirituous liquors were considered a necessity in every family. It was then used to keep out the cold and to keep out the heat. It was necessary at raisings, bees, quiltings, parties, weddings, neighborly visits, funerals, sheep washings, butchering and to entertain the minister when he called to inquire of the spiritual welfare of his parishioners." {RESE0003}

The only enduring tangible record we have is the tombstones in the Fitch cemetery. But it is a very important record because it establishes several facts. As they say, "etched in stone".

James: dates, Protestant sect, Mason
Mary: dates, wife of James
Sarah (Sally): dates and wife of Stephen Moffat
Dortha Ann: dates, daughter of J & M Onan, wife of S. H. Moffitt
   Note: Stephen Moffat and S. H. Moffitt are NOT the same person.

These and other records together make an unambiguous statement that these are our ancestors. Jane and I visited the cemetery in October 1989. This was a rewarding visit. Somehow it is easier to imagine these folks when you stand on their graves. I knew they were real. It anchored me. We found James’ stone laying on the ground, others tilted. They had no footings. In 1998 I contracted to have the stones set straight an new concrete placed around them.

To find the cemetery: See the location on the map of the town of Ischua (map of Ishcua) You will do well asking locally for directions to the Fitch cemetery on the 5 Mile Road (state highway 16). You still will have trouble locating the spot. Fitch is not on all maps, not even the official Cattaraugus co map. It’s location is at the intersection of county 19 with state 16. That is 3-1/4 miles north of the village of Ischua on state 16. Follow 16 south about ½ mile; just past William Hollow Road. The cemetery is on a 20 foot rise of land on the west side of 16. The entrance is off a private driveway or small road on the north side of the rise.


David W. Onan II
1 December, 1998





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