Legend has it that Seneca Indians, the original inhabitants of our favorite piece of the planet, called this place jo-nis-hi-yuh, meaning the pleasant or beautiful valley. This phonetic spelling evolved into Genesee which is the name of the river whose centuries of meandering carved out our beautiful valley. Our community name evolved from the name for the valley. It has always seemed odd that the river is named for its valley-view, but clearly upon their arrival the Senecas saw the valley long before they discovered its river.
As our nation was in its infancy, two brothers from Connecticut, James and William Wadsworth, recognizing that the people of this fledgling nation would require food to keep the engines of progress running, purchased tens of thousands of acres from the Seneca. Geneseo was thus settled in 1790 on the edge of a lush and beautiful valley. James, a land agent, and William, a farmer worked together to establish the agricultural industry which still dominates the region.
The Wadsworths built large homes at either end of Main Street, serving as bookends for the development of commercial and residential areas alike. They recognized the need for tradesmen and merchants to constitute a Hartford House community, recruited many to the town and assisted them in building homes of their own. Both of their estates still stand, indeed occupied by their descendants, and most of those original houses of more modest stature also still grace our streets.
The Wadsworths had great love and appreciation for the wondrous oak trees standing on our land. In clearing the wilderness, they left many and when leasing land required that tenants maintain the great oaks. Most are still standing in even greater grandeur than when they were first encountered. It was one particularly large specimen of oak that gave the original Indian village here its name of Big Tree. The tree in question stood on the banks of the Genesee and was thought to be more than 300 years old when erosion of the river bank finally caused its downfall on November 8, 1857.
Settler James Wadsworth’s interest in public education planted the seeds of what would eventually become SUNY-Geneseo. In 1867 the Wadsworth Normal School at Geneseo was chartered by the state legislature. When it opened its doors in 1871 with 91 students, its name was changed to Geneseo Normal School, one of nine name changes through the years. Today more than 5,000 students study at SUNY Geneseo, the latest incarnation of a school that has developed a reputation as one of the nation’s best public liberal arts colleges.
It was in 1974 that fear of losing the historic Big Tree Inn led to the formation of the Association for the Preservation of Geneseo (APOG). The organization has spearheaded preservation efforts ever since, not only saving the Inn, but going on to do the groundwork that resulted in a unique distinction for Geneseo. Main Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 because of its unique characteristics. In 1977 almost all of the central part of the Village was designated a Historic District and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1991 the entire Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, one of only twenty communities in the country. Even today there are only 24 Historic Districts that have been so honored.
The ingredients that make the magic of Geneseo include a yeasty mix of the vitality of thousands of young students and the scholarship of hundreds of professors, seasoned with a dash of the society of valley gentry and a generous portion of the salt of everyday people from farmers to county workers to actual salt miners. When all of this is served up in a park-like natural landscape, boasting an intact and still vital historic village, you have, indeed, the Jewel of the Genesee Valley!
You are most welcome here! Maps and tours of our jewel abound in other places on this website. We hope you will enjoy getting to know us.