Fluvanna Fought For Freedom, Equality, Education

Historical marker for the first Fluvanna dwelling, the Griffith Farm, now Sheldon Hall area. Griffith purchased 500 acres from the Holland Land Company and settled there in 1806. He was one of the first settlers in the county. Submitted photos

It is an unassuming place maybe a mile long and half a mile wide — just turn off in the shape of a Y at both ends from the state highway (old Route 17, once one of the original plank roads of Western New York, now Fluvanna Avenue Extension as well as State Highway 430). As one old friend of mine said, I never thought much about Fluvanna. We went past it on our way to Bemus Point. It is not really a town, hamlet, village, but a “location” a few miles up from Jamestown, gracefully flanking the shoreline of Chautauqua Lake just above the Outlet. For me, for Sherwin relatives, for those of us who know it well or grew up there, it is the pretty place full of memories summer and winter. But it is more than that. It is historically significant here in Chautauqua County.

For Fluvanna is the site of several of Chautauqua Lake’s first grand hotels, once reachable primarily by steamboat. It is the site of explorer de Celoron’s first encampment on the lake. It is the site of the second earliest settlement, that of Jeremiah Griffith and his family on 500 acres just above Greenhurst. It is the site of native American burial mounds and artifacts though they have been carved out by bulldozers and plows, moved and unceremoniously dispatched. One of the most important facts is that Fluvanna was the site of the Fluvanna Political Equality Club that fought hard for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century.

The club’s first president was Hetty Jo Sherwin, who was elected at the group’s first meeting at the Bentley house in Fluvanna. According to the Jamestown Sun, February, 1951, these gallant women “launched the most militantly successful women’s rights crusade in the history of New York State.” Hetty Jo wrote “The Early History of Fluvanna” published in 1926. Ms. Sherwin was an activist and author. She has recorded the history of the area in a particularly unique and literary manner.

Due in no small part to the Fluvanna women’s club’s efforts, in Chautauqua County, supporters for women’s right to vote won “by a majority of 2,801, which was the largest proportionate majority of any county in the state,” according to the Jamestown Sun. Women were granted the right to vote in all of America in August 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The Sun article asserts, “In so voting, the people of the United States merely strung along behind Chautauqua County. Three years before, New York State had held a referendum of its own on women’s rights.”

It is well known that Western New York State led the way for the women’s right to vote, but the movement here in Chautauqua County seems to be left out of much historical information. It is time to put it on the page of history. According to information on the website Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village titled Women’s Suffrage, “The fight for women’s rights began in New York State. In Waterloo, on July 13, 1848, a tea party at the home of activist Jane Hunt became the catalyst for the women’s rights movement. Jane Hunt’s guests were Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann McClintock and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. As the women drank their tea, they discussed the misfortunes imposed upon females — not having voting rights, not being able to own property, few social and intellectual outlets – and decided that they wanted change. By the end of the gathering, the five women organized the first women’s rights convention set for Seneca Falls, New York, and wrote a notice for the Seneca County Courier that invited all women to attend the influential event. Six days later, on July 19, 1848, people crowded into the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls… These participants partook in the two-day historic event that catapulted the women’s rights movement into a national battle for equality.” Just as important were smaller groups that stood their ground throughout New York State in small, unassuming places much like Fluvanna, no doubt.

The original Fluvanna Church building. Courtesy of Barbara Sherwin Schmit.

The Fluvanna suffragettes fought back hard against those who opposed the women’s right to vote, which included a fair number of women. The women withstood criticism and rebuke. They fought a hard battle against mean spirited and ill-drawn caricatures that pictured them as masculine and ugly, obnoxious and loud. But the group took aim only at the notion that women should not vote. The Fluvanna Club “had many blazing arguments against this contention. One of them was that women property owners had to pay taxes but they couldn’t vote and that ‘taxation without representation is tyranny,”‘ as reported in the Jamestown Sun. Clearly, that is strong argument, unemotional and persuasive.

The Fluvanna Political Equality Club was peopled by smart, forward-thinking women. They had stout hearts, as editor of the Jamestown Journal Davis H. Waite described the settlers of Fluvanna in the mid-19th century. The early settlers had “stout hands and hearts,” he wrote. The quote is included in Hetty Sherwin’s book, the seminal work on Fluvanna history. In it, she writes, “The women of this small group [in Fluvanna] earnestly believed that organized womanhood was to become a power in the land.” It seems clear Hetty Sherwin was a woman with a clear voice, a wise head, and a stout heart.

Later, the women’s group transformed itself into “The Fluvanna Study Club, dedicated to “working along lines of education and progressive ideas.” The group supported and forwarded ideas for the Common School (a public school idea) in the Towns of Ellery and Ellicott, an ideal posited in the Fluvanna area since 1821. The study club founded the Fluvanna Free Library as well, first situated within the old elementary school on the corner of Townline Road.

Fluvanna–named for the daughters of early settlers, Fluvia (pronounced Fluva) and Anna, so it is said–remains tranquil and lovely on the lower shore of Chautauqua Lake. The sunset over the Harmony hills across the lake paints the bay in all shades of blue and rose. It seems due time to put Fluvanna on the historical map.

Shown is the cover of Hetty Sherwin’s Early History of Fluvanna, one copy available in reference at the Fluvanna Free Library.

Pictured is the Fluvanna School, circa 1850. Photo from Fluvanna archives