The following quotation and the image of William Gilliland’s portrait come from Plattsburgh resident, historian, and writer David Glenn.
Portrait of William Gilliland (1734-1796) Pioneer Settler of Essex and Clinton Counties, New York
This oil paint on canvas portrait was painted in New York City in 1789 by the renowned portrait artist Ralph Earl. Will Gilliland, as he called himself, is shown at 55 years of age, robust in health and as a prosperous merchant. The portrait gives no indication that it was painted while he was in the gaol or jail of the city, debtors prison. (Gilliland Trails)
That little snippet of Gilliland’s history should entice you to find out more about our local founder!
Champlain Valley Settler & Explorer
Born and raised in County Armagh, Ireland, William Gilliland came to America in about 1754 as a young man. Gilliland found work as a merchant in New York City, and began operating his own mercantile business by 1759 (David Glenn). He married Elizabeth Phagan, on Feb. 8, 1759, and they had a six children–two of whom died in childhood (New York State Museum). Gilliland also had another daughter, Anne, out of wedlock with Mary Shadforth c. 1770 (David Glenn).
Prior to the French and Indian War there was minimal European settlement in the North Country, but after British victory many soldiers were rewarded with land grants to repay their military service and to help ensure Britain’s control of the frontier (Essex: The Architectural Heritage. 5-6). Gilliland took advantage of these newly released grants and began purchasing them from interested sellers. By 1764, he was able to gain land bounties from several veterans, ultimately securing title to upwards of 50,000 acres of land (David Glenn).
The land extended between present day Crown Point and Cumberland Head. Gilliland created settlements that would become present-day Willsboro and Essex among others. He named the settlements after his family, “Willsboro” after himself, “Elizabeth” (now Essex) after his wife, and “Janesboro,” “Charlottesboro,” and “Bessboro” were named for his daughters (Essex: The Architectural Heritage. 6).
“With a number of recruited tenant/settlers, established the town he named Willsboro on the western shore of Lake Champlain” in 1765, and he moved his wife and family to his new land holdings in 1766, unfortunately losing one daughter to death on the journey(New York State Museum).
“His journals for the years 1765-1772 record his surveying expeditions and the sites selected for grist and lumber mills, and future iron and potash works. Many of the sites lay in the later township of Essex.” (Essex: The Architectural Heritage. 6)
Gilliland explored the land that was now his and saw many places previously undiscovered by European eyes as he settled the area.
“On an October day in 1765 William Gilliland […] took a jaunt from his settlement on the Boquet River, exploring northward along the west shore of Lake Champlain. […] Gilliland is perhaps the first European to discover the great Ausable Chasm, where Atlantic salmon spawned in great numbers to the delight of settlers.” (Ausable Chasm)
American Revolution Begins Gilliland’s Downfall
The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) destroyed the original Willsboro settlement, and the effects of the war and accusations during that tenuous time of revolt began to ruin Gilliland financially and by reputation. Continue reading…
David Glenn says
Would love to send you my WG bio which corrects many errors in his history. Many concurrent WG’s which confused early historians. For instance, WG in ‘British army was not our WG but another. Willing to discuss. This web site should have the most correct data possible.
G.G. Davis, Jr. says
Greetings and welcome, David Glenn. Thanks for your generous offer and for subsequently forwarding along your William Gilliland biography. I will be in touch with you directly to determine the best way to share your knowledge with our readers. There is indeed much confusion regarding William Gilliland’s history (and most of the early Essex historic figures), and I am hopeful that you’ll be able to help set the record straight.
If you could contact me I can help. I am niece of Alberta cuyler Holmes and I took a dna test