Independence Day

Here’s a fun fact: the American colonies officially separated from Great Britain on July 2, 1776. Despite John Adams’ confidence that this date would be duly celebrated by future generations, no one in Congress thought to commemorate the one-year anniversary of this historic event until July 3, 1777. At that point, the big day had passed so they decided to celebrate on the Fourth instead, in honor of the anniversary of the adoption of the document proclaiming American freedom and the principles on which it was based. And so it is that every July 4th we fly flags, march in parades, cook out, and light fireworks to commemorate the day our forebears issued their Declaration of Independence, not the day that independence was actually established.

Rochester’s first recorded community celebration of the Fourth of July was in 1812. There were only about 20 members in what was then a modest frontier settlement and they gathered to dine on roast pig and whiskey at Enos Stone’s farm, located on the bank of the Genesee River at what is now the northwest corner of East Main and St. Paul streets. The nation had just entered into a Second War for Independence against Great Britain, imbuing the holiday with added significance.

As the settlement grew, its Independence Day celebrations became more elaborate. According to Edwin Scrantom, a prominent member of one of Rochester’s first families, the 1817 celebration proved a particularly “spirited affair.” People came from neighboring towns “to swell the numbers and heighten the conviviality” on the east bank of the river. The Reverend Comfort Williams presided over the meal and as the first toast was raised—“Our country,—prosperity attend her!”—two of the 20 explosives that had been set up along the site for a new mill race were set off by the mill’s owner, Elisha Johnson. The crowd hurrayed, subsequent toasts were made, and the remaining explosives were detonated.

Using the holiday celebration to clear rock for the construction of Johnson’s mill race was a fine example of neighborly cooperation and community spirit. Scrantom described the scene:

“The people were wild with joy, and every man shook hands with his fellow pioneer and wished him God-speed; women and children, without ceremony and in perfect freedom mingled together on that occasion with one heart and mind—and Johnson was complimented for his tact in furnishing the raceway artillery, which, while it spoke loud, and rent the forest with its long echoes, lifted the solid rock in the waterway he was building, doing good service.

As there were then no bells to ring, one blast deeper in the rock than the rest, was reserved for the gun at sun-down, and when this was fired, and as its great boom died away in the forests that surrounded the village, the people quietly retired to their places of abode to talk over the pleasant incidents of the day, and to bless their stars that the lines had fallen to them in pleasant places, and they had so good a heritage!

The night that followed that fourth day of July, was more than usually still. The barking of the fox, the howling of the wolf, and the owl’s sad hoot were not heard; the great guns of the raceway had awed them all into silence!”(1)

Although contemporary fireworks may not be quite as exciting as Johnson’s explosives, perhaps we can take a moment while marveling at this year’s display to reflect on how our Fourth of July traditions connect us not only to the friends and family with whom we celebrate, but to our collective past and those who celebrated here before us.

~Michelle Finn, Deputy City Historian

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Bicycles in a Fourth of July parade, 1894. From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division.

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A Fourth of July parade along Main Street in 1899. From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division.

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Fireworks light up the Genesee River and the Rochester skyline, 2006. From the collection of the Rochester City Hall Photo Lab.

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Fireworks over the Broad Street bridge, 2009. From the collection of the Rochester City Hall Photo Lab.

  1. Scrantom’s description of the events of 1817 is recounted in Harriett Julia Naylor, “And This Was Rochester! Excerpts from the Old Citizen Letters of Edwin Scrantom,” Rochester History 4, no. 1 (1942): 10-12. Read more about Rochester’s Independence Day celebrations in this and other issues of the Rochester History journal.
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