William Cornwell, Jr.                    

William Cornwell, Jr.


few families always seem to have an influence on an area far out of proportion to their numbers, and the Cornwells were defininitely one of this select group. All the Yates County Cornwells were descended from William Cornwell Sr., a native of Dublin who emigrated to America with his widowed mother in 1765. His father was a Captain in the British Army, who fell at Fort Ticonderoga in the war with France. William was 15 years old when he arrived in New York; he and his mother supported themselves making and selling lace.

In 1774 William married Hannah Finch in Connecticut, and soon afterward moved to Delaware County. The war of the Revolution drove most of the settlers back east to avoid trouble with the Indians. He was captured with some of his neighbors by the Indians, managed to free himself and killed all the sleeping band of captors with their own weapons. Cornwell and his family fled to Schoharie and withstood the long seige there; then he joined the army and was again captured and again escaped. William and Hannah managed to raise a large family during all this excitement, returned to Delaware County at the end of the war and bought a farm; and then in 1816 followed their son William Jr. to the Genesee Country, where they settled in the town of Jerusalem a couple of miles west of Penn Yan.

William Jr. was his parents' third son and sixth child, born in 1787. Four daughters were younger. All of the family spent at least some time in Yates County. Young William was, however, the first; he came west in 1809 to practice medicine, married Sarah Chidsey in 1817 and lived successively in the two houses he built on the east side of Main Street.

Though always called "Dr. Cornwell," he doesn't seem to have practiced medicine for very long. He entered politics, serving as deputy sheriff of Ontario County for some years; and was elected Colonel of the "Penn Yan Regiment" of Militia, the old 103rd infantry regiment. He represented Ontario County in the Assembly in 1820-21, and in December of the year 1820 began a clerkship with his neighbor William M. Oliver, an attorney licensed to practice before the state Supreme Court. At this time there were seven lawyers in what would become Yates County, six of them in Penn Yan: Oliver, Cornelius Masten, A.P. Vosburgh, Benjamin Dey, John Willey and William Shattuck. Cornwell read law with Oliver, and then with Evert VanBuren, and was licensed as an attorney in 1829. He was a successful lawyer in Penn Yan for many years, until his death in 1846 at the age of 60. Sarah Cornwell lived in the house he had built for her until her death in 1866.

William Jr. and Sarah Chidsey Cornwell's children were:

  • Achsa Ann, who married Justus S. Glover, a lawyer who was his father-in-law's partner for some time. The two practiced law in a small building at what is now 309 Main Street. Glover and his wife moved to Michigan in 1864, where he died only two years later. His body was brought back to Penn Yan for burial.
  • Emily S., who married George Allen of Michigan, and died there.
  • William A., who married Oriana Bailey, the daughter of a San Francisco judge, which is where the couple lived. He was another lawyer, a writer, and secretary to the Governor and later to the California Senate.
  • Henry B. was a member of Scott's army in Mexico and was mortally wounded at the battle for Chapultepec.
  • Elizabeth never married, and continued to live in her parents' and later her brother's home.
  • Samuel C. died in 1841, at the age of 11.
  • Caroline married John D. Wolcott, a Penn Yan lawyer and newspaper editor.
  • George R. married Catharine, daughter of Dr. James Heermans. He remained in his father's house and became a successful merchant here. The Cornwell Building and Cornwell's Opera House in downtown Penn Yan were named for him.
  • Frances H. died in 1856, at the age of 19.


Cornwell was associated with:

Land plots:

   Cornwell's 5-acre purchase
   Cornwell's 3-acre purchase
   His "Small Lot"


   325 Main Street
   311 Main Street


   309 Main Street




Far right: A portrait of Dr. Cornwell, from the collection of the Oliver House Museum. The picture was found behind a wall in his house, and shows him as a relatively young (and handsome) man in a traveling cloak.