|John Wheeler Wisner, the first county judge of Chemung County
after the office by the constitution of 1846 was made elective, was born
in the town of Warwick, Orange Co., on the 10th day of September, 1801.
He was descended from an ancient and honorable family, being the eldest son of Jeffery Wisner, a respectable farmer of Warwick, who was a son of General Henry Wisner, of the same town.
It may not be out of place to give a brief notice of his grandfather, General Henry Wisner, inasmuch as he is so intimately identified with the early history of Elmira.
After the expedition of Sullivan in 1779 had opened up the valley of
the Chemung to the early settlers who came thither from the Wyoming Valley,
before there had been any steps taken to survey and allot the lands, the
next race of men who peopled this valley were from the county of Orange,
N. Y. Their introduction into the county came in this wise: An act had
passed the Legislature authorizing the survey of the lands in this part
of the then county of Montgomery, and in 1788 Moses De Witt, of Ulster,
surveyor, John Cantine, of Ulster, John Hathorn and Charles Clinton, of
Orange, as commissioners, commenced the survey and allotment of the lands
on both sides of the Chemung, then called the Tioga River.
The lots were laid off for those who had made actual settlements, and the whole town of Chemung, bounded west by the lands of the State of Massachusetts, east by Owego Creek, south by the Pennsylvania line, and north by a line running nearly east and west, extending from Owego Creek to the now county of Steuben, was surveyed and mapped.
A large number of land-warrants or patents, as they were called, were issued in 1790 and 1891, and of those not issued to actual settlers a great proportion were to Orange County men. General Henry Wisner was the largest of these landed proprietors. Without a critical examination of the records, the writer can state from memory where more than 8000 acres of his lands were situated within the old town of Chemung.
General Wisner was in public life from 1759 to 1788, filling important positions and making an extensive acquaintance with the most eminent public men of that day. For ten years, ending in 1769, he was a member from Orange to the Colonial Legislature. In 1774 he was a member of the Continental Congress held in Philadelphia. In 1775 he was a member of the so-called Provincial Congress, held in New York. He was a deputy to the convention of representatives from this State to form its first constitution, and was one of the committee of thirteen to prepare and report a draft of that instrument, which was finally adopted at Kingston in 1777. Lastly, he was a delegate to the convention held at Poughkeepsie in 1788 to deliberate upon the question of the adoption of the Constitution of the United States.
In the course of his public life he made the acquaintance of such men as Zephaniah Platt, William Duer, John Bay, Ezra L’Hommedieu, Thomas Thomas, Melanethon Smith, Marks Platner, and others, which may account for those men having large land patents in the town and county of Chemung, in addition to those Orange County men, the Seeleys, Bartolph, Cuddeback, Hetfield, Sufferns, Tuthills, and others. Besides the surveyor, De Witt, and the commissioners, Cantine, Hathorn, and Clinton, took good care of themselves. Three patents, of seven hundred acres each, comprising the land whereon stands the city of Elmira, were granted severally to Moses De Witt, Henry Wisner, and Charles Clinton.
Jeffery Wisner, the son of Henry, became the grantee from the State of lot No. 191, lying partly within the present limits of the city of Elmira, and extending to the top of the "east hill." Of an undivided half of this lot of one hundred and seventy-one acres, Jeffery Wisner, in June, 1823, made a deed of gift to his son, John W., who had, in the year previous, when he was twenty-one years old, left his father’s house with his wife, and pushed his way to the then far West, with a view to becoming a tiller of the soil. But in this avocation he did not seem to prosper, being more fond of the sports than the labors of the field, so that in five years the farm was let to a stranger, reconveyed to the father, and the subject of our narrative, having buried his wife, and left with a family of small children, was compelled to set out upon a new and untried course of life.
His early education was such only as could be obtained in the common schools of his native town, nothing more. But he was a man of reading, and possessed of a remarkably tenacious memory. He had a fondness for politics, was large-hearted, outspoken, manly, and liberal. He thus became the idol of the people, and when he came before them for their suffrages he made extensive inroads in the ranks of his opponents.
Upon his failure, as above referred to, he entered upon the long seven years’ course then required to entitle one to admission to the bar of the Supreme Court, and set himself down in the office of A. K. Gregg, Esq., Blackstone in hand. In 1834 he was elected to the office of justice of the peace. In 1835 he was married to Miss Mary Ann Butler, who was the daughter of an old resident of Elmira, and went back to the farm of his father.
Judge Wisner continued to officiate as justice of the peace for two if not three terms of four years each. Having a well-balanced mind, and being a strictly honest man, without strong prejudices, his judgments were always respected even by those to whom they were adverse.
Judge Wisner was repeatedly elected supervisor of the town, succeeding against all sorts of opposition and every kind of hostile combinations. He was always chosen chairman of the board.
In 1836, having then been admitted to the court of Common Pleas as an attorney, he formed a law-partnership with Ariel S. Thurston, which continued for twelve years, or till he was chosen judge, as hereafter stated. In 1837, with confidence fully restored in his son’s ability to maintain a family, his father reconveyed to him the whole of lot 191. In 1839 he was admitted as an attorney of the Supreme Court.
In the year 1846 Judge Wisner was the Democratic nominee for Congress, in the district composed of Chemung, Yates, and Tompkins Counties, and was beaten by his Whig competitor, William T. Lawrence, by less than twenty votes. To the "old Hunker" faction belonged the honor of this defeat.
In 1847, upon the adoption of the new constitution, he was put in nomination and elected county judge and surrogate of the county of Chemung. The duties of those offices he continued to discharge till 1850, when he resigned, and his law partner was elected his successor.
In 1848 he, for the second time, was put in nomination for Congress by the Democratic party, and was again beaten by a majority of less than twenty votes by his Whig competitor, William T. Jackson, and by the defection of a thousand, more or less, from the Democratic ranks, under the leadership of Colonel Hathaway, who headed the forlorn hope of "old Hunkers."
Soon after these political campaigns, necessarily excited and laborious, the health of Judge Wisner began visibly to decline, and although at intervals nature seemed to rally, it was clearly perceptible to his friends that he must, at a period not far distant, succumb to the King of Terrors. He continued, however, to attend to business for the greater part of the time during the ensuing three years, and lived until the 24the day of April, 1852, when he died in the full meridian of his usefulness, having accumulated a handsome property, and having made ample provision for his children, nine of whom survived him.
In closing this brief sketch of one who, in his time, occupied so prominent a place in the annals of this county, we do no more than justice to his memory when we say that no man ever went to his grave more regretted by all classes of men in the circle in which he moved. Had the early training of Judge Wisner been with a professional life in view his success could have scarcely been more than it really was; his gifts of mind and heart were so much above the stamp of ordinary men.
Between Judge Wisner and the hero of that work of fiction written by Wm. Wirt, "Patrick Henry," there are some striking points of similarity. The former, like the latter, possessed but a limited education. Both embarked in early life in pursuits in which they failed. Both were addicted to sports of the field. The favorite study of both was that of human character. Both resorted late in life to the profession of the law, and both were possessed of that kind of natural eloquence which moves the masses. But the parallel ends here. Judge Wisner, from being somewhat erratic as well as independent in thought and action, failed to succeed in his political aspirations. But he carried with him to his grave a perfect title to the character awarded to Brutus, -
"His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man.’"