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The First White Settler in Seneca Falls: A Historical Review of Van Cleef

LOOKING BACK: Van Cleef was first white settler in Seneca Falls

Lawrence Van Cleef was not just the first permanent white settler in Seneca Falls, he was also an American Revolutionary War soldier who fought alongside General Washington at Valley Forge. His story is filled with notable events that helped shape the history of Seneca Falls and even New York State.

The Early Life of Lawrence Van Cleef

Born in Freehold, N.J. in 1754, Lawrence Van Cleef was among the fifth generation of Van Cleefs that emigrated from Holland and settled on Long Island. He was part of many notable events as a soldier in the American Revolution, serving in both the 1st and 3rd Regiments of the New York Continental Line. He was in the Battle of White Plains and was with General Washington at Valley Forge.

The Sullivan Expedition of 1779

Van Cleef was part of the Sullivan Expedition of 1779, one of the 100 men of Major Gansevort’s detachment. When the Sullivan Expedition forces returned to the north end of Seneca Lake after having advanced as far south and west as near Geneseo, they were ordered to proceed east to Albany. This led Van Cleef to a beautiful spot in Seneca Falls that he would remember for years to come.

Choosing Seneca Falls as Home

Van Cleef returned to Seneca Falls almost a decade later, in 1789, to establish a settlement. He chose The Flats — the islands on the Seneca River running through what became the town and village of Seneca Falls — near where Job Smith was living “temporarily.” Smith built a crude “shelter” for some protection against the weather. In contrast, Van Cleef constructed a double log house — the first log house erected by white settlers in this area.

Work on the Water

To make a living, Van Cleef worked with Job Smith, transporting goods and people around the Seneca River rapids in Seneca Falls. In the span of about one mile there was approximately a 50-foot change in elevation, making it impossible for loaded boats to safely navigate the rapids. The cargo was removed and carried on the nearby bank, while passengers walked around the rapids. The boats would be hauled through the rapids and reloaded on the other end. He and Smith had also turned to boat construction on Seneca Lake.

Van Cleef’s Family

Van Cleef’s wife was Sarah Angevine, and they had six children: Polly, Jane, Martha, George, Harriet, and Sally. Jane became Mrs. Jane Goodwin, and she was the first white child born in the Seneca Falls area. George Cunningham Van Cleef was born April 30, 1797, making him the first white male child born in the area.

Related Facts

  • Van Cleef sold his land grant from the state of New York to William J. Vredenburgh for 600 acres in Lot 71 of the township of Cincinnatus in present-day Cortland County.
  • Van Cleef survived an Indian attack in the settlement, in which his leg was injured.
  • Vreedenburgh, who purchased Van Cleef’s land grant, became Seneca County’s first Assemblyman and State Senator.

Key Takeaway

Lawrence Van Cleef played a significant role in Seneca Falls’ history. He was the first permanent white settler in the area and helped establish the town as a center for water transportation and boat building. His legacy and contributions to Seneca Falls are still remembered today, with his historic poplar tree cane pieces preserved in the Seneca Falls Historical Society.


Lawrence Van Cleef’s story is a testament to the courage and resilience of the early settlers in America. He fought for his country during the American Revolution and went on to establish a thriving settlement in Seneca Falls. His impact on the town’s history continues to be felt today and provides a unique insight into the founding of one of New York State’s most significant communities.

Denk Liu
Denk Liu
Denk Liu is an honest person who always tells it like it is. He's also very objective, seeing the situation for what it is and not getting wrapped up in emotion. He's a regular guy - witty and smart but not pretentious. He loves playing video games and watching action movies in his free time.

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