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Roswell Hart and Romanta Hart (part 1)

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199 S Plymouth Ave

1936 photo, perhaps by Walter Cassebeer. Courtesy Landmark Society of Western New York

There are two men with the same last name—Roswell Hart (1773-1824) and Romanta Hart (1800-1877)—who moved from Connecticut to Brighton, New York in the early Nineteenth Century. I am uncertain how they are related if, in fact, they are. Father-son? Uncle-nephew? They could be cousins or even siblings, despite being born a generation apart. Both remained in Brighton, where they died, but their children grew up and moved across the Genesee River into the Third Ward, often marrying children of our city’s Founding Families, acquiring great wealth and high social standing. When researching the second generation of our ward, the Harts are ever-present.

For some time, I have been curious about this family. Recently a man wrote to me through the Corn Hill website asking what I knew about the house at 199 South Plymouth on the southwest corner of Troup Street. It is known as the Hart-Wiltsie House. His grandmother had lived there in the 1960s and he was curious about its history. Last year, Cynthia Howk of the Landmark Society of Western New York sent me a 1936 photo of the house, urging me to use it in the Gazette. The time had come for me to learn more about that building and get into some serious Hart Family research. I immediately came across a news item in the Democrat and Chronicle, January 30, 1877, written by a witty Nineteenth Century copywriter.

“John Carroll, arrested for stealing two pairs of boots from Charles E. Hart, was examined in the police court yesterday. It is expected that during the next ninety days John will frequently wish himself in his neighbor’s shoes.”

I know nothing more about Mr. Carroll, but I can’t help wondering just where those boots might have traveled before the theft occurred. Charles Edward Hart was an adventurer and entrepreneur who speculated in mining and oil fields across the United States. In 1866 he moved into the aforementioned house that would remain in the family for the next 72 years.

Charles, first child of Romanta Hart and Ruth Cowles, was born in Brighton. Ruth’s parents, Sylvester Cowles and Sarah Northrup, came to the area from Berkshire County, Massachusetts at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. A daughter was born in 1802, a year before Nathaniel Rochester purchased the One-Hundred-Acre Tract on the west bank of the Genesee. A second daughter arrived in 1804 but each of those girls survived for only a year. A son was born in 1805 and daughter Ruth came along in 1807, five years before the first lot was sold in Rochester’s Tract. One more child, a boy, would be born in 1814. By then, three years before Rochesterville was incorporated as a village, the population of Brighton was 2,860.

Sylvester Cowles died in 1825 and is buried in Brighton Cemetery. It is not known when Romanta Hart, born on March 19, 1800, at Hartford County, Connecticut, first arrived in Brighton but, thanks to the records of the Daughters of the American Revolution, we know he married Ruth Cowles in 1826. Charles was born on September 13, 1827.

In February of 1849, hearing reports that gold had been discovered in California, twenty-one-year-old Charles headed west and became part of that great wave of “forty-niners” seeking their fortune. According to his obituary, he worked in mining, farming and merchandising. One story says he was the first person to plant fruit trees along the shores of San Francisco Bay, trees imported from Rochester.

In 1858, Charles was back in Rochester, which by then had annexed portions of Brighton. He soon married Mary Elizabeth Potter, the daughter of Henry Sayre Potter, an early investor in the Western Union Telegraph Company and its first president. He is the “Potter” who once owned the Hoyt-Potter House where the Corn Hill Neighbors Association maintains its office.

The newlyweds moved to St. Louis, Missouri where Charles worked in real estate and their first child Harriet (Hattie) was born on March 6, 1860. The couple soon returned to Rochester where a son, Howard Mortimer, was born on September 22, 1861. Another girl, Mary, was born in 1864. During these years, the family was living on East Avenue.

Their move to the Third Ward came about in 1866 when Henry S. Potter gave the Plymouth house to his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Potter Hart. Within a year, the two-story house was enlarged to three floors, a square tower was added and mansard roofs covered the building to give it the Second Empire style we see today.

(To be continued)