Henderson is named for William Henderson, a wealthy land speculator from New York City who bought Lot Number 6 of William Constable's Eleven Towns in 1795 for $1 an acre. Long before white settlement, though, the land between what is now Harbor's End marina and Stony Creek was an important "carry" for Indians, allowing them to avoid paddling their canoes around the treacherous Stony Point. Samuel de Champlain, known as the Father of New France, crossed that "carry" in the fall of 1615 with a band of Huron Indians who wanted to make war on Iroquois in what is now Madison County.
The area now known as Association Island was also a prominent landmark for Indian tribes, and war and peace councils are said to have occurred there. Conflict between the French and the British over extending their possessions in North America (the French and Indian wars) prompted the French Capt. Devilliers to have a fort built on the island in 1746. French Gen. Marquis de Montcalm later commanded it and abandoned it under British pressure in 1758.
David Bronson, who was probably Henderson's earliest white settler, arrived about 1795. After William Henderson had Benjamin Wright survey the land into lots in 1801, the sale of settlement-size parcels commenced. By 1802, settlers included Reuben Putnam, Jesse Hopkins, Mark Hopkins, Lodowick Salisbury, Daniel Spencer, Emory Osgood, Elijah Williams, John Carpenter, Samuel Hubbard, Marvin Danley, Asa Smith, Anthony Sprague, George Clark, Willes Fellows, Jedediah McCumber, Israel Thomas, James Barney, Levi Scofield, Thomas Drury, Calvin Bishop, Robert Farrel, Benjamin Barney, William White, Simeon Porter, John Bishop, Moses Barrett and Andrew Dalrymple.
In its very early days, the center of Henderson, on Stony Creek, was known as Salisbury's Mills after Lodowick Salisbury, and Henderson Harbor was known as Naples, after the city in Italy. It was named such by Calvin Bishop, a Revolutionary War veteran. Bishop Street is named after him. The town of Henderson was formed from the town of Ellisburg on Feb. 17, 1806. The first town meeting was held at Reuben Putnam's home on March 11, 1806, and Jesse Hopkins was chosen the first town supervisor.
Shipping on Lake Ontario, and ship and boat building, were important activities through the beginning of the 20th century, especially at Henderson Harbor and the mouth of Stony Creek. Between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, more than 40 schooners were built at Henderson, especially at the Stony Creek boat works, for trade on the Great Lakes. Despite its lakeside economy, though, Henderson and Henderson Harbor did not have the significant roles in the War of 1812 that neighboring Sackets Harbor did. Perhaps the most significant event for Henderson during the war was the Great Cable Carry from Sandy Creek to Sackets Harbor. That three-day event, which began after the defeat of the British in the Battle of Big Sandy on May 29, 1814, passed through the settlements of Butterville and Smithville on the eastern edge of town. A monument on County Route 75 is one of several in southern Jefferson County commemorating the event. Butterville was the setting for another important event in the town's history. In 1830, Connecticut native Harry Tyler, 29, moved to Butterville. From his home there from 1834 until his death in 1858, he wove the Tyler coverlets that are considered textile treasures today. The American eagle emblem that he wove into a corner of his coverlets was the inspiration for a 60-cent U.S. postage stamp issued in July 2002.
As evangelism and religious fervor spread across upstate New York in the 1820s and 1830s, Henderson played an important role. The greatest of the revivalist preachers of that American era, known as the Second Great Awakening, was Charles G. Finney, who had been raised on a farm in Henderson, Mr. Finney was a young lawyer in the village of Adams when he experienced his spiritual conversion in 1821. Also, the first Mormon meeting place in Jefferson County was in Henderson in the home on Route 3 now owned by the Rhodes family. In the mid-1830s, William Huntington Jr. and his wife, Zina Baker Huntington, then living in the home, became Mormons. They subsequently traveled west with their children and church founder Joseph Smith to Ohio and Missouri in search of a place to settle, facing opposition wherever they went. Two of the Huntingtons' daughters, Zina Diantha and Prescindia, became the sixth and seventh wives of Mr. Smith, who eventually had 28.
In the decades before the Civil War, the Georgian-Style Aspinwall House, built between 1820 and 1830, served as an "underground railroad" station for escaped black slaves from the South seeking freedom in Canada. It was one of the first rest stops out of Oswego County. The former Ralph Johnson home on Snowshoe Point is also believed to have been a stop for runaway slaves. Henderson men did not shirk their duty during the Civil War. A roster of soldiers prepared by the town clerk in 1865 shows that at least 150 Henderson residents served during the war, including more than a dozen who died either of disease or their wounds. Smithville Cemetery is the final resting place for Civil War veteran Frederick R. Jackson, who received the highest honor the United States can give a soldier " the Medal of Honor " for bravery at James Island, S.C., on June 16, 1862. He was raised in Connecticut and served with the 7th Connecticut Volunteers, moving later in life to Smithville to live with a daughter. He died in Smithville in February 1925. Another Civil War tidbit: Dr. Lowery Barney, a Henderson physician noted for his restorative treatment for stomach and digestive troubles, treated Thomas Jonathan Jackson in 1851, a decade before that man would become famous as Confederate Brig. Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Dr. Barney's house is now the home of Merrill and Nina Scott.
The use of Lake Ontario off Henderson began slowly to change from the strictly commercial to the recreational a decade or two after the Civil War, corresponding with the growth in American technology and the middle class. Hotels such as the Hotel DeSnow, Brooklyn House, Highland Park Hotel, Warner's Inn, Tyler's and the Gill House were popular destinations for vacationers by the end of the century. The growth of the sportfishing industry in the Henderson Harbor area corresponds with the growth of the vacation industry. Guides such as the renowned Will Stevens would sail and row fishing parties, including many national and international dignitaries, to fishing grounds off the High Rocks and around Stony and Galloo Islands. Though sportfishing remains a very important activity in Henderson's economy today, the days of the grand vacation at Victorian hotels was in decline by World War II as "tourists" gave way to "summer residents." That phenomenon is due in large part to the widespread availability after World War I of reliable automobiles and decent roads to drive them on. The auto removed the complications of travel arrangements to and from the Henderson lakeshore and meant that visits to the area could be more frequent. By one estimate, more than 1,200 homes have been built along the Henderson lakeshore in the past 50 years. The ascent of the "summer home" phenomenon on the lakeshore, especially in Henderson Harbor, corresponds with the descent of the building conditions and economies of the town's other town hamlets, Henderson and Smithville, half of which is in the town of Adams. The current hamlet of Henderson was chartered as a village July 29, 1882, and by 1889 had 300 residents, but its fortune's dwindled to the point that its residents gave up the village charter in 1932.
The advent of the automobile also prompted a great change in the way children in Henderson were educated. In April 1932, the new Henderson Central School opened, ending the system of "one-room schoolhouses" (more than a dozen existed in town in the mid-1800s ) that had served Henderson children for more than 100 years.
The start of World War II also brought out the patriotic best in Henderson's young men. More than 110 served and at least 6 died, including George Edward Phelps, who died Dec. 7, 1941, aboard the U.S.S. Arizona during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Much of the housing stock in the two hamlets is more than 100 years old, and there are several structures of architectural and historical significance in each hamlet that are vacant and in great need of repair. The 1950s and 1960s saw the destruction of historic buildings in both hamlets.
The agricultural component of the town's economy has always been a vital one, though after World War II it changed steadily from small-scale, subsistence farming to large-scale commercial dairy farming. And though small, self-sufficient family farms existed throughout the town in the 19th century, nearly all of the farms that exist in 2002 are on the east side of Route 3, where the soil is more fertile, tillable and conducive to large-scale dairy and crop farming.
Undoubtedly the most widely recognized building in the town is the Stony Point Lighthouse. On March 3, 1837, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives approved spending for the construction of many lighthouses and navigational beacons, including $3,000 for a lighthouse at Stony Point. The present square tower was built in 1869 and was cared for by keepers until 1947, when the light was converted to an automatic system. Mial Eggleston was the last keeper of the Stony Point Lighthouse, which was sold by the U.S. government in 1960 and has been a private residence since then.