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  • Diane Janowski

Matthias Hollenback - Elmira’s First Merchant

by Diane Janowski


Matthias Hollenback was born on February 15, 1752, in either Virginia or Jonestown, Pennsylvania, depending on the source. He was my husband’s 4x grandfather. My stepson is named for him.


When Matthias Hollenback was eighteen, he moved from Lancaster County to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Already in his teen years, he was an enterprising merchant and trader.


Image of Matthias Hollenback, circa 1800.

 In 1776, Hollenback was an ensign in the Continental Army (Sixth Company, 24th Regiment Connecticut Militia). He became a lieutenant colonel in the Revolutionary War (1776-1777) and served in battles, including the Battle of Wyoming, also known as the Wyoming Massacre.


A rich hunting and fishing ground, the Chemung River basin was successively occupied by the Algonquin, Andaste, Delaware, and Seneca tribes. Colonial settlement, precluded for decades by Iroquois loyalty to the British, began after the Revolutionary War when settlers began moving up the river from Pennsylvania.


 After the War, “Matt” Hollenback began operating a chain of trading posts along the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers, from Wilkes-Barre to the Genesee region. He established his principal store at Wilkes-Barre and branch stores at Tioga Point (now Athens, Pennsylvania) and Newtown (now Elmira, New York) in 1783 [some sources erroneously cite the year 1790]. It was a favorable location near the confluence of Newtown Creek and the Chemung River near today's Holiday Inn. As a merchant, he sold or traded goods to Native Americans and settlers. Because his trading posts were very popular with the Indians, he was invited to many vital treaty signings. He was well-acquainted with Col. John Butler, Queen Esther, Joseph Brant, and Red Jacket. Red Jacket called Matthias “Great Father.”


Popular items in the posts included guns, gunpowder, blankets, cloth, liquor, and flour. For most of the year, a Durham boat on the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers transported goods from his large warehouse in Wilkes-Barre. When the weather was terrible, Hollenback resorted to using packhorses. As his business grew, so did his need for a larger store. He also built his second Elmira store along the river near High Street.


Hollenback involved partners in each of his ventures. Each partner was in charge of a particular post. The posts received consigned goods invoiced to the partner in charge. Although he did not live in Elmira, Hollenback made frequent visits to audit the post. Enterprising young men such as Daniel McDowell, Stephen Tuttle, John Morris, Jacob Weiss, Thomas Perry, and John Arnot took turns as collaborators or store clerks in the Elmira store.


A true entrepreneur, Hollenback was the largest landholder in northeastern Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. He owned stores, gristmills, sawmills, coal mines, distilleries, and paper mills. In his later years, he was an Associate Judge in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.


Hollenback was Elmira’s earliest merchant and helped start the region's development. His establishment here was the foundation of Elmira’s business structure, and his presence encouraged other merchants to settle here.


Hollenback died on February 18, 1829, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is buried in the Hollenback Cemetery. My husband and I visited the cemetery and his home a few years ago.




 The Elmira Telegram, June 24, 1923





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