Henry B. Gibson


American Biographical Notes
Portraits of Prominent Pioneers
Pioneers of Utica
History of Ontario County Biography
Canandaigua Sixty Years Ago
Centennial Celebration, July 4, 1876

American Biographical Notes, p. 161

GIBSON, HENRY B., native of Washington co., N.Y.; in 1803, he was a clerk in Utica; in 1809, teller of the Manhattan Branch Bank of that place, and three years later of the Bank of Utica; after carrying on for six years a successful mercantile business in N.Y., he was appointed in February, 1820, cashier of the Ontario Bank at Cannandaigua; this post he held until the expiration of the charter Jan., 1856, having acquired reputation as a banker, and amassed a large property; his death occurred Nov. 20th, 1863, at the age of 81.

Portraits of Prominent Pioneers
Ontario County Times, December 7, 1910

A Noted Banker -- Early Canandaigua -- Sketch of His Career -- His Portrait in Oil Added to the Court House Gallery

The early bankers, Mr. Henry B. Gibson and Mr. Thomas Beals, were among the most important and interesting characters in early Canandaigua. They were both men of high business ability and unquestioned integrity, but they had peculiarities of manner and speech taht will be long remembered. Stories illustrating these peculiarities and also their somewhat eccentric but always prompt and fair ways of doing business are current in the community. Of Mr. Beals, whose portrait has long been a feature of the Court House collection, the Times has heretofore published a sketch. Until this week the gallery has been without a portrait of Mr. Gibson.

This lack has been supplied through the action of Mr. Livingston Lansing, who is a grandson of the famous banker and who is now living at his home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario Canada. Responding to an editorial in The Times, which called attention to the fact that the Court House collection was lacking portraits of several men prominent in the early history of the village, Mr. Lansing presented to the County Historical Society the handsome oil portrait of Mr. Gibson in his posession with the suggestion that it be turned over to the custodians of the Court House and added to the collection which is hung there. The transfer was made at the meeting of the Board of Supervisors last week Tuesday, and the portrait has since been given a place on the walls of the County Court room.

Henry B. Gibson was born in Reading, Pa., April 13, 1783. When nine years old he moved with his father, Mr. John Gibson, and his family to Saratoga, where he received his education. He began his business life at the age of sixteen years in Cooperstown, as the clerk of Judge Cooper, the father of the celebrated novelist of whom it is relat4ed he was a youthful associate nd always retained affectionate recollection.

Later he became a resident of Utica, acting as a clerk in a country store there for a time and later as teller in a bank. The first great change in his life came through his marriage with a daughter of Watts Sherman, then a banker in Utica. This took place December 9, 1812, and resulted in Mr. Gibson's forming a partnership with Mr. Sherman and later his removal to New York city, where he remained in business till 1820, when he became a resident of Canandaigua.

Mr. Gibson had then acquired a fortune of about $30,000, but an invitation to become cashier of the Ontario Bank at Canandaigua, appealed to his tastes and he came here to take up the management of a financial institution which had been established in 1813 and conducted on lines that contributed neither to its own success nor to the formation of correct business habits among its patrons.

At this time he was 38 years old, in the prime of a manhood of notable mental and physical activity, and he delighted in the task of straightening out the tangled affairs of the bank and educating the people in the proper method of doing business. His standards of banking were very high, and it was a maxim of his that "if any business is done in Heaven it is done on banking principles."

The late Dr. Clarke, in one of his papers on "Canandaigua Sixty Years Ago," published in The Times, related this incident showing Mr. Gibson's methods with customers. "He gave his customers to understand from the first tht every paper presented at his bank for discount must be drawn by a good man with an indorser of unquestionable responsibility, and that when a note was due it must be paid promptly and exactly. Soon after he began business here, one of the old customers called with a good note which was readily discounted. It happened that it fell due on Sunday and he called at the bank and said to Mr. Gibson: 'I have a note here payable next Sunday, will it make any difference if I don't pay it till Monday."

"No, no," said Mr. Gibson, speaking in his rapid way, "It won't make any difference with me; it may make a -- sight of difference with you though!"

The charter of the Ontario Bank expired in 1856, and as the time approached Mr. Gibson put the business in shape to meet the most rigid scrutiny. Every claim had been paid, every stockholder and depositor had received his dues, and without resort to speculation or other questionable use of the funds entrusted to him he could point with honest pride to the fact that his little fortune of $30,000 had been swelled through energy and wise management to a clean million of dollars.

Upon the opening of the Rochester and Auburn railroad, in 1840, Mr. Gibson was elected president of the company and its financial business was conducted through his bank. It is said that he took great pride in the operation of the road and gave it much personal attention. He was pretty sure to be on hand at the sttion at five o'clock in the afternoon when trains from the east and west passed here. When they were on time he was delighted and would exclaim "Wonderful, wonderful! two trains, one from Chicago and one from New York, meet here at the very minute. I can believe anything now, anything of the future; there is nothing that railroad engineering cannot accomplish." He had the prophetic eye.

Mr. Gibson was a strong temperance man, abominated tobacco and disliked whiskers. He was as non inclined to refused credit to a stranger who possessed the last mentioned appendages as to a man under the influence of liquor.

Upon the winding up of the affairs of the bank, in 1856, Mr. Gibson bought the building in which it was located, just south of the Congregational church, and thereafter made it in home until his death on November 20, 1863, in the 81st year of his age.

The Pioneers of Utica, p.274-5

The Henry B. Gibson just spoken of as teller under Mr. Hunt, and who afterwards became himself a banker of eminence, had been already some years in Utica, in the position of clerk. He was born in Reading, Pa., April 13, 1783. When nine years old he moved with his father, John Gibson, to Saratoga, N.Y., where he received his principal education. Finding that he excelled in mathematical studies and not in learning Latin, he determined on being a merchant. His business life he began at the age of sixteen, at Cooperstown, as a clerk of Judge Cooper, the father of the novelist, and with the novelist himself he was a youthful associate.

Thence he came to Utica as a clerk of Hugh Cunningham. In 1805 he was employed in the store of Watts Sherman, and in 1809 he was a writer for Francis A. Bloodgood, in the office of the county clerk. He had a quickness of perception and a corresponding quickness of action that were quite uncommon, and to these were added undeviating industry, excellence of judgment, and an integrity beyond suspicion. These were the qualities which, when the Manhattan Bank was put in operation, secured him the position of teller.

Three years later, when the Bank of Utica was organized, he followed his principal and became teller of the new institution. While here, it was his practice to accomodate persons coming to the bank for a renewal of their notes, by loaning them from his own purse the money they needed to take up their former ones, without which liquidation the bank would not give them further credit. Mr. Hunt objected to the practice, and a disagreement ensued, which eventually led to the resignation of Mr. Gibson.

Rejoining Mr. Sherman, he went with him to New York in the spring of 1813. There as merchants they carried on an unusually successful business, having Alexander Seymour as their associate and representative at Utica. In this firm, and after the death of Mr. Sherman, in other connections, he remained in the city, until 1820, and had already acquired a property of $30,000, when a cashier being wanted for the Ontario Bank at Canandaigua, he was called to the position.

To retrieve its affairs, he removed to Canandaigua, assumed the duties and continued to perform them until the expiration of the charter in 1856. In this position it was not long before he gained a wide spread reputation, and became, in the opinion of A.B. Johnson*, "the most uniformly successful country banker the State has produced." His personal fortune, which was not the result of hazardous adventuring, but the accumulation of a long and busy life, amounted at his death to more than a million dollars.

Yet Mr. Gibson was not, as might be presumed, a cold and crafty man. He was of an ardent temperament, impulsive in his kindness and in his displeasure, artless and open in his intercourse, and tender though hasty in his feelings.

The Gibson Garden

The Gibson Gardener

He filled also other posts of trust and honor, having been president of the Auburn & Rochester Rail Road Co., and after the consolidation, a director of the N.Y. Central.

He lived six months beyond the age of eighty, and died November 20, 1863. His wife, to whom he was united on the 9th of December, 1812, was Sarah, eldest daughter of Watts Sherman. His surviving children are a son and three daughters, of whom one married Watts Sherman 2d, nephew of the preceding, and late of the firm of Duncan, Sherman & Co., another, Henry L. Lansing, formerly of Utica, and now of Niagara, Canada.

*  A. B. Johnson, Businessman, Banker, and His Treatise on Banking, 1849, in Language and Value, Greenwood Press, October, 1968.

History of Ontario County Biography, p. 487

Henry B. Gibson. This distinguished early citizen of Canandaigua was born in Reading, Penn, April 13, 1783. His father was John Gibson, of Irish ancestry, who removed to Saratoga, N.Y., when Henry B. was nine years of age. The son's education was principally obtained in Saratoga, a career at the bar having been designed for him by his parents; but his studies developed an unusual natural aptitude for mathematics and an inclination toward commercial life which finally determined his occupations for life. He accordingly left home at sixteen years of age for Cooperstown, where he entered the employ of the leading merchant of the place, Judge Cooper, father of James Fenimore Cooper, the famous novelist, who was Mr. Gibson's lifelong friend.

After a period in the capacity of clerk, he sought a broader field by removal to Utica about 1808 with Mr. Hugh Cunningham, one of the early merchants of that village. This connection continued only a short time, when Mr. Gibson accepted employment in the county clerk's office under Francis A. Bloodgood, until 1812, when he was appointed teller in the Bank of Utica. This position he soon resigned, owing to some minor disagreement with the cashier, Washington Hunt. Mr. Gibson had already and thus early in his life set his mind fully and with characteristic determination upon becoming a successful man of business, and he clearly saw the road that must inevitably be traveled to that goal. His passing years were noted for unflagging industry, exceeding frugality for one at his time of life, and those personal habits of temperance in all things which he practiced to the end of his life. His small savings he early made to contribute to his earnings by loaning them in small amounts, evincing in such transactions the germs of the great business sagacity he afterwards displayed.`

In the year 1802, Watts Sherman, who afterwards became Mr. Gibson's partner in law, formed a partnership in mercantile business in Utica with Arnold Wells (as we learn from a history of that city lately edited by Dr. M.M. Bagg).

Mr. Sherman was one of the pioneers of Utica, locating there in 1795, and for a time working as a cabinet-maker, but afterwards becoming a merchant. He was from Newport, Rhode Island, and descended from an old and prominent family. Mr. Sherman was more ambitious for advancement than his partner and they soon separated, Mr. Sherman largely extending his operations. He was one of the most prominent men in founding the first glass works there, with the factory at Vernon and was one of the directors of the company. Under date of May, 1813, he informed the public that he had taken into partnership Henry B. Gibson and Alexander Seymour, under the firm name of Sherman, Gibson & Co. The junior member of this firm remained and carried on the business in Utica, while Mr. Sherman and Mr. Gibson went to New York city and established a wholesale house.

Meanwhile and on December 9, 1812, only a few months prior to the formation of the business partnership just described, Mr. Gibson formed a still more intimate relation with the family of his partner by marrying his daughter, Miss Sarah.

Mr. Gibson's business operations in New York continued until 1819, and with reasonable success for that period. At the end of that time, he found himself the possessor of about $30,000, a considerable fortune in those early days when the millionaires of the country were very few in number. By the year 1813 the Ontario Bank was founded in Canandaigua, with many of the leading men of that section included in its direction. It had started under apparently favorable auspices; had erected in 1813 a large and imposing bank building, still standing on Main Street, and entered into competition for the banking business of what is now Western New ork. But its affairs did not prosper as had been anticipated and it was determined to change to some extent the management. Mr. Gibson's reputation as a skillful and prudent financier had preceded him to Ontario County, and indeed was more or less known through his New York commercial connections throughout the State. The result was that he was invited to accept the cashiership of this bank, which he did and entered upon his duties in 1820. It is more than probable that his acceptance of this office in a bank located in a rural community, where the actual payment for his services could not possibly approach in amount what he might reasonably hope to gain in business in the metropolis, was prompted to a large extent by his predilection for that highest of all commercial occupation, the conduct of a bank and the possibilities thereby opened for the exhibition of financial skill and large financial transactions. Mr. Gibson attacked the task before him of placing the affairs of the Ontario Bank upon a foundation that would commend it to the business community and secure the confidence of depositors, with the utmost vigor and all of his accustomed industry. That he was from the first and during all of his long connection with the institution eminently successful, is only another evidence of his thorough fitness for such a post and his consummate ability as a financier; while his personal characteristics were such as to win for him in all business circles the utmost confidence.

This unbounded confidence was of such a character that in the minds of many he came to be considered a special favorite of fortune, and it was a common expression that every operation in which he took an interest could not fail. The calmer judgement of later years defined the elements of his success more clearly and it was seen that success followed his undertakings wholly because he had the judgement, foresight and sagacity to see from the beginning the sure results of following certain well known business methods; that he was successful because he deserved to be on account of his industry, shrewdness, integrity and rigid adherence to the principles of temperance, the latter being always kept in view by him. His bank became one of the best known and most successful in the interior of the State, while through it and his other extensive operations he amassed one of the largest fortunes of the time outside of the great business centers of the country.

He held the office of county clerk from 1843 to 1849. He felt a deep interest in the early railroads and gave them practical aid; was president of the Auburn and Rochester Road and after the consolidation which brought into existence the New York Central he held the office of director.

His death took place in Canandaigua on the 20th of November, 1863. Mrs. (Sarah Sherman) Gibson died June 28, 1881. They had nine children, three of whom were sons; one of the latter died in infancy. His daughter, Catherine O. Gibson, married in 1838 Henry Livingston Lansing, and is the only one of the nine children now (1893) surviving. She resides in the old Ontario Bank Building in Canandaigua, which had been converted into a residence.

History of Ontario County, edited by George S. Conover, compiled by Lewis C. Aldrich, 1893]

Canandaigua Sixty Years Ago, XXVII. Some of the Old Bankers
Dr. N.T. Clark

At the time of which I write there were three chartered banks in Canandaigua, the Ontario Bank, the Utica Branch Bank, and the Ontario Savings Bank, which were under the management respectively of Henry B. Gibson, H. K. Sanger, and Thomas Beals. The Ontario Bank has been in operation since 1813 under the charge of William Kibbe, who was succeeded in 1821 by Mr. Gibson. Mr. Kibbe was a most excellent man, but his training had not been such as to give him any particular fitness for successful banking. He made the bank emphatically an accomodation institution, lending money to those who wanted it, payable at their own convenience, and if a note should become due when the borrower had no money but had produce, he would accept the produce at the market price and count it as cash. In fact he made the bank an exchange office, where the work was that of barter and not of banking. The result of this was that the affiars of the new bank got into a confused and troubled state which treatened bankruptcy.

For the purpose of facilitating bank exchanges at that time, there was established at Utica a Canandaigua Branch Bank, and the Utica Bank established here a Utica Branch; and as Utica and Canandaigua were at that time the principal commercial centers, there being no bank at Geneva, it was a great convenience to these principal banks to have branches thus located. Banking business then was quite unlike that of to-day. These banks both issued their own currency, and being the only banks at first to furnish curency for this section of the State, their bills circulated very generally. It being the object of a bank to keep its money in circulation so that it might continue to draw interest, the banks were glad to send their money off as far as possible, and so loans to drovers, grain buyers, and travelers were always preferred.

Now it would always happen that there would be paid in to the Ontario Bank, for instance, more or less of Utica money, and so at Utica there would be paid in Ontario Bank money, and as each bank was required to redeem its own money, at given times, for instance every Saturday, this could be done at home by simply going over to the branch bank and transacting the business through it the same as at the parent bank. For instance, if the Ontario Bank should find that it had $4,000 of Utica money it would send an officer across the way to the Utica Branch, and if at the Branch $5,000 of Ontario money should be found the exchange could be made and the Ontario Bank would be indebted $1,000 to the Utica Bank, which must be paid in proper funds. The same would take place at Utica, so that while great convenience in making exchanges would result, there would be collected at the branches funds of the parent banks for circulation, large sums of money far from home.

After Mr. Kibbe had served eight years as cashier of the Ontario Bank, a successor was found in Mr. Gibson, who had been for some time a clerk in the Utica Bank, and had shown great skill and knowledge in banking business. He was at this time 38 year old. He had had some experience in a New York bank, had also acted as a clerk in a mercantile establishment in Utica, was a man of most temperate habits, of great integrity of character, and had been trained to the most exact business methods under the cashier of the Utica Bank. He was also a man of wonderful mental and physical activity. It is said of him that when a clerk in the store at Utica he ran a race through Genesee street with two Indian chiefs, who were brought up from Long Island for the purpose, and handsomely beat them both. This agility of movement continued through his whole life.

After the charter of the bank had expired in 1856, he purchased the bank property where the bank had always been located, and wished me to come down and stake it out for him. He went around the lot with me and when running across the west end we came to a board fence four boards high. He put his hands on the top board and vaulted handsomely over it, and turned to me with a triumphant air and exclaimed: "Do you think Mr. Greig could do that?" He was then past his three score and ten but his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.

When Mr. Gibson took hold of the bank he found he had a double task before him. He must first straighten the tangled affairs of the bank and then he must educate the people up to a proper method of doing business. His idea of banking was very high, and it was a trite maxim of his that "if any business is done in Heaven it is done on banking principles."

He gave his customers to understand from the first that every paper presented at his bank for discount must be drawn by a good man with an indorser of unquestionable responsibility, and that when a note was due it must be paid promptly and exactly. Soon after he began business here, one of the old customers called with a good note which was readily discounted. It happened that it fell due on Sunday and he called at the bank and said to Mr. Gibson: "I have a note here payable next Sunday, will it make any difference if I don't pay it till Monday."

"No, no," said Mr. Gibson, speaking in his rapid way, "It won't make any difference with me, it may make a -- sight of difference with you though!"

Mr. Greig was for a long time president of the bank, and being at one time in want of some money, went to the bank with a note drawn by himself and asked for the money on it. "You want money on this note with no indorser?" siad Mr. Gibson. "Well you can't have it until you bring it here with a good indorser." If a note due was paid with money sent by a friend or messenger, and it lacked a cent of the true amount the note would be protested on the spot unless the friend advanced the cent.

I remember that once a friend sent by me the money to pay a note, which was correct as to amount, but a dollar bill was thrown out by the teller as counterfeit. I said to him: "What is to be done? it is no business of mine." "Do as you please," said Mr. Gibson, "if it is not paid it will be protested." I have only to say that the note was paid and the protest avoided.

Mr. Gibson's pride was to have a model bank, and in a few years he had one, by the most strict and exact management, and before he had been cashier ten years the bank was paying a five per cent semi-annual interest, below which I think it never fell in its history.

Mr. Gibson was a man of great peculiarities of character. He held in utter abomination whiskey, tobacco, and whiskers. He used to say that he never bought a pint of spiritous liquor in his life, or used tobacco in any form, and the story goes that once a well dressed stranger came into his bank with a note for $1000, bearing the names of men of unquestioned soundness; but his face was covered with whiskers and Mr. Gibson refused to cash the note. The gentleman left the bank, and Mr. Gibson thought perhaps he had given too much sway to his prejudice, and hurried into the street to make some inquiry as to the stranger, hoping in some way to recover what he had apparently lost. He found that the stranger was a prominent business man of Livingston country, and he made up his mind that if he could get hold of him again he would loan him the money, notwithstanding his bearish aspect. But the stranger sought his accomodation at a bank where whiskers were not at a discount.

Upon the opening of the Rochester and Auburn railroad in 1840, Mr. Gibson was elected President, and Charles Seymour Treasurer, and its financial business was transacted at the Ontario Bank. Mr. Gibson took great pride in the operations of the road and was pretty sure to be present when the 5 p.m. trains from the east and west came in. The employees of the road, as they saw the President coming, would eject the vile weed from their mouths or pocket their lighted pipes, for fear they might offend him on whom their living depended, and no man who drank spirituous liquors waws allowed in the service of the road.

There was nothing that delighted Mr. Gibson more than a large transaction nicely and promptly done. Happening once to be in the bank, Mr. Gibson said to me: "What do you think the bank has done this morning? It has cashed a check drawn by Mr. Seymour of $30,000; pretty good morning's work, isn't it?"

Track behind Henry B. Gibson's house

When trains came promptly to time he was delighted, but if they were behind he would walk the platform keeping time with his little shrill, disturbed whistle, showing that his mind was ill at ease, and that after all a railroad could not be run with the precision and smoothness of the Ontario Bank. When they came in promptly on time, he was all alive with emotion and would exclaim, "Wonderful, wonderful! two trains are from Chicago and one from New York, meet here at the very minute. I can believe any thing now, any thing of the future; there is nothing that railroad engineering cannot accomplish." But he saw only the beginning.

Address Delivered at the Centennial Celebration, July 4, 1876
J. Albert Granger

Henry B. Gibson, whose name for years was but another word for unshaken and unshakable integrity and business ability, came to this place in 1821, being called here by the stock-holders of the Ontario Bank, the affairs of which institution were in considerable trouble at that time. Previous to this, leaving his native place, Rading, Penn., he had at one time been the senior partner of the firm of Gibson & Sherman in New York City; at another attacted to a bank in Utica; and at the time of his leaving the city, was in the Manhattan Bank. It did not require a lengthened period for Mr. Gibson to instill new strength and vigor into the feeble life of his charge here, which healthy tone passed out into all the affairs of the community, and revived into increasing activity the business relations and combinations of the village, until this place became noted throughout the state for its wealth and prosperity. To him do we owe this, and we sorely realized it at his death.

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