Buffalo and its German Community: Pages 8 -16

Joseph Ellicott

Part I, Chapter 1
The Establishment and Development of Buffalo

Once the Athenian statesman Themistocles was asked if he could play a flute. Themistocles answered that he couldn't but he could envision a small village becoming a large and mighty city. Did Buffalo have one such as Themistocles? When one examines the tremendous rate of growth in the relatively short span of 80 years or so, one tends to feel that the spirit of a man like Themistocles must have guided Buffalo. However in order to remain true to history, the spirit which made Buffalo great is its community, its sense of initiative, and its vitality. Scarcely a hundred years ago scattered huts stood in the place which we know today as the Queen City of the Great Lakes. At one time this land was inhabited by the once-great Iroquois nation. Today in place of those huts we have great buildings which tower into the heavens and beautiful, colorful homes which shelter nearly half a million people.

According to history Robert de la Salle, a clever and ambitious French nobleman, explored the Western New York wilderness with two companions in 1669. In early 1678 he landed with more compatriots at the confluence of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario. Within LaSalle's company was Father Hennepin, the expedition's historian, and two other priests. Above Niagara Falls LaSalle built a dock and there constructed a first ship, called the Griffon (named after the symbol on his coat of arms), which was launched in 1679 in the service of the Catholic Church and to the glory of The Duke of Frontenac, then Governor-General of Canada. With a favorable wind they sailed upriver to Black Rock. Then a strong current hindered their progress and caused a lengthy delay. The Indians watched with great awe and fear. They had never seen such a large vessel before. They called it "The Big Canoe". It was many weeks before the ship could find favorable current and proceed from the shores near Buffalo. The ship could carry 69 tons, accomodate 34 men and bear 7 cannons. On August 7, 1679 a strong Northeast wind arose. They weighed anchor and set the sails. They were accompanied by a favorable breeze. Amid the thunder of cannon fire and the celebratory tones of a Te Deum the ship proudly made its way into Lake Erie.

In astonishment the children of the wilderness stared from the shore and shouted "Gannoron! Gannoron!", which means "Wonderful! Wonderful!"

Both sides of the river, which connected the two lakes, were inhabited by the Cayugas. They called this river the Onniagahra. In September 1687 another Frenchman, the famous Baron La Hontan, travelled the river in a birch canoe. His sharp soldier's eye immediately recognized the military importance of the Buffalo area. He ordered that the area be fortified and named the region Fort Suppose on his map.

Over a century later the buffalo ceased to quench their thirst at the creek and the red man was driven from his hunting ground. It was from these herds which roamed the greenlands that the city received her name. In 1792 there was broad expansion into the Western New York area. During the American Revolution the Continental Congress sold land to settlers from Holland in order to raise money to gain the assistance of the King of France. Even though there was no formal corporation, the new owners called themselves the Holland Land Company. They were the owners of the land upon which Buffalo now sits. The company's offices were in Batavia, the second oldest settlement in Western New York. The oldest settlement was in Canandaigua.

In 1797 Joseph Ellicott was appointed agent and surveyor for the Holland Land Company. He was the younger brother of Andrew Ellicott, Surveyor-General for the United States, whom he assisted with the planning of Washington, D.C. Buffalo was to be his New Amsterdam. In a letter to Theophilus Cazenovia, the first Agent General of the Company stationed in Philadelphia, Ellicott described the area and his vision of it as follows:
"Buildings lay about 60 Ruten from the lake approximately 25 feet above the water level. The lowlands, extending from the Buffalo Creek to the Indian territory, can be transformed into beautiful meadowland with little effort. One enjoys a magnificent view from the higher country. Towards the southwest the eye roams over the lake across the horizon. To the northwest the verdant shores of Niagara and Canada abound. You can look to the south and view the trees which extend over the land of the Company for 40 miles."

Chippewa Street forms the northern boundary, Oneida (Ellicott) Street the eastern limit, Buffalo Creek forms the southern boundary and the New York State Reservation Line, from the foot of Busti Avenue (Genesee Street) to Morgan Street forms the western boundary of New Amsterdam.

Ellicott's own residence was to be between Eagle and Swan Street on Main Street with a semicircular palatial structure. Its piazza would give one an unimpeded view of Niagara, Erie and Main Streets. Later the Streets Commissioner of the new community opposed Ellicott's plan, thus Main Street is the straight thoroughfare we have today. The original plans were returned to the disappointed Ellicott, who relocated himself to Batavia.

To bestow honor, major streets of the future city were named after Ellicott and other members of the Holland Land Company. Just as New Amsterdam became Buffalo in 1808, so in June of 1826 streets were renamed by the legislature.

1. 1000 Ruten = 4.531km.     60 Ruten = .271 km., approximately .169 miles or 300 yards. Return to Text

Main Street was originally called Willinek Avenue; Church Street was Stadnitski Avenue; Niagara Street was Schimmelpennick Avenue; Court Street was Cazenovia Avenue; the lower half of Genesee Street and the upper half of Van Staphorst Avenue came from Ellicott's property. Erie Street was originally Vollenhoven Street. Exchange Street was called Crew Street, Tuscarora became Franklin Street. Cayuga Street became Pearl; Onondaga Street became Washington and Oneida Street became Ellicott Street.

Ellicott's spiritual eye saw the future greatness of the city he was establishing. When he was asked if he believed that Batavia rather than Buffalo could have prevailed, he responded, "that would require that the Agency of the Holland Land Company supercede the omnipotence of God." On another occasion he declared "God made Buffalo and I must attempt to make something out of Batavia."

In 1804 the surveying of New Amsterdam was completed and fifteen plots of land were sold to settlers. The agents of the Holland Land Company wanted to build up the area. As a condition of purchase, the buyers had to build a house on the property. Land was not to be sold for speculation. It would be interesting to know what the cost was to build a house. $140 was paid for the land on which the Mansion House stands. $112 was paid for land east of Washington Street. Plots of land on Seneca Street between Main and Pearl cost $135. Two parcels on the west side of Pearl between Court and Franklin ran for $25 and $45. The farther away one went from Main Street and the Terrance, where the building yards were, the lower the price. Plots on Chippewa Street went for $25.

When Ellicott did his surveying, the Cayuga Indians were already gone. The campfires of the Senecas and the Iroquois still burned. Sagonewatha, their last chief, was known as Red Jacket to the whites. He was a man of vision and reason, jealous of the progress of the whites who chipped away at his territory a little at a time. He had threatened to exterminate the original settlers. One day he met Agent Ellicott in the Tonawanda bog and the two sat together on a tree stump. After a long silence the white man, being well acquainted with the ways of the red man, dared break the silence. "Move over a bit, Tom," Ellicott said to Red Jacket. The request was not heeded and after a moment it was repeated a second time. Sagonewatha continued to press himself against his white companion until Ellicott sat at the edge of the tree trunk. "So why don't you move over a little," asked the Iroquois chief. "There's no room," Ellicott replied. "Maybe now you see," Red Jacket said, "how you pale faces make it for us. First you say move over a little and then you say it again. We've moved back so many times, it's now possible that you may throw us off the world entirely."

Caption under picture on page 12 reads Red Jacket

The Indian prophet was right. The descendents of Red Jacket have long since been cast from this world. They hunt on reservations far away. Only a memorial, constructed by the Historical Society in Forest Lawn Cemetery, serves to remind us of the Iroquois chief.

In 1795 Judge Porter wrote a report on his visit to Buffalo Creek. That report is at the Buffalo Free Library.
"We travelled for two days from Canawangos (now Avon) to Buffalo. At Buffalo Creek there lived a man by the name of Johnson, who was a translator. There were a Dutchman and his family named Middaugh and a trader named Winny."
Middaugh was of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry. His original name was Mittag. When he first arrived he settled near Fort Erie in Canada but soon after resettled on Buffalo Creek. His Iroquois was more fluent than his English. He had a piece of land on the southern shore of the river, on the so-called Island across from the foot of Main Street. He planted corn and potatoes and later built a house. He was a barrelmaker, a profession which he continued to practice for the Indians. He died at a ripe old age in 1822.

In 1808 Niagara County was established, separating from Genesee County. Buffalo became the county seat. Erie County was established in 1821. As the judicial terminus Buffalo attracted people throughout the county and the neighboring areas. Commerce was lively and the growth of the area inspired the residents to confidence. But the joy could not last forever. In June 1812 war broke out between the United States and Great Britain.

Caption under picture on page 13 reads The Old Courthouse

At the time there were about 100 houses in Buffalo, most of which stood on Main Street between Goodell and Exchange Streets. There were approximately 500 residents. The quartering of troops in this region and the expenditure of sums of gold in order to maintain order and provide an armed presence stimulated commerce. Vigorous activity dominated the area. All looked optimistically to the future, but doom was near at hand.

Over the course of the years Buffalo lost her regulars (armed troops) as they left to find employment elsewhere. Only Batavia had a small number left. In December a British strikeforce of 800 men, along with 299 Canadian-Indian supplemental forces, overtook and wasted the entire Niagara region between Lakes Erie and Ontario, then marched against Buffalo. Most of the horrorstruck residents of Buffalo fled with what belongings they could gather into their wagons to face the grim winter cold of the wilderness. Some found shelter northeast of Buffalo in Williamsville, others found it in amicable Indian villages. The sparsely munitioned and poorly disciplined militia scattered with their first sight of the enemy. On the 30th of December Buffalo was plundered and burnt to the ground. Only three buildings survived: the jail, a small stone building on Washington Street near Clinton, and the residence of the Widow St. John on the northeast corner of Washington and Seneca Streets. Thirty residents were killed, forty were wounded, and sixty-nine were captured. When the destruction was complete, the enemy returned to Canada.

In early 1814 some residents began the task of rebuilding after the destruction. New houses were built. The Buffalo Gazette, which first appeared on October 3, 1811 and which had moved its presses to Williamsville before the British advance, happily reported April 15, 1814, "The Village of Buffalo, the premier city gracing Lake Erie, reduced to ashes by the enemy, has raised itself again." With the return of American troops, secured in order to insure against further attack by the British, refugees regained their confidence to return and lent a hand in the rebuilding of a new hometown. On April 10, 1814 General Scott assumed control of the troops in the region. Buffalo became the center of military operations through which trade and commerce flourished. The bloody encounter at Fort Erie on September 17th, in which the resolutely defeated enemy lost all weapons, brought the campaign in this region to an end. In December 1814 the Treaty of Ghent ended the war.

Caption under picture on page 14 reads Buffalo in the Year 1825

In July 1815 the Gazette could report that there were just as many houses standing or under construction as there were destroyed one and a half years earlier. In Black Rock, Buffalo's rival for the eminent position of first harbor, new construction flourished. In the summer of 1816 there was a hard frost which froze the fruits and grains in the surrounding areas. This disaster affected Buffalo intensely. Trade, which had significantly declined with the departure of the troops, diminished even further and eventually came to a standstill. Stagnation occurred and the growth of the region was hindered for five years. Even though gold appeared to be plentiful, many fell into debt which could not be resolved because of the difficult times. One period of economic stagnation followed another, times became even more difficult than the time following the invasion in 1813. In 1820 2093 souls inhabited Buffalo. The reintroduction of plans to build a canal linking Lake Erie to the Hudson, either ending at Buffalo or Black Rock, helped bring about improvement. Buffalo profited more because it became the terminus for the canal. On August 9, 1823 the work started on the western stretch of the canal. It was a cause for celebration. On October 26, 1825 the Erie Canal was opened. This had great significance for Buffalo and New York State. In 1830 Buffalo proudly proclaimed on the census that it had 8653 inhabitants.

The 28th of May 1832 can be recognized as the birthday of the City of Buffalo. On that day the government of the community came into existence. On April 20, 1832 the Legislature of the State of New York passed an act incorporating the city. On May 28th of the same year the city officially came to life. The urban boundries ran north from North Street and east from Jefferson Avenue. These were divided into five wards. There wasn't yet a westside. Black Rock, Cold Spring, Buffalo Plains, the "Hydraulics" were considered outlying suburbs.

The City Council had ten aldermen, two from each ward. They chose the mayor, the treasurer, the city clerk, the city's lawyer, surveyor and streets commissioner. The new city fathers sat for the first time on May 28 and elected Dr. Ebenezer Johnson Mayor.

Caption under picture on page 15 reads Buffalo in the Year 1850

As one might see from a directory published in 1831, Buffalo had six churches, two banks, an insurance company, ten general stores at the docks, a library with 700 books, and 10 city and private schools. In 1842 the first railroad was built in Buffalo. According to the United States Census in 1840 there were 18,213 residents; in 1850 there were 42,261; in 1860, 81,126; 1870, 117,774; 1880, 155,134; 1890, 255,664; 1900, 352,587; 1910, 423,715.

The first trolley came to Buffalo in 1860 and was built on Main and Niagara Streets. Despite the great financial crises in the years between 1870 - 1880 there was significant increase in the number of railroad networks. The construction of the Buffalo and Jamestown Railway line promoted commerce between Buffalo and the southern tier. In 1877 the line went into the possession of the Erie Railroad. The development of Buffalo, its grand buildings, its enormous number of large and small enterprises, its exports to countries throughout the world, and its factories, employing more than 67,000 workers, its instructional and educational facilities, its excellent hospitals and welfare establishments, its magnificent cemeteries, wonderful parks, many fine residences, its art museums and churches, etc. we will tell you about in the upcoming chapters.

Caption under picture on page 16 reads The Legislature Building

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Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks
Revised June 12, 2005