BLACK JOE’S-BUFFALO’S FIRST TAVERN

By Stephen Powell

The sun was setting and darkness was moving in, a total darkness, like the kind you get on a cloudy, moonless night. It was cold too, the kind that makes you feel vulnerable and isolated. All the leaves had fallen off the trees and they made a colorful quilt of reds and yellows on the ground. As the wind kicked up, it made a hissing sound as it whipped through the bare branches in the forest around him. Now Joseph Hodges began to feel the cold down to his bones. He knew it was getting too late in the year to venture into this desolate region but decided to make one more trip anyway. He knew he was running the risk of getting stranded in this area for the winter if the lake below the Falls at Niagara froze over, but he pressed on. At times when the wind was right, he could still hear the falls roaring even though he was some twenty miles to the South. "Just one more mile--they’ll be there, you’ll see," he kept repeating to himself. Finally, after hours of hiking through the forest he came to a clearing by a creek, not far from the shore of the Great Lake Erie.

As Hodges stepped into the center of the clearing, he reached into his pack and brought out a brown clay jug. As his eyes strained in the failing light, he could just make out some manmade dwellings that were oblong in shape at the edge of the clearing. Hodges had heard about these so called Indian "long houses" and was intrigued by their design. He straightened up, took a deep breath, and called out a greeting in the language used by the Seneca Indian Nation. Before long a few men appeared at the edge of the thicket. As they strode forward to greet him he noticed that despite cold, these "red men" (who were Seneca Indians), were not wearing any sort of clothing on their chests. They appeared calm and showed no sign of being cold. Hodges held out the jug to them. The Senecas in turn had never before seen a man with such dark, almost-black skin. One of the Senecas stepped forward holding a pile of furs in his arms and exchanged them for the jug of rum Hodges was holding. To seal the deal they each took a drink from the jug, and parted company. This symbolic gesture was as good as signing a contract in Western New York’s first industry, fur trading. The system used was barter and the currency was liquor. The year was 1789 and the men were standing along the Buffalo Creek just south of the headwaters of the Niagara River (now part of Buffalo).

After many trips into this unsettled region, Joe Hodges decided to stay in the area and build himself a cabin.

spacer

spacer

spacer

spacer
Hodges was quite possibly the first permanent non-Indian settler in what is now Buffalo around 1789. He also ran a tavern out of his dirt floored, bark roofed cabin (which was built like a typical Indian long house but probably much smaller). He continued trading with the Seneca’s and travelers alike for nearly 18 years on that spot. In 1931, Historian Robert W. Bingham in his book "The Cradle of the Queen City, A History of Buffalo" states that Hodges "Built his cabin a little West of the trader’s on the bank of Little Buffalo Creek and married an Indian Maid. This first representative of the colored race in Buffalo is said to have mastered the Seneca language to such a degree that he often found work as an interpreter." At around the same time (or shortly after) Hodges settled here, the Middaugh family opened a tavern closer to the mouth of the Niagara river.

The taverns of pioneer times were not quite what you would expect to see. They were just little dirt floored shacks with rough hewn log timbers for walls, and had no windows. Sawed off tree stumps were used for chairs and taller stumps were used for tables. If you spent the night you slept on the floor in the corner and endured the flea’s and other tiny critters that were a part of every day frontier life.

For drink you had rum and whiskey. No beer was available because it took too long to travel into the area and it would spoil during the voyage. As harsh as things were it was still a lot better than trying to spend the night out of doors. The misquotes, bears, bobcats, and wolves were an ever present danger. This made the frontier tavern an important institution, they were the motels and town meeting halls of their time.

By 1795, more people had settled in the area preferring to build on the high ground called the Terrace (the land between the Marine Midland Center and the Memorial Auditorium). There were less than a dozen or so houses in this tiny frontier village and "Black Joe" as Hodges came to be known, was its first resident.

Historians know of his existence from reading the journals of some of the early travelers that passed through this area. Some did not mention Hodges at all, and only spoke of Middaugh’s Tavern. This could be because Hodges was black and traded mostly with the local Indians. It was not overt racism that obscured him, but rather some other more subtle form of segregation that kept Hodges Tavern from being consistently mentioned. If this is true, Hodges was (arguably) the first of tens of thousands of taverns, bars, and saloons to be built in Buffalo over the past two hundred-eight years. Joe left Buffalo and moved to Malden, Canada in 1807.

All material in this essay is copyright reserved 1997 by Stephen R. Powell




about us | History as News™ | Diaries | home | Shop | Forum | History | Peoples Pages | Photo Gallery | Events
All material on The Buffalonian™ and buffalonian.com is copyright ©1996-2002 all rights reserved. The Buffalonian™ is produced by The Peoples History Coalition.

Internet Services Donated by The Blue Moon Internet Corp