Buffalo in 1797

Edited by Stephen R. Powell

Some of the narratives of early missionaries indicate that conditions were trying. Jacob Lindley, a missionary of the Society of Friends, made a "religious visit" to the Friends in Canada and to Indians at Buffalo Creek in 1797. On November 11th the journal-entry, in part, is:

"Crossed the great Niagara River, and went on to Buffalo Creek, where were a number of Onondaga Indians, stately sized men. The sight of these poor aborigines always excites sympathy in my heart. On first day, the 12th, a great fall of rain occasioned our remaining stationary, which was trying, more especially as we were within twelve miles of the little meeting at Black Creek, where we had designed to tarry till second day. We have now been traversing these great woods and waters nearly two weeks; in which time, we have not enjoyed one pleasant clear day; and almost every other day there has been some fall either of snow or rain.

"On second-day, the 13th, set out early, and rode four miles to Stony Creek, which overflowed its banks, and the road we had to cross it was but a few perches above very large falls, which had such a tremendous aspect that, on resorting to our reason, and consulting one another, we deemed it most prudent to return to expensive lodgings, at Buffaloe Creek. * * * This day seemed to pass as tardy as a long summer or harvest day. I walked up and down the lake. Many Indian chiefs and warriors, women and children, are on the move to get the British annual presents."

Evidently, Buffalo was not a place of comfort at that time; at least not to Mr. Lindley. Neither was it a place of happy memories to another missionary. Joseph Badger, who "arrived in Buffalo on the 1st of November (1800) and was confined there with a fever 11 days."

An important accession to the little settlement during the year 1796 was Asa Ransom, a silversmith, originally of Sheffield, Massachusetts, but who since 1789 had lived, in Geneva. He brought with him "his delicate young wife and their infant daughter" named Portia, built a log house "near the liberty pole, corner of Main Street and the Terrace," and began the manufacture "of silver trinkets for the Indians." Ransom was "a resolute and intelligent young man," and was "the first to bring into Buffalo the simplest refinements of civilized life." In 1797 his wife gave birth to her second child, a daughter. This daughter, whose Christian name is not recorded, was it seems the first white female child born in Buffalo. She eventually became the wife of Frederick B. Merrill, for long a resident in Buffalo, and one of the early clerks of Niagara County. The Ransom family removed to Clarence Hollow in 1799. Asa Ransom died in 1837, aged seventy years. He was four times sheriff of Niagara County.

Surveying Begins

-In 1797 Robert Morris succeeded in extinguishing the Indian title to the tracts he had sold to the Holland Company. It seems incredible that he should have been able to get such relinquishment of valuable land at "less than a third of a cent an acre, especially in view of the fact that the completion of the transaction meant that the Indians could no longer live by the chase, having no hunting grounds, and must thereafter be dependent upon the white men's benevolence. Possibly they had little conception of the relative value of money, and relied too implicitly upon their advisers. Or possibly the false comfort they found in the bibulous habits taught them by the traders rendered them incapable of clearly estimating the future. Certainly, the morale of the Seneca Indians at Buffalo Creek soon reached a deplorably low level, through intemperance, if it had not already got to that state. In 1800 the Rev. David Bacon, a Connecticut missionary, reached Buffalo on his way to Detroit, and in the following April was again in Buffalo. He wrote:

"The next day we reached Buffalo. As the lake was not open we had to remain there a number of weeks. The town was full of Indians, many of them drunk. There was a large village of them at Buffalo Creek. Red Jacket was the chief. Here Mrs. Bacon and I saw for the first time what were then called wild Indians. We were at first afraid, but in a short time ceased to fear. They were a miserably degraded specimen of human nature. I thought then there was little hope of doing them good by teaching or preaching."


This text is Copyright 2001 all rights reserved by Stephen Powell and buffalonian.com. This electronic text may not be dupicated or used in any manner without written consent of Stephen R. Powell or buffalonian.com

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Indian Title Extinguished

-Ten thousand dollars, which was the sum Morris paid to the Indians for relinquishment of title, could buy much liquor; and the Indians had hitherto had little use for money for aught else. So the agreement was made, and the surveyors were sent in, employees of what became known as the Holland Company, sometimes as the Holland Land Company, but which was not an incorporated company at all, being merely a private syndicate. Owing to constitutional limitations the real owners had to direct their operations through another group of nominal owners. In State records the conveyances by Morris were to a number of individual proprietors of American birth, or naturalization; but these merely acted as trustees for the real owners who were Dutch citizens, and as aliens were not able to hold real property in the State of New York.


"...Ten thousand dollars, which was the sum Morris paid to the Indians for relinquishment of title, could buy much liquor; and the Indians had hitherto had little use for money for aught else."


The New York State Legislature removed this restriction in 1798, soon after which the trustees transferred the Holland Purchase to the real owners, who included Wilhelm Willink, Nicholas Van Staphorst, Pieter Van Eeghen, Hendrick Vollenhoven, Rutger Van Schimmelpennick. Wilhelm Willink, Jr., Jan Willink, Jan Willink, Jr., Jan Gabriel Van Staphorst, Roelif Van Staphorst, Jr., Cornelius Vollenhoven, Henrick Seye, and Pieter Stadnitski. All of these men, however, were apparently not among the original group. Theophilus Cazenove was the first general agent for the owners, and continued in charge until 1799, when he was succeeded by Paul Busti, who had charge until 1824. From that year until the final settlement, John J. Vander Kemp had direction of the affairs of the company.

Preparatory to placing their lands on the market, Mr. Cazenove in 1797 engaged Joseph Ellicott as chief surveyor to begin the survey. Joseph Ellicott had had much experience in such work, notably under his brother, Andrew, "in laying out the City of Washington, preparatory to its becoming the seat of government," his earlier experience, by the way, aiding him in the unusual platting of Buffalo. He came in the fall of 1797, with six or eight assistants, and accompanied by Augustus Porter, who was employed as a surveyor by Robert Morris. In a paper entitled "Reminiscences of Joseph Ellicott" read before the Buffalo Historical Society on December 26, 1864, Ellicott Evans, LL. D., said:

"Mr. Ellicott was selected by their general agent at Philadelphia as the most competent surveyor they could find. He first made the survey of the Company's lands in Western Pennsylvania. He then repaired to the western part of this State and traced the southern line of Lake Ontario, the Niagara River and the borders of Lake Erie, as far as the Pennsylvania line; and in the winter following he repaired to Philadelphia.

"In the spring of 1798, he brought one hundred and fifty hands to assist in laying out the Holland Purchase into townships. In this he was greatly assisted by his younger brother, Benjamin Ellicott, afterwards a Representative for that District in Congress.

"The survey of the Holland Purchase was completed before the year 1800. His reports met with the full approbation of his employers and they appointed him their local agent at Batavia. His contract with the Company bears date November 1, 1800, when he was exactly forty years old."

It is said that "no sooner bad the keen eye of Joseph Ellicott rested on the location at the mouth of Buffalo Creek than he made up his mind that that was the most important position, and he ever after showed his belief by his acts." A clear indication of the value he placed on the site was seen in his negotiations with William Johnston. When asked some years later whether he thought that Buffalo "would ever be larger than Batavia," he replied: "This is to ask whether the local office of the Holland Company or the power of God Almighty is the greater."

The surveying began in earnest in 1798. A part of Mr. Ellicott's force was tinder John Thompson. He left some of his outfit in Buffalo for use in the western part of the survey; the remainder Thompson took on to Williamsburg, on the Genesee, where a surveyor's house had been built. These two points were the first principal stations and depots of the surveyors. However, before the close of 1798, Mr. Ellicott made his principal headquarters at the Transit Line, at a point then known as the Transit Storehouse. After running the east line of the Purchase, Mr. Ellicott spent the greater part of that season, 1798, at Buffalo Creek, which name was now taken to mean the "Lake Erie" hamlet, rather than the Indian village. Joseph Ellicott, however, chose to name the hamlet "New Amsterdam," perhaps by direction of his superior, Mr. Cazenove, who had come from Amsterdam, Holland.

Excerpted from the book: Hill, Henry Wayland, Ed. Municipality of Buffalo, New York, A History. 1720-1923. Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc. New York. Chicago.

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This text is Copyright 2001 all rights reserved by Stephen Powell and buffalonian.com. This electronic text may not be dupicated or used in any manner without written consent of Stephen R. Powell or buffalonian.com