Beginnings - The Village of Buffalo - 1801 to 1832
By J. Henry Priebe Jr.
The Village of Buffalo was originally surveyed and laid out for the Holland Land Company in 1804 by Joseph Ellicott. The Holland Land Company had purchased Western New York bounding on the Genessee River to the east, Lake Ontario to the North, the Niagara River and Lake Erie to the west and Pennsylvania to the south.
The 1832 City of Buffalo Directory states that "The village was originally surveyed and laid out, by the Holland Land Company, to whom the site belonged in 1801; and the settlement may be said to have begun in the following year."
The earliest map we have been able to locate is of Joseph Ellicott's 1804 survey which shows the today's downtown area as the original Village of Buffalo and looks quite similar to present-day downtown.
We believe that the accounts in the 1832 City of Buffalo Directory may be based upon preliminary surveys and not the finished survey of 1804. According to Buffalo Architechture: A Guide, "Joseph Ellicott - brother of Pierre L'Enfant's assistant in the laying out of Washington, D.C. - came to parcel out in 1797 the enormous tract of land that had been purchased by the Holland Land Company". This illustrates the magnitude of effort required in the survey project, at least seven years of toil in laying out the basic fabric of Western New York. Much of his work endures to this day, for example, the pattern of streets radiating out from the Niagara Square hub, most of the city's main thouroughfares.
The village grew relatively slowly until the war of 1812 when Buffalo became a "Military Resort." According to the 1832 City Directory "In December, 1813, the place was entered by the British and Indians, and every building but two was burnt." Many citizens were taken as captives to Montreal and most of the rest fled to avoid capture. The loss and destruction of property was borne by the individuals more than the village itself as Buffalo had yet to become incorporated with the attendant municipal responsibilities and facilities.
Text - Copyright 1997 J. Henry Priebe Jr.
In 1821 Erie County was carved out of Niagara County and Buffalo became the county seat. Buffalo had officially been a part of Niagara County since 1808.
The rebuilding of Buffalo was a painstaking process due to several factors, not the smallest of which was a lack of convienient transportation from the remote markets. Modest attempts at rejuvenation were made once peace was declared, but it was not until westward progress of the Erie Canal, then known as "The Grand Canal," in approximately 1819, brightened the city's prospects and encourged further settlement. A western destination for the canal had not been determined and Buffalo sorely wanted to be chosen over Black Rock.
Great effort was expended to render the mouth of Buffalo Creek navigable so that vessels would not have to tie up in Black Rock, Buffalo's earliest rival in commerce. A loan of $12,000 was procured from the state and additional private donations were used to re-engineer nature. The mouth of the harbor was moved 60 rods to the south in an ingenious plan by Samuel Wilkeson to thwart the sand bar which continually rebuilt itself, thus preventing an open channel for navigation. The Erie Canal wouldn't help Buffalo if the vessels didn't have a harbor to use and everyone knew it. Near the end of the project a torrential storm threatened to undo everything. Wilkeson rallied the villagers and in a tremendous community effort they worked tirelessly to direct the rushing waters of the swollen Buffalo Creek to their advantage. The creek itself carried the scores of tons of earth into the lake and Buffalo Harbor was born.
Buffalo could now compete with Black Rock for the honor of being the Erie Canal's westernmost terminus. General Peter Porter, Black Rock's champion, was an eloquent statesman, but Buffalo had a solid advantage in the fact that it was situated higher on Lake Erie while Black Rock was on the Niagara River at a considerably lower elevation. In the days when manual labor was the only power available for excavation projects this was a much greater concern. General Porter argued persuasively while Wilkeson, though less of a statesman, conveyed the sensibility of terminating the canal at Buffalo. When the canal commissioners left the Eagle Tavern and the area in 1822 they had given the people of the area the impression that Buffalo had the edge. That winter the decision was final, Buffalo was to have the Erie Canal!
What this meant in the long run was that the Village of Buffalo would become the City of Buffalo and Black Rock would eventually be absorbed, but not until another 32 years had passed and some severe resentment by Black Rock citizens had finally subsided.
The Village of Buffalo was incorporated in 1822. Its government was administered by a President and board of trustees.
In 1825 both the reciept of federal monies in compensation for the 1813 destructions and the completion of the Erie Canal to Buffalo helped to ensure the needed future expansion of this small village.
Buffalo now had an excellent harbor for the many wharves storehouses and supporting facilities which quickly sprang up. The Grand Canal had brought great prosperity to the small community which then began to grow in leaps and bounds.
Because of the navigable Great Lake Erie and "Clinton's Ditch" Buffalo became the largest grain handling port in the world. Buffalo truly was the gateway to the west.
By 1832 Buffalo had banks and insurance companies, gaudy houses and even a water works project to take over for "Water John" who had been trundling a horse cart with potable water around town for years. There were even a few local breweries which was the beginning of a local brewing tradition which was to endure until 1972.
Buffalo had a very bright future indeed, far too bright to remain a mere village. April 20th, 1832 Governor Enos T. Throop approved the charter of the City of Buffalo.
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