Origin of the name 'Buffalo'
Buffalo, NY
By Nancy Blumenstalk Mingus
Excerpts from
Buffalo: Good Neighborts, Great Architecture,
by Nancy Blumenstalk Mingus. Pub. by
Arcadia Publishing 2003, pp. 9-11

The derivation of the name continues to be a discussion point among residents and historians.

The earliest documented use of the name Buffalo Creek was in an essay called "Narrative of the Captivity of the Gilbert Family," dating either to 1780 or 1782. The 1784 treaty with the Iroquois Confederacy also uses the name Buffalo Creek, as do two other treaties in 1789 and 1794.

No one argues that the original settlement, and later the city, was named for the creek on which it was located, but how that creek got its name is hotly disputed.

The wild buffalo theory: The most common theory is that the creek was named for the wild buffalo that watered on it and ate at the nearby salt lick. [It] is likely that buffalo did in fact roam here until the mid 1700s. However, this doesn't mean this is where the creek got its name, because settlers would not have known of the earlier existence of buffalo when naming their settlement.

Mispronunciation theory: Another common theory is that the creek's name came from mispronunciation or misinterpretation of an Indian word. This seems unlikely because, though no one can agree on the exact Indian word or its pronunciation, it is overwhelmingly clear that the translation meant "place of the basswood," for the dense basswood lining the creek. And the words themselves -- "Te-u-shu-wa," "Te-osah-way," and "Do-sh-wa" -- don't lend themselves to be mispronounced "Buffalo," so it is doubtful the name is a derivation of an Indian word.

Indian named Buffalo theory: If there is an Indian connection, it is more likely related to the next theory, whichpostulates that an Indian named Buffalo lived on the creek, prompting the early non-natives to call the stream "Buffalo's Creek." This Seneca was said to have been a member of the Wolf clan and called "De-gi-yah-goh," or "Buffalo" by his tribe. He built a basswood bark cabin by the creek and fished there and became known as the chief fisherman for the Seneca.

Captain Daniel Dobbins, in recounting a 1795 conversation with Buffalo resident Cornelius Winney, says this, "He assigned the reason for this sobriquet that the old Indian was a large, square framed man, with stooped shoulders and a large bushy head which ... made him resemble a Buffalo."

This could very well be the source of the name, since Indians did use animal names for themselves and not usually their places. It would also explain how the name gotpassed down among both the native and non-native settlers.

French words theory: Although several theories involve Indian names, there are an equal number thatrevolve around the early French explorers. These French-based theories include that the name comes from the French words beau fleuve, meaning beautiful river, or boeuf a leau, meaning oxen or cattle at the water. Either of these are certainly possible, though not likely, only because these theories don't surface in discussions until much later in the city's history. The theories mentioned earlier have been circulating as early as1825, while the two above were not mentioned in William Ketchum's 1863 "The Name of Buffalo" address to the Buffalo Historical Society. This presumably means they hadn't surfaced by then or had been dismissed as unlikely.

Perhaps the most interesting story comes from Sheldon Ball, who in 1825 combined the roaming Buffalo and French explorer threads in this amusing tale:

At a period long before its first settlement, a party of French, bound up the Lake, in a bateau, sought shelter in the Creek; being short of provisions, despatched a hunting party, who, while in search of game, fell in with a horse, (belonging, probably, to a neighboring tribe of Indians,) that was soon made a sacrifice, by the hungry huntsmen, dressed, and taken to their companions, with the deceptive information, that it was the flesh of a Buffaloe, which they had killed. Hence came the name of Buffalo Creek, and consequently the Village.

While this is an entertaining anecdote, it is probably fiction.

The most likely derivation of the name, then, is that of an Indian named Buffalo. Since he was apparently quite a memorable man, his name would be passed down by anyone coming to the area and meeting him, even long before any written records existed. Says N.L. Strong in a letter to Ketchum regarding his address to the historical society, "From all the facts and circumstances, I think it is due to the truth of history to say that it is the Indian 'Buffalo' to whom the creek and finally the city owes its name. Little fame will the poor Indian reap from it; but to the animal buffalo from which doubtless he derived his name, the millions in all time to come will award that honor."

Whatever the origin of the name, by 1791, the residents in the settlement and visitors to the area were using the name Buffalo. This may be because at least one early resident,
Martin Middaugh, had moved here from Pennsylvania, which also has a Buffalo Creek, and he was content to perpetuate the name, but the record does not show any definitive data. Whether after the animal, the Indian, myths, earlier settlements, or French or Indian words, Buffalo continued to be the name, despite the fact that the Dutch owners dubbed the city "New Amsterdam" in 1800.

Text Copyright © 2003 Nancy Blumenstalk Mingus


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