This essay is a reprint from from a book entitled "Niagara Land: the First 200 Years," which in turn was a reprint of a series of essays published in "Sunday, the Courier Express Magazine" to celebrate the 1976 American Revolution Bicentennial.
Courier Express American Revolution Bicentennial articles
The Laying Out of Buffalo
by William Chazanof
1804 Village of New Amsterdam Map
Made for the Holland Co. by Joseph Ellicott
(Click on photos for larger size)
THE Ellicott Square Building at 295 Main St., built in 1896, continues to be an imposing Buffalo architectural landmark. A classic example of l9th century adaptation of the baroque styling of the late Renaissance, this 10-story structure occupies a full city block.
As substantial as the structure, Joseph Ellicott, the man, was an imposing figure who also made a permanent mark on Buffalo. Six feet three and ruggedly built, from Bucks County (Pa.) Quaker stock, he had the limited formal education typical of rural communities of 18th century America. After a brief teaching stint, Joseph adopted the profession of his older brother, Andrew, and became a surveyor. For 15 years, Andrew, Joseph and younger brother Benjamin determined land boundaries throughout the United States.
By 1794, at the age of 34, Joseph had evolved into an expert surveyor. Painstakingly meticulous and exceptionally industrious, he demanded the same qualities from others working with him. He was also plain in habit, frugal in expenditures and orderly in business management.
The Holland Land Company
His credentials suited the need of the Holland Land Company. A consortium of six Dutch banking houses, the company had, between 1792 and 1794, purchased over five-million acres of land, 200,000 of which were in Upstate New York -- 3.3-million west of the Genesee River, including the present site of Buffalo.
Before the land could be sold, accurate and detailed surveys were essential. The problem of land transfer was very complex in New York State, where the sale of the property became effective only after the Indians had given their approval. At the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797, the Senecas grudgingly relinquished their claims to most of the land west of the Genesee to Robert Morris. He in turn, turned it over to the Holland Land Company. And to lay out their Western New York land, the company appointed Joseph Ellicott as chief of survey.
Ellicott planned the operation as carefully as an able general organizes a military campaign. The survey of Western New York is a classic. He employed a party of 130 men that included surveyors, draftsmen, cooks, ax men and camp keepers. He purchased food by the barrel: 270 of flour, 100 of pork and 15 of beef. The equipment was likewise on a grand scale: five boats, two ox teams, 35 pack horses, 100 pairs of horseshoes, 200 blankets, 30 regimental tents, 70 "falling" axes and 105 pairs of shoes. To keep a full record, he ordered six large folio blank books, two "grosses" of black lead pencils, 1,000 Dutch quills and one "gross of binding."
ELLICOTT IMPOSED his high standards on his subordinates. Refusing to depend on the usual tree blazes for example, he insisted on permanent stone markers that were set along the boundaries of the company lands. He also instructed each surveyor on taking field notes, so the reader could easily discern hills, plains, valleys, sizes of rivers, distances and quality of the land.
He employed a party of 130 men that included surveyors, draftsmen, cooks, ax men and camp keepers. ... the survey began in March 1798. Driving the men hard, he kept them in the woods until December 7 ... The Great Survey ended in October 1800
Ellicott divided the 130 men into small groups, and the survey began in March 1798. Driving the men hard, he kept them in the woods until December 7, when the snow had become too deep and the weather too cold to continue. The Great Survey ended in October 1800, and Ellicott wrote a report that was astonishing for its fullness, accuracy and sound advice. The Ellicott report demonstrated that the Dutch holdings in Western New York were indeed valuable.
Joseph Ellicott the Land Agent
The immediate problem was to locate the most suitable person who would sell this well-located tract. After considerable discussion, the Dutch owners selected Joseph Ellicott as resident agent, and, on November 1 1800, he signed a contract in Philadelphia that began his new career. A six-year agreement, it provided an annual salary of $1,500 and a commission of five percent on all sales under his jurisdiction.
Anxious to get started, Joseph Ellicott reached New Amsterdam, the present location of Buffalo, in December 1800. Ellicott persisted in calling it New Amsterdam, but the inhabitants preferred the name of Buffalo Creek which was later shortened to Buffalo. As late as 1798, it had a blacksmith shop, a silversmith establishment, half a dozen houses, a population of about 20 to 25, but no schoolhouse or a place of worship.
Prior to its management by Ellicott, the area had developed very little Ellicott had foreseen the potential of New Amsterdam and in l 799 had planned the layout of the village When he came as resident agent the following year, Ellicott had to wait for satisfactory quarters to be built. Anticipating this, he had sold 150 acres in 1799 to Asa Ransom with the stipulation that Ransom would build an inn for travelers. The commitment was met, and Ransom erected a large two-story house.
... he had sold 150 acres in 1799 to Asa Ransom with the stipulation that Ransom would build an inn for travelers .... There Ellicott remained until early 1802 when he moved to Batavia where he established the main company office in Western New York.
Late in January 1801, Ellicott moved into the Ransom building, assigning part of it for an office. There Ellicott remained until early 1802 when he moved to Batavia where he established the main company office in Western New York.
Aware that the future of Western New York lay in Buffalo and not in Batavia, Ellicott did not ignore the former. He liked the concept of running avenues at acute angles, like spokes radiating from a hub, an idea first developed by the architect Major L'Enfant and applied by the three Ellicott brothers to the federal capital at Washington, D.C. When the time came to lay out the Buffalo streets, Ellicott used the same system; he had the roads spread from a hub that today is Niagara Square.
Ellicott made a personal investment in Buffalo, too. In the original survey he had acquired what became Outer Lot 104. This was a 100-acre tract that was bounded by Main Street between Swan and Eagle Streets and extended eastward to the present location of Jefferson Avenue.
In the center of Ellicott's frontage on Main Street had been a curve that made a jog of almost half a circle. Thus from this band radiated Niagara, Church and Erie Streets. Apparently Ellicott had planned to build a mansion on Lot 104 with the house to be placed on the curve.
In 1809, however, the village authorities removed the jog in order to straighten Main Street. Interpreting this as a personal affront, Ellicott seems to have abandoned the idea of building on that lot. During Ellicott's lifetime, Lot 104 was never used, cultivated or subdivided.
However, that land did not descend into anonymity. Today, the Ellicott Square Building stands on the Main Street part of Joseph's Lot 104, an appropriate reminder of the man's place during the early years of Buffalo.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William Chazanof is a professor of history at Fredonia State College and the author of the book "Joseph Ellicott and the Holland Land Company"
Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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