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.
War of 1812 - Table of Contents
Buffalo in Her Formative Years
By William Chazanof
"BUFFALO IS the handsomest spot which I have seen in the Holland Purchase. It is supposed likewise that in time it will command a Great proportion of the trade on the Country."
This was part of a confidential report written in 1802 by Jan Lincklaen. In charge of selling the tract in Central New York owned by the Holland Land Company, Lincklaen was a counterpart on a smaller scale of Joseph Ellicott, who was marketing company lands in Western New York. Lincklaen's prophecy proved accurate, and the key man in effectuating it was Joseph Ellicott.
In 1798, when it was called New Amsterdam, Buffalo's population of 20 to 25 lived in half a dozen houses. After Ellicott had completed the Great Survey in 1800, Buffalo grew with controlled rapidity. By 1804, when Timothy Dwight, the caustic, peripatetic President of Yale College, visited the village, he counted "about twenty indifferent houses."
The inhabitants, observed Dwight, were "a casual collection of adventurers" who had retained "but little sense of religion." Nevertheless, the population increased impressively. By 1810, it was 1,508, and a decade later it had risen to 2,095.
The growth might have been still greater were it not for Ellicott's policy of reserving some of the better lots in Buffalo. The resident agent defended this practice in terms of future public buildings and better structures, but he carried it to extreme. By 1820, much of the vacant land still available in Buffalo had been set aside for the company, for Ellicott and for Ellicott's relatives.
When the British, in December of 1813 retaliated for the senseless burning of the Canadian settlement of Newark by putting to the torch almost every building in Buffalo Ellicott contributed $200 from his private purse and the company donated $2,000 for the relief of the settlers.
BECAUSE OF his position as resident agent and his willingness to take action Ellicott played a dominant role in the early history of Buffalo. In a real sense, he helped to shape its future. His primary concern was the sale of company land. Whatever affected real estate sales affected the acquisitive Ellicott as well. With land disposal the basic motivation, much of his conduct as resident agent became understandable.
Disappointed with the relatively few sales after he had taken office in 1800, Ellicott analyzed the situation and moved to correct the causes. The transportation facilities were poor; except for the Indian paths, no roads existed to attract settlers west of the Genesee. The distance to the county seat at Canandaigua was long, yet residents needed to travel there for recording deeds and mortgages. And the county taxes on Dutch owned lands were sharply reducing company profits
Ellicott's solution was to create a new county
At the time, Ontario County was extensive, covering an area east of the Genesee as well as all of the land west of the Genesee River. In 1802, the State Legislture sub-divided Ontario and created the county of Genesee to cover all the land west of that river. Ellicott now had a formidable voice in determining taxation, allocating tax funds, choosing the location of roads and bridges and selecting Batavia, where the main company office was located, as the county seat.
War of 1812
THE WAR OF 1812 was another issue that involved Ellicott. The Embargo Act had decreased land sales on the Holland Land Company purchase to such an extent that receipts barely paid the taxes and the expense of the administration. Ellicott had opposed the Federalists, who wanted war against France and had resisted equally the war hawks, who urged an open break with England. As conditions between the United States and England worsened, he became increasingly concerned over the military defense of Western New York.
Ellicott played an active role in persuading the state in 1811 to build a large arsenal at Batavia. Once the war started, he issued appeals to the residents to calm their fears, acted as liaison between Col. Peter Porter and Gen. Alexander Rea, and sought a stronger commanding officer of the forces in Western New York than Stephen Van Rennselaer.
When the British, in December of 1813 retaliated for the senseless burning of the Canadian settlement of Newark by putting to the torch almost every building in Buffalo Ellicott contributed $200 from his private purse and the company donated $2,000 for the relief of the settlers. He also served on a three-man commission that the State Legislature had appointed to distribute $50,000 to war victims.
JOSEPH ELLICOTT''S major achievement, perhaps, was his significant part in bringing about the construction of the Erie Canal. Convinced as early as 1808 that other means of transportation were needed, he urged the creation of an all-water route from Albany to Buffalo. Always keeping in mind what benefited the company, he became knowledgeable about alternate courses and served as canal consultant for the State Legislature. To contribute to the cause, he persuaded the company to deed to the state approximately 100,000 acres of its land in the southern part of the Purchase, where Allegheny State Park is today located.
It was Joseph Ellicott, probably more than any other single person, who used his formidable political power developed over the years, to push the canal from Rochester to Buffalo.
Once the construction of the waterway had begun, his role in extending the canal west of the Genesee was heroic. When the canal had reached Rochester, strong efforts were made by influential forces to stop its westward continuance. It was Joseph Ellicott, probably more than any other single person, who used his formidable political power developed over the years, to push the canal from Rochester to Buffalo.
The completion of the Erie Canal in 1824 opened the flood gates of migration westward. The population of Buffalo doubled by 1825 and rose by half again to more than 8,000 by 1830. With the construction of the canal, Buffalo emerged as a key city. By 1830, only Albany, of all the communities upstate, had a population that exceeded Buffalo's.
The first two decades of the nineteenth century were vital to the immediate growth and long range direction of Buffalo. During that period, Ellicott had been involved in every major decision pertaining to Western New York and Buffalo. This ''handsomest spot" in the Purchase now a thriving city of almost half a million, owes an enormous debt to Joseph Ellicott's efforts during its crucial formative years.
See also: Joseph Ellicott - Table of Contents
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"
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