The stretch of downtown Buffalo around its harbor and along Lake Erie was once considered “an irreclaimable morass" – low-lying and swampy.
But the same area nevertheless became “densely covered with substantial warehouses and large stores, intermingled with factories, foundries, mechanics’ shops and dwellings,” helping the city become “the largest and most important (city) upon the Great Lakes.”
That’s according to an 1860 book, J.H. French’s “Historical and Statistical Gazetteer of New York State,” published in Syracuse and advertised as containing “a complete history and description of every county, city, town, village and locality” in the state.
The volume provides a rare look at what Buffalo and Erie County were like just 50 years after Buffalo was first formed as a town (carved out of the Town of Clarence) in 1810.
Much was different back then, of course. Here are a few tidbits from the book about Erie County history that you may not have known:
- Archaic spellings: There’s a good chance the place where you live, if you’re from Western New York, was once spelled differently. Cheektowaga was Chictawauga, Brant was Brandt, and Hamburg was Hamburgh. Also, Cazenovia and Scajaquada creeks were called Cazenove and Scajaquady creeks, respectively.
- Some towns didn’t exist yet, and others were renamed: What is now Lackawanna was in 1860 still part of West Seneca – which itself was called simply “Seneca” until 1852. Orchard Park was called East Hamburgh. Aurora was once called Willink, Newstead was called Erie, and North Collins was called Shirley, but they all had changed to their current names by the time the book was published. Also, in 1820, New Yorker Mordecai M. Noah “conceived the project of forming a colony of Jews upon Grand Island.” He called his “city of refuge” Ararat, or “resting place.” But his “attempt to gather the Jews ... ended in day dreams.” The Town of Grand Island was later formed in 1852.
- Economic activity: The “principal pursuits” in Erie County were “grain raising” in the Northtowns and “stock and wool growing and dairying” in the Southtowns. Meanwhile, “the people of Buffalo and Tonawanda” were “mostly engaged in commerce and manufactures.”
- The first newspaper: Erie County’s first newspaper, the Buffalo Gazette, was established in 1811. It was later renamed the Niagara Patriot and then the Buffalo Patriot. The newspaper was one of over 100 periodical titles published in the county up until 1860, including such names as the Zeitschrift, the Mental Elevator, the Impetus, the Rough Notes and the Mercury.
The book also discusses the burning of the village of Buffalo by the British during the War of 1812, “in retaliation of the wanton destruction of Newark, in Canada, by the Americans.” Newark is now called Niagara-on-the-Lake.
By the time the Erie Canal and New York Central Railroad were in full operation, Buffalo had recovered and turned “into the greatest commercial place on the upper lakes.”
[Gallery: How area municipalities earned their names]