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The Buffalo of Yesteryear: Why the name 'Ellicott' is ubiquitous in Western New York

Joseph Ellicott. ("Buffalo: Old and New")

This post is the first in an occasional series about the men and women who played important roles in Buffalo’s early history.

Ever wonder why the name “Ellicott” seems to pop up all around Western New York? Buildings, businesses, streets and even municipalities contain the name.

The answer lies in Buffalo’s earliest days as an American settlement. Joseph Ellicott was the surveyor employed in the late 1700s by the Holland Land Co., which had purchased millions of acres of land in Western New York.

Born in 1760 in Bucks County, Pa., Ellicott followed his eldest brother, Andrew, into the surveying business in the 1780s, according to “The Life and Times of Joseph Ellicott,” a paper published by the Batavia-based Holland Land Office Museum in 2002.

By the mid-1790s, the Holland Land Co. – formed by Dutch investors based in Amsterdam – hired Ellicott to help survey its holdings in western Pennsylvania and New York. He ventured into the wilderness of Western New York in March 1798 with about 150 men. The land had been traditionally home to the Seneca Nation.

The map created by Joseph Ellicott of the City of Buffalo. ("Buffalo: Old and New")

One of Ellicott’s most important legacies remains evident in Buffalo today: the city’s network of radial streets. The system is similar to the layout of Washington, D.C., which the Ellicott brothers helped survey after the capital city was planned by Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

Another of Ellicott’s accomplishments was his successful advocacy for building the Erie Canal. He served on the Erie Canal Commission, the body charged with supervising the construction of the waterway.

After the New York State Legislature passed a bill to fund the construction of the canal in 1817, then-Gov. DeWitt Clinton wrote Ellicott a letter, saying, “I cannot leave this place without congratulating you upon the success of the Canal Bill. It has become a law by large majorities in both houses and after much opposition.”

Today, many landmarks in Western New York are named after Ellicott: the Ellicott Square Building, Ellicott Creek, the Ellicott Complex at the University at Buffalo, the Village of Ellicottville, Ellicott Street in Buffalo, and Ellicott Road in Orchard Park, to name a handful.

[Related: Explore the Ellicott Square Building through our Closer Look gallery]

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