Was Buffalo Once Part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony?
Did you know that since Europeans first arrived in the territory now known as Western New York, the land has been claimed by England, France, and even Massachusetts? Below is a timeline of the historic disputes over this region that occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries, and how they eventually led to the founding of Buffalo, New York.
March 19, 1627/8: The Council for New England grants land to “The New England Company for a Plantation in Massachusetts Bay” (later becomes the Massachusetts Bay Colony). The northern border of the land grant is three miles north of the Merrimack River (or the 40th parallel north), and the southern border of the grant is three miles south of the Charles River (or the 45th parallel north); the eastern border of the land grant is the Atlantic ocean, and the western border is the “South sea” (the Pacific Ocean).
As a result, the Massachusetts Bay Colony claims the land making up the present-day region of Western New York, including the future site of the city of Buffalo.
Because no European settlement exists in Western New York at this time, the land grant doesn’t cause a problem in New York for a century and a half.
c. 1630: The land on which Buffalo will be founded is the territory of the Wenrohronon (or Wenro) people and the Erie Confederacy. Around 1638, the Seneca Nation defeats the Wenro during the Beaver Wars, and by 1656, the Iroquois annihilate the Erie Confederacy.
By the end of the 17th century, all of Western New York (and beyond) will be Iroquois territory.
1679: René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle builds a fortified storehouse named Fort Conti on the present site of Fort Niagara. The fort accidentally burns down a few months later. France claims the site — the land on the eastern bank of the Niagara River, at its mouth, on Lake Ontario — as part of “New France”.
1687: During a French military expedition to subjugate the Iroquois, the Governor of New France, Jacques-Rene de Brisay, Marquis de Denonville, builds Fort Denonville on the former site of Fort Conti. In retaliation to French military aggression, the Seneca lay siege to the fort. The French abandon Fort Denonville in 1688.
August 15, 1687: Baron La Houtan (sometimes spelled La Honton) sails up the Niagara River into Lake Erie. At the site of what later becomes the city of Buffalo, he marks “Fort Suppose” on his map, with the intention of a French fort being built there.
1691: King William III issues a charter that unifies the Massachusetts Bay Colony (including the region of present-day Western New York) with Plymouth Colony, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, territory roughly making up present-day Maine, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, forming the Province of Massachusetts Bay.
1726: The French erect a “House of Peace” (later called the “French Castle”) on the former site of Fort Denonville. This machicolated house is named Fort Niagara.
1754: The French and Indian War begins. The region of present-day Western New York is part of disputed territory claimed by both France and Great Britain.
1758: The first European settlement in the Buffalo area is a trading post erected at Michigan Avenue and Ganson St. (present-day location of General Mills) by Daniel “Chabert” de Joncaire, a trader as well as an interpreter and agent for the French government. The settlement is destroyed by the British a year and a half later.
February 10, 1763: The Treaty of Paris of 1763 is signed, ending the French and Indian War. France cedes New France east of the Mississippi River (excluding the Caribbean islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, which France retained, and Louisiana, which France gave to Spain) to the British. The region of present-day Western New York is now officially a British territory.
1783: The Treaty of Paris of 1783 is signed, ending the Revolutionary War. Britain cedes the region of present-day Western New York to the United States. Both New York and Massachusetts claim the region of present-day Western New York, which is roughly the land west of Seneca Lake, extending to the Niagara River and Lake Erie, and from Lake Ontario down to the Pennsylvania border.
British troops remain stationed at the British forts around Lake Erie — including Fort Niagara — for another decade, violating the Treaty’s demand that possession of these forts be immediately surrendered to the United States.
1784 (or 1794): The first permanent European settlement is built in Buffalo by Martin Middaugh and his son-in-law, Ezekial Lane. Although some later Buffalo historians claim this occurred in 1794, Frank Severance asserts in Picture Book of Early Buffalo that the year was, in fact, 1784. John Fagant wrote an interesting article on the debate over the first settlers in Buffalo.
1786: New York and Massachusetts sign the Treaty of Hartford, ending their land dispute. The Treaty officially makes the six million acres of present-day Western New York part of New York State, but gives the right of preemption to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; this means Massachusetts holds title to the land of Western New York and holds the exclusive right to purchase the right of possession from the Indian tribes living in the area. The agreement also allows Massachusetts to sell its preemptive rights.
Here is a great interactive map at MapofUS.org depicting the formation history of New York counties from 1683 to 1915.
1788: Massachusetts sells its preemptive rights to all six million acres of Western New York to Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham for $1,000,000, payable in three annual installments. This purchase gives Phelps and Gorham the right to negotiate with the Iroquois for clear title of the land; only then could Phelps and Gorham settle or re-sell the land.
c. 1791: Trader Cornelius Winney builds a cabin in the Buffalo area, on the north side of little Buffalo Creek.
March 10, 1791: Preemptive rights to the land west of the Genesee River — 3,750,000 acres — reverts back to Massachusetts after Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham fail to pay the entire amount. Phelps and Gorham retain their land east of the Genesee River as well as 185,000 acres of land west of the Genesee River and bordering Lake Ontario (including the site of present-day Rochester).
March 12, 1791: Massachusetts agrees to sell the preemptive rights to the reclaimed 3,750,000 acres to Robert Morris for $333,333.34. Robert Morris is a signer of the Declaration of Independence and, at the time, the richest man in the United States.
1792-1793: Robert Morris retains 500,000 acres, a 12 mile-wide tract of land extending from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border, and sells preemptive rights to the remaining 3,250,000 acres to trustees of the Holland Land Company; because the owners of the Holland Land Company were Dutch and not American, they weren’t legally allowed to own the land until 1798, when the New York Legislature authorized aliens to own land in the United States. The tract of land becomes known as the Holland Purchase.
1796: Joseph Hodge becomes the first free African-American to settle in Buffalo. He makes a living as a trapper, trader, interpreter, and Niagara Frontier guide. He later partners with Cornelius Winney and settles in a cabin just west of Winney’s.
August 20, 1797-September 16, 1797: Delegates for the Seneca Nation and the United States meet near present-day Geneseo to negotiate for rights to the Holland Purchase. The Treaty of Big Tree is signed on September 15, 1797, and, for the price of $100,000, opens the land to settlement, with the exception of twelve small tracts of land (about 200,000 acres) reserved for Indian use.
Here’s a Map of the Indian Tribes of North America, about 1600 A.D. along the Atlantic, and about 1800 A.D. westerly, from the Library of Congress.
1798: The Holland Land Company hires Joseph Ellicott to survey the Holland Purchase land and plan a village next to Buffalo Creek. Joseph Ellicott names the village “New Amsterdam”, but it will eventually be changed to Buffalo. In Ellicott’s plan, he designs the streets of New Amsterdam in a spokes pattern, with Niagara Square at the center.
The New York Heritage Digital Collections has a map from around 1800 showing Ellicott’s Plan of New Amsterdam.
At this time, the entire village of New Amsterdam consists of around 20 to 25 people, living in about a half dozen houses.
Also around this time, trader William Johnston marries a Seneca woman, and he is gifted by the Seneca several acres of land at the mouth of Buffalo Creek; this makes William Johnston the first legitimate non-Native settler in Buffalo, as Middaugh, Winney, and Hodge were technically land squatters.
January 1801: The Holland Land Company begins operations out of Asa Ransom’s house in Clarence. The company sells land at approximately $2 an acre. Joseph Ellicott moves the Holland Land Company to Batavia in March.
The village was firmly established by March 1805, when Congress declared Buffalo an official port of entry. Because of its valuable location on the shores of Lake Erie, at the mouth of Buffalo Creek, Buffalo’s beginning was laden with disagreements and disputes. At the start of the 18th century, however, also due to its favorable location, Buffalo’s future looked bright.
Fig. 1: Map showing Western New York as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Grant. Source: Kmusser (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]. Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 2: Map showing Wenro and Erie territory around 1630. Digital Image. Source: Nikater [Public Domain]. Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 3: Iroquois territory expansion during the Beaver Wars. Source: Codex Sinaiticus [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]. Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 4: 1688 map of the regions explored by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Source: [Public Domain] epa.gov.
Fig. 5: English Colonies in America Before 1763. Source: EarlyAmerica.com.
Fig. 6: Map of Buffalo Village, 1805. Source: http://www.buffaloah.com/h/maps/1805.jpg.
Fig. 7: “The Earliest Buffalo Picture Known: View of Fort Erie from Buffalo Creek, 1811”. Source: Frank Severance, Picture Book of Early Buffalo, vi.