Author: Joseph Van Remmen
For local arm chair historians, the origin of the word “Buffalo” as a name for our creek and city has been baffling us for close to 200 years. Yes, that’s how long people have been wondering why a place with no buffalo, meaning the American Bison, is named Buffalo.
To be clear, there is agreement that “Buffalo” was first used to describe the creek that runs from the hills of Wyoming County, across Erie County and into Lake Erie just south of the Niagara River. In fact, Buffalo Creek was used as one of the boundaries when Native Americans and U. S. representatives signed a Treaty in 1786 at Fort Stanwix. Noteworthy too, was the inclusion of the Native American designation “Tehoseroron” for Buffalo Creek, which meant “Place of Basswoods” in the Seneca Language. This designation is important to our story, because it is one of the links to the origin of the name Buffalo.
But we need to go back before the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, to find the origins, to some French and British soldiers both occupying Fort Niagara, but not at the same time. The French built Fort Niagara early in the 18th century and with it claimed the land up and down the Niagara River between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. From the fort the French could trade with the Native Americans, European explorers, trappers and settlers moving through the area. The British were also involved in this trade and vying for control of the Great Lakes, eventually resulting in the Seven Years’ War, also known in America as the French and Indian War.
A French soldier and engineer, Captain Pierre Pouchot entered the area during this time. He was in charge of rebuilding and maintaining the fort and eventually became the commandant (commanding officer). Pouchot kept a journal and also drew a map of the area and sent it to his superiors in the Spring of 1758. On this map, he drew a waterway entering the Niagara from the east and labelled it the Riviere of Bois Blanc, which translates to “river of white wood” or “river of basswood.” The basswood was prized by both the Native Americans and the French because it was very useful in making baskets and used to help stitch the canoes and bateaus that were essential for travel on the frontier. Pouchot’s Memoirs and map were published in 1781 more than a decade after his death.
Another French soldier Michel Crevecoeur, a surveyor and geographer, stationed in Montreal also travelled through the area during the Seven Years’ War. Later, in a 1787 French Edition of his bestselling book Letters of An American Farmer is a map that specifically shows the Riviere du Bois Blanc at the location where our present Buffalo Creek lies. We know this, as Crevecoeur shows the Riviere du Bois Blanc to be above the rapids that flow underneath our present day Peace Bridge before slowing at the north end of Unity Island. There are less than a handful of published maps from the that time showing labelled waterways on the Niagara Frontier and two of the maps give a designation of “Bois Blanc” to a creek near our present day Buffalo Creek.
Okay, so what if I told you, that the pronunciation of Bois Blanc sounds like Bob Low or Boblo. That islands above and below Detroit are named Bois Blanc and that is how they pronounce the name of the islands. In a kind of cool coincidence, a passenger boat the STR Columbia is now here in Buffalo. The STR Columbia, similar to the Canadiana that took folks from Buffalo to Crystal Beach back in the day, took people between Detroit and the Boblo Amusement Park which was situated on Bois Blanc Island.
Now, let’s go back to the 18th century again. Commandant Pierre Pouchot surrenders Fort Niagara to the British in the summer of 1759. The British take over control of the region and by May of 1760, a British Officer Lieutenant George Demler has drawn a map of the area. On that map is a creek just south of the Niagara River on the east side and it is labelled Buffeloe Creek. A few years later another British soldier John Montresor in a journal entry in the summer of 1764 remarks on this creek while looking for a place for a fort that would eventually be Fort Erie, the name, “Buffalo Creek.” In less than a year’s time, the name of the creek had morphed from a French term that sounded like “Boblo” to what the British took to be Buffeloe.
There you have it. For all of you who root for the team with the standing or running Buffalo on its helmet, I will continue to root with you. For those who think that “Beau Fleuve” is a pretty story for a name origin for the city, it is, but it is incorrect. Our origin story lies at Fort Niagara where a soldier hearing some derivation of the French, “Bois Blanc,” probably something similar to Boblo or Bob Low, put on a map for the first time “Buffeloe” which would change in just a few years to our much loved Buffalo. Go Bills!!!
Buffalo Creek – Engraving by John Bluck (Buffalo History Museum) – From the book Buffalo, Lake City in Niagara Land