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Buffalo’s Name Origin Stories – A Continuing Mystery that is Over 200 Years Old

Author: Joseph Van Remmen


In July of 2021, the Buffalo Historical Museum (BHM) issued a document titled Buffalo’s Name Origin: Theories Summarized and Ranked.  I was happy and excited to see that a theory that I had promoted in Buffalo Rising last January was among the origin stories/theories recognized by the BHM.

To me, it seemed only right that the BHM should publish on the subject since the BHM has been interested in the topic since its inception.  In fact Millard Fillmore the first President back when it was known as the Buffalo Historical Society (BHS) communicated his interest in Buffalo’s Name Origin in his inaugural address back in 1862.  Furthermore, the BHS first publication in 1879 contained President Fillmore’s Inaugural Address and also carried former Mayor William Ketchum’s The Origin of The Name of Buffalo, and Sheldon Ball’s Buffalo In 1825, which also contained a Buffalo Origin Story.  At various times since, the BHS had featured writers with views on Buffalo’s Name Origin in their publications.

The recent BHM document lists 7 theories and also ranks the theories with designations of “high,” “medium,” and “low” based on what the BHM believes their plausibility to be.  Mine came in “low” much to my chagrin, LOL.  Of course, that’s one of the reasons I’m writing, in the hopes of giving the BHM another opportunity to review my theory, but also to explain my theory in a little greater depth and to compare and show my theory’s connection to some of the other theories mentioned by the BHM. 

The theories for those who haven’t seen the BHM document are:  Stolen Horsemeat Theory, Mistranslation of Beaver Creek Theory, Seneca Indian Named Buffalo Theory, Bison Roamed Here Theory, Mistranslation of Basswood Theory, Corruption of Beau Fleuve Theory, and the one I l support and have expanded on, which is labeled, Corruption of Bois Blanc Theory.

All of the theories involve the naming of the creek because historians recognize that the city/town of Buffalo were named after the creek.  So let’s look at these theories.

The Bison Roamed Here Theory is probably the most popular theory and most people probably don’t even know there’s a mystery regarding the origin of the name.  As a symbol of the city and its sports teams, the bison is known the world over.  That doesn’t in and of itself make it correct though.  Historians and anthropologists doubt that a European traveler ever saw the sight of a wild bison in the area of the City of Buffalo.  When Captain Dobbins an early visitor and later inhabitant inquired in 1795 at a local tavern if there were any buffalo around, he was told that there was not.  The mystery of the origin of the name Buffalo wouldn’t even be something to think about, if there was strong proof that buffalo were here when the region was settled.

The Stolen Horsemeat Theory may be one of the least known stories but is also one of the earliest, having been included in a pamphlet by Sheldon Ball called Buffalo in 1825 published coincidentally in 1825, and later included in the first publication of the BHS.  The story in brief; hunters gathering food for some French explorers tell them the horse meat they have brought back and  given the explorers is buffalo meat, hence the term “buffaloed” meaning to be fooled by someone.  This story sounds like something you might hear in the local tavern while the locals are having a few – it has seen little support from historians, but I do note that it takes the naming of “Buffalo” back to the time of the French who laid claim to the area prior to surrendering Fort Niagara to the British in 1759.

Seneca Indian Named Buffalo Theory has been a favorite of historians and is noted by Captain Dobbins who was mentioned earlier.  The BHM also considers it a highly plausible theory in its recent ranking.  The theory basically states that a Native American who lived near the creek, was named “Buffalo” due to his physical appearance – “a large square-framed man, with stoop shoulders and large bushy head” – the name was then given to the creek where he lived. 

This theory is supported in the fact that Scajaquada Creek was named after a Native American named Kenjockety and that Smokes Creek was named after a Native American named Smoke, both of whom are mentioned elsewhere in Buffalo’s history.  Unlike Smoke or Kenjockety, the Native American named “Buffalo” is unknown to history other than in this story.

If this story is factual, it seems as likely that the Native American was named “Buffalo” by early settlers due to his living on the Buffalo Creek as it is due to his appearance.  By 1795, Buffalo Creek had been in existence for some 35 years, having first been included on a map by a British engineer George Demler back in May of 1760.  Demler mentions that the creek was already known as Buffeloe Creek at that time.  

Buffalo Creek – Engraving by John Bluck (Buffalo History Museum) – From the book Buffalo, Lake City in Niagara Land

The Mistranslation of Beaver Creek Theory is championed by Millard Fillmore and is included in his inaugural address.  It involves a treaty at Fort Stanwix in 1784 where the words “Tehoseroron or Buffaloe Creek” are included.  Fillmore doubts there were ever buffalo in the area, and believes that the treaty members meant to put in beaver, but someone accidentally put in buffalo.  His argument is that beaver were regularly hunted in the area, but buffalo were not found in the area.  Fillmore also states that Corn Planter a famous Native American also mentions Beaver Creek rather than Buffalo when later talking about the treaty.  A 1778 map of the area by Thomas Hutchins labels Buffalo Creek as Beaver Creek.  This would be my favorite if I wasn’t pushing the Corruption of Bois Blanc Theory.

The Corruption of Beau Fleuve Theory is pretty popular among Buffalonians.  Who doesn’t want their home to be named “Beautiful River”?   It is not mentioned by early historians like Ketchum, Severance, or Ball, nor does Fillmore mention it, but appears seemingly out of nowhere at the end of the 19th century.  It seemed more like wishful thinking than being a real possibility. 

I did become intrigued however when I noted the BHM had named both my Bois Blanc Theory and the Beau Fleuve Theory as corruptions of the French.  My curiosity grew greater when I realized that the men who had proposed and supported this theory expressed that it was probably Native Americans hearing Father Louis Hennepin or other early French explorers to the region use the words “Beau Fleuve.”  These Native Americans then supposedly called it Bo-flo  or Boo-flo which is very similar to my argument that “Bois Blanc” pronounced “Boblo” or “Bob-low” is the origin of Buffalo.

I then did some research, finding the newspaper articles the BHM had listed, and followed it up with some other readings as well.  Samuel Clarke had no evidence to support his view in favor of this “Beau Fleuve” theory, nor did a subsequent supporter Father Henry Lautenbach.  I was hoping to see some evidence of a Native American or an explorer or visitor using “Bo-Flo” in some context.  There was no such evidence.

I then looked at books by Hennepin and saw that he regularly used the words “Bois Blanc” but never used  the term “Beau Fleuve” in the writings that I found.  It therefore seems more likely that the Native Americans around Hennepin would have heard Bois Blanc rather than Beau Fleuve.  Could the Native Americans have been saying “Bob-lo” instead of “Bo-flo”?  Well, we have actual evidence showing the use of Bois Blancs by the French in regard to the area, and none whatsoever showing the French using Beau Fleuve.  

The BHM gives the Mistranslation of Basswood Theory a high degree of plausibility although there is no explanation given of how the Native American words that express “Basswood” become “Buffalo.” 

The Native American words for “Buffalo Creek” are “Toseoway” and “Tehoseroron.”  The first is included on Ellicott’s 1804 map alongside “Buffalo Creek” and means “Place of Basswood,” while the second is found in the 1784 Fort Stanwix Treaty and means “Among the Basswoods,” and it was insisted on by the Native Americans as a designation because Buffalo Creek was a boundary in this treaty and needed to be precise.  Without being able to show how Toseoway or Tehoseroron turned into the word Buffalo this theory remains lacking.

Fortunately, the answer is that the Corruption of Bois Blanc Theory explains it.  The French used “Bois Blanc” – literally “White Woods” – as a designation for trees like the basswood and birch, which they found useful for working  on their boats while travelling in the Great Lakes region in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The Native Americans and the French in their own languages, gave Buffalo Creek the same name involving “Basswoods.”  It is unknown if they named the creek independently or if one of the Nations took it from the other, nor does it matter in explaining the origin, other than both Nations were calling Buffalo Creek based on its attribute of having many basswoods around it.

Finally, let’s look at the Corruption of Bois Blanc Theory that William Beauchamp is credited by the BHM with first mentioning.  Here is what Mr. Beauchamp said on the subject: “On Pouchot’s map the creek appears as R. au Boiblanc, equivalent to River of Basswoods, and Buffalo may be a corruption of this.”  To me, Beauchamp did not go far enough explaining how Bois Blanc became Buffalo.  I have therefore gathered a number of facts together and consider this theory to be mine as well as his.

Pouchot map from 1866

First, besides Pouchot’s map mentioned by Beauchamp, there is a second map, by Michel Crevecoeur, that clearly shows a “Riviere du Bois Blanc” where Buffalo Creek is.  This map shows that Bois Blanc is located before the “swift” water that goes under our present day Peace Bridge which then slows as it gets below Unity Island.

Bois Blanc as mentioned above, is pronounced Bob Low or Bob-Lo elsewhere on the Great Lakes, and at least two islands, one below and one above Detroit, maintain the French spelling Bois Blanc with a pronunciation of Bob-Lo to this day.

I consider it more than a coincidence that the first appearance in print of the word “Buffeloe” in regard to our waterway occurs less than a year after Pouchot surrendered Fort Niagara and the Niagara Frontier to the British in July of 1759.  In May of 1760 Demler put “Buffeloe” on a map and labelled it “A creek known by the Name of Buffeloe Creek.”  This indicates to me that the waterway had already had this name and probably came from the French prior to the British takeover.  

Could Demler have heard Native Americans or earlier settlers talking about the creek?  Did their pronunciation remind him of the Greek “boubalos” or the Latin “bubalus” which mean “buffalo” in their respective languages?  Or did he just take what he heard and place it on his map with the designation, making it clear that the name had been given prior to the arrival of the British.

It seems to me that there is a great deal of information leading to a belief that Bois Blanc morphed into Buffalo, with little evidence supporting any of the other theories.  

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