West of the Great Northern Elevator so prominent in the News these days, there is a historical place marker located on Michigan Avenue near Ganson St. stating that the first settlement of Buffalo occurred near there, at a trading post established by Daniel Chabert Joncaire aka Joncaire Chabert. The settlement was established at what the French called the “Petit Rapide” or Little Rapid at a place also known as the “Riviere aux Chevaux” or Horse River. But is the location on an island in the Buffalo River, correct or was the Horse River somewhere else?
The Riviere aux Chevaux was established by Joncaire-Chabert in 1758 at the behest of Governor General Vaudreuil who oversaw Canada for the French. The settlement probably lasted until the French surrendered Fort Niagara in July of 1759.
The whole idea of a settlement at the rapids near Lake Erie is spelled out to Daniel Joncaire-Chabert by his superior the Governor General of New France (Canada) Pierre Rigaud Vaudreuil. This is captured in a memoir written by Chabert in 1760.
From the memoir we see that in April of 1758 during the midst of the French and Indian War, Vaudreuil sends a letter to Chabert stating;
…Chabert will endeavor to clear the lands at the Horse River, located there at 6 leagues from the Portage at the entrance to Lake Erie …
Vaudreuil continues by telling Chabert what to bring to the Horse River;
…he will take from the small Fort the boats and cars which will provide him with the necessities to send to the Strait the animals and other things which he may need for the establishment of the said River,
Chabert also tells us;
…all the hopes of abundant harvest after many expenses to clear & seed the lands of the Horse River & the Petit Rapide, …
This seems to indicate that the Horse River and the Petite Rapide are one and the same, or are connected and proximate to each other. The French were not talking about Buffalo Creek when they talked about the Little Rapid, they used the word “Strait” and that is in fact what the Niagara River is. The French were talking about the fast moving water leaving Lake Erie that pushes quickly in to the Niagara River and then slows as it moves north past Unity Island. The fact that the Scajaquada Creek empties into the rapids as they slow near the end at Unity Island, supports the possibility that Scajaquada Creek is the Riviere aux Chevaux and that it is not Buffalo Creek.
At the time Vaudreuil makes the request of Chabert, Chabert is in charge of the “Petit” or “Small” Fort Niagara, just south of Niagara Falls. His mission there is to move ships and their cargo around the falls by taking them out at Lewiston and transporting them to the small fort where they could continue up the Niagara into Lake Erie. Historians have noted that the new settlement was supposed to be a trading post, and the memoir notes that Chabert was farming at the settlement as well. While these are important aspects of the settlement and Chabert was involved with both at the Petit Fort, to me, during the middle of a war, it seems likely that the French would have been more concerned about having the ability to move boats, supplies and personnel up and down the river and the trading and farming would have been secondary or supportive of their true mission. This mission can be completed if the settlement is at the mouth of the Scajaquada River but having a settlement in Buffalo Creek for this purpose seems unlikely and less productive.
So why do historians up to the present time believe the settlement is on an island in the Buffalo River?
It seems likely that the person responsible for stating that the Horse River was Buffalo Creek was Franklin Hough a noted author and social scientist who gave the designation in his 1866 translation of the Memoirs of Pierre Pouchot. Pouchot, the Commandant of Fort Niagara during the French and Indian War, gives us an account of the Niagara Frontier prior to and at its surrender. Pouchot describes;
The entrance of the lake, as far as to the Riviere aux Chevaux forms a great bay lined with fiat rock, where no anchorage can be found. If they could keep open the mouth of this river, they would find anchorage for vessels.
Hough then adds in a footnote to Pouchot’s description;
Buffalo Creek, which now forms Buffalo Harbor.
We have no further description by Pouchot nor explanation by Hough, but I surmise that because Pouchot only described two waterways coming from the east towards Erie and Niagara, and that Hough had designated the other as Tonawanda Creek, that he decided Buffalo Creek must be the River of Horses.
While Pouchot’s description is far from conclusive, I can understand why Hough, using Pouchot’s description made his designations. We will, however, share other information from the French Canadians in the area of that time, that bring Hough’s decision into question.
But first we should mention that other historians including Buffalo historian Frank Severance seems to support Hough and in 1917 Severance writes in An old frontier of France;
There are maps on which both the Tonawanda and the Buffalo appear as **R. aux Chevaux”; but the French of Chabert’s time applied this name to Buffalo River; and since he had already designated the Tonawanda, he could only have meant the Buffalo, at the mouth of which, in 1758, as we have seen, he had erected buildings and cultivated lands.
Here we see that Severance is aware of a map showing the Riviere aux Chevaux, but discounting it by insisting Chabert has made different designations. Maybe he was confusing Hough and Chabert, as Chabert never indicated the Riviere aux Chevaux as Buffalo Creek. Also, other than Crevecoeur’s map which we will talk about next, I do not know of any other 18th century map showing the Riviere aux Chevaux.
The name Horse River is important as it told the French what to expect when they arrived at this place. Unlike the British who mostly named places after people, the French tended to give some type of descriptor to a location that might be useful for future travelers. The Riviere aux Chevaux was a designation to let future sailors know that at this place you would need animals to assist in pulling your boat or to carry your cargo up the rapids to the lake.
There were other Frenchmen at that time who referred to the Riviere aux Chevaux and the information they share should not be discounted. Instead we need to weigh this other evidence and see if it brings us a clearer picture of the location of the Horse River and thusly Chabert’s settlement.
The only 18th century map by a Frenchman showing the Riviere aux Chevaux is a map by Michel Crevecoeur and it is surely the map that Severance mentioned above. It shows that the Horse River is at the end of the rapids in the Niagara River that flow from Lake Erie. Buffalo Creek as we all know, is south of the rapids. The rapids are referred on the map as “swift” and can be seen below:
Michel Crevecoeur, like Pouchot, was in the French Army during the war and he worked making maps under Montcalm the commanding French General. After the war, he worked as a surveyor, farmer and later as a Consul for the French after the American Revolution. He was probably one of the only people to have visited the Niagara Region under the French, British and American administrations. He wrote a popular best seller, Letters of an American Farmer, and his later writing Le Voyage dans la haute Pensylvanie et dans d’état de New York gives us probably the best description of Niagara at the time of its publication in 1801.
Crevecoeur’s map, published 6 years after Pouchot’s book came out, accompanied a later French edition of Letters of an American Farmer in 1787, and seems to have included the Riviere aux Chevaux possibly to clarify the placement mentioned by Pouchot due to Pouchot’s less than precise description.
That the French knew about the rapids and the need for a portage is noted by Peter A. Porter in an address regarding the French explorer LaSalle in Volume VIII of Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society. The sailing of the Griffon in 1679, some 80 years earlier than the time referred to by Pouchot and Crevecoeur show;
The river was now sounded, up as far as Lake Erie, and an ample depth of water found; and soon, with a favorable breeze, and under her own sails, the Griffon ascended the stream, and anchored below Squaw Island, to await La Salle and her equipments. It was July before he reached her, bringing the necessary out fittings. it was the end of that month before everything, anchors, stores, merchandise for trade in the West, were all on board. And then, it was not until August 7th, that a strong northeast wind enabled her, with the aid of her crew on the beach towing, to overcome the rapids and to reach the waters of Lake Erie.
Peter A. Porter was the grandson of Peter Buell Porter who along with his brother ran the portages on the Niagara River after the British left the area at the end of the 18th century. Where did Peter Buell and Augustus Porter run the portage? They used a portage around Niagara Falls from Lewiston to where the Old Stone Chimney still stands today along the Niagara Scenic Parkway. This is the same portage the French had established 50 years earlier and that the British used after taking over from the French. The Old Stone Chimney lies close to where Daniel Joncaire-Chabert had established the Petit Fort Niagara and the area was known under the British as Fort Schlosser. The Porters also ran a portage at Scajaquada Creek, taking boats and goods up to Bird Island where they would then be able to enter the Lake. This I believe is the same portage that Joncaire had established in 1758. In 1818 the first steamboat to ply Lake Erie, the Walk In The Water, was towed up to the lake from Scajaquada Creek due to the rapids.
Further information is provided by French Canadian explorer Joseph Chaussegross De Lery. De Lery whose father came over from France, and was involved in the building of Fort Niagara, was born and grew up in Canada and was involved in travels through the Great Lakes.
De Lery kept meticulous journals that give exacting time between locations while travelling. In his journal for May of 1754, he explains a trip from Fort Niagara out to Lake Erie and then down to Chautauqua Lake. It seems a part of this trip, leaving from the Petit Fort Niagara and traveling by boat approximately 13 miles, to around Frenchman’s Creek on the west side of the river (according to Severance), took about 7 ½ hours. This means De Lery’s group were traveling at about 1 ¾ miles per hour. They rested for a few days due to harsh weather and then proceeded up the Niagara to the Riviere aux Chevaux. According to De Lery this trip took about 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Scajaquada Creek lies about 1 ¾ miles from Frenchman’s Creek. Buffalo Creek lies about 5 miles from Frenchman’s Creek. Since De Lery would have travelled more slowly up through the rapids, it is obvious that De Lery could only have reached Scajaquada Creek in the time he recorded.
This seems to be the most relevant information on the subject of the Riviere aux Chevaux. It shows that the Riviere aux Chevaux and the Petit Rapide were not up in Buffalo Creek but rather situated near Unity Island and the Scajaquada Creek.
If we only had the information that Hough had, I can understand us believing that the River of Horses is Buffalo Creek. With the additional information of De Lery, Crevecoeur, Joncaire and Vaudreuil it becomes clear that Hough was probably mistaken. La Salle’s earlier usage and Porter and Barton’s later use of the area around Scajaquada strengthen the view that this location better suited for portaging boats through the rapids is the settlement founded by Chabert.
Lead image: Author copy of 1907 Cobb map of a section of the Buffalo Harbor