How Buffalo, New York Got Its Name
Many people living in their city never question the origin of their city’s name. The city of Buffalo, in Western New York, has a few mysterious and interesting theories about where the name “Buffalo” comes from. It is said that the city of Buffalo got its name from the creek that it is built around. But the question is then, why was the creek named Buffalo? How did the creek become known as Buffalo Creek? One of these theories is a simple folktale speculated to come from oral traditions of Native Americans. Another discussed are words used by the French to describe the creek. The last possibility for the name of Buffalo is suggested by the actual animal, the bison, roaming the parts of Western New York. The one thing that is common and is not debated upon is who the original settlers of the Niagara Frontier were. It is also known who the European explorers were who re-discovered the Niagara Frontier. To understand the different theories surrounding the name “Buffalo”, one has to look back in history to before the city had been founded.
Seneca and Erie
Before the Europeans had discovered the New World, it was inhabited by the native peoples of the Americas. Later to be named Native Americans, there were several different tribes, nations, and chiefdoms that had control of several different areas in New York. The primary Indian nation that had control in the now Buffalo area were the Neuter Nation (named by French explorers). The Erie nation (named after the ‘long-tail’ mountain lion) controlled the area south of Lake Erie and spots reaching up into the Buffalo area. The other nation that reached into the Buffalo area was the Seneca nation. Native American traditions and stories are handed down orally, usually from the most eldest or someone chosen to remember these tales. One tale in particular describes how the Buffalo Creek got its name.
Native American Nations
Indian in a Buffalo Head Dress
Native American Legend
In 1795 a Buffalo resident, Cornelius Winney, said, "He assigned the reason for this sobriquet that the old Indian was a large, square framed man, with stooped shoulders and a large bushy head which ... made him resemble a Buffalo." This quote is referring to an old Seneca Indian who lived along the creek. This old Seneca was a member of the Wolf clan and was called "De-gi-yah-goh," or "Buffalo". This name can be supported because Native Americans would usually name themselves after various animals or natural occurrences. Native Americans would also name places based on what it looked like, the purpose it served, or the things that were around it. For example, Chic ta-wau-ga, now spelled Cheektowaga was Jiik do-waah geh "place of the crab-apple". De-gi-yah-goh built a basswood bark cabin by the creek and fished there. He became known as the chief fisherman for the Seneca. Many then started to call the creek “Buffalo’s Creek”. In the Native American language, this was "Tick-e-ack-gon- ga-ha-un-da" (Buffalo Society 367). This story, shared by both natives and non-natives is believed to what gave the creek and eventually the city, the name of Buffalo. This Seneca, De-gi-yah-goh, must have been quite memorable and charismatic to be remembered in such a fashion. There are many other accounts as to this man being said to resemble a buffalo. Since this theory is hard to retrace due to it being near purely oral tradition, it is hard to deduce whether this is the exact reason why the creek got the name Buffalo.
French Origin Theory
The next theory discussed is that the creek got its name from French origins. “But so imperfect was their knowledge of the Indian language, that they had formed very imperfect ideas of their magnitude, as well as many other things, concerning them, related by the Indians; and it is not surprising that in attempting to describe, what no one had ever attempted to do before in writing, that gross errors should have crept into the description.” Many believe that the French mispronounced the Indian language because they were not fluent in it. However, the names for Buffalo do not resemble remotely the sound of the word Buffalo. The natives differed on the word buffalo throughout the nations, but none resemble the pronunciation. The Tuscarora pronounced the English term buffalo as: Ne-o-thro-ra, The Cayuga word for buffalo was De-o-tro-weh, and the Oneida word for buffalo was De-ose-lole. Other possible words for buffalo are: "Tick-e-ack-gou-ga", "De-gi-yah-go", and Do-syo-wa or Do-sho-weh (Buffalo Society 367).
Fort Le Boeuf
It is more likely that it was a French name that may have been carried over to English without translation. When the French discovered the creek, it was like nothing the explorers had seen before. The French were so intrigued by the creek that they dubbed it the French name: beau fleuve, meaning beautiful river, or boeuf a leau, meaning oxen or cattle at the water. There is doubt about this theory because, again, there is no concrete evidence and is based solely on speculation that the words were misinterpreted. However, many cities that emerged during this time were named after forts that were built close-by. It was common practice to do this. Buffalo could have very well gotten its name from the French Fort, Ft. Le Boeuf as shown on the map above.
Many researchers argue the French word theory of Buffalo’s name and point to William Ketchum's 1863 "The Name of Buffalo" address to the Buffalo Historical Society as evidence. In his address there is no mention of the French words. Those in favor of the French word theory suggest that because something was not talked about in one man’s account does not mean that it could not have happened. William Ketchum does lead into the last theory discussed about how Buffalo Creek received its name.
Buffalo in Buffalo?
This next theory is quite possibly the most debated upon. The theory about whether the bison had roamed the lands of Western New York. Books and personal accounts, ranging from the pre-recorded history of Western New York to even today, discuss the topic of whether bison (buffalo) were in fact there. Older texts with personal responses suggest that there were no Buffalo in the area.
Most of these personal responses were from the 1820’s and later, which would be well beyond the time of first discovery of Buffalo Creek. Others refute these personal responses with evidence of bison bones being found in nearby areas (Buffalo Fate 43-44). Another claim is from Father Louis Hennipin, who included an unmistakable drawing and description of a bison in a wooded setting from his 1698 book "A New Discovery of a Vast Country In America", describing his travels through the area, during which his party discovered nearby Niagara Falls (Hennipin 146). Native American oral traditions talk about the bison, however the area of where they originated are unclear. It is told, and can be backed that the buffalo had places where they were seen in the Ohio valley. It would not be unheard of for the buffalo to migrate northward in search of more food for their grazing as the buffalo were not seen to have exact migration patterns.
Perhaps the Buffalo Creek got its named from all of the combined factors. It may be a bit farfetched to think, but by sheer coincidence that the French word for ox of the water happened to be Boeuf a Leau. Would it be absurd to believe that the French had seen migrating buffalo coming northward from the Ohio valley at the time they were exploring? It would back the claim of the Seneca fisher who resembled the buffalo and would only reinforce the French dubbing of Boeuf a Leau, a word which resembles our pronunciation of Buffalo today. Believing that the combined effect of all of these circumstances coming together to create the name of Buffalo would not be so hard to believe. There needn’t be one single explanation for how something got its name. This could be the best reason for how Buffalo Creek got its name.
An Old Frontier of France. N.p.: Bigelow Brothers, 1917. Print
Bulletin of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences. Buffalo: Firm of Rdneckc Sc Zocb, 1908. Print
Ingersoll, Ernest. "The Buffalo and His Fate." The Popular Science Monthly Summer 1880: 40-47. Print.
Ketchum, William. AN AUTHENTIC AND COMPREHENSIVE HISTORY OF BUFFALO. Vol. I and II. Buffalo: Rockwell, Baker & Hill, Printers, 1864. Print
Smith, H. Perry. History of Buffalo and Erie County. Vol. I. Syracuse: D. Mason and, 1884. Print.
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Drew Overholt