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What’s in a name? Origin of Buffalo is a mystery

Mar 10, 2017

The name Buffalo Creek was used as early as 1780, Mingus writes. Treaties from 1784, 1789 and 1794 also cite that name, and settlers were using the name for the settlement as well by 1791. Among the most common theories about why it was called that is that buffalo were found in the vicinity of the creek during the years before settlement. There are historical references to buffalo being found along the shores of Lake Erie, but there’s no proof of a link with the creek’s name.

Another theory is that, like many other settlements in northern New York and Canada, the name was related to an Indian word. Buffalo possibly could be a mispronunciation of the Indian word for buffalo. But Mingus considers this unlikely, since the Indian name for the creek, while it refers to the dense basswood trees that lined the creek, doesn’t seem phonetically related to the word buffalo.

Mingus also discounts a theory that the name was derived from a French phrase, “beau fleuve,” that means beautiful river. Another French phrase, “boeuf a leau,” meaning cattle at the water, is also advanced as a possible source of the creek’s name. While both of those phrases sound plausible, Mingus says it’s difficult to attribute them, because they did not surface as theories until long after the city’s early days. An address to the Buffalo Historical Society in 1863 by William Ketchum, which recounted theories about the city’s name, did not mention the French phrases. Ketchum, a fur and hat merchant and one of the founders of the Bank of Buffalo, was the city’s 14th mayor.

Mingus thinks the most likely origin of the name points toward a Seneca fisherman whose Indian name translates as Buffalo. This tribesman, a member of the Wolf clan, was said to be a big, stocky man with a large, bushy head that looked like a buffalo’s. This man lived in a basswood cabin beside the creek and became known as the chief fisherman for the Seneca. Because of the prominence of the Seneca man, natives and nonnatives as well referred to the stream as Buffalo’s Creek. This story was documented by Capt. Daniel Dobbins, a merchant mariner, who said it was told to him by Cornelius Winney, an early resident.

Although no one’s certain how the village came to be called Buffalo, the name stuck, even after the Holland Land Company named the new town New Amsterdam when the city was laid out in 1803. It has had many nicknames whose origins we do know, including these:

City of Trees: When Buffalo’s parkways, circles and parks were laid out by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, its avenues were lined by thousands of trees. The green canopies earned the city this designation.

City of Light: Buffalo earned this nickname at the time of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, when it was a major American city in the forefront of technology. The exposition highlighted Buffalo’s technological progress.

Queen City: At the time of the exposition, Buffalo was the biggest and most prosperous city on the Great Lakes and a major trading port. It was also termed the Queen City of America in those days.

City of No Illusions: This name was part of a logo designed by graphic artist Michael Morgulis. The logo, emblazoned on T-shirts you’ll still find everywhere, was created for the University of Buffalo’s American Studies program. It’s been Buffalo’s unofficial slogan since 1977 and reflects the city’s down-to-earth attitude.

Nickel City: There’s no doubt about why the 5-cent coins produced from 1913 to 1938 were called buffalo nickels—the featured the visage of a Native American on one side and a bison on the other. Buffalonians appropriated the nickname of this cool coin for their city. A few of these coins are still in circulation, but most have been snagged by collectors. Heavily circulated, dateless buffalo nickels aren’t worth much—10 to 50 cents, rare dates and varieties in good or fine condition can bring much more.

City of Good Neighbors: This one seems pretty self-explanatory. It reflects Buffalo’s sense of community, pride and friendship.

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