Joseph Ellicott (1760-1826)
Buffalo traces its beginnings to Joseph Ellicott, who learned surveying from his older brother, Andrew, who assisted in the layout for the new nation’s capital.
He was hired as a surveyor for the Holland Land Co., a consortium of six Dutch banking houses that had purchased 3.5 million acres of Western New York land, including the present site of Buffalo. Beginning in 1797, Ellicott carried out a three-year survey of Holland lands, then became the resident agent for the company, selling land on a commission. In 1800 he moved to the village that was to become Buffalo.
Ellicott laid out a radiating plan for streets that would last for more than 100 years before being altered. He incorporated some of Washington D.C.’s street designs for those of Buffalo, running avenues at acute angles, like spokes radiating from a hub, which became Niagara Square. He was later instrumental in plotting the location of roads and bridges that began to fill in the gaps between settlements in Western New York, facilitating the growth of commerce and settlement.
As seller and land agent, Ellicott believed the way to populate the area was through liberal credit terms. The land would be cleared and populated, thus increasing land values. He offered generous terms and, when buyers could not make payments, he often extended the terms and sometimes forgave interest if they had made improvements. To help stimulate growth in the area he offered some selected parcels free upon condition that the buyer would establish a mill or an inn.
One of the early promoters of the Erie Canal, he served as canal consultant for the state legislature. When the canal reached Rochester, there were those who wanted to stop its westward progression. Ellicott used the formidable political power he had developed over the years to push the canal from Rochester to Buffalo, thereby insuring the city’s prosperity for the next 100 years.