Erie County History Article


In 1683 New York State was created with ten counties, one of which was Albany. Montgomery County was taken from Albany in 1772; called Tryon for about two years, it was a huge area comprising much of the central and western part of the state. In 1789 Ontario County, most of the western part of the state, was formed from Montgomery. In 1802 Genesee County, all of the state west of the Genesee River and south to Pennsylvania, was taken off. Then in 1808 Niagara County, comprising the territory north of Cattaraugus Creek, was erected from Genesee. Finally, on 2 April 1821, the territory south of Tonawanda Creek was taken off and established as Erie County. Its county seat was Buffalo.

The territory encompassed by Erie County was part of the Holland Land Purchase. Originally claimed by both Massachusetts and New York, the Iroquois Indians had rights to the western lands. The Iroquois territory was recognized as part of New York in 1786, when Massachusetts agreed to give up its claim, but the latter state was to receive payment for the lands if the Iroquois sold them to New York. The Phelps-Gorham Company contracted to buy some of the lands, but was unable to keep up payments to Massachusetts, and that state sold its rights to Robert Morris. Morris, a financier of the American Revolution, purchased some 3,000,000 acres of land in Western New York in 1791, but two years later sold most of the acreage (the western-most portion) to a group of merchants in Holland, who consolidated as the Holland Land Company. After setting aside some 200,000 acres for Indian reservations, they received grants from the Iroquois Indians to the land rights and were able to begin selling their land.

Erie County's territory lies approximately between N42026' and N43006' latitude and W78028' and W79006' longitude.  It is roughly bounded by Tonawanda Creek on the north, the Niagara River and Lake Erie on the west,  Cattaraugus Creek on the south, and Genesee and Wyoming Counties on the east.   It contains about 1058 square miles of land area

When the first white men came into the area around 1620, it was inhabited by Indians. The original tribes, the Kahquahs and the Eries, were annihilated by the tribes of the Iroquois Federation between 1640 and 1655. During the second half of the 1600s, various European adventurers visited the area and even erected several forts, but no permanent white settlements were established. It was not until the very end of the eighteenth century that the Holland Land Company obtained rights to the lands from the Iroquois and began surveying the territory and selling lots.

The original plan called for the surveyors to divide the tract into ranges six miles wide, running from Pennsylvania to Lake Ontario, and numbered from east to west. The ranges were to be subdivided into townships, each six miles square, numbered from south to north. The townships were to be divided into lots, each three-
quarters of a mile square and containing 360 acres. In practice, the lots were sometimes divided into thirds (120 acres) to accommodate purchasers. The town of Lancaster, and the southern parts of the towns of Newstead and Clarence were surveyed and laid out in this fashion, before the plan was abandoned.

Joseph Ellicott, chief surveyor, early in his work decided that the location at the mouth of Buffalo Creek was the most important position. There, he founded the City of Buffalo, originally called New Amsterdam, selecting the site and laying out the town in 1788, after turning the northern boundary of the Buffalo Creek Reservation to leave the town site out of the reservation. Ellicott's Buffalo was completely destroyed by the British and Indians in 1813-1814, but the city was rebuilt at the same location.

In 1799 the Holland Land Company began offering lots along the road from Batavia to Buffalo (now Route 5) for sale at a nominal price to Aany proper men who would build and keep open taverns upon them. Asa Ransom, a Connecticut-born silversmith from Geneva, Ontario County, was the first to accept the offer, locating at Clarence Hollow in 1799. His purchase was the first settlement in Erie County that was legally titled, as all previous settlements had been on sufferance of the Indians. Harry B. Ransom, born 5 November 1799 to Asa and his wife Keziah Keyes, was, in all probability, the first white male child born in Erie County.

In 1804 The Holland Land Company named the entire area from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania the Town of Willink after four of its investors. Then, in 1808, when Niagara County was formed from Genesee County a new Town of Willink was created; it covered the southern part of what is now Erie County and the Town of Clarence covered the northern part.  One by one, new towns were taken off from Willink, the last remaining portion becoming four new towns in 1818.  When Erie County was established in 1821, it comprised the Town of Clarence, the Town of Amherst (taken from Clarence in 1818), and the towns that had formerly been part of the new Town of Willink.

Taken, in part, from:
Smith, H. Perry, Editor, History of the City of Buffalo and Erie County, with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers, two volumes, Syracuse, N.Y., D. Mason Co., 1884, reprinted by Western New York Genealogical Society, Inc., 1976