Joseph Ellicott


(This 990th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 14, 2010.)



Joseph Ellicott


At the end of my street is Ellicott Creek. In downtown Buffalo we have Ellicott Square Building and in the Southern Tier we have the town of Ellicott and the village of Ellicottville. Does anyone deserve all that recognition?


My answer: absolutely. If anything, we have honored Joseph Ellicott too little. I offer here some historical background in support of that conclusion, based largely on a 2002 account by Patrick Weissend (q.v.).


First, place him in historical context: Ellicott was born in 1760, retired in 1821 and died already incapacitated in 1826. Thus his adult life was essentially bounded by the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 and the completion of the Erie Canal in 1824.


Ellicott belonged to a family of surveyors. His older brother Andrew had worked on the extension west of the incomplete Mason-Dixon line between Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Joseph left a teaching position in Maryland to join his brother to complete the survey of Pennsylvania's western boundary in 1785.


Then in 1789 the brothers were hired to locate the western boundary of New York. Because this line was determined by the longitude of the west end of Lake Ontario, they had to travel to Canada to determine that exact location. On the way they stopped at Niagara Falls to make the first accurate measurement of its height.


Joseph next surveyed in Georgia (where he nearly died from yellow fever), in then new Washington, D.C. and in Pennsylvania.


Having established his reputation, he was hired in mid-1797 by the Holland Land Company as Chief Surveyor for its lands in Western New York. He immediately attended the negotiations with the Seneca Indians that led to the infamous Big Tree Treaty. The agreement ceded 3.3 million acres of land to the United States, which was immediately transferred to the Holland Land Company. Leaving the meeting, Ellicott found himself responsible not only for surveying that land but also laying out the 200,000 acres of Indian reservations.


As soon as the treaty was signed in September, he set out to complete a preliminary survey. He hiked the entire boundary of the property, the last 200 miles through the snow, before retreating to Philadelphia to prepare for the full survey.


In March of 1798, he returned with a veritable army of 150 men to begin the formal survey.


A stickler for accuracy, Ellicott insisted that measurements be made with consistent units, in the process fixing the length of one foot. He also had his brother Benjamin build a portable transit to take exacting astronomical measures. This may not seem so unusual to us today, but the resulting survey was remarkable for its time. In other parts of the United States, surveyors merely laid out property along compass lines and the resulting boundaries have led to complex legal entanglements. Ellicott's lines have, on the other hand, served us very well.


Stone markers were erected along reservation and township boundaries. Many still stand and I urge readers to report their location to me.


Despite setbacks, Ellicott completed what came to be called the Great Survey in October 1800. The cost: $70,921.69 1/2 - more evidence of how detailed was his work.



Western New York State as mapped by Joseph Ellicott


Now the company needed an agent to develop and sell lands. As one of a number of candidates, Ellicott submitted detailed plans. He was hired on November 1, 1800 to begin his 20-year career in this role. By the end of the year he was in not-yet-named Buffalo. His first land office was in the Asa Ransom tavern in Clarence, but in 1802 it was moved permanently to Batavia. The building there now houses the fine Holland Land Office Museum at 131 Main Street, which is well worth a visit.



The Holland Land Office in Batavia, now a museum


Although Ellicott was once described as short-tempered and tactless, he was a generous agent, supporting poor landless families with liberal credit, offering free land to support inns along new roads, and donating money and land for churches and schools. He was also a strong supporter of the Erie Canal, convincing his company to contribute 100,632 acres to the project.


No one has ever contributed more to the map of where we live. Joseph Ellicott deserves our regard.-- Gerry Rising



For more on Joseph Ellicott, see also the essay by Arch Merrill in his Pioneer Profiles.