We know why most cities have their names, but not Buffalo. New York City is named after York, England; Los Angeles is the city of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels; Philadelphia is named for the Greek word for brotherly love; Toronto, for the Mohawk word for a place where trees stand in the water; Detroit and Quebec, respectively, for the French and Algonquin words for narrows; Rochester and Hamilton, for founders of those cities; and so on.
But no one knows why Buffalo is called Buffalo.
Way back in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Senecas called the place Teyohosereron or Das-sho-wa -- Place of the Basswoods. The French called it Rivière aux Chevaux, or River of Horses. But no one seems to have been calling it Buffalo until not long before 1784, when the name appeared in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix.
Mind you, there were small creeks called Rivière aux Boeufs – River of Buffaloes -- along the Lake Erie shoreline in what is today Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier, and even one along Lake Ontario in Orleans County. That leads to the first theory of how Buffalo got its name: Some have guessed that a mapping error led cartographers to mistakenly assign that name to what we now know as the Buffalo Creek or Buffalo River. Others have theorized that Buffalo Creek itself was originally called Rivière aux Boeufs a l'Eau, which sounds like Buffalo, but that too remains speculation.
Another theory, related but more plausible than a mapping error: Bison were known to travel to salt licks in the Buffalo Creek area in the 1600s; in the 1820s some older Seneca men remembered seeing bones of the animals on their land. Could that have been how Buffalo got its name?
Another, funnier theory, from Buffalo silversmith Sheldon Ball in his 1825 pamphlet: “At a period long before its first settlement, a party of French, bound up the Lake, in a bateau, sought shelter in the Creek, being short of provisions, despatched a hunting party, who, while in the search of game, fell in with a horse (belonging, probably, to a neighboring tribe of Indians) that was soon made a sacrifice, by the hungry huntsmen, dressed, and taken to their companions, with the deceptive information, that it was the flesh of a Buffaloe, which they had killed. Hence came the name of Buffalo Creek, and consequently the Village.”
A much later guess at the origin of Buffalo’s name – that it came from a French explorer’s exclamation upon first seeing the Niagara River (quelle beau fleuve!) as it emerges from Lake Erie – is especially spurious. The phrase “Beau Fleuve” doesn’t appear on any French colonial maps of or accounts about the region. Indeed, what has given this fanciful piece of conjecture oxygen is a scene from the 1979 movie “Saint Jack.” In it, Ben Gazzara, a streetwise hustler with an unmistakable New York City accent, picks up a client from an airport in Singapore and claims:
I was born in Buffalo. That’s in New York, near Niagara Falls. … You know how Buffalo got its name? Nuttin’ to do with the animal. Here, lemme – you had a long trip. Well, the French were there first, see? And uh, there’s a river runnin’ through it and they called it beau fleuve – beautiful rivuh? So a coupla Texans musta gotten ahold of it. Beau Fleuve, Bo Fluh, Buffalo, y’know?
That’s no Buffalo accent Gazzara is speaking with. In fact, his Gotham accent is so unapologetically thick it summarily quashes any credibility the beau fleuve hypothesis might have had. (But then again, back in ’79 and ’80, filmmakers and actors didn’t seem to have any idea what actual Buffalonians sound like.)
A more plausible theory was presented to the Buffalo Historical Society in 1863 by William Ketchum, in a paper called “The Origin of the Name of Buffalo.” Ketchum quoted a Seneca resident of Irving, who wrote: “From whence then came the name of Buffalo? The Indian account is substantially this: that many years ago, De-gi-yah-goh (in English, Buffalo), a Seneca Indian of the wolf clan, built a bark cabin on the bank of the Buffalo creek, and lived there many years until his death. His occupation was that of a fisherman … and De-gi-yah-goh was the chief fisherman of the Nation.”
De-gi-yah-goh got his name, according to another area resident who recalled a conversation from 1795, because “the old Indian was a large, square framed man, with stooped shoulders and a large, bushy head, which … made him resemble a Buffalo.” So, the story goes, the waterway came to be known as Buffalo Creek because it was the creek where the man named Buffalo lived.
In any case, it’s unlikely we’ll ever really know how the city of Buffalo got its name. The same is true for a handful of other cities in the Americas with unknown or uncertain etymologies: Tampa, Fla.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Moose Jaw, Sask.; Panama City, Panama; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Montevideo, Uruguay.
And this place, for whose residents the reason why their city is called Buffalo will forever be a mystery.
Cast (in order of appearance):
Storeyteller No. 1: Mike Dugan
Storyteller No. 2: Darleen Pickering Hummert
Storyteller No. 3: Verneice Turner
Storyteller No. 4: Shaun McLaughlin
Narrator: Susan Banks
Sound recording: Omar Fetouh, Michael Peters
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Special thanks to:
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Dave Debo, WBFO news director
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director
Armin St. George, Crosswater Digital Media
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)