John Fagant - Table of Contents

The Settlers of WNY
Late 1780’s to early 1790’s

By John Fagant
In the summer of 1787, Silas Hopkins, a young man living in New Jersey, teamed up with his father and several others to drive a herd of cattle to the Niagara Frontier. Drovers, as they were called, were becoming frequent visitors to Western New York.  Entering the state at New town & Horseheads (near Elmira) they traveled the well-known Indian trail to Catherine’s Town on Seneca Lake (Watkins Glen),  Little Beard’s Village  (near Cuylerville), Canandaigua, round the "great bend of the Tonawanta" , following the creek into the Tonawanda Village and finally the Niagara peninsula.

Located in what is now the city of Batavia, the great bend of the Tonawanda Creek was a noted & important overnight camping ground with a grassy clearing along the north bank. Two traditional Native American footpaths bisected here - one in the east-west direction, the other in the north-south - known today as routes 5 & 63.   
Prior to their arrival on the Niagara Frontier, the last white person seen on the journey was at New Town. However, according to Hopkins, they had no issues with the Native Americans along the way: 
"We were well treated by the Indians. They had a custom of levying a tribute upon all drovers, by selecting a beeve from each drove as they passed through their principal towns."

Upon reaching the Lewiston-Queenston area, the drovers sold their cattle to the settlers in Queenston and to the British soldiers guarding the portage & Fort Niagara. Hopkins estimated that nearly all the settlers on the Canadian side of the river were former members of the Loyalist group Butler’s Rangers, a name that sent terror through the American colonists living on the frontier during the years of the Revolution. Many of the rangers had been given plots of land by the British government as payment for service.
Silas Hopkins returned the next summer - 1788 - and noted the presence of a settler family.  "The only white inhabitant at Lewiston then was Middaugh. He kept a tavern - his customers, the Indians, and travelers on their way to Canada." Martin Middaugh was a Dutch cooper from the "North River" or Hudson River Valley.  It is not certain when Middaugh and his family arrived in Lewiston but "when they first came they occupied one of the old houses left by the Mohawks." Middaugh will soon reappear as a WNY settler, but next time it will be in the early village of Buffalo.
The business of being a drover was not only a difficult one but also a dangerous one. During this time period — the late 1780’s to the early 1790’s - the route taken from Pennsylvania to the Niagara Frontier was very busy with drovers and travelers immigrating to Canada. The route was also populated with thieves who prowled around looking for that lone traveler. Drovers returning home were prime targets as they now carried money & furs in place of the cattle. It made good sense for the drovers to travel home together for the safety that strength in numbers gave.
Silas Hopkins related in his memoirs an incident that took place as he traveled home one year.
"In 1790, after I had sold a drove of cattle at Lewist ... I met with John Street. …He was going to Massachusetts and said he should like my company through the wilderness, as far as Geneva. Waiting a few days, and he not getting ready, I started without him. He followed in a few days, and was murdered at a spring… When I came up the next season, I camped at the spring. Some fragments of Mr. Street’s clothes were hanging upon the bushes. His body had been discovered by some travelers … Their dog brought them a leg with a boot upon it."

Hopkins eventually settled down in the Lewiston - Cambria area, dedicating much of his time to the public service including a judgeship in later life. He died in 1862.

So what was going on at the opposite end of the Niagara River? While drovers and immigrants were busy and active traveling through what is now Niagara County, what signs of life and activity were there around the Buffalo Creek region just prior to the mass arrival of the whites?  

Across the river was the British post of Fort Erie. It was described in a not so flattering tone as "a small stockaded post, adjoining which are extensive stores and about half a dozen miserable little dwellings."

The Seneca village on Buffalo Creek had occasional visitors. Col Thomas Proctor, a United States Commissioner, visited in 1791:
"We arrived at Buffalo Creek having traveled through a country of exceeding rich land…  The principal village of Buffalo belongs to the Seneca Nation and in it Young King and Farmer’s Brother reside: as also Red Jacket, the great speaker… On my entering the village there were numbers of Indians collected at the hut where we alighted from our horses.  I found that they were far better clothed than those Indians were at a greater distance, owing entirely to the immediate intercourse they have with the British… from Fort Niagara and … from Fort Erie."

 In June of 1795, La Rouchafoucauld Liancourt, a French nobleman, desiring to see a large Indian village, arrived and wrote his impressions:
"The Indian village of Buffalo, situated four miles from Lake Erie, is inhabited by the Senecas. … We had been assured that we would find a collection of eighty houses, but we did not see more than forty. The remainder were scattered along the creek for many miles. Those we saw were situated on very fertile plains, judging from the herbage they produced…. The whole country is filled with miry & pestilential swamps. We have not seen any fever among the Indians, as they are less subject to them than the whites."