The First Parksiders: the rough-and-tumble Plains Rangers

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Just north of Granger’s place (now Forest Lawn cemetery) along Main Street was the area known as “The Buffalo Plains;” its inhabitants known as “The Plains Rangers.”  This wily group of frontiersmen– most of them veterans of the Revolutionary War– and their families settled and built farms along Main Street. Their homes were generally close to the Buffalo-Williamsville Road, or the main street, but like Granger, their farmlands extended as much as a mile or more to the east or west off Main Street.

These hard working, rough and tumble men cut from the wilderness the area that would become Parkside, Central Park, and the University District, and were the first white men to physically live within the current boundaries of those districts. They were respected, but also somewhat feared by the residents of the village several miles to the south. Barton Atkins described them this way in his 1898 book Modern Antiquities: Sketches of Early Buffalo, “On Buffalo Plains were resident a band of stalwart men noted for their prowess and of their proneness to assert it when the occasion offered.”

The son of an original “Ranger,” Atkins wrote of the initial settlement by the Rangers:

The Plains were originally settled by a colony of farmers from the lake region of Central New York. First to come on a tour of inspection was Samuel Atkins, in 1806, on horseback, traversing Indian trails through a dense forest to Buffalo — not to speculate in village lots, but to purchase farm lands for himself and others who desired to settle near unto the site of the great city that was to arise at the foot of Lake Erie.

Samuel Atkins built a log home and a tavern on the land he purchased, on Main Street north of Hertel Avenue, roughly where the LaSalle Metro Rail station stands today.  Again writes Atkins:

On this property, in 1807, Mr. Atkins erected a majestic structure of logs, consisting of three separate buildings, made so by two dividing passages through the lower story, while the upper story and roof remained intact. The building entire was eighteen by eighty feet on the ground with side thirteen feet high — quite an imposing frontier establishment. Here Mr. Atkins kept a tavern, a house of entertainment for travelers and pilgrims journeying to the new West. Many veterans of the war of the Revolution had settled on the Niagara frontier, and the old log tavern was their headquarters– was where they held their camp-fires and fought their battles anew.

Atkins was joined in 1807 by eight Cayuga County neighbors and their families, including Rowland Cotton, Ephraim Brown and Roswell Hosford. In 1808, the families of Zachary Griffin and Dr. Daniel Chapin also came to Buffalo.  All of these men and their families settled along Main between Granger and what is now the UB area, both on the east and west sides of Main Street.

Ephraim Brown was the oldest of the new settlers of the Buffalo Plains. The war-worn veteran of the Revolution, cane in hand, was a favorite of the youngsters on the Plains. He’d limp along with school children, as the youngsters would gather at his knee– a knee shattered by a musket ball at the Battle of Trenton. They’d hear “Old Mr. Brown” sing, tell stories of his battles, and chant army rhymes from colonial times.   Brown’s homestead and farm where described by Barton Atkins as “opposite the County Almshouse.” The Erie County Almshouse moved in 1909, and the University of Buffalo was built on the land.

Zachary Griffin’s home survived well into the 20th century, and would have been known to the earliest residents of Parkside- as we know it today- as a part of their neighborhood. The following was written in Peace Episodes on the Niagara (Buffalo Historical Society, 1914), about the home on the east side of Main Street.

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In January, 1915, the oldest house in Buffalo was torn down. This was a little one-story structure at No. 2485 Main street, which according to such credible witnesses as the late Washington Russell and Barton Atkins, was built in 1809 by Zachary Griffin. When the New York Central Belt Line Tracks were laid through the district the house as moved about 100 feet northerly from its original site. Probably all of the original structure that endured was the frame of heavy hewn timbers. The story goes that it was spared at the burning of Buffalo, in 1813, because the Indians, by the time they had got as far out as this on the Williamsville road (Main Street), were too much overcome by firewater to do any further harm.

The original site of the house was about opposite Greenfield Street, and when moved, it was about where the Central Park Grill is located. The frontage of the property was split roughly in half when the New York Railroad Beltline tracks were installed in the 1870s. Next door, was the home of the widow Anna Atkins. She moved closer to the Modern Parkside area  in 1817 after the death of her husband Samuel. That means that Barton Atkins, whose works are quoted throughout this history, was among the first children to be born and grow up in the current confines of Parkside.

Captain Rowland Cotton is the other Plains Ranger who owned a large portion of what is today Parkside. He owned the farm just to the north of present Jewett Parkway, and the homestead of Daniel Chapin. Cotton, too, was a Revolutionary War veteran, and was one of only three of the original Plains Rangers who did not make Buffalo home until their death. Cotton sold his plot in 1826, and settled in the Town of Lancaster. His name appears the deeds of those in the northern half of Parkside.

Dr. Daniel Chapin

The most notable Plains Rangers to the people of modern Parkside are the ones who once owned the land upon which they now live. Dr. Daniel Chapin was a veteran of the Revolution, and lived in a log cabin which was built at what is now the corner of Main Street and Jewett Parkway.  His property bordered Erastus Granger and was still considered part of the Flint Hill area.  His property stretched along Main Street from what is now roughly West Oakwood Place to Jewett Parkway. It stretched back to encompass the southern half of the Delaware Park Meadow, and reached to the fringes of the Park (now Hoyt) Lake.

In the early years, Chapin was one of a very few medical doctors anywhere on the Niagara Frontier and like his neighbor Granger, he was an early pillar of the community. An obituary was published in the Rochester Telegraph December 4, 1821:

He was formerly from Salisbury, Ct. He represented the county of Ontario in the legislature of this state, very soon after that county was settled; and was an early settler of this county. He had held the office of judge of common pleas for Niagara county (that is, Buffalo, before Erie County was split off); and various public trusts, with benefit to the community. His reputation as a physician, during a long course of practice has been of honorable standing; and he lived and died an honest man.

Chapin can also be thanked for much of the natural beauty today enjoyed in Delaware Park. His love of nature was written about in the Historical Society’s First Volume on Buffalo History:

The people of this city are much indebted to the Doctor, who was one of the pioneers of Buffalo, for the good taste and judgment exercised in clearing up his farm. Coming on to it in 1806, and ever having an eye to the beauty of native scenery and landscape, he left and always preserved with care, groups and scattered trees of various sizes and kinds, where it would add to its beauty; and we in our park enjoy the benefit of his sentiment and forbearance. He was imbued with the idea of the poet who says, “Woodman, spare that tree;’ and when he could, he always had trees left untouched by the ruthless axe, in order that man and beast should benefit by their shade, and they with their primitive grace ornament his beautiful farm. His son, the late Col. William W. Chapin, always protected and preserved those trees with truly reverential and pious care, in memory of and respect for his honored father, who left the inheritance of the whole farm to him on his decease. Without that inherited taste, he, like most of the early settlers, would have denuded the land of every tree; and that portion of our park would have been a barren expanse of mere farming land; for a large portion of this old farm now constitutes the most interesting part of our beautiful park. As one rides through it, especially that portion I speak of, he cannot help noticing those groups of trees and scattered monarchs of the forest within and on the borders of the extensive Park Meadow; beautiful reminders of those thoughtful and tasteful former proprietors.

An important historical figure in the Finger Lakes area as well as Parkside, he is written about by the Bloomfield Historical Society:

Dr. Daniel came to Buffalo village in 1807 from Bloomfield, put up a log house on the outskirts of the village, and established a large practice, visiting his patients on foot, with a dog and a gun, often traveling trails as far as Niagara Falls. Dr. Chapin died in 1821 at 60, his death due to exposure in visiting a patient.

The varied accounts of Chapin’s death all point to the difficult life on the frontier north of Buffalo. The obituary from the Rochester Telegraph, which states it was reprinted from a Buffalo paper, says Chapin was 61 and died of “a lingering disease.” Another source, A Biographical Sketch of Josiah Trowbridge (1869), he another early Buffalo doctor, states that Chapin’s death was “partly induced by the many and continued exposures incident to the practice of his profession in times when it required an amount of personal courage, self-denial, and hardship but little understood by us of the present day.”

©2009 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

This page is an excerpt from
The Complete History of Parkside
by Steve Cichon

The 174-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York.