Who Was Buffalo’s First Woman Property Owner?

I don’t recall anyone ever identifying the first woman to acquire property in the city of Buffalo so I set out to find her. The Holland Land Company, which had title to what are now the eight counties of western New York, began selling lots to settlers in 1801. Many Buffalonians reading this will find the name of one of the principals of the Holland Land Company on their deeds. Often it is Wilhelm Willink.

What makes women property owners unusual at this time is that once they married, they could not buy, hold, or sell property under their own names. On their wedding day, by law, husbands automatically acquired all right and title to whatever land or fortunes women brought to the marriage.

This did not change in New York State until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848. This law granted married women the same right as unmarried women to buy, hold, and sell property in their own names. No longer were husbands able to take control of wives’ land or money. New York was the first state to pass such a law and it was an important landmark in the emancipation of American women.

The first place I looked for our woman property owner was Tobias Witmer’s Deed Tables…in the County of Erie, originally published in 1859 and reprinted in 1981. I wish it was online for free, but it is not. Our link shows which libraries have a copy. Here is a list of more early lot holders in Buffalo.

The first feminine name I found was Letitia M. Ellicott (1782-1864), daughter of Andrew Ellicott and niece of Joseph Ellicott. On May 6, 1811, at the age of 29, she purchased a half acre in one of Buffalo’s inner (downtown) lots, next to Juba Storrs. It is possible that she did not spend much time in Buffalo; she was reportedly born and died in Pennsylvania.

Source: Witmer, Tobias. Deed tables…in the county of Erie, as sold by the Holland Land Company, the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company, and the State of New York. Knightstown, IN : The Bookmark, 1981, 1859, p. 4

Letitia’s half-acre was on lot 48, between what is now Main (Van Staphorst), Eagle, Clinton (Cazenovia), and Pearl (Cayuga). Today it is the site of the Main Place Mall.

Map of Buffalo in 1805, drawn by the Matthews-Northrup Company, probably in the 20th century
Map courtesy of Buffaloah.org and Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo, based on the original drawn by Juba Storrs

Her parcel was still vacant just before the burning of Buffalo in 1813.

Letitia Ellicott married John Bliss at West Point in 1819. He served as a captain in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. His military career took them to several cities but she must had a fondness for Buffalo because she is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery with her husband. I was unable to find a portrait of Letitia.

Try These Five Simple Tricks to Get Research Assistance

What we want to do here is help you, the person with local history, family history, or house history questions, get help from libraries, archives, museums, colleges & universities, historical organizations, government record offices, and genealogical societies; all the organizations that might have old stuff. Especially those located somewhere other than where you can visit in person. We’ll refer to them collectively as repositories.

What you think of as a simple request for information is actually a request for labor. If everything was digitized and online, then your search engine results would suffice. The repository you contact probably has to do in-person, by-hand retrievals and searches of pictures, letters, microfilm, maps, or other offline, undigitized stuff to find your answer. Fortunately, they often know of online resources that aren’t found by search engines and may be able to refer you to stuff that you didn’t know was online. Large institutions can tap into proprietary databases to which they subscribe.

Most historical & genealogical organizations are small and have no paid staff. Sometimes they don’t have enough volunteers to keep up with inquiries. Their volunteers may be staying home in the pandemic.

Having a big budget doesn’t always solve this problem. Large, high-profile institutions get a correspondingly high volume of requests. Their staff may be laid off or working from home during the pandemic. We know of an Ivy League university who rations the time librarians spend on outside inquiries to 20 minutes per request. They actually use timers.

The desire for free labor will always exceed the supply. Here are five simple tricks to make the most of the limited time that someone can commit to your question.

Reach out by email if possible.

The tweet below explains why Calling a repository on the phone may
not be the ideal way to get the information you are seeking.
“My whole professional life until I learned to speak the truth–I can’t effectively listen,
participate, and take good notes at the same time.” –Christin Driscoll

Try This Rationale
1. Reach out by email if possible. The information you seek probably has to be delivered electronically anyway, so you might as well start out electronically. Google the repository and use their Contact Us page. The repository will then have a legible, searchable written request to work from. They will have the correct spelling of your name. It prevents bouncing emails because someone incorrectly spelled out or transcribed an email address given over the phone.When you call with a complex request, you’re not only asking for someone to analyze your needs and determine on the spot if their repository can be of help, you’re also asking them serve as your stenographer. Save the telephone requests for the computer-naive, people with disabilities, and those without internet access. A repository can always ask to speak with you on the phone if it would work better for them.
2. Not sure who can help you at an organization? Pick up to three likely-sounding departments or staffers to send your inquiry to. Trust them to forward it if a co-worker can better answer your question. And give it a few days. Some questions take more time than others. No one has an empty In box.We understand the temptation to Cc everyone at the Contact Us page as an insurance policy, but it increases the chances that your inquiry will land in spam folders. It also creates extra labor for the person whose help you need. Now they have to acknowledge all the forwards from peers & superiors, which cuts into the time they could be using on your inquiry.
3. Repositories need to figure out what you don’t know about X, not what you do know, in order to determine if they can help you. You do not have to have a lengthy family history narrative ready. Reach out when you’ve identified which gap(s) in your knowledge you hope to rectify.Government record offices which require next-of-kin relationship to release certain records will let you know. At non-governmental organizations, the individual you’re researching can be your ancestor, or not. The building you’re researching can be your property, or not. No personal connection or recitation of the forebears is required.
4. Focus on up to three life events, or up to three names, or up to three documents per request. For example, “Do you have obituaries for John & Mary Smith?” “Do you have pictures of these three addresses?” Less is more when it comes to getting your request filled.No one is born knowing how to do family or house history research. Repositories know that and want to help you anyway. But if the only way you can answer questions about what you’re trying to find out about X is “Anything, anything!”, then we suggest starting out with a researcher for hire.
5. When you can finish the sentence, “Well, what I’m really looking for is…”, then you’ve greatly increased the chances that someone can help you. You may even get a hug.Example: if you want to learn where a factory was located and when it closed down, we encourage you to skip impossibly broad openers such as “Do you have anything on old businesses?” Indirect questions produce indirect answers.

Bonus tip: Our Guide to Vital and Archival Records in Buffalo and Erie County will help you identify which repository has what you’re looking for.

Remembering City’s Martyr in Fight Against Klan

Originally published as a My Voice column in the Buffalo News, December 7, 2017. It has since been lightly edited. Portrait of Edward Obertean courtesy of the Buffalo Courier, Sept. 3, 1924.


As white supremacists and neo-Nazis explode across headlines and screens, I thought back to events in Buffalo from 1922-1925. We were one of several otherwise progressive Northern cities that experienced a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

One of the most inspiring books about Buffalo history is Shawn Lay’s Hooded Knights on the Niagara (1995). He recounts the full story of Buffalo’s successful battle with the Klan. I am indebted to him for these highlights.

The Buffalo Klan members were not rural, undereducated whites with poor economic prospects. Here, the Klan’s 4,000 members were drawn mostly from the Protestant, educated, professional and merchant middle class. Their office was in the Calumet building on Chippewa and their base was the Delaware District.

This demographic joined the Klan because it picked a very specific battle that resonated with them. The Buffalo Klan apparently decided that it would not gain much ground by attacking African-Americans or Jews, though these communities did organize in opposition to it. Instead, the Buffalo Klan focused on lax enforcement of Prohibition.

The 18th Amendment, banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, was heavily supported by Protestants, who associated alcohol abuse with Roman Catholics and immigrants.

Buffalo’s first Catholic mayor, Francis X. Schwab, had just been elected. Schwab, who was German-American, owned a brewery that was caught selling alcohol. During Prohibition, the booze flowed freely in Buffalo. This incensed the city’s Protestant elites. They flocked to this new organization, which promised civic improvement and fraternal fellowship.

The battle lines were drawn: Protestant vs. Catholic; native vs. immigrant; upper class vs. working class. Recognizing the Klan as a mortal enemy, Schwab recruited an undercover officer to infiltrate the Buffalo chapter. Someone, probably recruited by Schwab, burgled the Buffalo Klan office and stole the membership list. It ended up on display at police headquarters. Buffalonians flocked downtown by the thousands to look for names of friends and associates. It was then published as a pamphlet, a copy of which survives in the Buffalo History Museum and is now online at NYHeritage.org.

Embarrassed by the exposure, the Klan sent its own investigator, Thomas Austin, to Buffalo. Austin soon figured out who Mayor Schwab’s spy was: Officer Edward Obertean. On Aug. 31, 1924, in front of 128 Durham St., Austin confronted Obertean. Both men drew weapons, exchanged gunfire, and died. Edward Obertean was 35 years old. He was Catholic.

Buffalo has never properly recognized our martyr in the fight against the Klan and the bigotry and hatred for which it stands.

As plans proceed to convert the Dillon Federal Courthouse on Court Street into Buffalo Police Department headquarters, I propose renaming it the Edward Obertean Building. It would be a powerful statement that we embrace the highest and best American values in the City of Good Neighbors. Let’s give our hero something more lasting than a column in the daily newspaper.


Sign the petition to name the new public safety building after Edward Obertean

If All of Buffalo Read About the Klan

Buffalo Takes on the Ku Klux Klan

Was the Michigan Street Baptist Church a Secret Hiding Place?

Originally published in the Buffalo News, June 13, 2013 with the headline Search Through Time Turns Up Surprises. It has since been updated and expanded.


The proud new owners had been told that Grover Cleveland was a regular guest at their property. I helped them find the building permit for their address—dated 1915. Grover Cleveland died in 1908.

In my own family, we learned of a half-sibling whose existence was secret for 50 years. It was a shock to discover that I was the 4th of four daughters instead of the 3rd of three. We found our new sister and it has been a joy.

Not everyone is so fortunate. I know of genealogists being shunned by relatives after discovering inconvenient facts that toppled beloved family legends. For decades, the descendents of Thomas Jefferson indignantly rejected the story that he had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, until DNA evidence proved the Heming descendents right.

Our city faces a similar conflict over history. The professional historians who compiled the 2013 Historic Structures Report of the Michigan Street Baptist Church were unable to find any period evidence that the church served as a hiding place during Underground Railroad days, though it furthered the cause in other equally important ways. Providing concealment is not the only possible way to assist someone who is escaping from slavery, someone who could be hungry, thirsty, cold, or sick. The report rightly documents and emphasizes the church’s local and national significance, which dwarf this one claim.

I assisted with research for this report and my peer-reviewed article on the Underground Railroad in Buffalo is cited in it. Around 2005, I started looking for eyewitness or period accounts confirming the church’s story, which first appeared in print in 1936, 70-plus years after the fact. Wouldn’t that be one of the greatest discoveries in Buffalo history? I also came up empty-handed.

Instead, I found a revealing counter-narrative. Frederick Douglass Paper of January 4, 1855 carried an extraordinary letter mentioning the Underground Railroad by name, signed by George Weir, Jr. of Buffalo. Weir described eight “passengers” from Kentucky appearing at his doorstep at “an early hour.” He conducted them to “a public house kept by one of our people.” He and Phoenix Lansing, a barbershop owner, then had a sleigh take them to the Black Rock Ferry, whereupon they were delivered to Canada.

We learn four important things from this letter:

  1. George Weir, who was African-American, could read and write. Recent suggestions that oral legend is the only possible evidence of the church’s history underestimate the level of literacy in this community. Buffalo’s African-Americans first established literary societies in the 1830s.
  2. George Weir felt safe publicizing his and Lansing’s efforts and full names. Indeed, the Provincial Freeman, a Canadian abolitionist newspaper published by Mary Ann Shadd Carey, the first African-American woman to publish a newspaper in North America, reported on Dec. 8, 1855, that the Fugitive Slave Law was “a dead letter” (not being enforced) in Buffalo.
  3. George Weir took his guests to a public place, making no effort to conceal them.
  4. Most importantly, George Weir’s father was Pastor George Weir, Sr., of the Vine Street AME Church, known today as Bethel AME. Why didn’t Weir use his father’s church? I believe that it was simply because the church lacked what his guests needed most: food, drink, and in the middle of a Buffalo winter: heat. In 1855, safe 24/7 mechanical heating systems were not invented yet. Heat came from wood or coal stoves. Left unattended in an empty building, a burning stove not only wasted expensive fuel but might ignite your building.

Nothing in Weir’s letter disproves the Michigan Street Baptist Church’s hiding place story, but it does challenge almost everything we think we know about the Underground Railroad in Buffalo. History sometimes behaves in unpredictable ways.


More about the Underground Railroad from this author

We’re on Twitter

Our Twitter Page. You know what to do.

How Come No One Has Old Pictures of My House?

Illustration of woman with camera courtesy of Pixabay

Or maybe you’re looking for an old picture of your playground, corner tavern, or favorite neighborhood deli. The first places to check are your local library, museum, and historical society. Maybe it turns out that they have thousands of old pictures but they don’t have your house or your deli or your tavern. Why not? Isn’t that their job?

For an organization to provide an old photograph, five things need to happen, in this order:

  1. Someone has to take a photograph of that person, place, thing, or event. Today, thanks to advanced cell phones, nearly all of us carry portable cameras everywhere we go. We can take unlimited numbers of instant, good-quality color pictures and videos without having to pay for film, developing, printing, sharing, or storage. Consider this thought experiment: even though photography is now free, what are all the things did you NOT take pictures of today? This may help you appreciate the pictures that our predecessors did not take, back when they were limited by bulky cameras, 12 to 36 exposures per roll of film, and the expense of developing and printing or hiring a professional photographer. There is no guarantee that someone with a camera was present to document any particular person, place, thing, or moment. Even newspapers and broadcast outlets, who have full-time photographers & videographers on staff, cannot be everywhere.
  2. Someone has to save that photograph. And not discard it or lose it in a fire or a flood.
  3. Someone has to ID that photograph. Ever inherit photos of long-dead ancestors and wonder who those people were because no one wrote names & dates on the back? Old photographs are useless without metadata, a word that means “information about information.” In the case of photographs, metadata is everything you hope is written on the back: who, what, where, when. Unidentified photographs often end up in recycle bins or yard sales. They make delightful decor and art project fodder but they’re of little value to researchers, libraries, archives, or museums.
  4. Someone has to donate that photograph. No matter how good a curator, archivist, or librarian is, they cannot find a photo if it exists only in a shoebox in someone’s closet. They cannot make that someone fork it over. Granted, some municipalities commissioned photographs of all properties in their jurisdiction for tax purposes. New York City did so. I know of no such effort at Buffalo City Hall. If your city or town government, with all of its logistical, labor, and funding advantages, did not attempt any mass photography projects like this, you can assume that a small library or historical organization, which might have few employees or an all-volunteer crew, also never accomplished it.
  5. Someone has to catalog or inventory that photograph. There’s a saying among librarians, archivists & curators: ownership is not access. An organization that owns a dozen boxes of photos donated by Mr. Smith stacked in a storage room has an inaccessible collection. They cannot tell you if there’s a picture of your house in one of those boxes until someone goes through those boxes and compiles an inventory and imposes some sort of order on them. Once the organizing and metadata labor (called processing or arrangement and description) is done, then they can consider digitizing a photographic collection. Which is a big topic for another time.

If these five steps have not occurred, then a repository cannot supply the old photo that you need. Here are some other picture research strategies to consider.


Buffalo Takes on the Ku Klux Klan

On the evening on August 31, 1924, shots rang out in front of 128 Durham Street, near Delavan and Grider in Buffalo. Moments later, Special Officer Edward C. Obertean lay mortally wounded; Klansman Thomas Austin was dead; and a Ku Klux Klan recruiter, or Kleagle, had a gunshot wound in the groin. Armed warfare had broken out in the streets in Buffalo. How had it gotten to this point?

Originally published in Western New York Heritage Magazine, vol. 15, no. 3, Fall 2012.
This essay draws heavily from Hooded Knights on the Niagara (1995).

Back Cover Blurb for City on the Edge

Originally published in 2007.

It is easy to dismiss Buffalo as the poster child of urban decrepitude and dysfunction.  It is also wrong. Mark Goldman resurrects Buffalo’s forgotten role on the cutting edge of the literary, artistic, and musical avant-garde. Here is how Buffalo, much to the envy of Boston, peacefully and successfully implemented a court-ordered school desegregation program. Here is how Buffalo, with diminishing resources and little outside help, saved some of America’s finest architectural treasures; and how Buffalo integrated one of its most desirable neighborhoods without rancor or white flight.

Author James Howard Kunstler, a noted critic of suburban sprawl, has argued that after decades of massive investment in suburban expansion, the result is places not worth caring about, not worth defending. In City on the Edge, Goldman shows us a city that, even after massive disinvestment, survives as an inspiring and magical place worth caring about and worth defending.

Goldman tells the story of a passionate and committed citizenry betrayed by inept if not corrupt leadership. On the one hand, City on the Edge is a painful history of desperate politicians who squandered scarce dollars on worthless if not damaging development, which resulted in sickeningly gleeful architectural and urban amputation. It is also homage to a city blessed like few others with engaged caretakers and activists, people who stay and fight to mend the city they love. Goldman’s final chapter is an anthem to the extraordinary sense of place that seizes the hearts and minds of those who are lucky enough to make Buffalo their home.  

Goldman’s Buffalo is a city on the edge of rediscovery, renewal, and regeneration—if only its officials will respect the leadership, wisdom, and passion of its citizens. Read it and be prepared to discard your most cherished stereotypes.

Thoughts on Little Libraries

Free Book Exchange, corner of Grant & Lafayette outside Sweetness_7 Café, Buffalo, NY, December 2011. Photo by author, (c)2011, all rights reserved. This essay was originally published at LinkedIn in May 2019. It has been lightly edited.

Because Little Free Library™ (LFL) is a trademarked brand, for the purposes of this article, I will call book boxes on posts Little Libraries (LLs). 

Over the 2018 Labor Day weekend, I got the idea to do a Google map of LLs in Buffalo, which I later expanded to Erie County. Several LLs had appeared in my neighborhood and most were not registered with the international LFL organization, so they did not appear on the official LFL map. It was a fun holiday project that grew into an ongoing spatial record of LL activity.

In May 2019, the Elmwood Village Association asked if they could incorporate my LL addresses into their own map. I agreed on the grounds that I get credited, with a link back. BuffaloRising.com, in turn, ran a story on the two maps, including a screenshot and link to my map. Whereupon debate ensued in the comments. I decided to post a single response here, rather than exchange tit-for-tat with testy BuffaloRising readers.

LLs are a creative solution to the fact that in many places, book supply exceeds demand. There are more books than there are collectors or libraries or used bookstores or rummage sales who want or need them.

At the LLs I frequent, the selection is usually popular fiction and children’s books. Once everyone who is likely to read the latest bestseller has read the latest bestseller, thousands of surplus copies will be available. Their market value is negligible. Most fiction has a short shelf life and minimal lasting significance, research value, or long-term collectability. It makes sense to give these books away.

Most LLs are voluntarily erected at a private expense on private property. The vast majority of Buffalo LLs I mapped are on residential property, a front lawn adjacent to the sidewalk. If people installed them on the tree lawn between the sidewalk and street, which is public property, the City could legally remove them, though in the absence of safety or nuisance issues, I hope they would not bother.

There is no centralized agency that funds LLs or capriciously concentrates them in well-off neighborhoods. The official Little Free Library organization does have a grant program to fund installations in marginalized neighborhoods, however, and they underwrite around a dozen per month.

While searching online for LL mentions in Buffalo, I learned of four organized LL campaigns. Two were led by neighborhood associations, which explains two of the clusters on my map. It would fall outside the geographic scope of their mission to install LLs anywhere other than the areas they serve.

  1. In 2013, the Parkside Community Association organized an LL program
  2. In 2016, the University Heights Collaborative held a fundraiser to support LLs in the University district
  3. In 2017, the Buffalo Architectural Foundation ran a design competition with the goal of placing LLs in low-income Buffalo neighborhoods
  4. From 2016-2018, Slow Roll Buffalo installed some LLs in low-income neighborhoods

At the moment, LLs are a popular lawn accessory, just as artificial ponds were the must-have garden feature 15 years ago. If I could map artificial ponds in Buffalo backyards, I imagine that the densest clusters of them would pretty much line up with the densest clusters of LLs. Both are markers of disposable income. The difference is that LLs are easier to maintain than pondlets and offer public rather than private enjoyment.

While LLs are charming, they are no help to anyone who needs to do meaningful research: school reading assignments, term papers, local history, family history, job-hunting, health & medicine, learning English, studying for your citizenship exam. They do not offer free computer and internet access, proprietary database access, personal how-do-I-find-X advice, computer training classes, story hours, maker spaces, book clubs, e-books, kids’ activities, copy machines, all the things offered by public libraries. LLs may offer random recreational reading but they do not provide professional librarians. I think most people understand this.

At this point I should mention Free Book Exchanges. They predate LLs and a few appeared here in Buffalo. In addition to the one I photographed in 2011, I recall another Free Book Exchange on Allen at Franklin. What I don’t recall is any opposition. The only difference between a Free Book Exchange and a Little Library is branding: LLs appropriate the library name and its dense web of associations.

Which brings us to the heart of the debate at BuffaloRising. Readers criticized LLs on the ground that they represent yet another maldistribution of resources and their existence might embolden funders to cut public library budgets. This fear is articulated in an essay that ran at CityLab in 2017:

“We submit that these data reinforce the notion that [Little Free Libraries] are examples of performative community enhancement, driven more so by the desire to showcase one’s passion for books and education than a genuine desire to help the community in a meaningful way.”

“The journal article names one place where Little Free Library exchanges may have grown at the expense of the public library system. In September 2014, the mayor of tiny Vinton, Texas, announced plans to install five Little Free Library book-stops across town—while implementing a $50 fee for access to the El Paso Public Library system to balance state-imposed budget cuts.”

The authors accused LL owners of “virtue signaling,” which makes me wonder: if installing a free book box in your front yard is virtue signaling, then what is working in an actual library or serving on its board? Virtue broadcasting?

In any event, yes, there are bad actors who promote bad ideas. Like this author at Forbes magazine, who argued that it’d be cheaper to shut down public libraries and just give everyone Amazon digital services.

The backlash was loud and swift.

Another bad idea is that we don’t need public libraries now that we have the internet. This bad idea long predates the advent of LLs and will continue to rear its ugly head after the Little Library fad has peaked. Why this is a bad idea is the subject for another essay, but here is just one of many arguments.

While it is true that LLs are concentrated in wealthy neighborhoods who do not lack for book access, the claim that LLs might inspire public library budget cuts has little merit. Garage sales have not put AmVets out of business. The Lexington Co-op has not closed down because of church & school bake sales. Annual neighborhood and park clean-up days do not inspire sanitation worker layoffs. Individuals taking in stray animals does not prompt anyone to defund the SPCA.

I suspect that had the Free Book Exchange name been widely adopted instead of Little Free Library™, no one would worry that they would inspire budget cuts to public libraries. Today’s debate is an unintended consequence of appropriating the library brand.

If you want to see more LLs in low-income neighborhoods, then by all means find someone who is willing to host one on their property–a family, church, business, or nonprofit. If you initiate or underwrite the installation of one, adopt it for the long haul and commit to keeping it stocked. Discard and replace books that are worn, damaged, or sit for weeks unclaimed.

Just don’t argue that Little Libraries are bad and there should be more of them.

No, City Hall Has Not Lost Records in a Fire

Originally published at my LinkedIn page in December 2019, then reprinted by BuffaloRising.com with the title Buffalo’s Newest Urban Legend at both sites. Reproduced here with edits and updates. Article about 1863 fire added in January 2022. Image of Buffalo City Hall courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


The assertion first came to my attention in 2018 in the comment section at a popular Buffalo website. Then some folks expressed it to me in person. We may be witnessing the birth of a brand new urban legend in Buffalo, specifically:

“City Hall had a fire and all of the records were destroyed.”

We were talking about doing Buffalo house research when this claim was conveyed to me. My informants then, and those who have expressed it since then, have heard it from landlords, relatives, and contractors at public works projects.

Let’s start at the beginning. For over a decade now, the City of Buffalo has made available online a free searchable property database, which they call the Online Assessment Roll System (OARS).

If you spend much time poking around in OARS, you notice a curious pattern: the majority of houses apparently went up in 1900! Statistically speaking, this just isn’t likely. Buffalo wasn’t built in a year. What’s up with that chronic 1900 build date?

Enter the Fire Theory. Maybe it goes something like this: If that 1900 build date is the wrong information, it must be because City Hall doesn’t have the right information. If City Hall doesn’t have the right information, it must be because records were lost or destroyed. If the records were destroyed, there must have been a fire.

This is a plausible hypothesis. Lots of courthouses and government buildings have suffered catastrophic fires, resulting in losses of all kinds of records. One of the most famous was the 1921 fire in the Commerce Building in Washington, DC, that destroyed the 1890 census. It occurred before the invention of inexpensive reproduction technologies such as microfilm and copy machines, so there were no copies housed (or, as we would say today, backed up) elsewhere. Another was the 1911 State Capitol fire in Albany which destroyed most of the New York State Library collection.

The good news for researchers is that there are two flaws with the Fire Theory.

The good news for researchers is that there are two flaws with the Fire Theory. First flaw: We all know that the little village of Buffalo was burned by the British in the War of 1812, right? After 1812, my research has turned up only two minor fires in City Hall.

The first one was in January 1863. “None of the city records, however were destroyed in the [City Clerk’s] department. We understand that some papers in the Auditor’s and Comptroller’s office were consumed.” The City Clerk is the designated record-keeper for city government. The Assessor’s office, where tax records are kept, was not damaged.

Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, January 24, 1863, p. 3

Here it is the only other fire in a Buffalo government building that I could find:

Buffalo Evening News, April 23, 1907

If you have a Newspapers.com subscription, you can now search the full text of Buffalo newspapers from 1811-1923. You will find lots of articles about city hall & courthouse fires in other cities and states, which suggests that when something like this does happen, it makes national news.

This Index of Buffalo Fires, 1850-1977, provided by the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, cites no fires in municipal buildings.

Had a major City Hall fire happened here, it would have had front page headlines. It would have been reported in other cities.

Had a major City Hall fire happened here, it would have had front page headlines. It would have been reported in other cities. It would have been an ongoing story as the scope of damage was assessed, salvage and clean-up began, repair budgets were approved, and so on. A record-destroying catastrophe would be easily substantiated with period sources, like the fact that Buffalo was burned during the War of 1812. Now that we have a growing selection of digitized newspapers, this kind of claim is more easily proved or disproved.

Second flaw with the Fire Theory: A quick look at the records housed in the City of Buffalo Inactive Records Center (this link doesn’t list all of them, just the most in-demand) shows an intact collection of 19th and 20th century records, including tax records dating back to 1814. Had there been a record-destroying fire, surely those tax records would have been lost.

Luckily for researchers, we have two centuries of city records with no chronological gaps. Government websites are usually quite forthcoming about disaster-related record losses, such as this example from Virginia. There is even a page that alerts genealogists to burned counties, none of which have been reported in New York State.

Let’s go back to the mystery of the chronic 1900 build date. At the risk of launching a new and only slightly improved urban legend, here is a hypothesis of my own.

Remember the name of the property database? Online Assessment Roll System. Its purpose is to ensure that the City is taxing property owners legally, correctly, and transparently. It was not designed to be a house history database.

OARs was not designed to be a house history database.

Right here is where I am going to go out on my own theoretical limb because I have never worked in tax assessment or in City Hall. For the purposes of tax collection, I imagine that there are certain things that they absolutely must get right: for example, the dimensions of the parcel, the location of the parcel, the correct name and address of the owner, the current assessment. The build date in this database is like your house paint color: it does not materially affect your assessment.

My initial guess was that 1900 was the default date used by the database designers because it was close enough for taxation purposes. But Jacqueline Hovey offered an even better hypothesis: The Year 1900 Problem.

If there was no fire that destroyed these records, then why didn’t they just skip the 1900 default date and plug in the right dates instead? Here is where I venture even further out on my theoretical limb. I think this is because building records aren’t in the Assessor’s office. They’re in the Permits & Inspections Department. In hard copy, they may not be all that portable. Establishing the build date for every address in Buffalo probably requires a manual look-up. Not the best use of tax department staff for an inessential field in a big database.

Since OARS is not reliable when it comes to build dates, then how do you determine when your Buffalo house was built? Leaving the realm of hypothesis, we now return to the factual world.

The best and often only source is Buffalo Common Council Proceedings, some of which are online. Council Proceedings date back to 1832, when Buffalo was incorporated as a city. Every week, when Council convened to deliberate on the public’s business, they also officially approved the building permits applied for that week. Even in 1832, the City required and issued building permits, though the scope of work requiring a permit has no doubt greatly expanded since then.

The permits were then listed and published in the Proceedings, one volume for each year. The volumes that are not digitized can be found in hard copy in various libraries. The oldest editions are available only on microfilm. Here is what a typical permit listing looks like.

Caroline M. Stuart to erect double wing frame dwelling 24x34 feet, 1 3/4 story high with kitchen attached 14x24 feet on lot east side Seventh Street 190 fet northwest of Hudson Street.
Buffalo Common Council Proceedings, Minutes No. 13, March 31, 1879, p. 273

Since I first published this essay, our friends at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library compiled an index of building permits from Common Council Proceedings, 1887-1906. It is an 1,800 page PDF in A-Z order by street name.

I’ve also watched the urban legend morph in real time to Well, actually, I heard it was a flood. Fair enough, but the burden of proof is now on you. Search newspapers and Common Council Proceedings and get back to me when you have the date of the flood and a description of the damage.

Because this essay relies heavily on guesswork, I welcome comments and corrections from anyone with first-hand experience working on OARS.


Postscript: A Tedious Essay About Government Record-Keeping Practices

%d bloggers like this: