The earliest settlers on the shores of Lake Erie near what came to be known as Dunkirk were Seth Cole and his wife Celia. They built ha log cabin near Canadaway Creek, east of the present city. Timothy Goulding's family settled a mile east of the harbor in 1808, and in 1809 his brother-in-law Solomon Chadwick built his cabin on the harbor shore itself, leading to that area being referred to as Chadwick's Bay. By 1810, the first ship arrived in the harbor and notations in ledgers listed those ships as having arrived at the harbor called Chadwick's Bay, though those few who lived on the shores gave the area no actual name as yet. Daniel Garnsey purchased Chadwick's land in 1817, and the area was referred to as Garnsey's Bay. As Chautauqua County's first district attorney and representative he worked to improve lighthouses and harbors, and soon steamboats and schooners regularly arrived in the harbor. In 1818 businessman Elisha Jenkins visited Dunkerque, France, and he noted the resemblance of its harbor to that of his own community. When he returned home, Jenkins advocated for the changing of the village's name to Dunkirk, and the small community nestled along the shores of Lake Erie formally adopted the name Dunkirk in 1818. Dunkirk struggled to grow, with no more than 50 people residing there in 1825, and the community was not actually incorporated as a village until 1837.
This photo copy of an oil painting is thought to be the oldest image of Dunkirk. It shows the community in 1835 as seen from the Buffalo Street (now Washington Avenue) dock .