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The main building of old Fort Niagara, “The Castle,” is probably the oldest piece of masonry in the State of New York, having been constructed by the French in 1726. The stonework of the barracks, a structure 134 by 24 feet with walls only eight feet in height, goes back to 1757, and in this year was, also, built the magazine. The bake-house, replacing a former one on the same site, was put up by the British in 1762 and the two stone blockhouses by them in 1771 and 1773.
In the two hundred and eighty-eight and a half acres of the government reservation here one is in touch visibly with the Past. And what deeds of the Past these old stone buildings might tell if they were given power of speech I
The name Niagara is of Iroquois origin, as are so many names of New York State, and is of ancient application to the river and the falls, which bear them. The falls of the Niagara are indicated on Champlain’s map of 1632 and in 1648 are spoken of by the Jesuit Rugueneau as “a cataract of frightful height.” It is certain that the indefatigable emissaries of the order of which he was a member had penetrated to the region of the great falls before this. In 1678 the falls were visited by the Friar Louis Hennepin, who drew a curious picture of them, still preserved, and gave a more curious and exaggerated description.
In the year that the good Friar Hennepin was paying his respects to Nature’s great wonder, Robert Cavelier Sieur de la Salle was building his fort at Frontenac, now Kingston, Canada West, and in 1675 King Louis XIV, that brilliant and indefatigable monarch of France, whose legislative labors in opposition to race suicide in Canada justly earned him the title of the Father of Canada, bestowed upon our cavalier a large grant of land near his fort. La Salle, inspired by the brilliant discoveries of Marquette and Joliet in the region farther west than that wherein he had his bailiwick, determined to explore the lands south of Ontario and to connect the territories which he hoped thus to acquire with Quebec by means of a series of posts. Empowered by his royal master with letters warrant to embark upon this form of enterprise, he crossed over Ontario, picked out a settlement point at, or near, the present Lewiston, New York, and commenced the building of a small vessel on Cayuga Creek above the falls, the supplies for this vessel being carried from his little settlement near Lewiston, below the falls, and in the direction of his main base at Fort Frontenac. At the same time he commenced the construction of a small fort at the mouth of the Niagara River, which would guard the approaches to his work farther in the interior and would also serve as one of the chain of posts by which he hoped to secure to France the territory which he meant to acquire.
This little fort on Niagara Point at the mouth of the Niagara River was kept up by La Salle during the remainder of his career in the New World, and was continued by the Marquis de Nonville, Governor of New France, who, in 1687, raised it to the dignity of a “fort with four bastions.” At this time it was in the command of Troyes with 100 men. Soon after this the little place was besieged by Senecas, and while the four bastions and the other defenses beat off the savage foe, the garrison perished almost to a man from the ravages of disease. Shortly after the point was abandoned and allowed to fall into decay. During the succeeding years of misfortune to the French the fort was filled only with weeds and vines and savage visitors, early prototypes of present day tourist throngs, and it was not until 1725 that the place was reoccupied and rehabilitated.
From this time for many years Fort Niagara was a little city in itself and for a long time the greatest point south of Montreal or west of Albany. The fort, proper, covered about eight acres and had its ravines, ditches and pickets, curtains, counterscarps and covered way; stone towers, laboratory and magazine; mess house, barracks, bakery and blacksmith shop. For worship there was a chapel with a large dial over the door to mark the course of the sun. “The dungeon of the mess house, called the black hole, was a strong, dark, and dismal place; and in one corner of the room was fixed the apparatus for strangling such unhappy wretches as fell under the displeasure of the despotic rulers of those days. The walls of this dungeon, from top to bottom, had engraved upon them French names and mementos in that language. That the prisoners were no common persons was clear, as the letters and emblems were chiselled out in good style.”
The immense strategic importance of the post was not lost on the English. It guarded approach to the treasured winter regions of the great lakes with their store of furs, and it furnished a fine base for negotiations with the Indians of New York State and the keeping of them in a state of disaffection with the English.
In 1755, during that series of preliminary conflicts, which marked the beginning of the great battle royal between France and England for the possession of the New World, an expedition against Niagara was fitted out by Governor Shirley, of Massachusetts, and preceded under his command as far as Oswego. Thus far it went and no farther, for sickness and desertion thinned the ranks of the men, and unfavorable weather, as well as the presence of the French in strength at Frontenac just across the lake, rendered unwise further advance in the Governor of Massachusetts’ project. It was not for four years, 1759, that the arm of the English was used in strength against the busy, ancient fort.
In this year General Prideaux, a capable officer, with Sir William Johnson, of New York, as his second in command, was despatched with a force of English colonial troops and Indians against the post. Fort Niagara was garrisoned by 600 French soldiers under the command of Captain Pouchot, a chevalier of the order of St. Louis. About a mile up the river was a little wooden stockade commanded by the half breed Joincaire Chabert, who with his brother Joincaire Clauzonne and a clan of Indian relatives had long been a thorn in the side of the English in influencing the powerful Five Nations against them. But Sir William Johnson was beginning to have that ascendency over this savage federation which was to be so great an aid to the English from this time forward and had with him now 900 warriors of this clan to lead against the French. So Joincaire closed up his little stronghold and joined his forces to those of Pouchot, the combined strength of the two by no means being sufficient to beat off the English attack.
There was another resource upon which Pouchot confidently relied, however, and this was prospect of help from the back countries controlled by the French. By order of Vaudreuil, the Governor of New France, the French population of the Illinois, Detroit and other distant posts had come down the Lakes, a motley and picturesque throng, to help maintain the ascendency of France in the New World. They were now gathered at various posts of the French back country and no sooner did Pouchot learn that the English were about to attack him than he sent messengers to summon all of these forces to Niagara.
The siege began with the clumsy lack of forethought which seemed to mark all military operations of those days, which depended chiefly upon native courage and final enthusiasm of assault to carry through than wise fore planning. The English trenches were so unskillfully laid out that they were raked by the fire of the fort. However, the English at last got down to business and their batteries commenced to play upon the French. A prematurely bursting shell from one of the coehorns killed Prideaux at almost the first discharges of the bombardment and the command fell upon Sir William Johnson, who proceeded with an enheartening energy to carry on the good work. At the end of three weeks the rampart of Fort Niagara was breached, more than 100 of the soldiery therein had been killed and the garrison was in extremity. Yet Pouchot fought on valiantly, resting upon the arrival of reinforcements from the French and savage forces which he had summoned. At length a distant firing told him that these were near.
Pouchot went with an officer to the bastion next to the river and listened anxiously to the firing, which told him that his reinforcements were in conflict with the English and trying to cut a way through to the beleaguered stronghold. For a time he heard the sound of battle and then all was still. At length a friendly Indian who had passed unnoticed through the lines of the English came to the French commander. “Your men are defeated,” he said in substance. Pouchot would not believe him. Nevertheless it was true and this fact was the deathblow to French hold of Fort Niagara. In the articles of surrender shortly afterward drawn up, it was specially stipulated that the French should be protected from the Indians as they feared that the massacre of Fort William Henry would be avenged upon them, Johnson was able to restrain his lawless allies and, though the fort was given to pillage, no French lives were taken after the surrender.
From this time until the close of the American War of Independence the post remained in English hands. During the Pontiac War of 1763 the Indians made an unsuccessful attack upon it and its garrison frequently took part in small skirmishes with lurking unfriendly Senecas in the woods around the post. Heavily garrisoned by the English during the Revolution, it served as a base for the war parties, which frequently devastated the State of New York. Both the expedition led by Colonel Butler, which culminated in the massacre at Wyoming, New York, in 1778, and that which laid waste Cherry Valley in the same year, started from Fort Niagara.
That the American forces were not unaware of the evil dominance of this post on the far western border of New York, we cannot doubt, as one of the objects of the expedition led by General Sullivan against the Indians in 1779 was the destruction, if possible, of Niagara; but this campaign ended only with the destruction of Indian villages. Subsequent to the declaration of peace between England and America, the point was held by English troops until it was taken over by an American garrison in 1796, probably having the distinction of being the last post surrendered by the English to the Americans in the United States. In 1799, in anticipation of another Indian war, the post was heavily reinforced.
A description of Fort Niagara between 1805 and 1814 has been given by a daughter of Dr. West, surgeon to the post during those years.
It was then surrounded on three sides with strong pickets of plank, firmly planted in the ground and closely joined together; a heavy gate in front of double plank, closely studded with iron spikes. The fourth side was defended with embankments of earth under which were formerly barracks, affording a safe though somewhat gloomy retreat for the families of soldiers, but which had been abandoned and the entrance closed long before my remembrance, having been so infested with rattlesnakes that had made their dens within that it was hardly safe to walk across the parade.
The last chapter in the history of the fort was not a glorious one, though thoroughly typical of the desultory character of the conflict between Great Britain and the United States, which is known as the War of 1812.
The official declaration of the imminence of hostilities reached Fort Niagara, June 26, 1812, and preparations were immediately undertaken to strengthen and defend the work. The fort was then under the command of Captain Leonard, United States Artillery, with 370 men. During the night of December 19, 1813, the English, 500 strong, under Colonel Murray, crossed the river, captured the sentinels and took the work by surprise, killing 65 of the American garrison and taking prisoner almost all of the remainder, with a loss to themselves of five men killed and wounded. A disgraceful side of the matter is that none of the American officers were at their posts at this time, but were off junketing somewhere in the country near by. Twenty-seven cannon of large caliber, 3000 stand of small arms, and a large amount of clothing, garrison equipage, and commissary stores fell into the hands of the British, who, as well, destroyed the villages of Lewiston and Buffalo, besides all of the dwellings on the lake as far as Eighteen Mile Creek.
The capture of Fort Niagara was shortly afterwards characterized in the following terms by General Cass who was ordered to the frontier: “The fall of Niagara was owing to the most criminal negligence; the force in it was fully competent for its defense.”
The English held Niagara until the close of the war and surrendered it to the United States in March 1815. The career of the point from that time to the present has been merely one of growing old gracefully.