Fort Ontario, Oswego, New York

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It was in 1722 that Oswego, New York, was made the site of an armed camp and, at that, it was more through the stubborn determination of Governor Burnet of the colony that the thing should be done than through any willingness of the staid burghers of the State Assembly to cooperate with their executive in schemes leading to future good. As a matter of fact, Governor Burnet is said to have paid the bill for establishing his little fort out of his own pocket, though he may have made this sum up in some other direction authorities do not tell us this kind of thing! Yet this little post was to become one of the most decisive factors in determining the result of the conflict between France and England for the New World, the flags of three Christian nations were to fly over it at different periods, and warriors white, red, French, English and colonial were to struggle for its possession. So much grows out of so little!

One of the earliest mentions of Oswego in the history of the colonies is that in 1687 the Onondaga Indians presented a petition to the mayor and common council of Albany, that busy little trading post, requesting them to establish a trading post and fort at this point. The mayor and common council evidently thought that this was too wild an undertaking; for no defenses existed there when, in 1696, the restless Frontenac landed at Oswego Point on a punitive expedition against the Five Nations and built himself a little stockade fort before pressing on to fruitless victory into the interior of the country.

South View of Oswego on Lake Ontario
South View of Oswego on Lake Ontario

Written at the top of Drawing
General Shirley in 1755 strengthened, and enlarged this Fort and erected two others; one Westward 170, Square with a Rampart of Earth and Stone.  Another on the opposite of the Bason, 470 yards distant from the Old Fort.  This which is called the East Fort, is built of Logs and the wall is surrounded by a Ditch.  The projection of the Rocks renders the Chamored? at the entrance were into the Onondaga River, very narrow and our vessels were generally ______ from the Lake into the Bason. Explanation
1. The River Onondaga
2. The Lake Ontario

The strategic importance of the location to the English was not lost on these astute empire builders, giving access as it does with the Hudson Valley by way of the Oswego River, through Oneida Lake, to the headwaters of the Mohawk River, or giving access to the Susquehanna Valley by way of the Oswego River, Lake Onandaga and the head of the Susquehanna. During the governorship of Lord Bellemont, in the province of New York, the establishment of a post at Oswego was contemplated, and material was even ordered from England for the purpose, but it remained for Governor Bellemont’s successor to carry out in effect what had been before done in theory.

In 1727 Governor Burnet called the attention of the councilors of the province to the fact that he had established a post at Oswego (the name was borrowed from the Iroquois) , and added that he had sent a captain, two lieutenants and sixty soldiers to the point and that he intended to keep a force there always.

This announcement came to the ear of the governor of New France and so incensed him that he sent a letter to Governor Burnet asking that official why, in opposition to the plain stipulations of the Treaty of Ghent which forbade the erection of works of defense or offence, he had constructed and manned this fort. Governor Burnet replied by calling attention to the French building of “Oneagorah” or Niagara, thus showing that the practice of justifying a soiled pot by pointing to a black kettle is of ancient foundation. Anyhow, Governor Burnet went cheerfully on with his fortifying of Oswego, though Governor Beauharnais sent several expeditions to harass and deter his workmen.

This first fortification at Oswego was of a very simple character. Beauharnais complained that it was “a redoubt with galleries and full of loopholes and other works belonging to fortifications,” but Burnet merely says that the “walls were four feet thick of large good stone” and finds no other details to dilate upon. In 1741 the colony authorized the expenditure of 600 pounds, sterling, to “erect a sufficient stone wall at a proper distance around the trading house at Oswego, either in a triangular or quadrangular form, as the ground will best admit of, with a bastion or blockhouse in each corner to flank the curtain.” Later on we find that complaints were made to the General Assembly that the contractors who had the job in hand were using clay instead of stone and that they were skimping their work fearfully in order to line their pockets generously. This is one of the very earliest public scandals of New York State and one that seems to have eluded the muckraker so far.

The post was abandoned between the years 1744 and 1755 as, on the outbreak of hostilities with Canada, its occupants feared that they could not in their exposed and unsupported position withstand an attack in force from Quebec.

As the years went on, however, the post of Oswego became increasingly valuable to the English and they in turn became far more able to hold their own. Situated as it was between Niagara and the ocean, between the back country of the French and their metropolis of Quebec, it fairly broke the back of the long wriggling French line of settlements, which extended from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the mouth of the Mississippi.

In 1755 the English authorities agreed upon a plan of invasion of Canada and resolved to make Oswego their base of operations. Accordingly Colonel Shirley, of Massachusetts, with his own and Sir William Pepperell’s regiments, with some New Jersey and New York militia, in addition, made his way to Oswego, arriving there about the end of June, 1755. They were prevented by sickness and ill luck from proceeding against Niagara as had been their intention, and the one great thing that they accomplished was the rehabilitation of the old fort. They also commenced a fort on the west side of the river, which they called Fort Ontario, and Fort Ontario has survived to the present day. An extract from the “Gentleman’s Magazine” of 1756, New York Colonial Documents, gives an idea of this undertaking:

When it was determined that the army at Oswego should go into winter quarters, they began a new fort upon the hill upon the east side of the river, about 470 yards from the old one; it is 800 feet in circumference and will command the harbor; it is built of logs from 20 to 30 inches thick; the wall is 14 feet high and is encompassed by a ditch 14 feet broad and 10 feet deep; it is to contain barracks for 300 men. On the other side of the river west from the old fort another new fort is erecting; this is 170 feet square. A hospital of framework, 150 feet by 30 feet, is already built and may serve as a barrack for 200 men, and another barrack is preparing of 150 feet by 24.

The second new fort noted in this extract is Fort George, a rude structure and one not fitted long to stand against the elements.

Another result of Shirley’s expedition was to cause the French, who had been rather inactive, to bestir themselves. In the fall of 1755 they heavily reinforced their posts, sending to Fort Niagara a lively young Captain named Pouchot. In 1756 this observant man despatched a memorial to his superiors at Quebec, setting forth that the English at Oswego were not on the alert, or in force, and that the capture of the post was feasibility. The authorities at Quebec thought well of this idea, so well in fact that Montcalm, himself, who was at Fort Frontenac, newly arrived in New France to take over the command of the military forces of the whole French new world, took charge of the expedition, which was organized on Captain Pouchot’s suggestion.

Before proceeding in force against Oswego, Montcalm ordered De Villiers to proceed with 700 men to the headwaters of the Oswego River and to observe the enemy at Oswego. This force advanced rapidly, surprised and took Fort Bull, on Wood Creek near the head of Oneida Lake, and destroyed a large amount of provisions destined for Oswego. On May 7, 1756, a party of Indians set out from Fort Niagara, made a descent upon some ship carpenters near Oswego, and returned to Niagara with twelve scalps. These repeated successes, joined with Braddock’s defeat, produced a profound effect upon the Indians and caused the Iroquois Federation to side for the time with the French. Throughout the early summer of this year Montcalm’s men continued to harass the garrison at Oswego, capturing many stores of provisions designed for Fort Ontario. Montcalm hurried his preparations, so that by August he was ready to march against Oswego with 3000 men well equipped. He landed on Four-inch Point, east of Oswego, on August 11, and marched to a swamp a short distance in the rear of Fort Ontario, where he gave charge of the engineering operations now developing upon his expedition to Captain Pouchot.

Pouchot constructed a road through the swamp in one night and opened up with a battery upon Fort Ontario at sixty paces distance. The garrison fled in disorder across the river to the old fort. Montcalm sent a strong force to cross the river above to cut off retreat and opened fire the next morning with a battery on the riverbank. Colonel Mercer, the English commander, was killed and his men soon surrendered. The spoils of the conqueror were 120 cannon, 9 vessels of war in process of construction, and a great quantity of provisions and munitions of war.

There now occurred another one of those horrible massacres, which fouled the name of the French through their inability to control their savage allies. The prisoners numbered 1700; many of them civilian employees in the shipyards, and Montcalm had pledged their safety. Notwithstanding this, more than a hundred were killed by the savages, either quickly or by the slow process of torture. The French losses in the siege were 30 killed and wounded, and the English killed in fighting numbered 150.

The artillery of the English forts at Oswego was removed to Fort Niagara and the forts were dismantled. The forts remained unoccupied until 1759, when the English advancing to the attack of Fort Niagara left a force of 500 men here to protect their rear and keep open their lines of communication. The French advanced against this small command and would have taken it by surprise had not a priest insisted upon speaking to the troops before they went into battle. The English became apprised of the approach of the French during this delay and sallied out to attack them, with victory in the subsequent battle crowning their efforts.

In 1760 General Amherst strengthened the forts at Oswego and left a large force here, which became valuable in the war against Canada. This was one of the few fortunate moves that this general made.

Fort Ontario was also an important base for the British during the war of American Independence. In 1777 the English Colonel St. Leger gathered 700 men here and was joined by Brant with 700 Indians. The combined forces marched to besiege Fort Stanwix at the head of the Mohawk River, but were defeated and pursued back to their base, where they hurriedly embarked for Montreal.

In 1783 General Washington prepared an expedition under Colonel Willett to capture Fort Ontario. The command assembled at Fort Stanwix and marched for Oswego. When within a few miles of the fort their presence was discovered and made known to the British by some woodcutters, and Colonel Willett, on learning that his chance of taking the post by surprise was gone, marched back to Fort Stanwix without making an attack. Peace was soon declared and no further operations were conducted.

The post was transferred to the United States in 1796, with the other frontier posts, which Great Britain had held. From then until the outbreak of the War of 1812 it was allowed to fall into decay, and at the beginning of that conflict was but partially armed and quite unable to withstand an enemy. The English, hearing of its condition, and hearing, moreover, of the presence in the fort of large quantities of stores of all kinds, sent a fleet with 3000 men against the place.

The British force appeared before the town May 5, 1814. The Americans prepared a battery on shore and gallantly repulsed efforts at landing, until at length the British, through pure force of numbers, were able to accomplish this first step. The Americans then retreated up the river in good order, burning the bridges in their rear. Their number was 300. The British, baffled in taking any prisoners, burned the barracks, spiked the guns and retired. The American loss was 6 killed, 38 wounded and 24 missing. The British loss was 235. From that time to the present Fort Ontario has remained in possession of the United States.

The years saw the town of Oswego grow up around Fort Ontario. The fort was rebuilt of wood in 1839 and of stone in 1863. In 1901 the garrison was withdrawn and the old fort is now a public reservation for the use of the citizens of Oswego, its days of military life probably ended forever.



MLA Source Citation:

Hammond, John Martin. Quaint and Historic Forts of North America. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, London. 1915. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 12 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/new-york/fort-ontario-oswego-new-york.htm - Last updated on Aug 4th, 2012


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