The History of Fort Niagara

Fort Niagara Places
old fort niagara aerial
Fig. 1: Present-day aerial view of Fort Niagara (Now called “Old Fort Niagara”). Old Fort Niagara Association, Youngstown.

You know the old real estate motto: “Location! Location! Location!” Well, the adage is certainly relevant to Fort Niagara. Understanding the history of Fort Niagara begins with understanding that the land was valuable to Native Americans and Europeans due to its location.

The Old Fort Niagara Association maintains:

The importance of the Fort Niagara site was created by geography. The Great Lakes and their connecting straits form a continuous body of water from the Atlantic Ocean to the center of the North American continent. Along the southern and western edge of the lakes lie continental divides which separate the tributary streams of the Great Lakes from those draining into the Gulf of Mexico. To Native Americans and early Europeans, these waters provided natural highways through a rugged and heavily forested land.¹

For centuries, Fort Niagara’s location on Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River was valuable to commercial and military needs. The region was long coveted by Native and European nations; the land, and later the fortification built there, alternated between disputed territory and spoils of war. The protection offered by Fort Niagara made possible European settlement of the Niagara Frontier: The establishment and survival of Buffalo, Lewiston, Niagara Falls, and Youngstown are due in part to the fort’s presence. Today, Fort Niagara serves as an archaeological and historic preservation site, a museum, and a hosting location for historic reenactments.

Present day old fort niagara castle
Fig. 2: Present-day view of the “French Castle” at Fort Niagara. Old Fort Niagara Association, Youngstown.

Pre-Colonial History

Before European colonization of the Niagara region, the future site of Fort Niagara was inhabited by the Wenrohronon (or Wenro) and the Neutral Nation.² Nineteenth-century historian Peter A. Porter doesn’t mention the Wenros’ presence in his book A Brief History of Fort Niagara, only claiming: “As far back as we can get any authentic knowledge whatsoever the Neuter Nation owned and occupied this spot. They…occupied all the territory north of Lake Erie from near the Detroit River eastward until their lands met those of the Iroquois [specifically, the Senecas] near the Genesee River.”³ This discrepancy is explained by anthropologist William C. Sturtevant, who states that the Wenro were “located on the eastern margin of the Neutral adjacent to the Seneca and at one time associated with the Neutral.”4 Because both tribes are now extinct, the exact locations of the Wenro and Neutral territories are not known for sure; however, both Wenro and Neutral archeological sites have been discovered near Fort Niagara.5

Wenro territory 1630
Fig. 3: Wenro Territory around 1630.

European influence did not reach the Niagara Frontier until the 17th century. While living among and traveling with the Huron around 1615, Etienne Brulé became the first European to set foot in the Niagara region, and was quite possibly the first European to see Niagara Falls.6 Samuel de Champlain sent Brulé “to live with the Huron and learn their trade routes”,7 which he did so well that within decades, trade between the Europeans and the First Nations would have a profound impact on the Niagara region, and beyond.

The Fur Trade: Competition and Conflict

Fur trade routes 1660-1800
Fig. 4: Fur trade routes. Source: Minnesota Historical Society.

By the time Etienne Brulé ventured into the hinterland, trading relationships between the French and the Indians of Canada’s east coast were well-established. These relationships had begun when French explorer Jacques Cartier entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534: “Almost as soon as he approached the shores of the New World on his first voyage he was surrounded by canoes belonging to Miq’mac Indians eager for trade: ‘they…came on land, and brought some of their skinnes, and so began to deal with us, seeming to be very glad to have our iron ware and other things…and made signes that the next day they would come againe, and bring more skinnes with them.'”8

By 1534, the fur trade was already in practice among the tribes: “they had been trading furs, as well as other commodities, among themselves for many centuries. But the overenthusiastic transactions described by Cartier could be seen as the birth of the French fur trade.”9 The concept itself was not new to the French:

The industry had existed for some time, fed by a slightly different species of beaver from Europe. But European beavers were growing ever more scarce. They had been extinct in England since the thirteenth century and gradually retreated across the rest of Europe until they could be found in abundance only in the most remote areas. Before the arrival of American beavers, the hatters of Europe depended on beavers from Russia, but now even that supply was drying up. So when Champlain…saw the sheer abundance of furs in the New World, [he] knew they were on to a good thing. A large industry already existed back home, a ready market for North American furs.10

The fur trade began moving westward in 1608 when Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec, a French post on the St. Lawrence River, and part of the French-claimed North American territory of “New France”.11 The North American fur trade relied heavily on natives as the main suppliers of furs, but the industry was profitable for both sides: Indian trading relationships “allowed Champlain and his associates to buy twenty-two thousand skins in 1626 alone — for just $2 each”,12 and the natives received European goods such as cloth, firearms, gunpowder, rum, whiskey, brass cookware, and iron tools in exchange for pelts. “Trade goods from Europe in return for skins from their never-ending herds made their lives easier, so given the circumstances many Indians entered into this new deal with enthusiasm.”13

However, the supply of furs was not, in fact, “never-ending”, and beaver populations began to dwindle. But by then, many Indians had already become dependent on the income received through trading furs, as well as dependent on the European goods they could buy with pelts. Naturalist Steve Nicholls maintains:

[I]ncreasing scarcity meant increasing value, which made it worthwhile to pursue beavers with increasing vigor even as the numbers declined. A growing demand also pushed up prices…The Indian trappers were caught up in this ultimately self-destructive economic system. It is sometimes said that as fur prices rose, Indians needed to bring in fewer furs. They had fixed requirements for European trade goods and adjusted their hunting of furs accordingly. However, records show that in reality they took advantage of price rises and a strong market to bring in more furs, enabling them to increase their purchase of luxury items. This in turn drew them even deeper into dependency on the Europeans and their markets.14

Competition among the tribes, combined with a dwindling beaver population, intensified conflicts between the Iroquois and their neighbors, especially as the Iroquois League moved to expand its hunting territory to the west and the north.15

Detail From Sanson Map 1656
Fig. 5: Nicolas Sanson. Le Canada ou Nouvelle France (1656). Detail of larger map. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston.

Conquered Land in The Beaver Wars

The Beaver Wars occurred roughly 1638-1700, when the Iroquois League sought to conquer the land inhabited by the Wenro, Huron, Neutrals, Erie, and other traditional enemies. Nicholls states:

Lines of loyalty were rapidly being drawn. The French and the English had also been at war, on and off, for centuries, so First Nations and European nations were drawn into each other’s rivalries. The whole thing began to escalate, culminating in the late seventeenth century with the French and Iroquois Wars. At stake was not only the possession of territory in the New World, but access to the lucrative fur trade. Not for nothing is this series of conflicts also known as the Beaver Wars.16

While at this time, the Iroquois were known to the French as the “Iroquois League”, the English called them the “Five Nations”,

Sometime after Cartier had left and before Champlain arrived, five Iroquoian tribes came together in a confederacy to provide mutual aid against their rivals and to better resist the erosion of their traditional lifestyles. Later a sixth nation, the Tuscarora, joined, after being driven from their own lands by spreading English settlements in the south, giving the confederacy its modern English name of the “Six Nations.” The name adopted by the Six Nations themselves is Haudenosaunee — the People of the Long House. Although they are more familiarly known as the Iroquois, this (like so many commonly used names for the First Nations) is derived from a less than complimentary expression from a rival tribe, in this case a Huron word for ‘black snakes’…

The situation was made all the more complicated by the fact that some Indian groups played the French, English, and other Europeans off against each other as they sought the best value for their furs. Raids into other nations’ territories for beavers frequently sparked off another conflict in the ongoing Beaver Wars. When Beavers on their own lands were becoming scarce, the powerful Haudenosaunee expanded into Huron territory, displacing them…The map of Indian America was being redrawn by the beaver and its fur-bearing kin.17

The Haudenasaunee wanted to monopolize the fur trade and control the trading markets between Europeans and the tribes in the region. They were armed and supported by the English, because a stronger Iroquois League with more territory would positively influence the English fur trade, while negatively affecting the French fur trade.

The Wenro had an alliance with the Neutrals until around 1638. Almost immediately after the Wenro-Neutral alliance dissolved, the Seneca Nation conquered the Wenro territory. Wenro survivors were either absorbed by the Seneca Nation, or fled the area to seek refuge with the Huron.18

Iroquois Beaver Wars Map
Fig. 6: Expansion of Five Nations [Iroquois League] Territory during the Beaver Wars 1638-1711, (2011). Wikimedia Commons.
The Iroquois attacked the Huron in 1649.19 As a result, the Huron burned their own villages and Huron survivors fled north to Quebec.20 The Iroquois attacked the Neutral Nation in 1650, completely driving the Neutrals from their land by 1651; the Neutral people disappeared from historical record after 1671.21 The Iroquois annihilated the Erie Confederacy by 1656.22 Before the end of the 17th century, the Niagara Frontier would become Iroquois territory.

French Origins: A Strategic Location

Map of Portage
Fig. 7: George Demler. A Map of Niagara River or ye Straights between the Lakes Erie and Ontario with the Islands, Falls, and Rapids, as also the Carrying Place with its Road and distance [Map oriented with west on top], 1760. Source: Normal B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston.
As Dutch influence in North America waned, the French faced growing competition from the English. To maintain control over trade on Lake Ontario, the French built Fort Frontenac where the Saint Lawrence River leaves Lake Ontario (at present-day Kingston, Ontario) in 1673.23 Fort Frontenac came under the control of French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1675.24

canadian canoe at portage 1860
Fig. 8: Canadian Canoe at Portage, Currier and Ives (c.1860).
The Niagara Portage Route
Fig. 9: The Niagara portage route

The French viewed the location at the mouth of the Niagara River on Lake Ontario — the present-day site of Fort Niagara — as vital to controlling trade on the Great Lakes and access to the middle of the North American continent. In early 1679, La Salle’s expedition built a strategic fortified storehouse there named Fort Conti.25 Ships from Fort Frontenac could store supplies at Fort Conti, or use Fort Conti as a shifting point to transfer supplies to canoes or smaller bateaux, and sail them up the Niagara River to the Niagara Portage at present-day Lewiston, New York. Supplies and goods could then be portaged (carried) overland around Niagara Falls, and placed into boats at a location further upstream (possibly present-day Jayne Park on Cayuga Island). The supplies could then be sailed up the Niagara River towards Lake Erie. Unfortunately for the expedition, Fort Conti burned down in late 1679, soon after La Salle departed.26

1703 english version of Lahontan map 1687-1689
Fig. 10: Fort Frontenac and Fort Niagara on a 1703 English language edition of a map created by French explorer Baron Lahontan between 1687 and 1689

Fort Denonville

Intending to block British access to Lake Erie, the French built Fort Denonville in 1687, on the site where Fort Conti formerly stood.27 The fort was built during a military expedition by the Governor of New France, Jacques-Rene de Brisay, Marquis de Denonville, whose “royal instructions…enjoined him to humble the Iroquois” — by force, if necessary.28 Denonville’s army attacked Seneca villages along the Genesee River, slaughtering their hogs and destroying their corn; the French also “captured fifty-one Iroquois men, who they sent to Quebec. The French army captured one-hundred and fifty women and children with the men. Many women and children died in captivity from disease, and the rest were sent to France as slaves.”29

Denonville’s army then moved west to the Niagara River and erected Fort Denonville: “The troops were set at work, and a stockade was planted on the point of land at the eastern angle between the River Niagara and Lake Ontario, the site of the ruined fort built by La Salle nine years before.”30 The new fort had eight wooden buildings and a stockade. Timothy Dongan, the colonial Governor of New York, was furious when he learned about the new French fort. Dongan had wanted to block French access to Lake Erie by building a British fort on the site.31 Dongan “wrote to Denonville demanding Fort Niagara be demolished. Dongan also met with the Iroquois who promised to make war with the French until Fort Niagara was demolished.”32 Ignoring Dongan’s demands, the Marquis de Denonville went to Montreal for the winter, leaving a garrison of one hundred men under the charge of Captain Pierre de Troyes at Fort Denonville.33

Fort Denonville
Fig. 11: Fort Denonville

During the winter of 1687, the Iroquois laid siege to the fort in retaliation for the attacks on Seneca villages earlier that year. The siege denied the garrison the ability to hunt, or to even leave the fort. As a result, eighty-nine French soldiers died of starvation and disease. When relief forces finally came in the spring, they found only twelve survivors:

The provisions left at Niagara, though abundant, were atrociously bad. Scurvy and other malignant diseases soon broke out among the soldiers. The Senecas prowled about the place, and no man dared venture out for hunting, fishing, or firewood. The fort was first a prison, then a hospital, then a charnel-house, till before spring the garrison of a hundred men was reduced to ten or twelve. In this condition, they were found towards the end of April by a large war-party of friendly Miamis, who entered the place and held it till a French detachment at length arrived for its relief.34

Another garrison was stationed at Fort Denonville, but continuing Iroquois hostility caused the garrison to abandon the fort in September 1688. Fort Frontenac’s garrison “had suffered from the same causes, though not to the same degree. Denonville feared that he should be forced to abandon them both…On second thought, he resolved to keep Frontenac and sacrifice Niagara. He promised Dongan that he would demolish it, and he kept his word.”35 On September 15, 1688, by Denonville’s order, the Fort Denonville’s “palisades were torn down…The rude dwellings and storehouses which they enclosed, together with a large wooden cross, were left standing.”36

Detail of 1718 map
Fig. 12: The location of Fort Denonville; detail from Guillaume de L’Isle’s map Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississippi, 1718

Due in part to English support of Iroquois’ attacks on New France, tensions between France and Great Britain escalated. The countries engaged in two wars on the European continent, and their North American colonies engaged in two corresponding wars: King William’s War (1689-1697) and Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713).

The Iroquois allied themselves with the English during King William’s War. In 1701, the Iroquois gave their “Beaver Hunting Ground” — a large tract of land extending from southern Ontario into the Ohio Valley, claimed by the Iroquois “by right of conquest” during the Beaver Wars — to the English under the Nanfan Treaty; the French refused to recognize the treaty.37 That same year, the Iroquois were part of forty First Nations peoples of North America to make peace with New France through the Great Peace of Montreal.38 As a result, the Iroquois decided to take a neutral stance in the conflict between the English and the French; the Iroquois did not pick a side in Queen Anne’s War.

Nanfan Treaty Map 1701
Fig. 13: “Beaver Hunting Grounds” – Iroquois land given to the English according to the 1701 Nanfan Treaty

Peace was declared between England and France when both countries entered into the Treaty of Ultrecht in 1713. As one of the stipulations in the treaty, France was required to recognize British suzerainty (or overlord-ship) over the Iroquois.39

Iroquois trading with europeans 1722
Fig. 14: Iroquois trading with Europeans, 1722

A House of Peace

After the Peace of Montreal, French traders made a greater effort to forge alliances with the Iroquois, and the relationship between the French and the Iroquois gradually improved. In 1719 the Seneca agreed to let French trader Louis-Thomas Chabert de Joncaire build a trading post at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment (the present-day site of Artpark in Lewiston, New York).40 In 1725, the French received permission from the Iroquois to build another trading post (despite protests from the Seneca), as long as it wasn’t a masonry fort.41 French engineer Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Lery designed a “machicolated house” enclosed by a wooden stockade, designed to hold up against Indian attack; to appease the Seneca, the French were careful to refer to the building as a “House of Peace”.42

In 1726, the English amended the Nanfan Treaty to give the Six Nations use of a strip of land 60 miles wide, extending from the southern shore of Lake Ontario along the shore of Lake Erie.43 Conveniently for the French, the site of Fort Denonville was located on this strip of land. To better counter English westward expansion, the French chose the site of Fort Denonville to build their machicolated house.

plans for french castle
Fig. 15: Plans for the “machicolated house” at Fort Niagara, 1725

Construction of the house began in 1726, and finished in 1727. Although it didn’t look like a regular fortification, the house had storerooms, quarters, a well, and a chapel; in the 19th century, the house gained the nickname it still has today: the “French Castle”.44 In 1727 the fort held about thirty French soldiers. It served as a trading post for a short time, but the main purpose of the fort was to guard the Niagara Portage.45 The British were upset about the building of Fort Niagara, and claimed that because the fort was built on Iroquois land, it violated the Treaty of Ultrecht.

Beginning in 1749, Fort Niagara became a staging point for French military expeditions to the disputed territory — the “Beaver Hunting Ground” — in the Ohio Valley.46 When the French established a chain of forts between Lake Erie and the forks of Ohio (present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) in 1753-1754, the conflict between the French and British erupted into the French and Indian War.47

The French and Indian War

Plan of Niagara 1755
Fig. 16: French plan to fortify Fort Niagara, 1755

The French and Indian War occurred between the French and British North American colonies from 1754 to 1763. The Iroquois sided with the British, and the French sought support from the Huron and other tribes in the western portion of the Great Lakes Region.

Originally intended to defend against Indian attack, Fort Niagara was not built to survive British artillery attack. In the autumn of 1755, additional French soldiers were sent to the fort, including Captain Pierre Pouchot, who was instructed to improve the fort so that it could hold up against British cannonballs.48 During the winter of 1755, massive earthworks were constructed around the fort; the stockade was removed, and additional buildings were built within the new walls, thus enlarging the fort eight-fold.49

However, the improvements ultimately did little to protect Fort Niagara against the British, who surrounded the fort on July 6, 1759. The siege — named the Battle of Fort Niagara — lasted nineteen days, and on July 25, 1759, Captain Pouchot surrendered Fort Niagara to the British and left it under the control of British commander Sir William Johnson.50

British Possession

The British at Fort Niagara were isolated during the first winter, but the isolation ended with the capitulation of New France in September 1760. According to the Old Fort Niagara Association’s “History of Old Fort Niagara”:

The British immediately turned their attention to the West. Expeditions left Niagara in 1760 and 1761 to occupy posts scattered as far west as Wisconsin. Fort Niagara became a meeting place between the British and Native American nations of the Great Lakes. In 1761 Sir William Johnson held councils at Niagara with many tribes, former allies of the French, in an effort to cement the new relationship. The post also provided a point of contact between the British and Native Americans  of the Lower Great Lakes, particularly the powerful Seneca of Western New York and the Mississauga who lived in what is today southern Ontario. Fort Niagara thus retained its usefulness to frontier diplomacy.

Niagara immediately became the guardian of Britain’s communications with [the] West and provided a convenient storehouse for military supplies and trade goods consigned to the other Great Lakes forts. British merchants established commercial warehouses in the shadow of Niagara’s fortifications.51

Chief Pontiac
Fig. 17: Ottawa Chief Pontiac (1720-1769), leader and namesake of Pontiac’s Uprising

However, “frontier diplomacy” did not last long. British policies regarding the indigenous peoples of North America differed from those of the French. While the French attempted to make alliances and intermarry with the natives, the British viewed the natives as a conquered people, and treated them as such. In an attempt to reduce the threat posed by natives, the British refused to sell ammunition to them. This greatly harmed the natives, who relied on firearms to hunt for food and furs to trade. Resentment grew until Pontiac’s Uprising erupted in 1763, when a loose confederation of native tribes captured eight of ten British posts to the west.52

Devil’s Hole Massacre

Fort Niagara was not attacked during Pontiac’s Uprising, but on September 14, 1763 a force of 300-500 Ottawas, Senecas, and Ojibwas attacked a supply train along the Niagara Portage returning to Fort Niagara from Fort Schlosser. Twenty-one men were killed out of the party of twenty-four teamsters driving the wagon train, and the group’s wagons and animals were thrown into the ravine. The survivors fled to Fort Schlosser for help, but when British soldiers arrived to rescue the wagon train, they were ambushed by the Seneca. Eighty-one soldiers were killed. This event was later named “The Devil’s Hole Massacre”.53

devil's hole from below
Fig. 18: Devil’s Hole from Below (1842)

During the spring and summer of 1764, British regiments gathered at Fort Niagara to quell Pontiac’s Uprising; the British regained control of the captured posts by the end of 1764. In July and August 1764, the natives and the British negotiated a treaty at Fort Niagara. The Senecas were forced to cede the Niagara Portage to the British as restitution for the Devil’s Hole Massacre.54

A Decade of Peace

The treaty negotiated at Fort Niagara between the British and the Native Americans — as well as better treatment of the Native Americans by the British — led to a decade of relative peace and quiet in the area. Because of the lack of threats to the fort, its fortifications were allowed to fall into disrepair. The earthworks crumbled, and when colonial hostilities broke out at the beginning of the American Revolution, Fort Niagara had to be re-fortified.55

The American Revolution

During the American Revolution, Fort Niagara’s chief duty was to protect the Niagara Portage for military and commercial use. Fort Niagara also served as the main contact point for British representatives trying to persuade the Iroquois and other tribes to attack American colonists.56

Fort Niagara provided safe haven to loyalists fleeing from New York and Pennsylvania; the able-bodied males were recruited into Loyalist military units. During the winter of 1777-1778, Iroquois warriors and British troops from Fort Niagara, and accompanied by Loyalist rangers under the leadership of John Butler (called “Butler’s Rangers”), raided American farms and villages nearby.57

Sullivan Campaign Route 1779
Fig. 19: Route of the Sullivan Campaign – 1779

In response to these raids, George Washington dispatched American troops under General John Sullivan to punish the Iroquois. During the summer of 1779, Sullivan’s army marched through Iroquois territory, burning Iroquois crops and villages; the army halted eighty miles from Fort Niagara. Sullivan decided not to attack the fort because his army lacked adequate supplies and provisions to undertake an extended winter siege. The army retired to Pennsylvania. The Sullivan campaign would be the closest American troops would ever come to Fort Niagara during the Revolutionary War.58

Facing starvation from the loss of their crops and villages, the Iroquois fled to Fort Niagara seeking food and supplies. Fort Niagara already had limited provisions, and even though the British tried to help the Iroquois, still some starved to death that winter.59

For the remainder of the Revolutionary War, the garrison stationed at Fort Niagara would assist campaigns in New York and the Ohio Valley, as well as help maintain British control over the Great Lakes.

The “Hold-over Period”

After the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War in 1783, Fort Niagara was relinquished to the United States.60 However, British troops did not immediately withdraw from Fort Niagara. The British maintained control over the fort, as well as other posts on the Great Lakes, until Loyalist settlements could be established across the river in Canada.61

This “hold-over period” lasted until 1794, when the Jay Treaty forced the British to give up control of the Great Lakes forts. Fort Niagara was given to the United States in 1796, and occupied by American troops on August 10 of that year.62

American Possession

Western NY Land Holdings 1804
Fig. 20: Land Holdings in Western New York, (1804)

American control of Fort Niagara led to the settlement of the Niagara Frontier. The United States government wanted to open up the region to development by American landowners. Under the Treaty of Big Tree, signed between the Seneca and the United States Government on September 15, 1797, the Seneca relinquished their rights to their territory west of the Genesee River except for twelve small tracts of land.63 The land south and east of Fort Niagara was surveyed and divided into tracts.

The population grew as land-hungry New Englanders flocked to the Niagara Frontier. In the first decade of the 19th century, the villages of New Amsterdam (present-day Buffalo), Black Rock, Lewiston, Manchester (present-day Niagara Falls), and Youngstown were all established.64 Between 1802 and 1809, Military Road — now NYS Route 265 — was constructed to go from Fort Niagara through Youngstown, Tonawanda, Lewiston, Manchester, and Buffalo, thus providing military access for protection.65 Relations between the Americans in New York and the British across the Niagara River remained cordial, but tense.

Holland Land Purchase 1804
Fig. 21: Detailed 1804 map showing the land tracts and boundaries of the Holland Land Purchase, including Indian reservations

The War of 1812

Niagara River during the War of 1812
Fig. 22: The Niagara River during the War of 1812. “Newark” is present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario and “Manchester” is present-day Niagara Falls, New York.

America once again entered into war with Great Britain in June 1812. Fort Niagara faced British hostility from Fort George, located across the Niagara River, only twelve hundred yards away. The two forts exchanged artillery fire when American troops crossed the Niagara River and invaded Canada at Queenston on October 13, 1812.66 Fort Niagara and Fort George exchanged artillery fire again on November 21 of that year. During the heat of battle, Betsy Doyle, wife of an American soldier stationed at Fort Niagara, heroically helped carry hot shot to artillery located on the Castle roof.67

Soldiers Wife at Fort Niagara
Fig. 23:  A Soldier’s Wife at Fort Niagara (c. 1860). Engraving depicting Betsy Doyle carrying hot shot to artillery located on the Castle roof during a battle at Fort Niagara on November 21, 1812.

In May 1813, American troops captured York (present-day Toronto, Ontario) and additional American troops arrived at the mouth of the Niagara River.68 The American troops located along the river joined Fort Niagara in bombarding Fort George on May 25, and after battling for two more days, the British were forced to abandon Fort George.69/>

Fort Niagara taken from British side of the river at Newark 1814
Fig. 24: Fort Niagara, taken from the British side of the river at Newark (1814)

The American army didn’t go much further, as battle losses forced the army to remain at Fort George. The American soldier numbers were reduced so greatly by the autumn of 1813 that a decision was finally made to abandon Fort George and retire to the United States. In December 1813, United States General George McClure ordered his troops to burn both Fort George and the village of Newark (present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) before returning to Fort Niagara.70

Burning of Buffalo 1813
Fig. 25: Burning of Buffalo (1813)

In response to the destruction of Fort George and Newark, British troops crossed over the Niagara River on the night of December 19, 1813 and caught the American soldiers unprepared at Fort Niagara.71 After securing control of the fort, the British and their Native American allies traveled upriver, destroying farms and villages as far as Manchester. On December 30, 1813, British troops burned the villages of Buffalo and Black Rock.72

Fort Niagara remained under British control until the end of the war. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814, returned Fort Niagara to the United States.73 American troops reoccupied the fort on May 22, 1815.74 By 1820, lasting peace between Great Britain and the United States led to Fort Niagara again falling into disrepair.

The Experiments of Dr. William Beaumont

A lesser-known contribution made by Fort Niagara was to the advancement of medical knowledge in 1825. In May of that year, a new post surgeon named Dr. William Beaumont arrived at Fort Niagara with Alexis St. Martin, one of his patients. According to the Old Fort Niagara Association:

Three years earlier, St. Martin had been seriously wounded by a close-range shotgun blast to his abdomen. The young man survived this terrible wound, but his side never properly healed. Beaumont found himself with an opportunity to observe the workings of a living human stomach. St. Martin eventually agreed to submit to experiments, and the first published series of investigations was completed at Fort Niagara during August 1825. Surgeon Beaumont later published more sophisticated observations and is remembered today as the first physician to accurately explain the workings of the human digestive system.75

The Erie Canal

A map of the country traversed by the Erie Canal 1896
Fig. 26: A Map of the Country Traversed by the Erie Canal. Thomas Curtis Clarke; Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. XIX, no. 15, p. 10. 1896

The 425-mile Erie Canal was completed in 1825. When it opened on October 26, 1825, horse-drawn barges could travel from Albany to Buffalo more swiftly and efficiently, dramatically reducing commercial need for the Niagara Portage. As a result, Fort Niagara became less strategically important. In 1826, the garrison was removed from Fort Niagara.76

The Morgan Affair

Between 1826 and 1828, Fort Niagara was vacant except for a lone caretaker. In the autumn of 1826, Fort Niagara received a second inhabitant when a Batavia resident named William Morgan was imprisoned there by radical members of the Western New York Freemasonry.77

Morgan Freemasonry Pamphlet
Fig. 27: Cover page to an edition of William Morgan’s 1826 exposé Illustrations of Freemasonry

A disillusioned former member of the Masonic Order, William Morgan had published a pamphlet claiming to expose the “secrets” of the Freemasons. Wanting to silence him, a group of Masons kidnapped Morgan, took him to Fort Niagara, and imprisoned him in the fort’s powder magazine.78 The fort’s caretaker — also a Mason — looked the other way.

Nothing else is known about what happened to William Morgan after that. The Masons claimed Morgan escaped to Canada, while the Anti-Masons believed Morgan was murdered.79 The incident resulted in a backlash of Anti-Masonic sentiment in the United States.

Decreased Importance: 1838-1860

Contemporary events and routine neglect diminished the value and capabilities of Fort Niagara. Although troops occupied the fort again in 1828, according to the Old Fort Niagara Association:

They saw only routine duty until most were sent westward to fight against the Indians of Wisconsin in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Two years later, Fort Niagara was deactivated a second time and not reoccupied until 1838 in response to a new crisis on the northern border. Disaffected Canadians had risen in rebellion against their government in 1837, and the rebels sought arms and shelter in the United States. Anglo-American relations quickly deteriorated. Fort Niagara was in no condition to resist attack should war actually come.

Heightened tensions caused American authorities to reexamine the defenses along the Canadian border. Recommendations made in 1838 caused Congress to authorize repairs and improvements to Fort Niagara. Work commenced in 1839. The land defenses were rebuilt, the 1816 seawall was completed, a masonry wall and shot furnace were constructed along the river side, and repairs were made to several buildings. By 1843, Fort Niagara was once again defensible.

The border tensions of 1837-38 had subsided by the time renovations were completed. War with Mexico in 1846 again diverted United States military resources, and the Fort Niagara garrison was withdrawn a third time. Troops returned at the conclusion of the conflict in 1848, only to depart once again in 1854. The decreased importance of the United States Army to the western frontier dictated such sporadic occupation of Fort Niagara. During its vacant periods in the 1840s and 1850s the post was guarded by a lone ordnance sergeant, Lewis Leffman.80

The Civil War

British intervention on the side of the American Confederacy led to a garrison reoccupying Fort Niagara in 1861. In late 1861, two Confederate diplomats were bound for Britain and France with the intention of seeking financial and military support for the Confederacy. Their British ship, the RMS Trent, was intercepted by Union forces and the Confederate diplomats were taken prisoner by the Union army. Known as the “Trent Affair”, this incident started a diplomatic crisis between the United States and Great Britain, resulting in British troops being sent to North America. The increased threat made re-fortification necessary for Fort Niagara. According to the Old Fort Niagara Association:

Construction of new concrete and brick revetments and artillery casements along the land front began in 1863. Relations with Britain had improved by the time the work had advanced very far, and Fort Niagara’s garrison was sent to the front in 1863, but the fortifications had been carried to completion by the end of the decade. The artillery casemates were never armed, however, and the new defenses were obsolete by the time of their completion.81

The Post-Civil War Years: Fenian Invasion and “New” Fort Niagara

Troops were garrisoned at Fort Niagara in 1865 as a response to escalating tensions in the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish republican organization in the United States devoted to the liberation of Ireland from Great Britain. Many members of the Fenian Brotherhood were Civil War veterans, and were not opposed to using militaristic force.82

Block House 1895-1910
Fig. 28: Block House (c.1895-1910)

In June 1866 a Fenian army crossed into Canada from Buffalo and occupied Fort Erie, Ontario. Although the Fenians were victorious against the Canadian militia in a skirmish at Ridgeway, Ontario, the army had to withdraw to New York.83 Whether due to poor organization or lack of public support, further attacks by the Fenian Brotherhood were quickly suppressed by British and American authorities.

When the garrison arrived at Fort Niagara in 1865, they found the fort nearly uninhabitable. New buildings had to be constructed outside of the old fortifications. According to the Old Fort Niagara Association:

This was the beginning of “New” Fort Niagara which occupied the military reserve, the area that is today Fort Niagara State Park. The new complex was soon the most important component of the post. By the mid-1880s, nearly all officers’ and soldiers’ quarters were in the “New” Fort and the buildings in the Old Fort were used primarily for storage or as housing for military families and civilian employees. A few such people resided in the French Castle as late as 1915.84

Fort Niagara was used as a military prison during the 1870s. The fort began use as a military training facility after a thousand-yard rifle range was completed there in 1885.85 Fort Niagara trained American troops for the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Philippine Insurrection of 1899-1901.86 The fort served as a barracks for battalion of infantry until becoming an officers’ training camp during World War I.87

Old Fort Niagara Postcard 1906
Fig. 29: Old Fort Niagara (1906), postcard.

Historic Preservation

Old Fort Niagara Old French Barracks 1928
Fig. 30: Old French Barracks [dilapidated] (c.1928)
“New” Fort Niagara was still an active post in 1920: The 28th Infantry Regiment would occupy the New Fort from 1920-1940.88 However by the 1920s, the “Old” Fort was in bad shape: the seawall no longer offered adequate protection, and the remaining 18th century buildings were dilapidated — the once-celebrated French Castle was in danger of collapse. In 1927, a group of local citizens organized the Old Fort Niagara Association.89 The Association raised private funds to save the French Castle, which were matched with Congressional appropriations, allowing the much-needed repairs to be made to the Castle between 1926 and 1929.90 By 1934, other fort structures were restored through cooperation between the Army and the Old Fort Niagara Association.91

Block House 1920s
Fig. 31: Block House (c.1920s)
French Castle 1920s
Fig. 32: Dilapidated French Castle (c.1920s)

World War II and Korean War

Too small to serve as a training facility, Fort Niagara became a reception center for Army recruits from 1941-1943.92 The fort was re-activated from 1944-1946 and served as a camp for German and Austrian prisoners of war.93

Fort Niagara POW Camp
Fig. 33: Fort Niagara POW Camp (c. 1944-1946)

Fort Niagara served as temporary housing for veterans until 1950, when the Korean War necessitated that troops re-occupy the fort until 1952.94 The last military units were removed from Fort Niagara in 1963.95

Fort Niagara Barracks 1940s
Fig. 34: “New” Fort Niagara Barracks (c.1940s)

Fort Niagara State Park

Plans were implemented to turn the fort into a park. In 1965-1966, most of the garrison buildings were demolished to clear space for recreational use.98 A United States Coast Guard Station is situated below Old Fort Niagara, but the fort itself is now a museum. The site is open to visitors year-round, and offers guided tours, artifact displays, musket and mortar firing presentations, as well as overnight and educational programs about 18th and 19th century life at the fort as a soldier, civilian, or Native American. Between April and September, the park hosts historical re-enactments one weekend each month.99

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