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Part 2

This webpage reproduces part of
Historic Old Fort Niagara

Claud H. Hulzén, Sr.

Old Fort Niagara Association

The text is in the public domain.

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Part 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p15  Soldiers or Craftsmen

About one decade after Father Jean Brébeuf had left the Niagara Frontier in 1641, the Iroquois Indians spread devastation through land of the Attawandaronks, practically annihilating that nation, and adopting its straggling remnants into their own tribes. Thus the Iroquois, particularly the Seneca tribe, became the holders of the Niagara Frontier. The Senecas had no permanent town in this section but apparently used it, particularly east of the River, as a rendezvous for war parties and fishing expeditions.

There is no record of white men having visited the frontier at the Niagara river between 1641 and 1669, when on July 6th Father François Dollier De Casson and Father René Bréhant de Galinée, Sulpitian missionaries, left Montreal for the west with nine canoes and equipment. With them was a young adventurer of Rouen, named René Robert Cavelier de La Salle. He was 26 years old. The party passed along the southern shore of Lake Ontario stopping at different places and meeting with many adventures, finally passing to the mouth of the Niagara River. They continued on to the head of the lake and started overland, where they were met by Joliet. La Salle returned with Joliet to Montreal, while the missionaries continued on a westward journey.

René Robert Cavelier de La Salle

The story of La Salle, who has been called one of the greatest explorers of all time, is a long one. In whatever form written it is interesting because the simple facts of his experience are romantic almost beyond the imagination of writers of fiction. In fact, this story was written in historical novel form by Gilbert Parker in a most interesting book called "The Power and Glory, or the Romance of the Great La Salle." His life was fraught with hardships. Imbued with great ideals, possessed of a vision far beyond the comprehension of most of those with whom he had to deal, and bitterly opposed by some who should have been his greatest support, he carried on through a series of misfortunes which finally ended in death at hands of his own companions somewhere in the valley of the lower Mississippi. His vision and his work were not in vain, however, for his efforts to establish a commerce  p16 on the Great Lakes and to open up the waterway to the west brought the attention of the whole civilized world to this task.

La Salle's visit to the Niagara River in 1669 and subsequent studies made by him, brought to the young explorer his great vision of a new commerce to the westward and the building up a vast empire for France. In May, 1675, the French Government granted him certain privileges. These concessions were so awarded that La Salle not only assumed the burden of carrying out the plan within the short period of five years, but it was a "privilege" granted him provided he assumed all expense attendant thereto. The odds were greatly against him. However, he had great faith in his purpose and perhaps too much faith in many of his followers. Among the few men who, throughout La Salle's explorations, remained steadfast to his interest, was his Lieutenant, Henri Tonti, often referred to as "the man with the iron hand."

This appellation was given Tonti because he in fact had an artificial right hand. It is said to have been during the siege of Messina in 1677 that his right hand was torn away by a grenade. Some writers declare that he received a sabre stroke on the wrist, was made prisoner and that he cut off the wounded hand with a knife without the services of a surgeon. Bacqueville de la Potherie in his history published in 1722, speaking of Tonti's metal member, says in part: "The Indians greatly feared it. They called him the 'Iron‑arm' (bras-de‑fer); he often knocked their heads and teeth with a blow from the fist when he had difficulties (démêlés) with them. They did not know at first that he had this wrist of copper."

The First Ship

In 1678 from Fort Frontenac, La Salle started his adventure for the development of a fur trade to the west and south. First he sent a small group of men to the Upper Lakes with goods for trade and on November 18, 1678, he sent 16 men, ship carpenters, blacksmiths and other artisans to the Niagara to build a vessel above the Falls in which to continue his explorations. Under the command of Sieur de la Motte and accompanied by the missionary Father Louis Hennepin, they reached the mouth of the Niagara River on December 6th. On the 15th they sailed and towed their brigantine up the river to the present site of Lewiston and devoted the next three days to building a store house which they surrounded with palisades. This was the first building of the white man on the Niagara River. La Motte, Hennepin and four  p17 French companions set out from the new store house on Christmas day, the same year, to visit the Seneca tribes 80 miles to the eastward and to obtain from them permission to build the ship. They were unsuccessful.

La Salle, who through the recent arrangement had charge of Fort Frontenac (the present site of Kingston, Ontario), with Tonti, set out for Niagara with supplies and materials to build the proposed vessel. On the way La Salle stopped at the Seneca Village and obtained permission to build his ship, despite the fact that La Motte and Hennepin had failed in this mission.

Disaster set in. Halfway between the mouth of the Genesee and the Niagara, La Salle and Tonti left the ship and proceeded overland, a more rapid mode of travel.

It was not enough, it seems, that the young explorer and his soldier friend with their handful of followers should be facing the difficult problem of building a ship in the enemy-infested wilderness. The crew which La Salle and Tonti left aboard the ship headed for the Niagara River, abandoned the vessel on a warm afternoon and left her anchored while they went ashore for a pleasant slumber. A storm tore her from her moorings and with all of the supplies representing La Salle's fortune and what money he had been able to borrow, she pounded on a reef and went to the bottom of Lake Ontario.

Even as his brigantine sank in Lake Ontario, La Salle and Tonti crossed the mouth of the Niagara River and dined with friendly Indians at what is now Niagara‑on‑the‑Lake. By midnight moonlight they journeyed up the trail to the cabin of La Motte and Father Hennepin. The following day La Salle left Tonti and explored the Upper River, locating the site upon which to build his new ship. It was on the east bank of the Niagara just south of Cayuga Creek, in the section of the city of Niagara Falls which now bears his name. At this time the young explorer had his first glimpse of the mighty Cataracts of Niagara.

Undismayed by the loss of his supplies, on January 22, 1679, La Salle with Tonti and Hennepin and his crew of artisans, began the work of building cabins and a chapel of logs and bark on the site of the shipyard.

It is not difficult to realize the hardship of living in hastily constructed and flimsy structures on the Niagara Frontier during the month of February.

Despite these hardships La Salle put the laying of the keel of the boat under way on January 26th and returned to Fort Frontenac for more supplies and finances.

 p18  La Salle did not personally supervise the building of the Griffon (for this was the name of the ship), but left this to Tonti, who continued the construction throughout the winter and spring of 1679. A man by the name of Hillaret, according to some historians, was the chief craftsman.

Fortunately most of the Senecas in this district were absent on an expedition south of Lake Erie and only a few stayed around the shipyards. These latter, however, stood ready to plunder. An attempt is said to have been made to kill the blacksmith. The red intruder was repulsed by a red‑hot iron bar in the hands of the smithy, this product of the forge apparently having been as effective as Tonti's iron hand. There also was a plan on the part of the Senecas to burn the boat but the plot is said to have been revealed by a Seneca woman who was a friend of one of the workmen.

The work was continued and the hull was launched in May. Tonti received orders to sail the Griffon through the Lakes and to notify the Illinois Indians that he was coming to live with them by the King's order. Tonti was unable to get the boat through the rapids at the outlet of Lake Erie and he brought her to anchor under the shelter of Squaw Island. La Salle returned to Niagara in August and found his boat  p19 ready to sail, but was told that his men were unable to get her into the Lake. La Salle made them all debark, 30 persons including three Recollect missionaries, with arms, provision, merchandise and eight little cannon of cast iron or brass. Finally he reached the Lake by the aid of a strong wind and rowing on the part of some of the men.

No one knows just how the Griffon looked. Tonti mentions it as a 40‑ton ship. Father Hennepin refers to it once as a 45‑ton and once as a 60‑ton boat. At all events it was a sailing vessel and the first on the upper lakes. As far as it concerns the history of the Niagara Frontier it is sufficient to note that further disaster came to La Salle with the sinking of the Griffon while sailing the first mission of commerce on America's inland seas beyond Lake Ontario. Of ship or crew naught has been heard.

Fort Conti

Just how long ago that triangular point of land lying between Niagara River and Lake Ontario in the United States has been used for human habitation is unknown. Authorities declare that early reference to this site indicates it as a barren plateau and the supposition is that early camp fires of the Attawandaronks or perhaps their predecessors in this territory, caused this point to be barren of the heavy timber growth which marked the balance of the section.

The first recorded habitation on this point, however, was Fort Conti. The Prince of Conti was the one who had recommended Henri Tonti to La Salle, and it was in honor of the Prince that La Salle named his first habitation on the site of Old Fort Niagara.

La Salle had realized the importance of a building at the mouth of the Niagara River which not only would house merchandise brought by ship from Fort Frontenac for passage to the west over the portage, but that would be fortified against possible attack from the Senecas or other Indians, and would control for the French all Indian trade passing down the Niagara toward the English and Dutch in the east. So, after having started the building of the Griffon and while on his return trip to Frontenac afoot, he took Henri Tonti as far as the mouth of the Niagara and there traced the lines of the Fort. Tonti did not build the Fort. Actual construction was left to a force of men under Dominique de la Motte-Lussiere. On August 22, 1682, La Salle, at Fort Frontenac, wrote his supporters concerning this first fort at Niagara:

 p20  "The Iroquois did not oppose the construction of the Fort commenced at the discharge of Lake Erie (La Salle referred to the entire Niagara River as the discharge), but the loss of the first bark having obliged me to use most of my men during the whole winter for the transportation of what I had left from it, I contented myself with making there two redoubts, 40 feet square, upon a point, made of great timbers one upon another, musket proof and joined by a palisade, where I put a sergeant and several men, who during my absence allowed all this work to burn through negligence; and not being in condition to restore it, there remains only a magazine."

And thus is found briefly in the words of La Salle, the history of the building, garrisoning and the destruction of the first fortification on the site of Old Fort Niagara.


In reciting ever so briefly the history of René Robert Cavelier de La Salle and his followers, in so far as it concerns the Niagara Frontier, it is well at least hurriedly to scan the reports of their activities to the west and to the south. These are the explorations which mark the beginning of the vast western French Empire for which La Salle had planned from the start, and over which Niagara later was to rule.

As was previously noted, La Salle's adventures in the west consistently were fraught with disaster. Throughout these trying experiences, he was a giant of courage and a marvel of physical endurance. In one instance we find record of him having traveled more than 1,000 miles by canoe and on foot in 65 days.

From the time of the sailing of the Griffon in 1679, until the fall of 1683, the adventurer of Rouen was engaged in pushing westward and southward, claiming great stretches of country in the name of the King of France, and conducting a scattered and usually unprofitable trade with the red men.

To the westward La Salle and his followers had claimed the valley of the Illinois, the Mississippi and the territories adjacent to the Great Lakes; to the southward the lands of the Miamis. In 1682 La Salle reached the Arkansas and took formal possession by civil and religious ceremonies and the raising of a cross, the Procés-Verbal (customary proclamation of discovery). The following month similar ceremonies were held at the mouth of the Mississippi and La Salle named this new territory Louisiana.

It is singular that La Salle apparently never made any priority claims on the Niagara Frontier, nor in the north; though in 1669, the two priests with whom  p21 he first visited the Niagara River, Galinée and de Casson, took formal possession on the north shore of Lake Erie, somewhere in the vicinity of Long Point.

Here and there over the great expanse of country included in La Salle's explorations, the pioneer and his men had built trading and supply posts. True, they were few and far between — so far between that communication was exceedingly difficult — but they represented a nucleus for that cordon of trading posts down the Ohio and the Mississippi and on the Lakes to the westward, to all of which later Fort Niagara was the key.

Thus La Salle's empire as he left it in the fall of 1683. The great explorer returned eastward at that time from having spent the winter on the Illinois fortifying Starved Rock. In the meantime, Count Frontenac, his staunch friend, had been recalled and La Barre had been Governor of Canada. The new Governor, who was no friend to Robert Cavelier, confiscated the latter's property and so stood in his way that the gallant La Salle returned to France, never again to visit the Niagara Frontier.

Today La Salle's Empire has expanded and developed far beyond his fondest dream. In fact, La Salle in the 17th century could not possibly have visualized the great middle west of the 20th century.

Just to depart for the moment from the chronological relation of events as they slowly evolve to frame the destinies of the Niagara Frontier, to consider briefly the men whose thoughts and actions form the historical fact. What of the followers of La Salle? Brief reference has been made to Henri Tonti, his faithful lieutenant, and to Father Louis Hennepin, the priest and perhaps well-intentioned but sometimes exasperating historian. But what of the rank and file — and those between, the junior subalterns? Were they good men — or bad? They were both, as we measure virtue and corruption. A few were most honorable and loyal to their leader. Many of them turned out to be deserters and thieves.

Writing of the crew which sailed the Griffon into Lake Erie in 1679, one historian says: "It was a strangely mixed lot; a few gentlemen, soldiers who had proved themselves in service, missionary priest, craftsmen, mechanics and dubious habitants who only needed opportunity to turn villain. By no means least in evidence in the motley crew was Moyse Hillaret, ship carpenter. Another carpenter, François Sauvin, was called La Rose; a blacksmith, Le Meilleur, is oftener mentioned as La Forge; others were La Violette; Martin Chartier; Duplessis; Jacques Monjault; la Rousseliere; Baribault; Lacroix. Highly poetic, some of the names, but a more rascally and unfaithful crew never sailed."

 p22  The same historian has it that some of these men were afraid of the Indians, which might well be true. During the time that they were building the Griffon the Indians were none too friendly.

Hillaret, the carpenter, was a ringleader in agitation among the craftsmen on the ship. Father Hennepin writes that the man was on the point of deserting the shipyards and taking with him the balance of the carpenters into New York. The good priest in the same paragraph claims credit for having stayed the rebellion by appealing to the men during services.

There is no doubt that Father Hennepin and other priests held great influence over these men, as they were staunch in their religion. On the other hand, it took much more bravery to run away into the wilderness than it did to stick to camp and follow the crowd in those days.

"Among the more trusty who stood with La Salle as he sailed into Lake Erie," our historian further says, "was Jacques Bourdon, the Sieur d'Autray, son of Jean Bourdon, first procurer-general of Quebec; 'all very faithful,' La Salle said of him." Others were Andre Henault; Collin, Michael Accault and Antoine Auguel; the Parisian, the Sieur de Boisrondet; La Chapelle; Noel Le Blanc; Pierre You; L'Espérance, La Salle's servant and a few Indians.

Perhaps this list of men will give a fair cross section of the types of early Frenchmen on the Niagara Frontier. They were of the many kinds who make up the world.

In La Salle's Footsteps

Adventure! Romance! Down through the pages of Niagara Frontier history there are few paragraphs more important, though many are more voluminous, than those which all too briefly tell the story of the youths of the late 17th century, who followed in the wake of the great La Salle, inspired by his daring and the possibilities of wealth and fame. Their aim perhaps was less to explore than to capitalize the opportunities to exchange with gullible red men worthless trinkets for valuable furs.

Young men in numbers entered into the fur trade without license or Government permits, greatly to the chagrin of authorized operators. In 1682 there was a serious outbreak of this nature. The Colonial Government found it most difficult to cope with their reckless, outlaw coureur de bois. The mouth of the Niagara River, though La Salle's Fort Conti several years previously had been destroyed by fire, was a point of rendezvous for the coureur de bois and the Indians.

 p23  La Barre, Governor of Canada, prompted by the request of Sieur de la Chesnaye, who had a large licensed fur trade, issued an order to the Iroquois, giving them permission to appropriate the goods and furs of French voyageurs whom they might encounter, unless the traders could show passports such as the sample which he sent to the Indians.

La Chesnaye suffered along with the unlicensed traders from this order, for some of his canoes, their occupants having mislaid or lost their passports, were seized by the Senecas. Though efforts were made to recover the goods, the Indians simply retorted that they were carrying out the Governor's orders.

Much of this sort of banditry took place on the Niagara. It was a point of vantage far too important to be overlooked by any who wished to have a share in the western fur trade. The result of this piracy was a series of conflicts between the white traders and the Iroquois. Little has been written of these minor engagements, but they were of sufficient importance to enrage the Indians, and, as one historian quotes a memoir of the time: "Behold, the first preliminary step to the cruel war which we have sustained in consequence, and which has even threatened the abandonment of the colony."

English Interest

While so far this sketchy relation of Niagara Frontier history has dealt with the French, we soon shall have to consider the English, and to some extent the Dutch, who in their trading posts down Lake Ontario and in lower New York, at this time began to realize the importance of the control of western fur trade through the Niagara.

"Description de la Louisiane" — the first and perhaps the most reliable work of Father Louis Hennepin — was published in a Paris printing shop in 1683. Its effect was to bring to the attention of the French and English, much more forcefully than ever before, the significance of the western colonial fur trade and incidentally the importance of Niagara.

Almost simultaneously, Dongan, the English Governor of New York, and René de Brassay, the Marquis de Denonville, Governor of New France, urged their respective home governments to fortify the Niagara. In the meantime, England and France had effected a treaty, signed at Whitehall, November 26, 1686, whereby they were pledged to maintain peace between their respective colonies in America, but whereby "neither should interfere with the other in his warfare upon 'wild Indians'."

Dongan the previous year set out to establish trade in the west, sending a detachment of traders through the Niagara route. These Englishmen, headed by Abel Marion la Fontaine, a deserter from the French colonies, were the first white men except the French to enter the Niagara River.

Fort Denonville

With a loophole in the treaty clause concerning Indian warfare, Denonville, having received authority from the French King to build a fort at Niagara, set out on his famous campaign against the Iroquois, his main objective being to build the post. Durantaye, Tonti (La Salle's old faithful lieutenant) and Du Lhut, at Denonville's orders, had gathered a large party of Indians and French habitants from the west. They met Denonville's large forces on the south shore of Lake Ontario and proceeded to attack the Iroquois. The Indians were too wary for Denonville and he succeeded only in stirring up and infuriating the red men. He did, however, destroy three villages and, it was reported, 1,200,000 bushels of corn. This destruction of property, especially the sacred corn, and killing of Iroquois, as shall be noted later, were to be regretted by Denonville's men who were left to garrison the new fort at Niagara.

 p25  Having returned to the lake shore with his forces, Denonville proceeded at once toward the mouth of the Niagara, arriving at that point at five o'clock in the morning, after a moonlight trip during the night of July 30, 1687. Of interest is the fact, according to de Tregay, lieutenant of the garrison, and its surviving Commanding Officer, that the Marquis was accompanied by his wife, who, therefore, undoubtedly was the first white woman to visit Fort Niagara.

Realizing, as had La Salle, the great strategy of the spot, Denonville set about to build a fort on the same site on which with the explorer's lieutenants had erected Fort Conti nine years before. The Marquis, "being not too modest," as some historians have reflected, named the fort Denonville, after himself, although it was better known as the "Fort at Niagara."

Quoting from Peter A. Porter's book, "A Brief History of Fort Niagara": "Baron La Hontan was among the officers of Denonville's command, and he describes the work as a 'fort of pales, with four bastions,' and says it 'stands on the south side of the Straits of Herrie (Erie) Lake, upon a Hill, at the foot of which that Lake falls into the Lake of Frontenac (Ontario).' "

Winter of Starvation

To be ambushed by hostile Indians, robbed and perhaps murdered, was a common occurrence in the late 17th century among the traders and soldiers who took the risk of journeying westward to Niagara. To be lost in the wilderness and to face starvation was not unusual, but the saddest story in all the history of the Niagara Frontier is that of the Year of Starvation.

As the work of building Denonville's fort neared completion, the Governor boarded his boats with the balance of his men and sailed for home, promising the garrison of one hundred left in command to bring them proper provisions for the winter.

An extract from the memoirs of Chevalier de Tregay, surviving Commanding Officer, most vividly tells the story of that terrible winter.

Denonville's destruction of property among the Iroquois earlier in the summer had caused the Indians to be extremely hostile. Provisions ran low and the supply ship failed to appear. De Tregay tells of futile attempts of the men to take fish from the lake. They were all on the verge of starvation when a barque appeared on the horizon. The boat was becalmed for two days some leagues away from the mouth of the river, but finally was brought to port and unloaded. "It was not until her sails had fall'n below the horizon that we fairly had sight or smell of what she had aboard," de Tregay writes. In fact, the provisions proved to be ruined and the garrison of one  p27 hundred faced the winter with no food fit for human consumption, with hostile Indians on one side and water on the other, their fort a virtual prison. Scurvy and starvation set in.

De Tregay writes: "The wood choppers, one day, facing a storm, fell in the drifts just outside the gate; none durst go out to them. The second day the wolves found them — and we saw it all." Late in February sixty of the one hundred were dead. A few with stouter stomachs than the rest did all the duties of the post. De Tregay tells of how one morning he found the brave de Troues mumbling the name of one he loved as he joined the major portion of his garrison.

The winter wore on. Even hope of his own accord was abandoned. De Tregay was on the verge of delirium. He prepared to die and was sinking back upon the boards of his rough bunk in a state of coma. Suddenly he was brought to consciousness of a new presence and laboriously raised his head, beheld a huge Indian chief in all the glory of war paint and feathers. Convinced that the tomahawk was the lesser of the two fates confronting him, de Tregay slumped back upon his bunk, resigned to the quicker death.

The Indian, a warrior of the Miamis from the far‑off valley of the Ohio, held forth his hand filled with parched corn and in his native tongue, spoke, "Eat."

A rescue was organized and effected on Good Friday, 1688. Twelve of the original garrison of one hundred were left.

On that same Good Friday, Rev. Father Pierre Millet, a member of the rescuing party, directed the erection of an eighteen foot cross in the center of the square formed by the outlines of Fort Denonville. On the arms of the cross were inscribed in large letters the following abbreviations: "Regn. Vinc. Imp. Chrs." standing for "Regnat, Vincit, Imperat Christus." Before the cross which he had erected in commemoration of the ill‑fated members of Denonville's garrison, Father Millet said a Mass and solemnly blessed the monument.

On the 15th of September, 1688, on the orders of the Marquis de Denonville, Governor and Lieutenant General for the King, Captain Sieur des Bergeres, Commanding Officer, Fort Niagara, and his detachment of marines, abandoned Fort Denonville. Denonville's orders to abandon were the result of a treaty between England and France.

We shall quote the following entirely from the pages of Volume I, "An Old Frontier of France," Buffalo Historical Society publication, No. 20, by the late Frank H. Severance, outstanding Niagara Frontier historian.

 p28  "From the days of La Salle and Denonville, down to the re‑establishment of the French on the Niagara, the story of Lake Ontario appeals by its very meagerness to the imagination. Never wholly deserted by traders, it was, as has been seen, more than once the theater of scenes of violence and outlawry. The French, realizing more and more its splendid possibilities, sent into it a good store of trading goods; and, at least until the temporary abandonment of Fort Frontenac, kept in commission one or two primitive brigantines, which skirted the forested shores, made port of call wherever barter could be had, and cruised without hindrance and with no mean seamanship these lonely wilderness waters. Wind and wave and season's changes, seemingly so fickle, were then as now; but the intrepid navigator of those distant years had little to rely on save his own resource and the Providence which attends the daring. There were no charts to show channel or reef, rock or shoal, save such as he might sketch from his own discoveries; no lights to warn or guide; no harbors even, save such as nature made; yet every glimpse we have of the life of old, shows the lake sailors of those days as a happy-go‑lucky crew, who knew the ins and outs of Ontario's shores, rocky isles and tortuous channels, as no manner of men have known them since, and who bore into every bay and anchorage the white flag of the Bourbon Kings.

"Today, the leisured yachtsman making holiday, moors his shining craft in some pellucid cove. As evening falls, the lap of the wavelets at the vessel's side, the incense of his ruminative pipe, lull his soul into a receptive sense of sights and sounds unheeded in the bright and busy day. Dimly through the dusk, around the neighboring point he sees a strange-shaped vessel glide. He hears the creak of a gaff, the muffled clatter of lowering sails, calls and commands in a tongue half known, half strange; the splash of an anchor and the rhythm of a running chain. The August moon makes silhouette of a distant pipe, the drowsy breeze brings refrain of some foolish, haunting melody of the old régime, of the days when the hardy sons of France, sailing these wilderness waters as their own, still like the children they were, sang the songs of Anjou, of Brittany or Lorraine. Lulled to the borderland of sleep, our summer sailor vows to seek at daybreak the unknown craft — but with the first sunlight, his thought is for the morning plunge, the glorious swim; and like the vanishing wisps of mist, fades the memory of his brief and shadowy comradeship with the old‑time voyageurs and sailors of the Ontario sea."

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Site of Fort Denonville

Page updated: 15 Oct 13