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Part 4

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 6
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 p32  Three Flags

Between 1727 and 1758 there was much activity at Fort Niagara. The ever existing struggle between the French and English to control the frontier fur trade continued in spite of formal declaration of peace between the mother countries. For years the French had anticipated an English attack upon the fort. In preparation for this they sent a military engineer by the name of Captain François Pouchot, of the Regiment of Bearn, who between 1750 and 1759 converted Fort Niagara from the old stone house, with a few temporary buildings, into an elaborate stronghold with its system of earthworks, moats, powder magazine and its complement of artillery batteries.

Inevitable assault by the English came in July, 1759. War had been declared between France and England in 1756.

For one hundred years the French and the English had been in a more or less constant state of war in America. The French holdings to the southwest, down the Allegheny, on the Monongahela and the Ohio into the Mississippi, and out the Great Lakes, under the plans of La Salle and his successors, covered the greater part of the middle west. Singularly, however, the one and only feasible connecting link between their western and southern territory and French headquarters in Canada, was the straits of Niagara (as the French called the Niagara River). No full rigged ship or tiny batteau could pass westward unless the guns of old Fort Niagara gave consent. Even as it was the strongest link in the French chain, so it was the weakest, for in the hands of the enemy it became at once an unsurmountable blockade in communication between the nether ends of the French Empire in America.

English Take Niagara

These facts were voiced before the British Parliament by Sir William Pitt when he said that, second to the citadel in Quebec, Fort Niagara was the most important post in America "and must be taken at all costs."

 p33  As a result, orders were issued through General Amherst for General John Prideaux, with 2,200 regular British troops and militia, to proceed from Fort Stanwix (now Rome, N. Y.) by way of Fort Oswego (now Oswego, N. Y.) and Lake Ontario, to the capture of Fort Niagara. Between Stanwix and Oswego, Prideaux was joined by Sir William Johnson, British Commissioner of Indian Affairs, commanding 943 Iroquois warriors.

Early in July the large force landed at what is now called Four Mile Creek, approximately four miles east of the Fort and affording a small harbor. Entrenchments were made and preparations begun to lay siege to the French.

The Fort was still in command of Captain Pouchot, a gallant Frenchman, and garrisoned by 496 military men and 39 employees, five of whom were women and children.

Captain Pouchot refused to comply with General Prideaux's offer of "reasonable terms of surrender." There followed 18 days of siege, the English drawing ever closer and entrenching as they advanced.

Pouchot had sent runners to Little Fort Niagara, a small stockade at the upper end of the portage, and to other French posts to the south and west, calling for aid. He directed the reinforcements to proceed down the west side of the river but they ignored this order and marched boldly from the Falls down the east side. The reinforcements consisted of 1,400 French soldiers and Indians.

Sir William Johnson's Iroquois scouts anticipated this move and the English engaged the marching columns of French and Indian allies just within the present village limits of Youngstown. The engagement was short and severe. The French were scattered in every direction and many made prisoners, while many more met sterner fate.

The battle was called La Belle Famille, and it marked the beginning of the end of French rule in America. Pouchot's reinforcements ineffective, he was forced to surrender. With customary honors the garrison of 607 soldiers, eleven officers and their ladies marched out of Fort Niagara as prisoners of war. The English marched in — and a new era in America was begun.

A New Era

With the fall of Fort Niagara, the French had lost the stronghold key to their vast western territory. While trade for some time had been slowly slipping away from the French because the Indians could strike better bargains with the English, the loss of Fort Niagara meant that western commerce would be almost entirely controlled by  p34 its new occupants, the English, under Sir William Johnson.

General Prideaux had fallen victim of a premature explosion of one of his own cannon during the siege of Fort Niagara and Sir William Johnson had succeeded in command before the time of the French capitulation.

Just what direct effect this exchange of the fortification may have had in determining the destinies of western United States and Canada, is a matter of opinion among historians, though most students of the subject declare it to have been of great significance. Recently a famous barrister stated: "the Battle of La Belle Famille determined whether or not the Niagara Frontier and that vast territory once known as Louisiana should continue under the absolute monarchism of France or the more democratic government of England, under which colonization was much more practical."

Be that as it may, there is little doubt that Sir William Johnson, as first English Commander, made much constructive history for the Niagara Frontier and the countryside for hundreds of miles in every direction. For a number of years he had been Commissioner of Indian Affairs for his home government and his name was a password in Iroquois circles.

Under Sir William Johnson, Fort Niagara became the center of commercial, social and political endeavor more than ever before. Sir William was at once the soldier, the diplomat, the jurist and the trader. While he spent a great part of his time in this period following 1759 at Johnstown, N. Y., his real headquarters were at Niagara. It was from Fort Niagara that he reached out with his predominating personality and held the Indian tribes under his influence. It was from Niagara that he ruled half of America.

Devil's Hole Massacre

It was not without wholesale sacrifice that Sir William Johnson was to make inroads in the fur trade and improve conditions on the Niagara Frontier in the period following the capture of Fort Niagara.

In the fall of 1763, Pontiac — an Indian Chief — set up a conspiracy to recapture Fort Niagara for his French allies. This plan never materialized, but the schemer did manage to do considerable damage to the English on September 14 of that year.

Little Fort Niagara, the French post at the upper end of the portage, had been destroyed upon French evacuation and had been rebuilt by the English as Fort Schlosser. Under the French, the Seneca Indians had been hired to carry the portage  p35 trade upon their backs. Sir William Johnson, as a first step in improving conditions on the portage, had built a wagon road so that merchandise might be hauled by teams of horses and oxen.

As the first wagon was halfway on its trip from Fort Schlosser to the lower landing, in the vicinity of what is known as the Devil's Hole (the edge of the Niagara Gorge at the present north line of the City of Niagara Falls) 500 Seneca Indians, under the influence of Pontiac, ambushed the drivers and their escort.

With the first volley, many members of the wagon train party fell. Most of those remaining were finished with tomahawk and scalping knife. Many plunged to death over the side of the gorge. A few escaped. John Stedman, who had charge of the portage and who was mounted upon a fast horse, and a drummer boy by the name of Matthews, have gone down in history as two survivors. The drummer boy fell over the cliff and lodged in a tree‑top, later making his way to Fort Niagara. He lived in Queenston, Ont., until he reached the ripe old age of 94 years.

A party at the lower landing (now Lewiston) heard the firing up the river and set out to investigate. They too, were ambushed and most of them killed.

 p36  This was a daring step on the part of the Indians and it left them with grave doubts as to what Johnson might have to say about it. Fearing revenge, the Senecas in April, 1764, sent 400 men to Sir William asking for peace. The wise diplomat realized the fallacy of asking life for life of these men who had died at the Devil's Hole and so he determined that the Senecas should pay in land for their indiscretion.

Johnson Treaties

Pontiac's conspiracy had alarmed the English — the Indian leader having been so successful in the Devil's Hole Massacre — and Sir William Johnson set about to build up safeguards against the recurrence of such an act.

In payment of the Devil's Hole outrage, the Senecas deeded a strip of land, two miles from either shore of the Niagara River and extending from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, to the English government. The islands of the river they deeded to Sir William, but he immediately turned them over to the State.

It was to ratify this treaty, which had other provisions, and to insure peace, that Sir William sent messages to all Indian tribes for hundreds of miles, north, east, south and west, who wished to make peace with the English to come the Fort Niagara. The message was backed up by means of a force of arms under General Bradstreet, numbering 1,200 troops.

In July, 1764, they came: Red men, representing tribes from Nova Scotia to the Mississippi, and from the north and from the south, came 2,060 strong to make peace with England, with Sir William Johnson.

Never in the annals of the Red men, had such a representative group of Indians gathered. Their wigwam camps stretched for miles around.

The late Hon. Peter A. Porter writes of this meeting: "Many reasons had induced this great assemblage of Indians. Some came to make peace because the aid expected from the French had not been forthcoming; some because they were tired of war; some because they needed clothing, ammunition, etc., and could get them no other way; some by an early admission to avert retribution for past offenses; some came as spies, and some, no doubt, because they knew at such a time 'fire water' would be easily obtainable."

At first the Senecas did not come. There was reason to believe that they had not intended to keep their treaty and therefore stayed away. Word was sent that if they did not appear at once at the Fort, the army stationed there would march upon their  p37 villages and destroy them. At once a large body of Senecas appeared upon the scene.

Sir William went about the work of making treaty, not with the whole group at once, but tribe at a time, cutting his cloth to fit the individual, as he alone understood each case.

When the great council was over, Sir William had effected the most remarkable treaty in history. It took all the diplomacy and the shrewdness at Sir William's command to preserve order among the Indians. On one or two occasions shots were fired at members of the garrison, but in the famous Old Council Chamber, treaty after treaty was ratified.

According to Mr. Porter's works, the cost of this Indian congress was 25,000 pounds New York currency, or about $10,000 for provisions, and 38,000 pounds sterling, or $190,000 for presents to the Indians.

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Sir William Johnson's Council Chamber

Niagara During Revolution

Histories of the same incident are sometimes widely different in their treatment, according to the predisposition of the author. We will recognize that this is particularly so in the many versions of Fort Niagara history during the American Revolution. The old post was at that time, of course, in the hands of the English, and we find the names of Col. John Butler, Molly Brant, Col. Guy Johnson and Chief Brant or Thyenegea — as his Indian name is given — closely associated with this period. By patriotic writers of the cause of the United Colonies these characters are sometimes referred to in most uncomplimentary terms; descendants of the English patriots during this troublesome time are prone to describe the same leaders as kindly and humanitarian under trying circumstances.

Records show definitely that time after time the various commanders of the Fort protested to their home government against the use of uncontrollable Indian warriors against the Colonists — but without effect. Other records indicate that English officers and their families did much to alleviate suffering among unfortunate prisoners. In any event, the use of Indian forces by Fort Niagara commanders was at the orders of those "higher up."

It was at Fort Niagara that those terrible English-Indian expeditions to Cherry Valley and Wyoming Valley were planned. It was from Fort Niagara that many more such war parties set out to pillage and burn, to kill and capture. It was back to Fort Niagara that they returned with prisoners, men, women and children, with scalps to account for those who had fallen during a surprise attack or along  p38 the rough trail to the Fort. The Indians were paid for these scalps and in many cases were awarded their captives as slaves.

So terrible did this menace become that General Washington, realizing the demoralizing effect of the massacres upon the frontier settlers, sent one of his most able officers, General John Sullivan, to curb the Indian trouble. General Sullivan marched up through New York State, engaging the Indians here and there along the way and destroying every village in his path. He finally reached the Genesee River, 84 miles from Fort Niagara. In his official report of this expedition, General Sullivan stated that lack of 15 days' additional rations kept him from coming on and storming Fort Niagara, which he was confident he could have captured. His work was effective, however, for it stopped in a large measure the activities of the Indians.

The Fort was a retreat for English loyalists and roving Indians throughout the war and for many years thereafter.

Holdover Period

Fort Niagara technically became the property of the United Colonies by the Treaty of Paris following the American Revolution in 1783, but the English military continued to hold the fortification and so to control the commerce of the river for thirteen years, until 1796, when the Fort was officially turned over to a small detachment of artillerymen of the United States Army. These thirteen years are known to historians as the "holdover" which term is self-explanatory.

Much has been written of this period between 1783 and 1796 in the history of many other fortifications, as well as Old Fort Niagara, along the present American-Canadian border. There was the lingering hope in British circles that the border between the British colonies and the United Colonies would be much to the south and to the east of that which finally obtained.

England had another problem — of safely evacuating from the colonies her colonial citizens who had remained loyal throughout the American Revolution. It is variously estimated that between 5,000 and 8,000 loyal British subjects passed from the various eastern and southern colonies through Fort Niagara to safety on Canadian soil.

Until after the American Revolution there was comparatively little settlement on the Niagara Frontier. Niagara rather had been the main portage place — truly the  p40 key to all the west, and still it was not a settlement. Under the English régime, the Empire Loyalists rapidly began to settle on what is now the Canadian side of the Frontier and the Village of Newark, now Niagara‑on‑the‑Lake, and the Village of Queenston came into being. Fort Niagara as a center for succor, for police protection and all law and order, served during this period as a supply base from which to settle the fertile territory along the river and stretching eastward and westward above and below the escarpment. Newark assumed the proportions of the most important village in Upper Canada and there on the 17th of September, 1792, John Graves Simcoe, first Governor of Upper Canada, established the first parliament.

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Grim Ramparts that Served Three Nations

Pioneer Life

We shall take the liberty of quoting from a very rare pamphlet written by Chipman P. Turner, entitled, "The Pioneer Period of Western New York," and published by Bigelow Brothers, Buffalo printers, in 1888. Mr. Turner's word picture of the pioneer is, in part, as follows:

"It is winter that introduces a real, not an ideal or fictitious view. The pioneer, the fall preceding, obtained his 'article,' or had his land 'booked' to him, to build a rude loghouse; cold winter comes upon him before its completion and freezes the ground, so that he cannot mix the straw and mortar for his brick chimney, and that is dispensed with. He nevertheless has taken possession of his new home. The oxen that are browsing with the cow and three sheep; the two pigs and three fowls that his young wife is feeding from her folded apron; these, with a bed, two chairs, a pot and kettle, and a few indispensable articles for housekeeping, few and scanty altogether, as may be supposed, for all were brought in upon that ox‑sled through an underbrushed road; these constitute the bulk of his worldly wealth. The opening in the woods is that which has been made to get logs for his house and browse his cattle for the few days in which he has been the occupant of his new home. He has a rousing fire; logs are piled up against his rude chimney back; his firewood convenient and plenty . . .

"The task before him is a formidable one, but he has a strong arm and a stout heart — he will yet sit down there with his companion of long years of toil and endurance; age will have come upon them, but success and competence will have crowned their efforts. They are destined to be the founders of a settlement and of a family — helpers in a work of progress and improvement such as has few parallels in an age and country distinguished for enterprise and perseverance."

War of 1812

A scene of peace and plenty around Fort Niagara was disturbed by that grim agent of man — war — in 1812, sometimes called the second war for independence. For years the American soldiers at Fort Niagara and the English at Fort George had built up a personal friendship by common meeting in the Village of Newark and many are the tales of happy gatherings among the people and the military of the surrounding countryside.

A pretty story is told in a brief history of Fort Niagara, written by the late Miss Janet Carnochan of Niagara‑on‑the‑Lake. It relates that General Brock (English officer killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights) on the Sunday preceding the hostilities, was bidding goodbye to some American officers at Fort Niagara, who had come to service at St. Mark's Church in Newark. The General kissed two little girls of Dr. West, Niagara's Post Surgeon, saying, "Good‑bye, my little rosy cheeked girls. The next time we meet it may be as enemies." So are the fortunes of war.

General Van Rensselaer, Fort Niagara Commander, planned the occupation of Queenston Heights as the first step in the war along the border. The balance of troops from Fort Niagara were sent to Lewiston to participate in this engagement. During their absence the English at Fort George, near Newark, bombarded Fort Niagara and nearly took it.

In rallying his men to recapture Queenston Heights General Brock was killed. On the day of his funeral, General Van Rensselaer issued orders that during the service minute guns should be fired from Fort Niagara "as a mark of respect due to a brave enemy."

There followed bombardment back and forth between Fort Niagara and Fort George with resulting damage to both forts, but no development of great moment.

In the spring of 1813, the American forces moved against Fort George and took it, holding it until December of that year. Word came that the British regulars, with Indian reinforcements, were advancing on Fort George. Under War Department orders, General McClure, commanding the American forces, burned the Village of Newark, spiked the guns of Fort George and withdrew to Fort Niagara.

Revenge for the burning of Newark was the first consideration of the English as they returned to the abandoned but serviceable Fort George. The British had no trouble in capturing Fort Niagara. There followed the wholesale burning of the Niagara Frontier, from Lewiston to Buffalo. The British had their revenge — a  p42 countryside in ashes, homes gone, families scattered. The British held Fort Niagara until the end of the war.

In 1815 the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the Fort reverted to the United States.

Rush-Bagot Treaty

Soon thereafter, in 1817, was negotiated one of the greatest international agreements known to mankind. Though it consisted of but a few short paragraphs which contained no high-sounding diplomatic phraseology, and though the subject dealt with such simple things as small gunboats, the Rush-Bagot Treaty has cast a ray of light over the world and has demonstrated conclusively that more than 3,500 miles of international boundary can remain at peace without the mounting of a gun. Following is the Treaty:

"Whereas an arrangement was entered to in the city of Washington, in the month of April, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and seventeen, between Richard Rush, Esq., at that time acting as Secretary for the Department of State of the United States, and the right honorable Charles Bagot, His Britannic Majesty's envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary, for and in behalf of His Britannic Majesty; which arrangement is in words following to wit:

 p43  "The naval force to be maintained upon the American Lakes, by His Majesty and the Government of the United States, shall henceforth be confined to the following vessels on each side, that is:—

"On Lake Ontario, to one vessel, not exceeding one hundred tons burden, and armed with one eighteen pound cannon.

"On the Upper Lakes, to two vessels, not exceeding like burden each armed with like force.

"On the waters of Lake Champlain, to one vessel, not exceeding like burden and armed with like force.

"All other armed vessels on these lakes shall forthwith be dismantled and no other vessels of war shall be built or armed.

"If either party should be desirous of annulling this stipulation, and should give notice to that effect to other party, it shall cease to be binding after the expiration of six months from date of such notice.

"The naval force so to be limited shall be restricted to such services as will in no respect interfere with the proper duties of the armed vessels of the other party.

"And whereas the Senate of the United States has approved of the said arrangement and recommended that it should be carried into effect; the same having also received the sanction of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, acting in the name and on behalf of his Britannic Majesty;

"Now, therefore, I, James Monroe, President of the United States, do, by this my Proclamation, make known and declare that the arrangements aforesaid, and every stipulation thereof, have been duly entered into, concluded and confirmed, and are of full force and effect.

"Given under my hand, at the City of Washington, this twenty-eighth of April, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eighteen and of the independence of the United States the forty-second.

"By the President

James Monroe

John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State."

Page updated: 15 Oct 13