THE OLDEST BUILDING IN THE NORTHERN UNITED STATES, WEST OF THE MOHAWK
“The story of Fort Niagara is peculiarly the story of the fur trade and the strife for commercial monopoly,” Frank H. Severance of the Buffalo Historical Society said in an address delivered at the fort in 1896; “and it is, too, in considerable measure, the story of our neighbor, the magnificent colony of Canada. . . . It is a story replete with incidents of battle and siege, of Indian cruelty, of patriot captivity, of white men’s duplicity, of famine, disease, and death,of all the varied forms of misery and wretchedness of a frontier post, which we in days of ease are wont to call picturesque and romantic. It is a story without a dull page, and it is two and a half centuries long. . . I cannot better tell the story . . . then to symbolize Fort Niagara as a beaver skin, held by an Indian, a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a Dutchman, each of the last three trying to pull it away from the others (the poor Dutchman early bowled over in the scuffle), and each European equally eager to placate the Indian with fine words, with prayers, or with brandy, or to stick a knife into his white brother’s back.”
The story begins in 1669, with the first efforts of the French to secure possession of the Niagara country. It includes also the romance of the building of the Griffon, the first vessel on the Great Lakes, and the episode of the early fortification of the late seventeenth century. But it was not until 1726, the year of the building of the stone castle near the mouth of the Niagara River, that the fort had its real beginning. The French felt compelled to build the fort because the activity of the English was interfering with their own fur trade with the Indians, and their plan to build Fort Oswego would increase the difficulty. No time was to be lost; Governor Joncaire felt that he could not wait for the approval of the authorities at home. To these latter he sent word that he must build a fortress, and he asked for an appropriation ; to the Indians he declared that he wished to have a mere trading station. His real purpose was indicated when he wrote to France that the building ” will not have the appearance of a fort, so that no offence will be given to the Iroquois, who have been unwilling to allow any there, but it will answer the purpose of a fort just as well.”
The first step was the construction of two barques for use on Lake Ontario, to carry stone and timber for the building, and later, to cruise on the lake and intercept traders bound for Oswego.
After the construction of the barques had been begun, the consent of the five Iroquois nations was secured. Longueuil promised them that it would be to them ” a House of Peace ” down to the third generation and farther. To Gaspard Chaussegros de Lery, engineer, was committed the building of the structure. He deter-mined to make it fireproof. ” Instead of wooden partitions I have built heavy walls, and paved all the floors with flat stone,” he wrote in a report sent to France. The loft was paved with flat stones ” on a floor full of good oak joists, upon which cannon may be placed above the structure.”
The trade with the Indians at the completed stone house on the Niagara increased. So did the activities of the English. Governor Burnet of New York craftily persuaded the Onondaga Indians that their interests had been endangered by the building of the French fort, since it penned them up from their chief hunting-place, and was therefore contrary to the Treaty of Utrecht; they agreed with him that the Iroquois had no right to the territory, which was really the property of the Senecas, and they asked the Governor to appeal to King George to protect them in their right.
Therefore the suggestion was made that they ” submit and give up all their hunting country to the King,” and sign a deed for it. Accordingly Seneca, Cayuga, and Onondaga sachems deeded to the English a sixty-mile strip along the south shore of Lake Ontario, which included the Niagara frontier, the Niagara River being the western boundary.
” From this time on the ` stone house’ was on British soil; but it was yet to take the new owner a generation to dispossess the obnoxious tenant,” Frank H. Severance writes in ” An Old Frontier of France.”
The story of the next thirty years is a story of plots and counter-plots, of expeditions threatened and actual, of disappointing campaigns, of imprisonment and cruelty and death. More than once Indians promised the English that the house at Niagara should be razed. Spies reported that the defences at the castle were in bad shape; ” ’tis certain that, should the English once attack it, ’tis theirs,” one report ran. ” I am informed that the fort is so dilapidated that ’tis impossible to put a pin in it without causing it to crumble; stanchions have been obliged to be set up against it to support it.” Another report disclosed that if the cannon were fired the walls would crumble.
But the French were not ready to give up. They felt that Fort Niagara was the key to the Ohio Valley, which they wished to control. They strengthened the defences of the fort. The defeat of Braddock at Fort Du Quesne and the strange decision of General Shirley to stop at Oswego instead of continuing with his force to Niagara, gave the French a new lease of life.
In 1759 came the end of French rule. General Prideaux’s expedition from New York began the siege of the fort early in July, and after several weeks it capitulated. Until 1796 the English flag floated above the ” castle.” The commander of this post, like the commanders of six other forts, refused on various pretexts to surrender to America, in spite of the terms of the treaty of 1783. Attempts were made to secure possession, but none of them were successful, and it was not until 1794 that Great Britain agreed to evacuate Niagara and the other forts still held, ” on or before the 1st of June, 1796.”
Seventeen years later, in 1813, the British flag again replaced the Stars and Stripes over the historic building, but the fort was restored to the United States in 1815. Since that time it has been a part of the army post that has been more important because of its history than for any other reason.
The Daughters of the War of 1812 have placed a suit-able tablet on the Old Castle, and are interested in the proposition that has been made to turn the venerable edifice into an international museum, which shall commemorate the one hundred years of peace between Great Britain and America.
In 1917 the eyes of the nation were once more turned on the fort by Lake Ontario, for it was made a training ground for officers who were to be sent to the battle front in France and Belgium. The castle, nearly two hundred years old, and strong as ever, again witnessed the gathering of patriots, and the spot that had echoed to the tread of French who had yielded to the English, of English who had driven out the French, and of Americans who had driven out the English, became the parade ground of Americans who were making ready to stand side by side with French and English for the freedom of the world.